Malignant Acceleration in Tech-Finance. Some Further Rumination on Regulations. Thought of the Day 72.1


Regardless of the positive effects of HFT that offers, such as reduced spreads, higher liquidity, and faster price discovery, its negative side is mostly what has caught people’s attention. Several notorious market failures and accidents in recent years all seem to be related to HFT practices. They showed how much risk HFT can involve and how huge the damage can be.

HFT heavily depends on the reliability of the trading algorithms that generate, route, and execute orders. High-frequency traders thus must ensure that these algorithms have been tested completely and thoroughly before they are deployed into the live systems of the financial markets. Any improperly-tested, or prematurely-released algorithms may cause losses to both investors and the exchanges. Several examples demonstrate the extent of the ever-present vulnerabilities.

In August 2012, the Knight Capital Group implemented a new liquidity testing software routine into its trading system, which was running live on the NYSE. The system started making bizarre trading decisions, quadrupling the price of one company, Wizzard Software, as well as bidding-up the price of much larger entities, such as General Electric. Within 45 minutes, the company lost USD 440 million. After this event and the weakening of Knight Capital’s capital base, it agreed to merge with another algorithmic trading firm, Getco, which is the biggest HFT firm in the U.S. today. This example emphasizes the importance of implementing precautions to ensure their algorithms are not mistakenly used.

Another example is Everbright Securities in China. In 2013, state-owned brokerage firm, Everbright Securities Co., sent more than 26,000 mistaken buy orders to the Shanghai Stock Exchange (SSE of RMB 23.4 billion (USD 3.82 billion), pushing its benchmark index up 6 % in two minutes. This resulted in a trading loss of approximately RMB 194 million (USD 31.7 million). In a follow-up evaluative study, the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) found that there were significant flaws in Everbright’s information and risk management systems.

The damage caused by HFT errors is not limited to specific trading firms themselves, but also may involve stock exchanges and the stability of the related financial market. On Friday, May 18, 2012, the social network giant, Facebook’s stock was issued on the NASDAQ exchange. This was the most anticipated initial public offering (IPO) in its history. However, technology problems with the opening made a mess of the IPO. It attracted HFT traders, and very large order flows were expected, and before the IPO, NASDAQ was confident in its ability to deal with the high volume of orders.

But when the deluge of orders to buy, sell and cancel trades came, NASDAQ’s trading software began to fail under the strain. This resulted in a 30-minute delay on NASDAQ’s side, and a 17-second blackout for all stock trading at the exchange, causing further panic. Scrutiny of the problems immediately led to fines for the exchange and accusations that HFT traders bore some responsibility too. Problems persisted after opening, with many customer orders from institutional and retail buyers unfilled for hours or never filled at all, while others ended up buying more shares than they had intended. This incredible gaffe, which some estimates say cost traders USD 100 million, eclipsed NASDAQ’s achievement in getting Facebook’s initial IPO, the third largest IPO in U.S. history. This incident has been estimated to have cost investors USD 100 million.

Another instance occurred on May 6, 2010, when U.S. financial markets were surprised by what has been referred to ever since as the “Flash Crash” Within less than 30 minutes, the main U.S. stock markets experienced the single largest price declines within a day, with a decline of more than 5 % for many U.S.-based equity products. In addition, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA), at its lowest point that day, fell by nearly 1,000 points, although it was followed by a rapid rebound. This brief period of extreme intraday volatility demonstrated the weakness of the structure and stability of U.S. financial markets, as well as the opportunities for volatility-focused HFT traders. Although a subsequent investigation by the SEC cleared high-frequency traders of directly having caused the Flash Crash, they were still blamed for exaggerating market volatility, withdrawing liquidity for many U.S.-based equities (FLASH BOYS).

Since the mid-2000s, the average trade size in the U.S. stock market had plummeted, the markets had fragmented, and the gap in time between the public view of the markets and the view of high-frequency traders had widened. The rise of high-frequency trading had been accompanied also by a rise in stock market volatility – over and above the turmoil caused by the 2008 financial crisis. The price volatility within each trading day in the U.S. stock market between 2010 and 2013 was nearly 40 percent higher than the volatility between 2004 and 2006, for instance. There were days in 2011 in which volatility was higher than in the most volatile days of the dot-com bubble. Although these different incidents have different causes, the effects were similar and some common conclusions can be drawn. The presence of algorithmic trading and HFT in the financial markets exacerbates the adverse impacts of trading-related mistakes. It may lead to extremely higher market volatility and surprises about suddenly-diminished liquidity. This raises concerns about the stability and health of the financial markets for regulators. With the continuous and fast development of HFT, larger and larger shares of equity trades were created in the U.S. financial markets. Also, there was mounting evidence of disturbed market stability and caused significant financial losses due to HFT-related errors. This led the regulators to increase their attention and effort to provide the exchanges and traders with guidance on HFT practices They also expressed concerns about high-frequency traders extracting profit at the costs of traditional investors and even manipulating the market. For instance, high-frequency traders can generate a large amount of orders within microseconds to exacerbate a trend. Other types of misconduct include: ping orders, which is using some orders to detect other hidden orders; and quote stuffing, which is issuing a large number of orders to create uncertainty in the market. HFT creates room for these kinds of market abuses, and its blazing speed and huge trade volumes make their detection difficult for regulators. Regulators have taken steps to increase their regulatory authority over HFT activities. Some of the problems that arose in the mid-2000s led to regulatory hearings in the United States Senate on dark pools, flash orders and HFT practices. Another example occurred after the Facebook IPO problem. This led the SEC to call for a limit up-limit down mechanism at the exchanges to prevent trades in individual securities from occurring outside of a specified price range so that market volatility will be under better control. These regulatory actions put stricter requirements on HFT practices, aiming to minimize the market disturbance when many fast trading orders occur within a day.

Regulating the Velocities of Dark Pools. Thought of the Day 72.0


On 22 September 2010 the SEC chair Mary Schapiro signaled US authorities were considering the introduction of regulations targeted at HFT:

…High frequency trading firms have a tremendous capacity to affect the stability and integrity of the equity markets. Currently, however, high frequency trading firms are subject to very little in the way of obligations either to protect that stability by promoting reasonable price continuity in tough times, or to refrain from exacerbating price volatility.

However regulating an industry working towards moving as fast as the speed of light is no ordinary administrative task: – Modern finance is undergoing a fundamental transformation. Artificial intelligence, mathematical models, and supercomputers have replaced human intelligence, human deliberation, and human execution…. Modern finance is becoming cyborg finance – an industry that is faster, larger, more complex, more global, more interconnected, and less human. C W Lin proposes a number of principles for regulating this cyber finance industry:

  1. Update antiquated paradigms of reasonable investors and compartmentalised institutions, and confront the emerging institutional realities, and realise the old paradigms of governance of markets may be ill-suited for the new finance industry;
  2. Enhance disclosure which recognises the complexity and technological capacities of the new finance industry;
  3. Adopt regulations to moderate the velocities of finance realising that as these approach the speed of light they may contain more risks than rewards for the new financial industry;
  4. Introduce smarter coordination harmonising financial regulation beyond traditional spaces of jurisdiction.

Electronic markets will require international coordination, surveillance and regulation. The high-frequency trading environment has the potential to generate errors and losses at a speed and magnitude far greater than that in a floor or screen-based trading environment… Moreover, issues related to risk management of these technology-dependent trading systems are numerous and complex and cannot be addressed in isolation within domestic financial markets. For example, placing limits on high-frequency algorithmic trading or restricting Un-filtered sponsored access and co-location within one jurisdiction might only drive trading firms to another jurisdiction where controls are less stringent.

In these regulatory endeavours it will be vital to remember that all innovation is not intrinsically good and might be inherently dangerous, and the objective is to make a more efficient and equitable financial system, not simply a faster system: Despite its fast computers and credit derivatives, the current financial system does not seem better at transferring funds from savers to borrowers than the financial system of 1910. Furthermore as Thomas Piketty‘s Capital in the Twenty-First Century amply demonstrates any thought of the democratisation of finance induced by the huge expansion of superannuation funds together with the increased access to finance afforded by credit cards and ATM machines, is something of a fantasy, since levels of structural inequality have endured through these technological transformations. The tragedy is that under the guise of technological advance and sophistication we could be destroying the capacity of financial markets to fulfil their essential purpose, as Haldane eloquently states:

An efficient capital market transfers savings today into investment tomorrow and growth the day after. In that way, it boosts welfare. Short-termism in capital markets could interrupt this transfer. If promised returns the day after tomorrow fail to induce saving today, there will be no investment tomorrow. If so, long-term growth and welfare would be the casualty.

Momentum of Accelerated Capital. Note Quote.


Distinct types of high frequency trading firms include independent proprietary firms, which use private funds and specific strategies which remain secretive, and may act as market makers generating automatic buy and sell orders continuously throughout the day. Broker-dealer proprietary desks are part of traditional broker-dealer firms but are not related to their client business, and are operated by the largest investment banks. Thirdly hedge funds focus on complex statistical arbitrage, taking advantage of pricing inefficiencies between asset classes and securities.

Today strategies using algorithmic trading and High Frequency Trading play a central role on financial exchanges, alternative markets, and banks‘ internalized (over-the-counter) dealings:

High frequency traders typically act in a proprietary capacity, making use of a number of strategies and generating a very large number of trades every single day. They leverage technology and algorithms from end-to-end of the investment chain – from market data analysis and the operation of a specific trading strategy to the generation, routing, and execution of orders and trades. What differentiates HFT from algorithmic trading is the high frequency turnover of positions as well as its implicit reliance on ultra-low latency connection and speed of the system.

The use of algorithms in computerised exchange trading has experienced a long evolution with the increasing digitalisation of exchanges:

Over time, algorithms have continuously evolved: while initial first-generation algorithms – fairly simple in their goals and logic – were pure trade execution algos, second-generation algorithms – strategy implementation algos – have become much more sophisticated and are typically used to produce own trading signals which are then executed by trade execution algos. Third-generation algorithms include intelligent logic that learns from market activity and adjusts the trading strategy of the order based on what the algorithm perceives is happening in the market. HFT is not a strategy per se, but rather a technologically more advanced method of implementing particular trading strategies. The objective of HFT strategies is to seek to benefit from market liquidity imbalances or other short-term pricing inefficiencies.

While algorithms are employed by most traders in contemporary markets, the intense focus on speed and the momentary holding periods are the unique practices of the high frequency traders. As the defence of high frequency trading is built around the principles that it increases liquidity, narrows spreads, and improves market efficiency, the high number of trades made by HFT traders results in greater liquidity in the market. Algorithmic trading has resulted in the prices of securities being updated more quickly with more competitive bid-ask prices, and narrowing spreads. Finally HFT enables prices to reflect information more quickly and accurately, ensuring accurate pricing at smaller time intervals. But there are critical differences between high frequency traders and traditional market makers:

  1. HFT do not have an affirmative market making obligation, that is they are not obliged to provide liquidity by constantly displaying two sides quotes, which may translate into a lack of liquidity during volatile conditions.
  2. HFT contribute little market depth due to the marginal size of their quotes, which may result in larger orders having to transact with many small orders, and this may impact on overall transaction costs.
  3. HFT quotes are barely accessible due to the extremely short duration for which the liquidity is available when orders are cancelled within milliseconds.

Besides the shallowness of the HFT contribution to liquidity, are the real fears of how HFT can compound and magnify risk by the rapidity of its actions:

There is evidence that high-frequency algorithmic trading also has some positive benefits for investors by narrowing spreads – the difference between the price at which a buyer is willing to purchase a financial instrument and the price at which a seller is willing to sell it – and by increasing liquidity at each decimal point. However, a major issue for regulators and policymakers is the extent to which high-frequency trading, unfiltered sponsored access, and co-location amplify risks, including systemic risk, by increasing the speed at which trading errors or fraudulent trades can occur.

Although there have always been occasional trading errors and episodic volatility spikes in markets, the speed, automation and interconnectedness of today‘s markets create a different scale of risk. These risks demand that exchanges and market participants employ effective quality management systems and sophisticated risk mitigation controls adapted to these new dynamics in order to protect against potential threats to market stability arising from technology malfunctions or episodic illiquidity. However, there are more deliberate aspects of HFT strategies which may present serious problems for market structure and functioning, and where conduct may be illegal, for example in order anticipation seeks to ascertain the existence of large buyers or sellers in the marketplace and then to trade ahead of those buyers and sellers in anticipation that their large orders will move market prices. A momentum strategy involves initiating a series of orders and trades in an attempt to ignite a rapid price move. HFT strategies can resemble traditional forms of market manipulation that violate the Exchange Act:

  1. Spoofing and layering occurs when traders create a false appearance of market activity by entering multiple non-bona fide orders on one side of the market at increasing or decreasing prices in order to induce others to buy or sell the stock at a price altered by the bogus orders.
  2. Painting the tape involves placing successive small amount of buy orders at increasing prices in order to stimulate increased demand.

  3. Quote Stuffing and price fade are additional HFT dubious practices: quote stuffing is a practice that floods the market with huge numbers of orders and cancellations in rapid succession which may generate buying or selling interest, or compromise the trading position of other market participants. Order or price fade involves the rapid cancellation of orders in response to other trades.

The World Federation of Exchanges insists: ― Exchanges are committed to protecting market stability and promoting orderly markets, and understand that a robust and resilient risk control framework adapted to today‘s high speed markets, is a cornerstone of enhancing investor confidence. However this robust and resilient risk control framework‘ seems lacking, including in the dark pools now established for trading that were initially proposed as safer than the open market.

Production of the Schizoid, End of Capitalism and Laruelle’s Radical Immanence. Note Quote Didactics.


These are eclectics of the production, eclectics of the repetition, eclectics of the difference, where the fecundity of the novelty would either spring forth, or be weeded out. There is ‘schizoproduction’ prevalent in the world. This axiomatic schizoproduction is not a speech act, but discursive, in the sense that it constrains how meaning is distilled from relations, without the need for signifying, linguistic acts. Schizoproduction performs the relation. The bare minimum of schizoproduction is the gesture of transcending thought: namely, what François Laruelle calls a ‘decision’. Decision is differential, but it does not have to signify. It is the capacity to produce distinction and separation, in the most minimal, axiomatic form. Schizoproduction is capitalism turned into immanent capitalism, through a gesture of thought – sufficient thought. It is where capitalism has become a philosophy of life, in that it has a firm belief within a sufficient thought, whatever it comes in contact with. It is an expression of the real, the radical immanence as a transcending arrangement. It is a collective articulation bound up with intricate relations and management of carnal, affective, and discursive matter. The present form of capitalism is based on relationships, collaborations, and processuality, and in this is altogether different from the industrial period of modernism in the sense of subjectivity, production, governance, biopolitics and so on. In both cases, the life of a subject is valuable, since it is a substratum of potentiality and capacity, creativity and innovation; and in both cases, a subject is produced with physical, mental, cognitive and affective capacities compatible with each arrangement. Artistic practice is aligned with a shift from modern liberalism to the neoliberal dynamic position of the free agent.

Such attributes have thus become so obvious that the concepts of ‘competence’, ‘trust’ or ‘interest’ are taken as given facts, instead of perceiving them as functions within an arrangement. It is not that neoliberal management has leveraged the world from its joints, but that it is rather capitalism as philosophy, which has produced this world, where neoliberalism is just a part of the philosophy. Therefore, the thought of the end of capitalism will always be speculative, since we may regard the world without capitalism in the same way as we may regard the world-not-for-humans, which may be a speculative one, also. From its inception, capitalism paved a one-way path to annihilation, predicated as it was on unmitigated growth, the extraction of finite resources, the exaltation of individualism over communal ties, and the maximization of profit at the expense of the environment and society. The capitalist world was, as Thurston Clarke described so bleakly, ”dominated by the concerns of trade and Realpolitik rather than by human rights and spreading democracy”; it was a ”civilization influenced by the impersonal, bottom-line values of the corporations.” Capitalist industrial civilization was built on burning the organic remains of ancient organisms, but at the cost of destroying the stable climatic conditions which supported its very construction. The thirst for fossil fuels by our globalized, high-energy economy spurred increased technological development to extract the more difficult-to-reach reserves, but this frantic grasp for what was left only served to hasten the malignant transformation of Earth into an alien world. The ruling class tried to hold things together for as long as they could by printing money, propping up markets, militarizing domestic law enforcement, and orchestrating thinly veiled resource wars in the name of fighting terrorism, but the crisis of capitalism was intertwined with the ecological crisis and could never be solved by those whose jobs and social standing depended on protecting the status quo. All the corporate PR, greenwashing, political promises, cultural myths, and anthropocentrism could not hide the harsh Malthusian reality of ecological overshoot. As crime sky-rocketed and social unrest boiled over into rioting and looting, the elite retreated behind walled fortresses secured by armed guards, but the great unwinding of industrial civilization was already well underway. This evil genie was never going back in the bottle. And thats speculative too, or not really is a nuance to be fought hard on.

The immanence of capitalism is a transcending immanence: a system, which produces a world as an arrangement, through a capitalist form of thought—the philosophy of capitalism—which is a philosophy of sufficient reason in which economy is the determination in the last instance, and not the real. We need to specifically regard that this world is not real. The world is a process, a “geopolitical fiction”. Aside from this reason, there is an unthinkable world that is not for humans. It is not the world in itself, noumena, nor is it nature, bios, but rather it is the world indifferent to and foreclosed from human thought, a foreclosed and radical immanence – the real – which is not open nor will ever be opening itself for human thought. It will forever remain void and unilaterally indifferent. The radical immanence of the real is not an exception – analogous to the miracle in theology – but rather, it is an advent of the unprecedented unknown, where the lonely hour of last instance never comes. This radical immanence does not confer with ‘the new’ or with ‘the same’ and does not transcend through thought. It is matter in absolute movement, into which philosophy or oikonomia incorporates conditions, concepts, and operations. Now, a shift in thought is possible where the determination in the last instance would no longer be economy but rather a radical immanence of the real, as philosopher François Laruelle has argued. What is given, what is radically immanent in and as philosophy, is the mode of transcendental knowledge in which it operates. To know this mode of knowledge, to know it without entering into its circle, is to practice a science of the transcendental, the “transcendental science” of non-philosophy. This science is of the transcendental, but according to Laruelle, it must also itself be transcendental – it must be a global theory of the given-ness of the real. A non- philosophical transcendental is required if philosophy as a whole, including its transcendental structure, is to be received and known as it is. François Laruelle radicalises the Marxist term of determined-in-the-last-instance reworked by Louis Althusser, for whom the last instance as a dominating force was the economy. For Laruelle, the determination-in-the-last-instance is the Real and that “everything philosophy claims to master is in-the-last-instance thinkable from the One-Real”. For Althusser, referring to Engels, the economy is the ‘determination in the last instance’ in the long run, but only concerning the other determinations by the superstructures such as traditions. Following this, the “lonely hour of the ‘last instance’ never comes”.

Accelerated Capital as an Anathema to the Principles of Communicative Action. A Note Quote on the Reciprocity of Capital and Ethicality of Financial Economics


Markowitz portfolio theory explicitly observes that portfolio managers are not (expected) utility maximisers, as they diversify, and offers the hypothesis that a desire for reward is tempered by a fear of uncertainty. This model concludes that all investors should hold the same portfolio, their individual risk-reward objectives are satisfied by the weighting of this ‘index portfolio’ in comparison to riskless cash in the bank, a point on the capital market line. The slope of the Capital Market Line is the market price of risk, which is an important parameter in arbitrage arguments.

Merton had initially attempted to provide an alternative to Markowitz based on utility maximisation employing stochastic calculus. He was only able to resolve the problem by employing the hedging arguments of Black and Scholes, and in doing so built a model that was based on the absence of arbitrage, free of turpe-lucrum. That the prescriptive statement “it should not be possible to make sure profits”, is a statement explicit in the Efficient Markets Hypothesis and in employing an Arrow security in the context of the Law of One Price. Based on these observations, we conject that the whole paradigm for financial economics is built on the principle of balanced reciprocity. In order to explore this conjecture we shall examine the relationship between commerce and themes in Pragmatic philosophy. Specifically, we highlight Robert Brandom’s (Making It Explicit Reasoning, Representing, and Discursive Commitment) position that there is a pragmatist conception of norms – a notion of primitive correctnesses of performance implicit in practice that precludes and are presupposed by their explicit formulation in rules and principles.

The ‘primitive correctnesses’ of commercial practices was recognised by Aristotle when he investigated the nature of Justice in the context of commerce and then by Olivi when he looked favourably on merchants. It is exhibited in the doux-commerce thesis, compare Fourcade and Healey’s contemporary description of the thesis Commerce teaches ethics mainly through its communicative dimension, that is, by promoting conversations among equals and exchange between strangers, with Putnam’s description of Habermas’ communicative action based on the norm of sincerity, the norm of truth-telling, and the norm of asserting only what is rationally warranted …[and] is contrasted with manipulation (Hilary Putnam The Collapse of the Fact Value Dichotomy and Other Essays)

There are practices (that should be) implicit in commerce that make it an exemplar of communicative action. A further expression of markets as centres of communication is manifested in the Asian description of a market brings to mind Donald Davidson’s (Subjective, Intersubjective, Objective) argument that knowledge is not the product of a bipartite conversations but a tripartite relationship between two speakers and their shared environment. Replacing the negotiation between market agents with an algorithm that delivers a theoretical price replaces ‘knowledge’, generated through communication, with dogma. The problem with the performativity that Donald MacKenzie (An Engine, Not a Camera_ How Financial Models Shape Markets) is concerned with is one of monism. In employing pricing algorithms, the markets cannot perform to something that comes close to ‘true belief’, which can only be identified through communication between sapient humans. This is an almost trivial observation to (successful) market participants, but difficult to appreciate by spectators who seek to attain ‘objective’ knowledge of markets from a distance. To appreciate the relevance to financial crises of the position that ‘true belief’ is about establishing coherence through myriad triangulations centred on an asset rather than relying on a theoretical model.

Shifting gears now, unless the martingale measure is a by-product of a hedging approach, the price given by such martingale measures is not related to the cost of a hedging strategy therefore the meaning of such ‘prices’ is not clear. If the hedging argument cannot be employed, as in the markets studied by Cont and Tankov (Financial Modelling with Jump Processes), there is no conceptual framework supporting the prices obtained from the Fundamental Theorem of Asset Pricing. This lack of meaning can be interpreted as a consequence of the strict fact/value dichotomy in contemporary mathematics that came with the eclipse of Poincaré’s Intuitionism by Hilbert’s Formalism and Bourbaki’s Rationalism. The practical problem of supporting the social norms of market exchange has been replaced by a theoretical problem of developing formal models of markets. These models then legitimate the actions of agents in the market without having to make reference to explicitly normative values.

The Efficient Market Hypothesis is based on the axiom that the market price is determined by the balance between supply and demand, and so an increase in trading facilitates the convergence to equilibrium. If this axiom is replaced by the axiom of reciprocity, the justification for speculative activity in support of efficient markets disappears. In fact, the axiom of reciprocity would de-legitimise ‘true’ arbitrage opportunities, as being unfair. This would not necessarily make the activities of actual market arbitrageurs illicit, since there are rarely strategies that are without the risk of a loss, however, it would place more emphasis on the risks of speculation and inhibit the hubris that has been associated with the prelude to the recent Crisis. These points raise the question of the legitimacy of speculation in the markets. In an attempt to understand this issue Gabrielle and Reuven Brenner identify the three types of market participant. ‘Investors’ are preoccupied with future scarcity and so defer income. Because uncertainty exposes the investor to the risk of loss, investors wish to minimise uncertainty at the cost of potential profits, this is the basis of classical investment theory. ‘Gamblers’ will bet on an outcome taking odds that have been agreed on by society, such as with a sporting bet or in a casino, and relates to de Moivre’s and Montmort’s ‘taming of chance’. ‘Speculators’ bet on a mis-calculation of the odds quoted by society and the reason why speculators are regarded as socially questionable is that they have opinions that are explicitly at odds with the consensus: they are practitioners who rebel against a theoretical ‘Truth’. This is captured in Arjun Appadurai’s argument that the leading agents in modern finance believe in their capacity to channel the workings of chance to win in the games dominated by cultures of control . . . [they] are not those who wish to “tame chance” but those who wish to use chance to animate the otherwise deterministic play of risk [quantifiable uncertainty]”.

In the context of Pragmatism, financial speculators embody pluralism, a concept essential to Pragmatic thinking and an antidote to the problem of radical uncertainty. Appadurai was motivated to study finance by Marcel Mauss’ essay Le Don (The Gift), exploring the moral force behind reciprocity in primitive and archaic societies and goes on to say that the contemporary financial speculator is “betting on the obligation of return”, and this is the fundamental axiom of contemporary finance. David Graeber (Debt The First 5,000 Years) also recognises the fundamental position reciprocity has in finance, but where as Appadurai recognises the importance of reciprocity in the presence of uncertainty, Graeber essentially ignores uncertainty in his analysis that ends with the conclusion that “we don’t ‘all’ have to pay our debts”. In advocating that reciprocity need not be honoured, Graeber is not just challenging contemporary capitalism but also the foundations of the civitas, based on equality and reciprocity. The origins of Graeber’s argument are in the first half of the nineteenth century. In 1836 John Stuart Mill defined political economy as being concerned with [man] solely as a being who desires to possess wealth, and who is capable of judging of the comparative efficacy of means for obtaining that end.

In Principles of Political Economy With Some of Their Applications to Social Philosophy, Mill defended Thomas Malthus’ An Essay on the Principle of Population, which focused on scarcity. Mill was writing at a time when Europe was struck by the Cholera pandemic of 1829–1851 and the famines of 1845–1851 and while Lord Tennyson was describing nature as “red in tooth and claw”. At this time, society’s fear of uncertainty seems to have been replaced by a fear of scarcity, and these standards of objectivity dominated economic thought through the twentieth century. Almost a hundred years after Mill, Lionel Robbins defined economics as “the science which studies human behaviour as a relationship between ends and scarce means which have alternative uses”. Dichotomies emerge in the aftermath of the Cartesian revolution that aims to remove doubt from philosophy. Theory and practice, subject and object, facts and values, means and ends are all separated. In this environment ex cathedra norms, in particular utility (profit) maximisation, encroach on commercial practice.

In order to set boundaries on commercial behaviour motivated by profit maximisation, particularly when market uncertainty returned after the Nixon shock of 1971, society imposes regulations on practice. As a consequence, two competing ethics, functional Consequential ethics guiding market practices and regulatory Deontological ethics attempting stabilise the system, vie for supremacy. It is in this debilitating competition between two essentially theoretical ethical frameworks that we offer an explanation for the Financial Crisis of 2007-2009: profit maximisation, not speculation, is destabilising in the presence of radical uncertainty and regulation cannot keep up with motivated profit maximisers who can justify their actions through abstract mathematical models that bare little resemblance to actual markets. An implication of reorienting financial economics to focus on the markets as centres of ‘communicative action’ is that markets could become self-regulating, in the same way that the legal or medical spheres are self-regulated through professions. This is not a ‘libertarian’ argument based on freeing the Consequential ethic from a Deontological brake. Rather it argues that being a market participant entails restricting norms on the agent such as sincerity and truth telling that support knowledge creation, of asset prices, within a broader objective of social cohesion. This immediately calls into question the legitimacy of algorithmic/high- frequency trading that seems an anathema in regard to the principles of communicative action.

The Feedback of Capital and Standard of Living. Some Wayside Didactics.


It is often said to countries in trouble that their people were living above their standards. That their consumption is higher than their production. This, in fact, is true … for everybody on this planet. In financial terms.

Look at the image of Figure 1. People (Labour Power), together with machines from the capital (MoP) produce goods that only (mostly) humans consume. Left the production, right the consumption.


Figure 1: Production and consumption of humans and capital

If everything that is produced is consumed (according to Jean Baptiste Say), it is obvious that humans consume more than they produce. This seems contradictory with the ideas of Marx, but it isn’t. Marx said that Labour Power with the help of MoP produces, and that this production is fully attributed to Labour Power and is thus skimmed when it consumes less than this production. We can also equally well say that MoP (‘capital’) is producing with the help of Labour Power. Or just say that both are producing and say that each is the right ‘owner’ of its own production.

In the above figure, the arrows show the flow of production-consumption. The payment for produced products is an arrow in opposite direction. In this example, humans get 95% of consumption while they do only 50% of the production. They thus also only get 50% of payment. The rest of the consumption is paid by ‘borrowing’ money somehow, and they live above their standard. The payment goes 50% to the capital. But, because capital does not consume, this payment is used to increase the capital. Two extreme scenarios:

• The money for payment of production is fully in the form of a loan to the humans. Money starts thus accumulating at the capital.

• The money for payment is fully used to invest in new capital. In that case, the ‘consumption’ of capital is 50%, but after one cycle, a larger part of the production is done by capital. See figure 2 below.


Figure 2: Production and consumption of humans and capital, if the capital consumes as human, but this consumption is used as new starting capital in a new cycle

In the first step, 50% of the production and consumption is done by capital. In the second cycle it is already 67%. In the third cycle it is 80%, then 89%, etc. In general 2n−1/(2n−1 + 1) at step n; capital doubles at every cycle, where humans stay constant. The final situation is that 100% of production is done by capital. Obviously, sooner or later the system has to switch to the first scenario.

In either scenario, the capital accumulates. The basic ingredient is that capital does not need consumption for its survival; any ‘consumption’ is directly converted into more capital. The system will probably have a mix of the two. After all, capital cannot go on doubling all the time.

So, we see that capital is condensing at the capital. That is because the means of production – other than human labor – do not consume, and, therefore, humans do consume more than they produce, and the means of production (machines) do consume less than they produce, with the total in a zero-sum-game way consuming exactly what they produce. The owners of the means of production get the rights to consumption and these rights are constantly increasing. It is a positive-feedback run-away system.

Let’s put this in an example to explain it better. Imagine I make clothespins and so does my neighbor. However, my neighbor has slightly more costs than me, or is slightly less productive for some reason (work accident, or so). He earns just enough to survive. He makes one ’unit’ and this barely covers the cost of life, which is also minimally 1 unit. I am slightly more productive, or my cost of living is slightly lower. Therefore, I can save a little ‘money’. Let’s assume the former, I am more productive. Now, either I make 1.1 units and the surplus 0.1 units I trade for a clothespin machine, or I work a little less on making clothespins and in this spare time – one hour per day – I make the machine myself. Let’s assume the second scenario, because it is easier reasoning, although they are equivalent. We both make two ‘units’ of pins, sell them and buy things (two units worth) to survive. I however, make as well a machine that makes pins.

After finishing my machine, maybe after ten years, the total production goes up. The demand for our pins stays the same. The markets needs two units of clothespins. It now means that I will get more share of the profit. Imagine my machine makes as much units as a human can, one unit per year. We thus have three units to offer to the market. The price of pins on the market could (and will) drop through the mechanism of supply and demand. In principle down to 67% of the original price. Not lower, because that would imply that the total price of more pins would be lower than before.

To make it simple, imagine exactly that happens. The price is 2/3; one unit of pins gives only 2/3 consumption rights. We sell three units and thus get a total of two units of consumption rights. These are distributed over the production units. My neighbor has one third of the production units and thus gets 1/3 share of the consumption rights, a total of 2/3 units. I and my machine get 2/3 share, 4/3 consumption rights. Note that I confiscate – skim – the production rights of my ‘slave’ machine.

Now my neighbor has a problem. He gets 2/3 units of consumption rights, there where one full unit is needed to survive. He did not start working less, or become less productive, or lazy. He simply lost his percentage share of the means of production. And once this starts, there is no stopping it. It in fact accelerates.

There are two scenarios. Either I keep producing pins myself, as shown above, resulting in immediate misery for my neighbor, or I stop working altogether on making pins manually, and we go back to the situation where we make two units of pins, sell them, and each one gets one unit of consumption rights. However, now I have 100% free time (my machine doing all the work), and I can dedicate it to make a new machine. This takes only one year instead of ten, since I now have 100% free time, instead of only 10%. In the first situation, I could lend 1/3 of my consumption rights to my neighbor. However – nothing is for free in this life – next year I want 10% profit on my loan. His problems will be bigger next year. Next year I will refinance his loan. Etc. The reader will easily understand that my neighbor will wind up being my feudal possession. I will take everything he owns. Instead, I could opt for the second path, producing a new machine in my spare time. In that case, next year we will have 4 production units, my neighbor and I as human labor, and two mechanical units. These mechanical units are mine and will claim the consumption rights; together with my own labor, I will now get 75% of the two consumption rights. 1.5 for me and 0.5 for my neighbor. This path leads to the state where I have 100% of the consumption rights. Or I can again decide to use part or all of my human labor or machine power to make new machinery. Sooner or later, anyway, my neighbor will have to borrow consumption rights from me. This is a feedback system. Any small perturbation results in a saturation in which I will get 100% of the consumption rights and where I will wind up being the feudal lord of my neighbor. One could argue that this reasoning does not work, because the rest of the world is also increasing productivity and the price of the products offered by them (and the cost of living for me and my neighbor) goes down, as fast as the price of our clothespins go down and we will both easily survive. First of all, we consider here only the local effect, independent of the full market. Technological innovation creates immediate misery for some, a deterioration of life while these people are doing nothing worse. Second, when the rest of the market is behaving in the same way, we remain with an overall effect of condensation of wealth. Capital attracts capital. This is a form of the Matthew Effect, named after the apostle from the bible, transferring money from the poor to the rich. Matthew 25:29,

For onto everyone that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance, but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.

Crisis. Thought of the Day 66.0


Why do we have a crisis? The system, by being liberal, allowed for the condensation of wealth. This went well as long as there was exponential growth and humans also saw their share of the wealth growing. Now, with the saturation, no longer growth of wealth for humans was possible, and actually decline of wealth occurs since the growth of capital has to continue (by definition). Austerity will accelerate this reduction of wealth, and is thus the most-stupid thing one could do. If debt is paid back, money disappears and economy shrinks. The end point will be zero economy, zero money, and a remaining debt. It is not possible to pay back the money borrowed. The money simply does not exist and cannot be printed by the borrowers in a multi-region single-currency economy.

What will be the outcome? If countries are allowed to go bankrupt, there might be a way that economy recovers. If countries are continuing to be bailed-out, the crisis will continue. It will end in the situation that all countries will have to be bailed-out by each-other, even the strong ones. It is not possible that all countries pay back all the debt, even if it were advisable, without printing money by the borrowing countries. If countries are not allowed to go bankrupt, the ‘heritage’, the capital of the citizens of countries, now belonging to the people, will be confiscated and will belong to the capital, with its seat in fiscal paradises. The people will then pay for using this heritage which belonged to them not so long time ago, and will actually pay for it with money that will be borrowed. This is a modern form of slavery, where people posses nothing, effectively not even their own labor power, which is pawned for generations to come. We will be back to a feudal system.

On the long term, if we insist on pure liberalism without boundaries, it is possible that human production and consumption disappear from this planet, to be substituted by something that is fitter in a Darwinistic way. What we need is something that defends the rights and interests of humans and not of the capital, there where all the measures – all politicians and political lobbies – defend the rights of the capital. It is obvious that the political structures have no remorse in putting humans under more fiscal stress, since the people are inflexible and cannot flee the tax burden. The capital, on the other hand, is completely flexible and any attempt to increase the fiscal pressure makes that it flees the country. Again, the Prisoner’s Dilemma makes that all countries increase tax on people and labor, while reducing the tax on capital and money. We could summarize this as saying that the capital has joined forces – has globalized – while the labor and the people are still not united in the eternal class struggle. This imbalance makes that the people every time draw the short straw. And every time the straw gets shorter.