Better Plays for Better Lives: The Merchant of Venice
Today we publish the second of a summer series in which Kimberley Botwright of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate looks at OECD work through a Shakespearean lens.
Sixteenth century Venice was a global centre of merchant capitalism, and The Merchant of Venice offers an excellent examination of human behaviour and its effects on financial markets. The point of this article is not to dwell on the appalling anti-Semitism of the period, but rather on the story of the hapless eponymous character and his reckless friend.
With the majority of his wealth at sea, Antonio uses credit to leverage capital to lend to his friend Bassanio (“Try what my credit can in Venice do”). Bassanio requires funding to seduce the wealthy heiress Portia. On Bassanio’s behalf, Antonio borrows 3,000 ducats for a three-month period from Shylock, who offers a 0% interest rate but takes the promise of one pound (around half a kilo) of Antonio’s flesh as collateral.
By Act 3, the audience discovers that Antonio’s ships have sunk, leading to a catastrophic devaluation of his net worth. To redeem his losses, he must pay the gruesome corporeal price under the terms of a notarized contract:
“Hath all his ventures failed? What, not one hit? From Tripolis, from Mexico and England, / From Lisbon, Barbary and India? And not one vessel scape the dreadful touch of merchant-marring rocks?”
Antonio is significantly over-leveraged and he overconfidently manages risk, based on an uncritical acceptance of the present. If only he’d read the OECD’s Future Global Shocks: Improving Risk Governance! He would have learned that disruptive events, such as a cargo ship sinking, can destabilise critical supply systems and have far-reaching economic effects.
He might also have learnt something about financial crises: “Arguably, financial crises both occur more frequently and produce more severe monetary damage than other types of risks described. There is a concern that the tools for risk analysis have not worked as well.” It goes on to emphasise that financial crises involve human, non-malicious choices and their re-occurrence should encourage us to search for new approaches to economic challenges and models “that use data on how agents actually behave.”
Bassanio provides an illustration of the erratic behaviour of individuals in financial markets. His justification for borrowing money from Antonio is based on the logic that if one shoots and loses an arrow, one should promptly shoot another in the same direction, in order to find out where the first went – not the most rational of approaches, seeing as it is very likely your second arrow will go the same way as the first. In short, Bassanio throws good money after bad.
Since the financial crisis, traditional economic models have become increasingly criticised for being blind to herd behaviour, network effects or information asymmetries and irrational action. Agent-based models (ABM) provide an alternative modelling approach. They focus on possible interactions between agents according to certain behaviour rules, running millions of simulations to approximate the millions of potential interactions between actors, gaining a better insight into possible outcomes of the complex system. In complex systems such as debt markets or financial institutions, shocks can be caused by external pressures (ships sinking) or internal (erratic individuals). It is therefore important to understand these systems at both the macro and micro-level.
Another important human aspect of financial systems is trust and expectations. Towards the end of the play, Antonio is dragged to court, with Shylock demanding his pound of flesh. While the presiding Duke of Venice initially proposes that Shylock might assume certain losses and forgive part of Antonio’s debt, “Forgive a moiety of the principal, / Glancing an eye of pity on his losses”, this raises deep concerns:
“It must not be; there is no power in Venice
Can alter a decree established.
‘Twill be recorded for a precedent,
And many an error by the same example
Will rush into the state. It cannot be.”
A major fall-out of the financial crisis was the possible creation of “moral hazard”, the expectation, or guarantee, that public authorities will bail out uninsured and unsecured creditors of systemically important bank debt. When such guarantees are perceived, behaviour incentives may be distorted.
As two OECD papers on implicit guarantees and banking in a challenging environment make clear, solutions for our modern day financial dilemmas lie in internationally coordinated responses. For example, the first paper suggests that an effective cross-border EU bank failure resolution network would lower the value (and danger) of implicit sovereign guarantees. The second notes that as banks deleverage and assets become renationalised, a European Banking Union would sever the link between weak sovereigns and weak banks.
But knowing what to do and doing it are two different things, as the quick-witted heiress Portia reminds us; “If to do were as easy as to know what were good to do…”