Risk Rap

Rapping About a World at Risk

FAS 157: Allegory of the Cave

In Plato’s magnum opus, The Republic, he devotes a chapter to Socrates’ discourse with his young student Glaucon. Socrates uses an allegory to explain the difference between truth and appearances. The Allegory of the Cave has remained a powerful philosophical metaphor and cornerstone of metaphysics. It outlines how the human perception of reality can be at odds with and diverge widely from what actually is true and good.

The cave is a controlled environment where humans are held captive. The only light they are allowed to see is from a dimly lit fire that casts shadows of images on a far wall. Enclosed in darkness save the faint projections, their inability to see the source or understand how those images appear to their senses gives them the perception that the shadows of things that they see are in fact the real things themselves. It’s not until the cave’s captives are brought out into the light of day that they are able to see that the shadows are only a poor reflection of a manipulated truth.

Socrates’ lesson to young Glaucon, whose name is very close to glaucoma, serves as a proper metaphor to understand the debate concerning FAS 157 and the concept of Fair Value.  For the uninitiated, the issue of Fair Value under FAS 157 addresses how to determine the “value” of securities held in investment portfolios. FAS 157 provide guidelines for three categories of valuation methodologies. Large banks and brokerage firms are increasing the reclassification of their assets using Level 3 methods. The valuation and projected cash flows from assets such as CMOs, CDOs, CLO, and Credit Default Swaps are being derived by sophisticated computer models developed by each firms in-house risk management group. Many of these risk models failed to perceive and detect the melt down in the credit markets that so far has led to $100 billion in balance sheet write downs for the large investment and money center banks. Socrates allegory is similar to the models developed by bank risk managers. These “black box proprietary applications” shines light on the Level 3 assets to determine an approximation of market value. It’s a self created reality of a risk manager’s perception of an assets value.

So what.

Esoteric stuff to be sure but the debate concerning this issue is most relevant to understanding how the current credit crisis evolved, how banks, brokerage firms and hedge funds value and trade securities, how risk mangers make informed decisions concerning risk tolerance and how industry and governmental regulators determine weather a bank is sufficiently capitalized to remain solvent.

The political fallout from the Bear Stearns shotgun wedding is yet to be played out. Main Street wants some relief for mortgage defaults and Wall Street feels that the Fed reacted too quickly and is resisting additional regulation and market intervention into the workings of the capital markets.

Pervasive credit and macroeconomic risks are still present in the global capital and debt markets. Mortgages, municipal finance and commercial paper markets were the first wave of credit market dislocations. Credit card receivables, student loans and other securitized asset classes may pose some acute challenges for our central bankers, accountants, regulators and risk managers in the not to distant future.

Once we emerge from our caves Socrates’ quote to young Glaucon become most prescient. Said Socrates, “And if they were in the habit of conferring honors among themselves on those who were quickest to observe the passing shadows and to remark which of them went before, and which followed after, and which were together; and who were therefore best able to draw conclusions as to the future, do you think that he would care for such honors and glories, or envy the possessors of them? Would he not say with Homer, Better to be the poor servant of a poor master, and to endure anything, rather than think as they do and live after their manner?”

Thank you Socrates. I waited 30 years to use this knowledge that Dr. Choi excitedly taught me in Introduction to Western Philosophy as a freshman at William Paterson College in 1974. Now that we have experienced the light may we never have to slip into darkness again?

Music Video: War, Slippin Into Darkness

Risk: credit, regulatory, accounting, banking, market, risk management


May 18, 2008 - Posted by | banking, credit crisis, FASB, hedge funds, jazz, movie, philosophy | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. […] Visit the blog Risk Rap and the Allegory of the Cave post on FAS 157: […]

    Pingback by Corporate Governance and Financial Health « sum2llc | June 11, 2013

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