Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Missing the Obvious

I've talked and written about the importance of failing to see the obvious. It's a common source of error -- and one to which we are all prone -- since most of us believe (understandably, but wrongly) that we would notice obvious things. (See my previous posts on inattentional blindness, for example.)

The latest example comes to us from Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. The FCIC was established to investigate the causes of the financial collapse that wreaked havoc from Wall Street to Main Street. The Commission's final report is due out tomorrow. But a few news outlets, including the New York Times, have gotten an early look. Here's what the Times had to say:

“The captains of finance and the public stewards of our financial system ignored warnings and failed to question, understand and manage evolving risks within a system essential to the well-being of the American public. Theirs was a big miss, not a stumble.”

Those words echo the testimony of Jamie Dimon, chairman of JPMorgan Chase & Co., who appeared before the Commission a year ago.

"I’ve already mentioned the biggest mistakes we made," he told the Commission. "In mortgage underwriting, somehow, we just missed that home prices don’t go up forever..."

This admission startled one of the commissioners, who asked Dimon, "Did you do a stress test that showed housing prices falling?"

"No," said Dimon. "I would say that’s probably one of the big misses."

Yes, indeed. Home prices still haven't recovered, as the latest Standard & Poor's/Case-Shiller index makes clear. In many big cities, home prices have sunk to their lowest prices in years.

As the article in the Times goes on to point out, "one striking finding (of the FCIC report) is its portrayal of incompetence."

"It quotes Citigroup executives conceding that they paid little attention to mortgage-related risks. Executives at the American International Group were found to have been blind to its $79 billion exposure to credit-default swaps, a kind of insurance that was sold to investors seeking protection against a drop in the value of securities backed by home loans. At Merrill Lynch, managers were surprised when seemingly secure mortgage investments suddenly suffered huge losses."

One way to prevent errors of this magnitude is to impose constraints that other other countries (notably Canada, which avoided much of the mortgage mess) have adopted.

But with the Dow hovering around 12,000 and bankers strutting again at Davos, this seems unlikely.

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Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Thinking Things Through

If you want to avoid making big mistakes, it's important to learn to think through a problem. This means learning to think not just about how an idea can succeed, but how it can fail.

Most of us, of course, don't like to do this. When faced with a decision - which job to take, which college to attend, which car to buy -- our search for information is not neutral. We tend to look for information that supports our pre-existing ideas and to discount information that doesn't. Researchers call this "confirmation bias." Often, it leads to bad decisions.

A not-so-obvious example involves the high-tech garbage collection system in the city of Toledo, Ohio. The system was supposed to save the city $3 million a year. Instead, it has left the city with $1.3 million in unanticipated expenses – and a bunch of really honked off residents.

Like a lot of cities these days, Toledo is strapped for cash. So in 2009 its city council voted to spend $22 million (which it had to borrow, by the way) to buy new garbage cans and a fleet of super-duper, driver-operated trucks. The trucks were equipped with pincers that grab the cans, lift them overhead and dump their contents in the truck. The trucks allowed Toledo to eliminate 70 trash-collector jobs and to slash the solid waster division’s budget to $8 million from $11 million. So far, so good.

But then the problems set in. Since the trucks no longer had a pair of human collectors who jump off the back to grab trash bins on either side of the street, drivers had to double back to cover the opposite side of the street. As a result, the trucks use more gas than the city expected, so fuel costs went up.

Not only that, the system proved wildly unpopular with residents. The robo-trucks left trash strewn everywhere, and the new 96 gallon garbage cans were so big that old people complained they were too big to haul.

They flooded city hall with as many as 600 complaints a day. As a result, the city had to hire 8 telephone operators to run a complaint hotline — further eating into savings.

The whole thing has turned into such a nightmare that now the city wants to get out of the trash business entirely and let the county handle it.

Toledo isn't alone. The city of Seattle not so long ago made a similar blunder, squandering $5 million on high-tech public toilets that turned into havens for drug dealers and prostitutes.

Whether it's toilets or trash cans, the problem is the same: nobody thought through the problem before emabrking on the "solution." And the result was a costly error.

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