A SMALL MARGIN OF ERROR
Marten Toonder saw through it all when he wrote ’De Windhandel’: stock-exchange trade is trading hot air. Sooner or later the balloons burst, and then the wailing starts.
When I wrote my column ‘Economy’ on February 24 of this year, I had never heard of Nick Leeson. Two days later he turned out to be younger than I am, and gone, leaving his employer (or what was left of that) with a deficit of neigh on 2 billion Dutch guilders. He smiled at us from the photographs. An average yuppie, doubtless with a far too big villa. There was gnashing of teeth, besides a lot of wailing. One man was able to burry a respectable banking house. Well, it was sort of their own fault: mr Leeson appeared to have been not only chief of the traders, but also chief of the department that controled the traders. Mr Leeson (1966) keeps an eye on mr Leeson (aged 28). Stock-exchange does have something of a comic.
Mr Leeson didn’t matter much to me, but some of the articles that appeared in the wake of his downfall did. Mr Leeson traded derivatives. For fifteen years I have thought derivatives were things in mathematics. I wasn’t that bad in maths, but I may have been mistaken. Anyway, the value of derivatives all over the world comes up to 25.000.000.000.000 Dutch guilders. That is the amount that would change hands, would all derivatives be paid for now.
That took me on: 25.000.000.000.000 guilders, that is about five thousand guilders to every human on this planet. It may not seem much, but try explaining it to the people in the slums. The newspaper wasn’t much bothered: it sure is a lot of money, but it is real money. If someone loses a sum x on derivatives, someone else gains that amount. It may be, but the money has to come from somewhere.
This is a typical economic balloon. In physics we know several conservation laws. But I never heard an economist on the ‘Law of Conservation of Money’…