A Crypto Carol
(with thanks to Charles Dickens)
Block 1(Genesis Block) — Ghosts of the Financial Crisis
The Financial Crisis was over: to start. No one is questioning that. The bailouts had concluded, inquiries had been held, fines had been paid, and laws had been passed. The Financial Crisis was buried deep in the past. A decade is a long time.
And Mr. Finance (meaning the good folks of the financial sector) knew the Financial Crisis was over. Of course, there could be no doubt. Mr. Finance had lived through the buildup to the Crisis, participated in the panics, and begged the government to save the financial system and the rest of the world.
So there we are. It must be clear that the Financial Crisis was over, or nothing will be gained by the story I am going to tell.
Even after the Crisis ended, though, Mr. Finance did not erase its traces. No, Mr. Finance continued on with many of the practices that had contributed to the creation of the Crisis. Credit default swaps were still traded. Bubbles in auto finance and student loans continued to expand. The Shadow Banking sector still breathed.
For Mr. Finance was, as his name suggests, a risk-taker at core. Warnings of dire consequences sometimes had little influence on Mr. Finance. In his most fevered moments, no bet was too big, no stake too high, so long as the size of the hoped-for reward was great. In those times of frenzy, it was rather unimportant to Mr. Finance whether he understood the fundamentals of his investments in depth.
Once upon a time, in the year 2017, Mr. Finance continued in his work, lubricating the wheels of capital movement. It was not a very interesting time for Mr. Finance, with few opportunities for high returns on investments, and rather limited growth (other than the stock market) since the Crisis.
Yet, during the spring and summer of 2017, things suddenly began to change, as a bright spot appeared on the horizon. A new asset class, born in the throes of the Financial Crisis, was emerging. An asset class that could give Mr. Finance the returns he had been missing lo these last ten years. The crypto asset class, with returns of thousands of percents, there for the taking.
Eager to finally get some alpha again, Mr. Finance began creating the structures to incorporate this new asset class into the financial system.
Just in time for Christmas, CME and CBOE would offer futures in Bitcoin, the doyenne of the crypto asset class. All was right in the world of Mr. Finance, and this would be a holiday season worth celebrating.
So it happened that on the eve of Bitcoin futures trading, on a chilly night in December, Mr. Finance called his car service to travel home for the evening, eager to jump in on the morrow.
Sitting in the back seat, Mr. Finance stared out the window, dreaming of the returns to be made from Bitcoin futures, and planning the new ETFs that would soon follow. He fiddled with his smart phone, checking out the latest Bitcoin prices.
Now, please know that there was nothing in any way special about Mr. Finance’s smartphone, except that it was the best that money could buy. It is also true that Mr. Finance had used it every day and every night, thousands of times; also that Mr. Finance was probably the least fanciful man you could meet, even including — which is saying a lot — lawyers, dentists, and accountants. It is also worth mentioning that Mr. Finance had not once thought of the Financial Crisis all day.
Then please explain, if you can, how it came to be that Mr. Finance, scrolling through the news on CoinDesk, saw not the news of today’s Bitcoin price, but the headlines of September 2008.
As Mr. Finance stared incredulously at the screen, the 2017 CoinDesk site appeared again.
It would be false to say that Mr. Finance was not surprised by this event. But he continued scrolling through the news, checked his email, and sent a few texts.
He did pause, as he exited the car, to look at the smartphone screen one last time, as if he expected to see the 2008 news once again. But, no news appeared, and Mr. Finance shook his head, jammed the phone into his pocket, and headed toward his front door.
Once inside, Mr. Finance activated his security system, put on most luxurious pajamas, poured himself a drink, and sat down to finish up his remaining work for tomorrow. As he leaned back in his leather chair, he heard the sound of his security system starting to beep.
It might have been for 10 seconds, or a minute, but it seemed like an hour. The beeping stopped, to be replaced by a sort of clanging followed by a scraping noise, as if someone were dragging a heavy cardboard box across a hardwood floor.
The door to his study opened with a bang, and the clanking and scraping noises seemed much louder, coming up the hall, towards his door.
“This is ridiculous,” said Mr. Finance. “I’m imagining things.”
He froze, though, when the sounds came into his study, and the phantoms appeared before his eyes.
There they were, men and women in suits, bespoke and well-fitting. Each wore a heavy chain round its waist, to which was attached a huge cardboard box erupting with papers in various states of disorder. To his horror, Mr. Finance realized that he could see through their bodies.
Disbelieving even as he stared at the figures, Mr. Finance demanded, “What are you doing here? What do you want? Who are you?”
“You mean, I believe, who were we,” said the central figure.
“Then, who were you?”
“You know us, surely. We were the ones who helped to bring about the Financial Crisis.”
Mr. Finance paused, looking more closely at the men and women before him. Perhaps some of them looked familiar at that.
“It looks like you don’t believe in us,” said the central figure.
“I don’t!” said Mr. Finance. “I don’t believe in ghosts! I must be overtired.”
At this the phantoms shook their chains and moaned dreadfully. A sense of terror came over Mr. Finance, and as the figures stepped menacingly toward him, he dropped to his knees, and begged, “Just tell me what you want, and you’ll have it!”
“We are here because we are cursed to be. We carry the chains we formed in our working lives,” said the apparitions’ spokesman.
Mr. Finance shuddered.
“And, Mr. Finance, you should know that you have built an enormous chain of your own!”
Mr. Finance felt worse. “But tell me it’s okay— you were in finance yourselves!”
“Okay?” snorted the ghost. “You want me to tell you it’s okay?”
“Yes,” ventured Mr. Finance.
“Well, it’s not okay! We are condemned to carry these chains because we did not think of the consequences of our actions! Some of us did not understand what we were doing, but didn’t ask questions. Some of us knew the risks we were taking, but took them anyway because we wanted the money! We wanted the bonuses that we were promised from making subprime loans and securitizing them. We wanted the money!” shouted the ghost.
“But, you were good business people,” protested Mr. Finance. “It was your job to make money for your company. That’s how it works!”
“Business!” laughed the ghost, ruefully. “Society’s well-being was our true business — but we forgot that. So much harm. Look at these boxes — filled with pink slips, foreclosed mortgages, mortgage-backed securities, credit default swaps…what a mess.”
At this the ghost struggled to pick up its cardboard box, and dropped it heavily at Mr. Finance’s feet, strewing papers about the room.
“Now listen to me,” said the ghost. “We are here tonight to warn you, that you can still escape our fate. We are offering you a chance, and hope.”
“You will be haunted,” said the ghost, “by Three Spirits.”
“This is the chance you are giving me?” queried Mr. Finance in a shaky voice.
“Yes. Unless they visit you, you will not hope to avoid our path. Expect them tonight, one after the next.”
At this, the apparitions stepped back from Mr. Finance, and turned to leave, dragging their boxes behind them.
As they approached the window of Mr. Finance’s study, it opened for them. Sounds of despair filled the air, and the phantoms joined in the discordant melody as they passed out into the cold December night.
Mr. Finance peered hesitantly out the window, and was stricken by what he saw. The air was filled with ghosts, mourning and weeping as they dragged their chains. He recognized some of them — was that an executive from Countrywide Financial? A VP from AIG?
The phantoms and their cries gradually melted into the night, and Mr. Finance shut the window.
He then checked the front door through which the ghosts had come. It was locked, with the security system still activated. He shook his head, his mind reeling.
And whether from the nightcap, the stresses of the day, or his otherworldly visitors, suddenly exhausted, Mr. Finance went to bed and fell right to sleep.
Just as Dickens often did, I am serializing this story. Stay tuned for Blocks 2–5.
In the words of Charles Dickens,
“I [am endeavoring] in this Ghostly little [post], to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.”