Thursday, July 1, 2010
Financial Engineering and BP
"In retrospect, the pattern seems clear. Years before the Deepwater Horizon rig blew, BP was developing a reputation as an oil company that took safety risks to save money. An explosion at a Texas refinery killed 15 workers in 2005, and federal regulators and a panel led by James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state, said that cost cutting was partly to blame. The next year, a corroded pipeline in Alaska poured oil into Prudhoe Bay. None other than Joe Barton, a Republican congressman from Texas and a global-warming skeptic, upbraided BP managers for their 'seeming indifference to safety and environmental issues.' ... The people running BP did a dreadful job of estimating the true chances of events that seemed unlikely--and may even have been unlikely--but that would bring enormous costs. ... For all the criticism BP executioves may deserve, they are far from the only people to struggle with such low-probability, high-cost events. Nearly everyone does. 'These are precisely the kinds of events that are hard for us as humans to get our hands around and react to rationally,' Robert N. Stavins, an environmental economist at Harvard says. We make two basic--and opposite--types of mistakes. When an event is difficult to imagine, we tend to underestimate its likelihood. This is the proverbial black swan. Most of the people running Deepwater Horizon probably never had a rig explode on them. So they assumed it would not happen, at least not to them. ... On the other hand, when an unliklely event is all to easy to imagine, we often go in the opposite direction and overestimate the odds. After the 9/11 attacks, Americans canceled plane trips and took to the road. There were no terrorist atttacks in this country in 2002, yet the additonal driving apprarently led to an increase in traffic fatalities. ... In a little-noticed provision in a 1990 law passed after the Exxon Valdez spill, Congress capped a spiller's liability over and above cleanup costs at $75 million for a rig spill. Even if the economic damages--to tourism, fishing and the like--stretch into the billions, the responsible party is on the hook for only $75 million. ... Without the cap, executives would have to weigh the possible revenue from a well against the cost of drilling there and the risk of damage. With the cap, they can largely ignore the potential damage beyond cleanup costs", David Leonhardt at the NYT, 6 June 2010, link:
$50 million. Apply these principles to the CPA and rating agency businesses and see what happens.