Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The optimal design of Ponzi schemes in finite economies

Some observers are suggesting that the entire Golden West/Fannie Mae/AIG/Goldman Sachs enterprise of the last half decade was a gigantic Ponzi scheme. Here's an eight year old paper via Science Direct:

Utpal Bhattacharya


As no rational agent would be willing to take part in the last round in a finite economy, it is difficult to design Ponzi schemes that are certain to explode. This paper argues that if agents correctly believe in the possibility of a partial bailout when a gigantic Ponzi scheme collapses, and they recognize that a bailout is tantamount to a redistribution of wealth from non-participants to participants, it may be rational for agents to participate, even if they know that it is the last round. We model a political economy where an unscrupulous profit-maximizing promoter can design gigantic Ponzi schemes to cynically exploit this “too big to fail” doctrine. We point to the fact that some of the spectacular Ponzi schemes in history occurred at times where and when such political economies existed—France (1719), Britain (1720), Russia (1994), and Albania (1997).

HT: Bookworm Room who writes:

...If the language I’ve highlighted sounds familiar, it should, because it accurately predicts both the economic collapse and the bailout mentality that followed. Someone give Bhattacharya a Nobel Prize for economics, because he nailed it.

One can only wonder now if it was pure happenstance that things played out as they did, or if rational actors were gambling on the bailout Bhattacharya predicted.