Jeremy Hobson: Here at Marketplace, our mission is to make business and economic news understandable. And one of our best weapons is one of our senior producers, Paddy Hirsch, who helps explain everything from Collateralized Debt Obligations to Eurobonds by drawing pictures on a whiteboard.
Paddy has just written a book called “Man vs. Markets: Economics Explained (Plain and Simple).” And he’s here now to talk about it. Hi Paddy.
Paddy Hirsch: Hello Jeremy.
Hobson: So why are the markets so mystifying?
Hirsch: I think the markets are mystifying for a number of reasons, but language is one of them. You know, the Wall Street has this great lexicon that is almost impenetrable; it sounds like a black art when these guys are talking about it. That’s the first thing, but I think the second thing is that there’s almost an effort made by people on Wall Street to try to create this idea of themselves doing something that’s really incredibly special and incredibly difficult to understand. And as a result, people who are reading in the newspapers find it very, very difficult to work out what’s going on a lot of the time.
Hobson: Well let’s focus on one of these examples in your book. You talk about swaps, which are a very complex thing on Wall Street, but you use Jell-O to get us to understand it. What does swaps have to do with Jell-O, Paddy?
Hirsch: Well swaps are extremely complicated when they’re done on Wall Street. But at their essence, they’re essentially very, very simple. So a swap is what it sounds like — it’s when you swap one thing for another. So for example, if you’re getting the school menu and you get Jell-O everyday, and your buddy across the table, he’s got another menu that gets something varied everyday, like maybe he gets ice cream one day and cake the next — you might say: I want more variety, he wants Jell-O everyday, I’ll just swap. So we can swap our menus. And that’s essentially what people do, whether it be an interest rate swap or a credit default swap. They’re exchanging one thing for another in order to get — one person wants certainty, another person wants variety. And that’s essentially what the swaps do.
Hobson: And why is it important for ordinary people to understand what a swap is?
Hirsch: It might not necessarily be important for them to understand, unless they want to know. But if you’re a person on Main Street and you’re reading the newspaper and you want to know what this credit default swap is that seems to have brought down the entire financial system, you need to start somewhere.
Hobson: Do you think that this complicated economy that we are a part of is a sign of maturity, or would we be better off keeping things simple?
Hirsch: I think it is a sign of maturity in one way. It means that people are working terrifically hard on trying to find ways to make money from the financial system, and that’s a sign of maturity. But on the other hand, it’s almost like an adolescent who’s growing out of his clothes. This adolescent is becoming taller and taller and taller all the time, getting stronger and stronger, but he’s not got any new clothes, so he’s bursting out of his shorts and his T-shirt. He needs new clothes. So we have a system where people are incredibly smart, they’re coming up with a lot of these new ideas, these financial innovations — but our regulatory system is not keeping pace. And as a result, we run into all sorts of problems all the time.
Hobson: Paddy Hirsch is the author of “Man vs. Markets: Economics Explained (Plain and Simple).” He’s also of course our Whiteboard guru here at Marketplace and the senior producer of personal finance at Marketplace. Paddy, thanks so much.
Hirsch: It’s been a pleasure, thank you Jeremy.
Help us break down complex financial topics into easy-to-understand analogies. Send us your ideas for the topic of our Whiteboard video and you could win a signed copy of Paddy Hirsch’s new book “Man vs. Markets.” And check out an excerpt from the book here.
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