A week or so ago (honestly keeping track of time is getting ridiculous) flipping through Apple News, I came across an article titled, The Looming Bank Collapse: The U.S. financial system could be on the cusp of calamity. This time, we might not be able to save it by Frank Partnoy. Intrigued and pre-terrified by what I might read, I clicked through and read the article. To sum up the article, the author makes the case that banks are up to their old tricks packing toxic assets into investment vehicles reminiscent of the 2008 collateralized debt obligations (CDO). Which you may remember from its Hollywood debut in the movie The Big Short.
The Atlantic article continues that banks shifted their shiftiness to a vehicle called the collateralized loan obligation (CLO). According to the author, “A CLO walks and talks like a CDO, but in place of loans made to home buyers are loans made to businesses—specifically, troubled businesses.” If you read the entire piece without prior knowledge about macroeconomics—like I did—it will likely put you in a corner, rocking back-and-forth, and wondering if it’s time to liquidize everything and put all of your money into gold. After I finished the article, I began to scour bank websites for annual reports to look for the CLO line item. And I found them, found some anyway, and then didn’t know what to do with the information.
So I started making breakfast and tried to put it out of my mind thinking if this begins to be a real thing, I’ll read more about it in the days to come. Weeks later—nothing. Not one utterance of the acronym CLO comes across my feed reader. All is well.
Until this morning, when I kicked the day off by looking into a mortgage refinance rates and what a handful of packages lenders are offering. During a few searches, I came across a link to an article from Bloomberg titled, A 28-Year-Old With No Degree Becomes a Must-Read on the Economy. I had to click. How could you not click that title?!
The profile on Nathan Tankus is short and intriguing—I encourage you all to take a look. The story here is a young guy who has studied macroeconomics since high school and has taken his curiosity and learning to new heights. While he has yet to graduate college, Nathan has a two-year-old newsletter that is read by some of the leading minds in the world of economists, including the folks running the United States Federal Reserve. To my delight, Tankus writes plainly without diluting the topic or his perspective. He is literally the John Gruber of macroeconomics and all topics that pertain hereto.
And wouldn’t you know it, one of his recent pieces is a retort to that stroke-inducing piece from The Atlantic titled, Is There Really A “Looming Bank Collapse?” Now, if you’re into this kind of thing like I am, I would advise you to make a beverage because Nathan’s article will take a while to get through. Almost every point Partnoy made in the original article is countered with an alternative perspective backed by sources and other research. Near the end, Nathan states:
Losses from this [pandemic] may lead to “serious deficiencies in capital,” but if they do, it will not be because of fancy structured products but the failure of good old-fashioned loans because of a good old-fashioned depression.
I won’t give away any more spoilers because once you know the world isn’t going to collapse due to CLOs, it’s a fun and interesting read. The best part is that there is already a sequel! Frank Partnoy responded to back his article only to have Nathan go in and start unraveling the Atlantic’s Brooks Brothers cardigan:
Partnoy is correct that my piece doesn’t dispute any facts he stated in his article. Instead, I focused on his framing and presentation of those facts. However, as I state below, I disagree with the interpretation and presentation of these facts so fundamentally that I still think they fall within the realm of fact checking.
And this leads to the bigger lesson I was reminded of this morning. When stringing together a point-of-view, do you have the right perspective to look at the facts gathered? Do you have all of the facts? And, are you looking at the problem at the right altitude?
When working with designers, I find myself asking that very question more often than I ask anything else. In the hunt for facts, it’s easy to get into the weeds. Curiosity will take us to the nth detail in pursuit of truth. And more often then not, while in that hunt, we forget to look up (and sideways) to check if we’re at the right depth to see the problem or the story in a broader perspective.