The Merchants of Wall Street

400 years before credit default swaps strode the earth, Shakespeare nailed the financial crisis.

Topics: Globalization, How the World Works, Wall Street, Shakespeare,

Am I surprised that the Bard of Avon foresaw every nuance of today’s financial crisis, as proven by law professor Nathan Oman’s brilliant, virtuouso deconstruction of “The Merchant of Venice”? No. The details of how complex financial instruments are structured may have changed over the last four centuries, but people are pretty much the same.

This is one of the cases where readers are much better off reading the entirety of Oman’s post at the group law blog Concurring Opinions. Excerpts do not do it justice. But here’s a taste anyway, to whet your appetite. You may find yourself, like me, reaching for the original source material soon after.

Having ignored the problem of fat tails and black swans, Antonio decides to engage in a bit of dodgy finance. He borrows in the wholesale market from Shylock under terms that appear favorable, but have a huge downside in the unlikely event of his default. Antonio, of course, is unconcerned. From his point of view he is getting cheap money by taking on what seems like an extremely remote risk. He then takes these borrowed funds and uses them to make what can only be described as a no doc, subprime loan. Bassiano wants money for a speculative venture — the wooing “In Belmont [of] a lady richly left” (I.i.161) — and Antonio agrees, in effect renting out his credit rating…

…Of course, once his ill-fated bet on Bassiano and the power of risk management starts to unwind, Antonio’s surrogates begin lobbying the government to change the rules so as to avoid unwanted contracts. To his credit, the Duke resists these entreaties:

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Bravo, I say. Bravo.

(Thanks to David Zaring at The Conglomerate for the tip.)

Andrew Leonard
Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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