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29 September 2008

Financial crisis and changing paradigms of warning intelligence

The continually interesting competitive intelligence forum at Ning has surfaced a discussion which has been much on the minds of a variety of intelligence professionals in both the government and private sector given the cascading collapse of a number of major financial institutions: Was this financial crisis a warning failure? And if so, the natural corollary inquires into the cause and origin of the failure.

In our view, these recent events very much represent intelligence surprise. If nothing else, the unexamined higher order effects of complex financial relationships involving vast sums of cross-border capital flows is far outside the traditional realm of political and economic intelligence, at least as it is usually practiced in the government world. And the rapid contagion dynamics within the financial markets prove that the events are likewise beyond the traditional scope of competitive intelligence, where it is rare that analysis takes into account such sweeping changes across the landscape and its players. Whether this surprise truly rates elevation as a Black Swan, as some commentators have suggested, is itself also open to debate.

There is ample evidence that early indicators were visible, and even that many commentators had previously weighed in on the mounting risks and dangerous uncertainties inherent to the increasingly complex layers of traded instruments, derivatives, and debt that lurk at the center of the current crisis. However, warning is a process – not an event. It matters little that in hindsight one can call out the prescient among the punditry and politicians, and cast blame on those that assumed business would continue as normal against the backdrop of ever increasing housing prices. If warning did not reach, or impact, the right decision-makers – as there is mounting evidence that it clearly did not – then the process of warning failed.

But let us examine this more closely for a moment. Who exactly were the right decision-makers in this crisis? The primary lending institutions? The traders and market makers that were the primary players in moving these instruments? The investors, fund managers, and sovereign wealth entities which funneled so much capital into fundamentally unstable market positions? The risk managers at any of these firms, responsible for anticipating the potential downside of complex financial positions? The world’s various central bankers? The regulatory bodies or their political masters in the parliamentary and executive branches?

These are not questions easily answered. There will be anecdotes aplenty regarding the lack of warning communicated to a wide range of these decision-makers. The first that comes to mind is the ill-fated CEO of Washington Mutual, who was allegedly incommunicado aboard a flight while the most significant transactions in the firm’s collapse were being finalized. This mirrors the earlier circumstances of the CEO of Bear Stearns. While a certain level of plausible deniability may be key to these positions, one wonders what kind of intelligence support these executives enjoyed.

Likewise, if warning was to be issued to an identified group of executives, who would have been responsible for giving such warning? Only a scant handful of the firms involved in the recent waves of disruption could be considered to have a dedicated intelligence function. Of these, few were likely oriented towards a warning posture, as opposed to the many other intelligence functions that constitute the duties of privatized shops within modern enterprises. Among the commercial consulting intelligence providers, the problem can easily have been defined by the lack of articulated customer requirements, and the lack of access and expertise that clearly prevented a more sophisticated appreciation of ongoing events. And one can question whether a warning account focused on what was largely a domestic financial market – despite the dramatic international implications – is at all a proper role for the intelligence community (at least in the United States). Certainly, as it is currently structured, it is nearly impossible to address – and no homeland security function has ever envisioned market shocks as a component of critical infrastructure protection. More damningly, the insights which would have unlocked these mysteries were not secrets to be stolen, but lay in perspectives which were never cultivated.

Again, there are likely case studies to be found in the after action reviews of the wreckage. Lehman Brothers, among the first to fall, most famously hired a former Deputy Director for Intelligence out of CIA to head its Sovereign Risk shop. But the structure and focus that geopolitically focused shop appears not to have been relevant to the manner in which the current crisis developed. Given that Bear Stearns itself allegedly was a leader in providing analytical research and other intelligence products to its investors and clients, the dissemination of these products to the executive level is worth exploring from more than an academic perspective. One can likewise point to other intelligence functions on the Street and elsewhere, stovepiped for threat analysis or market research or technology investment.

What few warning shops which may have existed to cover the sector likely followed the dominant paradigm of competitive early warning, focused on their competitors’ actions, positions, technologies and blind spots rather than the wider political and financial situation. The required optic was simply too large for most shops, whose production is typically serialized in daily or weekly form, no matter how strategic they might otherwise claim to be.

In sum, can one then consider this a failure of warning? There are no simple answers, and we certainly believe that this question will be revisited for years to come in future studies of intelligence surprise. The underlying causes are complex, but are clearly rooted – at least in part – in the lack of systematic warning intelligence coverage of the issues. Whether it was the role of warning intelligence shops to cover these issues is open to debate. However, this may be as much the result of the failure of a warning paradigm developed for a time and place now forever changed. One may liken this change to the decreasing relevance of the traditional state based indications and warning model, now replaced by the emerging strategic reconnaissance paradigm being explored at the cutting edge of the tradecraft.

There are also signs that this is far from over, as we move from the weekend into another turbulent week on the Street (and in financial centres around the globe.) While we may arguably have seen a strategic warning failure (or not), there is still ample need for operational and tactical level warning as the crisis continues. This need creates new opportunities for both the rare successes and failures that will make or break firms and fortunes. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult to surge warning assets to these kind of non-traditional accounts in short order – particularly given the scope of the political, regulatory, and other uncertainties which plague the markets. This is a unique time – and a unique problem set – that will task the professionalism of involved intelligence practitioners beyond measure, given the excessively politicized atmosphere surrounding the issues. There are many intelligence professionals now treading virgin ground, far past the last signpost reading “HC SVNT DRACONES”.

We are reminded of Joseph Nye’s comments about that terrible day seven years ago: “September 11, 2001, was like a flash of lightning on a summer evening that displayed an altered landscape, leaving U.S. policymakers and analysts still groping in the dark, still wondering how to understand and respond.” Lightning has struck once again in New York, and again without effective warning. We expect the impact to the intelligence community – particularly the community beyond the traditional wheel of the major agencies – will be in its own way as profound.

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