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Gao Xiqing about stock market derivatives (interview by James Fallows)

“Be Nice to the Countries That Lend You Money”

James Fallows speaks with Gao Xiqing, president of the China Investment Corporation about stock market derivatives and their role as source of evil :

If you look at every one of these [derivative] products, they make sense. But in aggregate, they are bullshit. They are crap. They serve to cheat people.

I was predicting this many years ago. In 1999 or 2000, I gave a talk to the State Council [China’s main ruling body], with Premier Zhu Rongji. They wanted me to explain about capital markets and how they worked. These were all ministers and mostly not from a financial background. So I wondered, How do I explain derivatives?, and I used the model of mirrors.

First of all, you have this book to sell. [He picks up a leather-bound book.] This is worth something, because of all the labor and so on you put in it. But then someone says, “I don’t have to sell the book itself! I have a mirror, and I can sell the mirror image of the book!” Okay. That’s a stock certificate. And then someone else says, “I have another mirror—I can sell a mirror image of that mirror.” Derivatives. That’s fine too, for a while. Then you have 10,000 mirrors, and the image is almost perfect. People start to believe that these mirrors are almost the real thing. But at some point, the image is interrupted. And all the rest will go.

When I told the State Council about the mirrors, they all started laughing. “How can you sell a mirror image! Won’t there be distortion?” But this is what happened with the American economy, and it will be a long and painful process to come down.

I think we should do an overhaul and say, “Let’s get rid of 90 percent of the derivatives.” Of course, that’s going to be very unpopular, because many people will lose jobs.