Bacterial survival strategies could teach bankers how to avoid financial crises

10 May 2010

If we want to drive maximum growth, encourage innovation and protect the economy from disasters, we will have to learn from lowly bacteria and put in place robust regulatory systems, says Dr Harvey Rubin, a professor of medicine, biochemistry and computer science, at the University of Pennsylvania, and Founder and Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response.

The fate of financial-regulation reform before Congress hinges on the role of regulation in the marketplace. Adam Smith wrote in his Wealth of Nations, "The proposal of any new law or regulation of commerce ... ought always to be listened to with great precaution, and ought never to be adopted till after having been long and carefully examined, not only with the most scrupulous, but with the most suspicious attention."

Nevertheless, we argue that systems found in nature offer a most cogent counterexample to this avoidance of regulations. Consider for example, the world of microorganisms. Bacteria are far from being tiny, vulnerable creatures; they have robust, adaptive regulatory systems that they use to optimize their growth given any external and internal set of conditions. They adapt to the composition of the growth media, temperature, acidity and salinity of the environment; they survive in the presence of damaging radiation, toxins or antibiotics, and they even resist attack by other organisms.

The remarkably successful bacterial strategy depends on the smooth running of its internal regulatory systems. Regulation in bacteria, which leads to optimal growth, critically depends on the integration of information that the organism gathers from the external environment and from its own cellular metabolic state.

The organism processes the information by carrying out complex biochemical reactions and sends processed molecules to the components of the organism that need it. Not every component of the organism needs every bit of information for the system to work optimally. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Nature is parsimonious with its transactions and its regulation. In addition to optimizing growth, regulation allows remarkable innovation to emerge through selection for fitness in an evolutionary sense.

In making the claim that solutions to the financial crisis can be found in nature, we note the similarities of the architectures of financial systems and biological systems, hopefully without succumbing to the myth of metaphors.

Financial systems are composed of institutions — commercial and investment banks, savings and loans, mutual funds, hedge funds, pension funds, finance companies, insurance companies, non-financial corporations to name a few. The institutions create products or instruments — mortgages, cash or synthetic collateralized debt obligations, other structured asset-backed securities, insurance, money markets, mutual funds. Consumers and other institutions buy and trade these products, funds flow throughout the system and, in principle, growth occurs.

The equivalent of institutions in biological systems are pathways, which are families of enzymes and reactions that are linked together to perform the necessary functions of the system.

The genetic and biochemical pathways, like the financial institutions create products — molecules such as nucleic acids, proteins, lipids, metabolites, toxins. The organism utilizes these products and new growth occurs — in a regulated, controlled fashion.

Bacteria even have a hedging mechanism where a small fraction of the colony bet against good times ahead by slowing down their metabolism just in case the colony encounters a nasty environment full of antibiotics or not enough growth media. These few taking the short position will then change direction at some time in the future and start to grow. If the environment does not sour, then these few "short" bacteria will suffer because they will not maximize their individual growth nor will they contribute to the growth of the colony.

 If, however, the environment does go south, these few bacteria are the heroes of the firm — actually the colony — because they survive to repopulate the organization. The last thing bacteria want to do is outgrow its nutrients or fail to adjust to a threat. Voila! Draw your own conclusions regarding any perceived Wall Street parallel.

In both the financial and bacterial systems, commitment to growth does not come without risks and exposures. In financial systems, for example, a counter party may not meet its obligations, similarly, certain key metabolites may be unavailable in bacterial systems. Financial instruments may lose value because of price fluctuations in the external markets; similarly the external media may at any moment literally dry up in bacterial systems.

Operational risks such as technological failure or human error in financial systems find equivalents in damaged DNA or proteins in bacteria. Lack of liquidity in financial markets corresponds to the loss of the bacterial central energy molecule, ATP. Organisms even have the equivalent of banks theoretically too big to fail; these are proteins that are absolutely essential for growth such as enzymes that synthesize its genome.

Predictions about how bacteria respond to these risks and exposures can be made using information concerning the networks of genes, proteins and metabolites. Similarly, complex questions that arise in financial systems can be answered only with access to extensive information such as quantity and amounts of trades, gross and net leverage ratios and off-balance-sheet leverage ratios and parties involved in portfolio selection processes or potential conflict of economic interests.

The current SEC claims for relief against Goldman Sachs and its employee, Fabrice Tourre, are based on violations of Section 17(a)(1), (2) and (3) of the Exchange Act and Section 10(b) and Rule 10-b(5) of the Exchange Act. Both claims refer to (a) schemes or artifices to defraud; (b) untrue statements of material facts or omissions of material facts; and (c) transactions, practices or courses of business which operated or would operate as a fraud or deceit.

Without prejudging the legal outcome, or post judging the morality of actions, note that bacteria thrive because they process and distribute reliable information — sometimes noisy, sometimes evanescent, sometimes stochastic, but on the whole, reliable.

So, if we want to drive maximum growth, encourage innovation and protect our colony, we will have to rise to the level of the lowly bacteria and put in place robust regulatory systems. Bacteria had eons to accomplish this; we will have to use our arguably well-evolved brains to do it faster.

Dr. Harvey Rubin, a professor of medicine, biochemistry and computer science, at the University of Pennsylvania, is Founder and Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis and Response (ISTAR) at Penn. A clinician and researcher, Dr Rubin also advises numerous governmental and non-governmental agencies regarding infectious diseases and biosecurity. Dr. Rubin's views are his alone and may not reflect those of his employer or his colleagues.

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