Links for 2013-04-20

  • Excel, untestability, and the reliability of quants

    Wow, this is a great software-quality story — I knew Excel was the most widely used programming environment out there, but this is a factor I’d overlooked:

    In his remarks on the final panel, Frank Partnoy mentioned something I missed when it came out a few weeks ago: the role of Microsoft Excel in the “London Whale” trading debacle. [..] To summarize: JPMorgan’s Chief Investment Office needed a new value-at-risk (VaR) model for the synthetic credit portfolio (the one that blew up) and assigned a quantitative whiz […] to create it. The new model “operated through a series of Excel spreadsheets, which had to be completed manually, by a process of copying and pasting data from one spreadsheet to another.” The internal Model Review Group identified this problem as well as a few others, but approved the model, while saying that it should be automated and another significant flaw should be fixed. After the London Whale trade blew up, the Model Review Group discovered that the model had not been automated and found several other errors. Most spectacularly, “After subtracting the old rate from the new rate, the spreadsheet divided by their sum instead of their average, as the modeler had intended. This error likely had the effect of muting volatility by a factor of two and of lowering the VaR …” I write periodically about the perils of bad software in the business world in general and the financial industry in particular, by which I usually mean back-end enterprise software that is poorly designed, insufficiently tested, and dangerously error-prone. But this is something different. […] While Excel the program is reasonably robust, the spreadsheets that people create with Excel are incredibly fragile. There is no way to trace where your data come from, there’s no audit trail (so you can overtype numbers and not know it), and there’s no easy way to test spreadsheets, for starters. The biggest problem is that anyone can create Excel spreadsheets — badly. Because it’s so easy to use, the creation of even important spreadsheets is not restricted to people who understand programming and do it in a methodical, well-documented way. This is why the JPMorgan VaR model is the rule, not the exception: manual data entry, manual copy-and-paste, and formula errors. This is another important reason why you should pause whenever you hear that banks’ quantitative experts are smarter than Einstein, or that sophisticated risk management technology can protect banks from blowing up. At the end of the day, it’s all software. While all software breaks occasionally, Excel spreadsheets break all the time. But they don’t tell you when they break: they just give you the wrong number.

    (tags: excel reliability software coding ides jpmorgan value-at-risk finance london-whale quants spreadsheets unit-tests testability testing)

  • Riak, CAP, and eventual consistency

    Good (albeit draft) write-up of the implications of CAP, allow_mult, and last_write_wins conflict-resolution policies in Riak:

    As Brewer’s CAP theorem established, distributed systems have to make hard choices. Network partition is inevitable. Hardware failure is inevitable. When a partition occurs, a well-behaved system must choose its behavior from a spectrum of options ranging from “stop accepting any writes until the outage is resolved” (thus maintaining absolute consistency) to “allow any writes and worry about consistency later” (to maximize availability). Riak leans toward the availability end of the spectrum, but allows the operator and even the developer to tune read and write requests to better meet the business needs for any given set of data.

    (tags: riak cap eventual-consistency distcomp distributed-systems partition last-write-wins voldemort allow_mult)

  • How You Can Help Save Upcoming.org, Posterous, and More

    Yahoo! sucks. shutting down in days? ArchiveTeam Warrior to the rescue; install the VM!

    (tags: archival yahoo shutdowns upcoming waxy archives virtualbox)

  • The Excel Depression – NYTimes.com

    Krugman on the Reinhart-Rogoff Excel-bug fiasco.

    What the Reinhart-Rogoff affair shows is the extent to which austerity has been sold on false pretenses. For three years, the turn to austerity has been presented not as a choice but as a necessity. Economic research, austerity advocates insisted, showed that terrible things happen once debt exceeds 90 percent of G.D.P. But “economic research” showed no such thing; a couple of economists made that assertion, while many others disagreed. Policy makers abandoned the unemployed and turned to austerity because they wanted to, not because they had to. So will toppling Reinhart-Rogoff from its pedestal change anything? I’d like to think so. But I predict that the usual suspects will just find another dubious piece of economic analysis to canonize, and the depression will go on and on.

    (tags: paul-krugman economics excel coding bugs software austerity debt)

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