Technology, Integration and the U.S. Financial Crisis


My husband recently finished reading, "Leading Geeks," by Paul Glen. One of the book's theme is that technology people tend to have a problem-solution mindset. In other words, they view events and the world at large as a problem to solve.


Of course, this can be frustrating, because some problems -- particularly the messy, day-to-day social problems - do not have solutions, as the book points out. And, as my husband elaborated, it may explain why IT guys aren't renowned for their finesse with the ladies, who often just want to talk.


But this problem-solution mindset can also be a very useful, positive way to approach the world, if you're focused on what you can solve. And that's why I found this article, "How IT could have prevented the financial meltdown," so compelling.


It makes sense that the technology industry as a whole would start to ask some of these questions, as all of us struggle to understand just how the U.S. went from an economic powerhouse to headlines about the whole economy crumbling. It's a pretty confusing situation, further muddled by the rhetoric of the political election cycle. For instance, in the past week, I've seen separate pieces blaming deregulation and regulation.


The TMCNet article takes a look at whether technology could have helped prevent the current banking and mortgage crisis, as well as asking what we can do now to ensure it doesn't happen again. I have to say, it's nice to strip away some of the messy political disputes and financial Monday-morning quarterbacking and look at this as a problem to solve: How do we fix this and how do we make sure it doesn't happen again?


In reading the piece, I wasn't surprised to see that data integration -- and lack thereof -- played a crucial role in creating the crisis and could be a critical component to ensuring it doesn't happen again. I'd already learned a lot about that back in March, when I interviewed Tony Fisher, CEO of DataFlux. Fisher made a good case for why better data governance and integration could have identified the problem sooner. That's not to say, however, that irresponsible, greedy management didn't play a role:

"...At the end of the day, a lot of the subprime mortgage crisis really did have to do with the lack of risk assessment. And risk assessment is something your data will indeed bring forward. All the information is in the data, but you have to use the data. ... People were just looking at the dollars that they could make off of buying this set of mortgages. And again, the risk is in the data, it is there, but you have to use it."

It was an informative interview, and if you missed it, I'd suggest you read it.


Then, check out the TMCNet article, because it adds more to the discussion about how data integration, complex event processing and better business intelligence tools could put banks and regulators on the same page.


But it's not that simple, as consultant Josh Greenbaum, principal at Enterprise Applications Consulting, pointed out in the article. Greenbaum said the the data model for doing that type of analysis doesn't exist. Part of the problem is that when companies buy and sell mortgages, they're not getting the metadata, which tells you about the packaging history. Without visibility into the data and the metadata, it's impossible for the buyer to truly evaluate the risk being assumed by buying a bulk of mortgages.


It's interesting to note, too, that better data integration among global businesses also may have contributed to the crisis, according to Suzanne Duncan, financial markets industry leader for the Institute for Business Value at IBM. The article quoted Duncan as saying:

"Firm-to-firm and country-to-country integration is increasing. This improves efficiency because it lets capital flow to where it is needed, but at the same time these linkages cause larger shocks at a greater frequency."

You've heard the saying that locks only help keep honest people honest? Well, I would say that's true with technology as well. The article even mentions that in some cases the firms were misrepresenting the risks of their loans and securities. Anybody who would do that probably wouldn't flinch at falsifying what goes into the system.


Still, technology could provide another possible check and balance, and it would certainly give the honest people a better chance at identifying big mistakes. And certainly, even if that geek problem-solution mindset could not have prevented the problem, it's helping us gain a better understanding of the complexities now.