What Monopoly Taught Me About Credit Default Swaps

I’m going to admit to a serious character flaw right now.  I am a giant asshole when I play Monopoly.  This devilish alter ego has been the bane of my family, friends and of my husband.   Anyone who has ever played with me has refused to ever play with me again.  Nice people, people who never fly off into dangerous rages, will fly off into dangerous rages while they are playing Monopoly with me.  I have had my hand gouged by fingernails.  My husband has warned people away to whom I have casually suggested a friendly game.   My mother has barely withheld hateful contempt, just short of filicide when she played with me as a tween.

What happens during these delightful games that should draw out the ire of normal, well-adjusted people?  It can only be explained by incomprehensible twists in fortune that foment frustration and unpalatable bitterness in those foolhardy enough to believe real estate, finance, or Monopoly is played by fixed rules.  I do not play by the rules.  The rules are boring.  But, the board with all its lovely little placeholders like Marvin Gardens, St. James Place and the coveted Boardwalk, is an intoxicating tribute to possibilities.  When player A holds the most lucrative triads of colour coded neighbourhoods, and that player is not me, one gets creative to turn the tides in one’s favour.  I go about this in many different ways, but essentially it comes down to wheeling and dealing.  I seek out the weakest player, the poor schmuck that thought utilities and railroads were the best payoff.   And they usually are, for the first 30 minutes in the game, and then the railroad baron realizes he has to mortgage off his railroads to pay his exorbitant lease on Park Avenue that just keeps riding higher with the development boom.  He’s at his wits end, forking over the cash to player A, watching his newly accrued wealth dwindle away.  Then I step in, offer favourable terms to relinquish him of his languishing properties and voila, I suddenly have some very valuable properties onto which I build my real estate empire.  This is all happening under the extreme protestations of player A and there is usually some emphatic gesturing towards the rules written on the back of the box but never underestimate desperation.   Desperation causes the weak to forgo common sense and reasoning.  Desperation is the commodity in which all schemes trade.

Two years ago, my sister and her son were visiting us from Australia.   At the time my son was 6 years old and his cousin was 8 years old.  I had been out, enjoying a walk while my sister was spending quality time with the kids.  Unbeknownst to me, they had started a game of Monopoly.  Upon my return, I walked into the midst of their game.  Immediately, my hackles went up.  A quick scan of the board immediately told me that my son has been ‘helped’ into purchasing the ill fated utilities and railroads.  My nephew was holding a considerable stake in several high end properties and my sister had a respectable holding of mid range properties.  My immediate response was, “NO SON OF MINE LOSES AT MONOPOLY!!!”  Notice the exclamation marks.  This is serious stuff.  I proceeded to sit down, explain the inner mechanisms of mergers to my son and nephew.  Player A protested loudly and mentioned something about teaching children to cheat.  I calmly explained to the children that they could play by the rules OR learn how the real world works by forming an uber powerful real estate/utilities/railroad conglomerate, crush their competition (my sister) and live out the rest of their board game in relative luxury.  My sister was broke and despondent within half an hour of my arrival.  That is how you play Monopoly.

Now, if you spoke with my sister or any of the other people who ever played Monopoly against me, they would argue Monopoly and my creative solutions to winning are not reflected in reality.  I would disagree in three words: credit default swaps.  I won’t go into too much detail here because most of it is elegantly explained in the recent movie release of The Big Short.  And, if you have back issues of Vanity Fair, they covered off most of the characters and concepts for approximately three years following the financial meltdown in 2008.  But, I will break it down to this:  banks were offering mortgages to people who did not understand they were only paying the interest + teeny tiny amounts on the principal (or none at all on the principal) on mortgages with teaser rates that would go up, up, up once the initial contracts came up for renewal. This meant lots of people who didn’t understand percentile math defaulted on mortgages.  The shit mortgages were bundled up, given triple A ratings, i.e. these are great investments! and sold to other banks.  Which meant one day, when all the frenzy in real estate died down and the first wave of mortgage defaults arrived, the value of the bundles would dive.  Some smart people wanted to short the value of the bundles.  Shorting is when you bet the value of something will go down.  But, there wasn’t a mechanism in place to short the shitty bundles of mortgages.  So someone who played a lot of Monopoly as a child decided to create credit default swaps.  They conceived it and made it and the world came to their knees.  That is how you play.