Las Vegas and financial institutions

Exactly one month ago, I entered the Bellagio casino to gamble at the roulette. It was actually a request from my daughter’s godfather (who happens to be a probabilist, actually). On a comment on a previous post, he suggested the following deal,

In the Bellagio you put 10$ for me on the 33 and 10$ for you as well. If 33 shows up, you bring me to a French “3 étoiles” restaurant next time you stop by in France. If 33 doesn’t shows up, I bring you to MacDonald…

I have to admit that I like eating in French “3 étoiles” restaurants, so I did gamble. Well, I could not remember the terms of the agreement very well (neither the number to select, nor the amount to put on the table). So I did ask my daughter which number I was supposed to pick, and she choose 22. Anyway, the number that came up was neither the 33 nor the 22, so we lost. And roulette tables at the Bellagio were down to a $15 minimum (from what I remember, I was supposed to play $5 or $10). And I have seen tables with $100 minimum (probably more, but I am not sure, and I could not take much pictures inside) ! So I did play $15 (I did keep chips as souvenirs), and I have to admit that I was excited during a few seconds. I really enjoyed that thrilling sensation ! And I was playing only $15 !

Later on, in the room of the hotel – while we’ve been watching TV – we saw some poker games where people where putting $200,000 on the table (there was almost a million in the pot) ! I tried to explain my kids that this was a reason why there were so many signs on the walls claiming that kids were not supposed to enter casinos, and so many ads about gambling being an addiction. It is not reasonable to put so much on a table ! $200,000 on the table ? This is probably more than all I could possibly own !

I thought about all that yesterday, when I discovered the following Table, about leverage ratios of bank,see  http://fool.com/investing/…

Company

Leverage Ratio (Assets-to-Equity), 2007

Bear Stearns 34:1
Morgan Stanley 33:1
Merrill Lynch 32:1
Lehman Brothers 31:1
Goldman Sachs 26:1

(with similar values in U.K., according to http://voxeu.org/…)

What does 30 mean ? It means that a company with $1 in capital holds $30 in (various) financial positions (see http://newleftreview.org/II/… for a discussion). If you think about it, with a relative decline of 3.5%, the absolute loss is larger than the capital hold by the company… Now, if we forget about Lehman, and focus on me, gambling in Las Vegas, we can try to illustrate this 30:1 leverage ratio as follows. The way I see it is that, if I were a bank with $200,000 equity (equity being, from my understanding, everything I own), I would be able to borrow 30 times this amount, and put this money on some table in Las Vegas. OK, there might be a big difference, since in Vegas, on average I will loose money, while most models in finance claim that (on average) we should gain money (somehow, since it might depend on your reference level). And no one really own the casino in real life. But still. A 30 leverage ratio means that I would be playing more than $6 million on a table in Las Vegas ! How should I understand that 30 leverage ratio ? Am I really such a small player ? Are banks really too big players ? Or perhaps they do not hold enough capital to play that big….


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