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15 January 2009

Happy Birthday Spreadsheet!

Article on PCMag saying that the spreadsheet is 30 years old. Whilst wishing it a happy birthday, the author, John C. Dvorak, has a good rant about how spreadsheets have been the major weapon in the rise to power of the accountant in business.

Good job he did not spend too much time looking at their usage in financial markets or else his rant would have been much longer, given past issues with spreadsheets in financial markets. The spreadsheet (which means Excel at the moment) is a great tool that is:

  • a calculator;
  • a report writer;
  • a database

In my view it is the latter usage of desktop spreadsheets to store data where the problems mainly reside, not its usage as an analysis tool. Faced with inflexible trading and risk management systems that do not allow instrument and trade data to be represented quickly or correctly, it is unsurprising that traders, portfolio managers and risk managers resort to spreadsheets as the "pressure relief valve" for their business activities.

Delivering systems that can support both complex and non-standard instruments and trades in a transparent manner should be a focus in a world where that the lack of transparency over credit derivative pricing has been such an issue. The inappropriate usage of spreadsheets is a very small part of the current problems we are experiencing in the markets, but addressing this would be a positive step in creating a data management foundation that encompasses all data used by a financial institution, not just that data that is easy for software vendors to represent in their systems.

Anyway, enough of my spreadsheet hobby-horse, for some light relief and to celebrate 30 years of summing rows and columns, take a look at the Eusprig web site for a list of the most notable spreadsheet failures.


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