The Nobel Prize in Economics 2013: of the madness and the wisdom of crowds

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Today’s post is from Gert Wehinger of the OECD’s Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs

Investors’ behaviour on stock markets has been likened to the irrationality described in Charles Mackay’s 1841 classic Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. But there is also a more positive view of what crowds can achieve. In his 2005 book The Wisdom of Crowds, James Surowiecki  argued that “diversity and independence are important because the best collective decisions are the product of disagreement and contest, not consensus or compromise.” Diversity and disagreement certainly characterise this year’s Nobel prize for economics, even if Eugene F. Fama, Lars Peter Hansen and Robert J. Shiller shared the award “for their empirical analysis of asset prices”.

Fama’s work is based on the idea that asset returns should be impossible to predict if asset prices reflect all relevant information. He tested empirically (and found new methods like event studies to do so) the efficient markets hypothesis (EMH), for which he and his followers found ample evidence. That is, in the very short run, like a day or a week, if all available information is incorporated in share prices, you cannot beat the market. While he accepts that there are factors like information or transaction costs that weaken the pure  EMH, any anomalies – like the difference between value and growth stocks he analysed in a 1998 paper – are explained within the same rational investor framework, and risk factors would account for the differences. However, such anomalies (or “market imperfections”) may open up short-run arbitrage opportunities (that Fama himself exploits in his fund-management firm). Hedge funds and algorithmic traders in particular thrive on these imperfections.

Thus, Fama’s EMH is perhaps a great insight for theorists and algo-traders, but it is, in principle, tautological and often becomes useless in practice (yes, algo traders can also go bust) where market anomalies can go beyond rationality. While these anomalies still tend to leave markets unpredictable, the reasons underlying such unpredictability may be quite different from the agnostic view of market rationality, that deprives the researcher almost by definition from gaining better insights into the “true” functioning of markets and a better understanding of longer-term price movements, including bubbles.

Shiller thought outside the EMH box by exploring departures from Fama’s efficient market rationality using insights from behavioural finance (many of the ideas were developed by the 2002 Laureates Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky). Such departures, if they can be identified in asset prices, may open up arbitrage opportunities by rational investors to take advantage of misperceptions of irrational investors.  While rational arbitrage trading would push prices back toward the levels predicted by non-behavioral theories, this is still not the world as described by Fama, where rational information is processed immediately. In Shiller’s framework, bubbles can not only exist, but there is also a possibility that they can be identified.

Hansen has tested many of these theories in his generalised method of moments (GMM) framework. If you cannot forecast stock prices, maybe you can find patterns in their volatility or other statistical moments that can be exploited. Hansen found, for example, that asset prices fluctuate too much for a rational expectations-based model to hold. This work has been carried forward in several ways, for example improving measures of risk and attitudes towards risk that may change depending on the economic situation. This is just one example of how this research can generate new insights about human behaviour more broadly.

Shiller showed the importance of social psychology for finance and economics using evidence from investor surveys. In the 2005 edition of his book Irrational exuberance, Shiller extended his analysis to real estate, arguing that the real estate market was irrationally overvalued, and he predicted large problems for financial institutions with the eventual burst of the real estate market “bubble”. But he was also aware of the problems a bursting stock market bubble would have on retirement income from pension plans that rely on equity investments, and he wondered about the “curious lack of public concern about this risk.” More generally, he also pointed out that the “tendency for speculative bubbles to grow and then contract can make for very uneven distribution of wealth” that may even make us “question the very viability of our capitalist and free market institutions”. He saw an important role for policy to address these issues.

The first line of policy defence against asset price bubbles is monetary policy, but bubbles are hard to identify and policy makers are reluctant to ‘prick’ a bubble. Robert Lucas, the 1995 Nobel Prize winner, noted that the main lesson from the efficient market hypothesis “for policymaking purposes is the futility of trying to deal with crises and recessions by finding central bankers and regulators who can identify and puncture bubbles. If these people exist, we will not be able to afford them.” (The Economist, Aug 6th 2009)

The Prize Committee in its decision seemed to want to reconcile a short-run and a long-run theory of asset prices, with Fama’s finding of that stock prices are unpredictable in the short run and Shiller showing that there is some predictability in the long run (Fama would not dispute that  idea in principle as his own research found that stock returns become more predictable the longer the period considered).

But knowing that Fama as recently as January 2010) defiantly denied the existence of asset price bubbles because they cannot be identified and predicted, and Shiller (along with others) recognises bubbles and calls the EMH argument that stock prices reflect fundamentals  “one of the most remarkable errors in the history of economic thought”, it will be interesting to see how the the three laureates interact on stage at the award ceremony in December in Stockholm.

Perhaps Hansen will have to play the role of a mediator with a humble remark like the one he made shortly after hearing about his award: “We are making a little bit of progress, but there’s a lot more to be done.”

Useful links

OECD work on financial markets

OECD Journal Financial Market Trends

OECD project on long-term investment

Psychic octopus 7 Rational expectations 0

Well-done Paul the Psychic Octopus! The soothsaying cephalopod maintained his 100% record by tipping Spain to win the World Cup last night. England fans can take comfort from the fact that Paul was born in the Sea Life Centre in Weymouth before his record-breaking transfer to Sea Life Oberhausen in Germany.

There’s little comfort for other experts though. At the end of the day, you’re only as good as your last prediction, and it turned out to be a disappointing tournament for the highly-paid stars of UBS and the other big names of financial forecasting Brian Keeley reported on here.

None of them spotted the winner. None of them spotted the Great Recession either. In that, they were like most economists, apart from the ones who always forecast shocks and crises, knowing they’ll be right sooner or later (there were 195 stock-market crashes and 84 depressions between 1860 and 2006).

They did get it right about football ruining money though. When France were eliminated, shares in French broadcaster TF1 who’d bought the retransmission rights plunged on the Paris stock exchange.

Can a profession that seems more comfortable describing what has happened than in predicting what will happen be called a science? In fact, using the ability to predict the behaviour of large systems as the criterion would exclude disciplines such as weather forecasting, which is like economics in many ways.

Einstein summed up the difficulty of meteorology and other fluid dynamics studies when he remarked that before he died, he hoped somebody would explain quantum mechanics to him, and that after he died, he hoped God would explain turbulence. In one sense though, it doesn’t matter if you can’t forecast the evolution of turbulent flow.

Aircraft designers, for instance, don’t have to predict when a plane will meet extreme turbulence – but they do have to make sure it won’t disintegrate. A similar attitude could be applied to economics – try to understand the basic mechanisms and at least give useful strategies for avoiding disaster.

For economists, this means developing models to describe how systems work. To do this, in common with other social sciences, economics has borrowed many of its concepts and tools from the physical sciences (the notions of flow, masses and reactions, for example) although the “hard” sciences have usually moved on to a new paradigm long before the sociologists and economists.

Has economics come up with anything worthy of the insights of other fields? When challenged by mathematician Stanislaw Ulam to name one social science proposition that was both true and non-trivial, Paul Samuelson nominated comparative advantage, arguing “That this idea is logically true need not be argued before a mathematician; that it is not trivial is attested by the thousands of important and intelligent men who have never been able to grasp the doctrine for themselves or to believe it after it was explained to them”.

At least some of the scepticism about economics arises when a doctrine, tool or method is used to explain much more than its intellectual underpinnings can bear, as when it is assumed that economic agents act rationally.

On the other hand, applying strict economic analysis to a subject not usually treated in this way can be highly entertaining. Adam Smith’s “invisible hand” inspires Peter Leeson’s wonderful title The Invisible Hook: The Hidden Economics of Pirates. Leeson explains, among other things, why working conditions on 18th century pirate ships were immensely superior to those on merchant and naval vessels. And why we should see that Long John Silver’s peg leg was a negative externality with obvious implications for his labour market utility. Arr.