Scientific Sense Podcast

Monday, October 14, 2013

Efficient Chicago

The idea was simple but the implications are huge. It is clear to those who understand frameworks but less so to others. The notion that information is quickly reflected in the prices of traded assets, standardized and liquid, in markets that implement clear rules of engagement and property rights, is elegantly obvious. It is, however, singularly confusing to active investors, individuals and institutions, a sizable chunk of the US economy.

The dominance of the Chicago school in shaping economic thinking continues. Recently minted Nobel Laureates – Fama and Hansen, seem to complement wonderfully in the grand tradition of theorization and empirical support. Their work has direct practical consequences for investment decisions and asset pricing models. More importantly, they also provide guidance on resource allocation across the economy.

For example, efficient markets mean passive investing dominates, a conclusion that is robustly supported by empirical observations. Even though risk adjusted excess returns (alpha) is shown to be zero (after management and transaction costs) across investment managers (a direct conclusion of Fama’s Efficient Market Hypothesis), significant resources – money, people and time – are wasted across the world by actively managing liquid investments. One has to wonder why the venerable investment banks and financial institutions, filled to the brim with the brightest, engage in activities that add no value either to themselves or to the economy. To make matters worse, there are over eight million active traders in the US alone, ably assisted by the brokerage houses, pushing buttons and pulling levers arranged on multiple screens in such complexity that they rival the cockpit of the space shuttle. As the markets close every day, some rise like vampires – mad, fast and crazy - aiding and abetting the following day’s trades and newly emerging traders. This is a massive misallocation of capital across the entire economy. This is indeed a systemic issue for the economy where agents are engaged in value destroying activities for a large cohort of the economy, presumably because of monopoly rent and hidden options yielded from asymmetric information between the adviser and the client. Such a market failure, if corrected by appropriate policy actions, could significantly improve global productivity.

Hansen’s method of moments help mere mortals make reasonable models for complex macro phenomena. His focus on incorporating the agent’s thoughts, beliefs, doubts and learnings into modeling her actions and the systematic consideration of uncertainty that is evolving stochastically, is refreshing. Determinism has been the bane of theoretical finance for long and the incorporation of uncertainty in accepted models may help measure risk better – both locally and globally. Policy makers will benefit if they understand that flexibility embedded in policy decisions are valuable in the presence of uncertainty.

Chicago has had an unbelievable run – primarily because of its commitment to embracing unconventional ideas early and nourishing them over long periods of time. However, there are indications that the school is becoming more conventional and it is less inclined to accept emerging ideas. If it deviates from a formula that has been successful for nearly a century, it can quickly mean revert to mediocrity, ably demonstrated by its peers today.

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