Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The New Paradigm for Financial Markets: The Credit Crash of 2008 and What It Means

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In August 2006 the risk manager of the home equity division of one of the largest banks in the United States collected his staff together and told them that the portfolio they manage had begun to exhibit dramatic losses. All the other banking institutions were beginning to exhibit similar losses he said, but that policies to be put in place will mitigate these losses and therefore "not to worry." He resigned his position only six months later, and at the time the mortgage losses throughout the nation were accelerating dramatically, forcing layoffs, resignations, panic in the financial markets, and aggressive action from the Federal Reserve.

Theories abound on why this turmoil is occurring, one of these being discussed in this book, which is written by one of most well-known financial speculators of all time (Soros). The tone of the book is general and philosophical, and the author refrains from indulging in mathematical considerations, but there are many concepts in the book that are interesting and merit further investigation. The author's intellectual honesty is refreshing, in that he admits the job he has taken on is a formidable one. Describing the workings of the financial markets is challenging, and has occupied the time of countless researchers and financial analysts.

The author wants to get rid of the "market equilibrium" paradigm in traditional economics and replace it with one that he has called "reflexivity". This concept is similar to a few that have been discussed in recent months, one holding that investor analysis and modeling activities actually serve to change the markets, rather than just "mirror" them. The author's idea is that humans have both a cognitive function and a "manipulative" one when they approach the financial markets. This has the implication that social phenomena cannot be described or studied in the same way as natural phenomena. They are separate areas of study, he argues, and he attempts to justify their separation on the pages of this very short book.

His analysis is interesting and provocative, and certainly worthy of attention, but to put it on a firm quantitative foundation would require a large amount of work. The theory of reflexivity is not the only proposal to be put forward that differs from the classical one. There have been many in recent years due to the increasing importance of financial engineering, the latter of which has been applied on a massive scale. But the author proposed this theory almost two decades ago, when derivatives trading and financial modeling were beginning to ramp up. He therefore foresaw the need for alternative points of view when dealing with financial instruments and market activities that cannot be captured by the classical paradigm.

The book is part autobiographical and could probably be better appreciated if the reader was familiar with the author's earlier works. But anyone interested in making sense out of the current news reports will find an interesting read here, even though at times the author's political affiliation comes out a bit heavy-handed. In addition, his attitude about free markets and "laissez faire" is somewhat puzzling since a purely "laissez faire" economy has not been realized historically. Any arguments against its efficacy are therefore misplaced. Those who still believe in "laissez faire" may therefore object strongly to many of the author's assertions and his recommendations at the end of the book for fixing the current "credit crisis." Whatever your world view though it is perhaps fair to say that the increasing complexity of the financial markets demands new ideas and approaches.If anything a good understanding of financial dynamics is a matter of survival. The financial markets of the twenty-first century take no prisoners.

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