The adaptive markets theory is a “reframing of our view of financial markets”, says Andrew Lo, author of Adaptive Markets: Financial Evolution at the Speed of Thought.
In the fifth episode of the Business Books podcast, hear Lo, shortlisted for the Financial Times & McKinsey Business Book of the Year Award, in conversation with John Authers, the FT’s senior investment commentator.
Rather than looking at markets as a mechanical system with laws of motion, Lo’s hypothesis takes the view that markets “are a human endeavour and as a result are subject more to laws of biology than physics”. What is the future for markets?
During a half-hour interval on May 6, 2010, stock prices for some of the largest companies in the world dropped precipitously, some to just pennies a share. Then, just as suddenly and inexplicably, shares recovered to their pre-crash prices.
This unprecedented event, burned into the memories of investors and regulators alike, is now known as the Flash Crash. Since that day, financial markets have seen flash crashes in US Treasury securities, foreign currencies, and exchange-traded funds (ETFs). Other puzzling, system-wide glitches are becoming more frequent as well.
Without a doubt, our financial systems are complex and often unpredictable, and when they swing out of control they remind us how much we still have to learn about how they work and how inadequate our traditional methods of controlling them are.
Not surprisingly, at least some people at the Securities and Exchange Commission have reacted negatively — this is stepping onto their turf, after all. And the lobbyists are, naturally, out in full force.
But with sufficient White House willpower, the administration can see this through. What is needed is a change in the rules set by the Department of Labor, which has jurisdiction over retirement-related issues.
No doubt industry defenders will claim that current practices benefit small investors — a point disputed directly by the CEA. The broader and more interesting question is: Where are the statesmen in the financial industry? Where are the leaders who push for a race to the top, by better serving their clients’ best interests?
Ask people on the street what mental image they associate with the words “stock exchange,” and you’ll likely hear about a large imposing building in the middle of New York or Chicago. Inside the building there is a huge space crowded with traders in multicolored jackets screaming and gesticulating to each other.
Until ten years ago, that would have been a pretty accurate description of a stock exchange. Today, however, almost all trading is done by algorithms firing digital commands traveling near the speed of light to rows upon rows of computer servers sitting in nondescript suburban warehouses.
The transition from human to electronic trading came with the promise of using faster and cheaper technology to drastically lower the costs of trading shares and to make it much easier to determine the most up-to-date prices for all market participants (commonly known as price discovery).
We usually think of ethnic diversity as a matter of social policy, not a factor that could impede market bubbles. But new research by me and a team of colleagues suggests a surprising new reason to consider diversity as a hedge against speculative bubbles: in two studies, we find that markets comprised of ethnically diverse traders are more accurate in pricing assets than ethnically homogeneous ones. Our paper, which came out Nov. 17 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), finds that ethnic diversity leads all traders, whether of majority or minority ethnicity, to price more accurately and thwart bubbles. The reason isn’t because minority traders had special information or differential skills; rather, their mere presence changed how everyone approached decision-making. Traders were more apt to carefully scrutinize others’ transactions and less likely to copy others’ errors in diverse markets, and this reduced the incidence of bubbles.
To conduct our research, we constructed experimental markets in the United States and Singapore in which participants traded stocks to earn real money. We randomly assigned participants to ethnically homogenous or diverse markets. We found that markets comprised of diverse traders did a 58 percent better job at pricing assets to their true value. Overpricing was higher in homogenous markets because traders are more likely to accept speculative prices, we found. Their pricing errors were more correlated than in diverse markets. And when bubbles burst, homogenous markets crashed more severely.