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Monday, March 9, 2009

The NY Times on the Quants

Seems Everyone is "discovering" the role that the failure of academic financial modles had in the debacle in the financial markets. The NYT presents a nice overview.
and my favorite observer Nasem Taleeb is mentioned as on of the lone critics

Bere is an excerpt

Another consequence is that when you need financial models the most — on days like Black Monday in 1987 when the Dow dropped 20 percent — they might break down. The risks of relying on simple models are heightened by investors’ desire to increase their leverage by playing with borrowed money. In that case one bad bet can doom a hedge fund. Dr. Merton and Dr. Scholes won the Nobel in economic science in 1997 (pictured above) for the stock options model. Only a year later Long Term Capital Management, a highly leveraged hedge fund whose directors included the two Nobelists, collapsed and had to be bailed out to the tune of $3.65 billion by a group of banks.

Afterward a Merrill Lynch memorandum noted that the financial models “may provide a greater sense of security than warranted; therefore reliance on these models should be limited.”

That was a lesson apparently not learned.

Respect for Nerds

Given the state of the world, you might ask whether quants have any idea at all what they are doing.

Comparing quants to the scientists who had built the atomic bomb and therefore had a duty to warn the world of its dangers, a group of Wall Streeters and academics, led by Mike Brown, a former chairman of Nasdaq and chief financial officer of Microsoft, published a critique of modern finance on the Web site last fall calling on scientists to reinvent economics.

Lee Smolin, a physicist at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, who was one of the authors, said, “What is amazing to me as I learn about this is how flimsy was the theoretical basis of the claims that derivatives and other complex financial instruments reduced risk, when their use in fact brought on instabilities.”

But it is not so easy to get new ideas into the economic literature, many quants complain. J. Doyne Farmer, a physicist and professor at the Santa Fe Institute, and the founder and former chief scientist of the Prediction Company, said he was shocked when he started reading finance literature at how backward it was, comparing it to Middle-Ages theories of fire. “They were talking about phlogiston — not the right metaphor,” Dr. Farmer said.

One of the most outspoken critics is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a former trader and now a professor at New York University. He got a rock-star reception at the World Economic Forum in Davos this winter. In his best-selling book “The Black Swan” (Random House, 2007), Dr. Taleb, who made a fortune trading currency on Black Monday, argues that finance and history are dominated by rare and unpredictable events.

“Every trader will tell you that every risk manager is a fraud,” he said, and options traders used to get along fine before Black-Scholes. “We never had any respect for nerds.”

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