How Software Models Doomed the Markets


The software models in question estimate the level of financial risk of a portfolio for a set period at a certain confidence level. As Benoit Mandelbrot, the fractal pioneer who is a longtime critic of mainstream financial theory, wrote in Scientific American in 1999, established modeling techniques presume falsely that radically large market shifts are unlikely and that all price changes are statistically independent; today’s fluctuations have nothing to do with tomorrow’s—and one bank’s portfolio is unrelated to the next’s. Here is where reality and rocket science diverge. Try Googling “financial meltdown,” “contagion” and “2008,” a search that reveals just how wrongheaded these assumptions were…

The causes of this fiasco are multifold—the Federal Reserve’s easy-money policy played a big role—but the rocket scientists and geeks also bear their share of the blame. After the crash, the quants and traders they serve need to accept the necessity for a total makeover. The government bailout has already left the U.S. Treasury and Federal Reserve with extraordinary powers. The regulators must ensure that the many lessons of this debacle are not forgotten by the institutions that trade these securities. One important take-home message: capital safety nets (now restored) should never be slashed again, even if a crisis is not looming.

For its part, the quant community needs to undertake a search for better models—perhaps seeking help from behavioral economics, which studies irrationality of investors’ decision making, and from virtual market tools that use “intelligent agents” to mimic more faithfully the ups and downs of the activities of buyers and sellers. These number wizards and their superiors need to study lessons that were never learned during previous market smashups involving intricate financial engineering: risk management models should serve only as aids not substitutes for the critical human factor. Like an airplane, financial models can never be allowed to fly solo.

Check out the full piece


After the Crash: How Software Models Doomed the Markets
Scientific American, November, 2008

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