Category Archives: Philisophy

Krugman on the Future of Economics

I have long had an interest in what the financial crisis means for the future of the fields of economics and finance (see Future of Financial Economics and Future of Financial Economics Part Deux). So I was incredibly pleased to come across Krugman’s abbreviated history and thoughtful criticisms of the field of economics in the New York Times Magazine (see How Did Economists Get It So Wrong).

A bit of a teaser:

Last year, everything came apart.

Few economists saw our current crisis coming, but this predictive failure was the least of the field’s problems. More important was the profession’s blindness to the very possibility of catastrophic failures in a market economy. During the golden years, financial economists came to believe that markets were inherently stable — indeed, that stocks and other assets were always priced just right. There was nothing in the prevailing models suggesting the possibility of the kind of collapse that happened last year. Meanwhile, macroeconomists were divided in their views. But the main division was between those who insisted that free-market economies never go astray and those who believed that economies may stray now and then but that any major deviations from the path of prosperity could and would be corrected by the all-powerful Fed. Neither side was prepared to cope with an economy that went off the rails despite the Fed’s best efforts.

What happened to the economics profession? And where does it go from here?

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth…the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

Unfortunately, this romanticized and sanitized vision of the economy led most economists to ignore all the things that can go wrong. They turned a blind eye to the limitations of human rationality that often lead to bubbles and busts; to the problems of institutions that run amok; to the imperfections of markets — especially financial markets — that can cause the economy’s operating system to undergo sudden, unpredictable crashes; and to the dangers created when regulators don’t believe in regulation.

Krugman follows that introduction with a fascinating, and well-informed, account of the history and development of the field of economics, with a focus on macroeconomics/finance and the longstanding debate between so-called freshwater (Free-Market) economists and saltwater (Keynseyian) economists. Although Krugman and I are in different academic fields (Krugman is an international macro scholar and I am an international business strategy scholar), our conclusions with respect to the future of financial economics are more or less aligned. Krugman suggests:

If the profession is to redeem itself, it will have to reconcile itself to a less alluring vision — that of a market economy that has many virtues but that is also shot through with flaws and frictions. The good news is that we don’t have to start from scratch. Even during the heyday of perfect-market economics, there was a lot of work done on the ways in which the real economy deviated from the theoretical ideal. What’s probably going to happen now — in fact, it’s already happening — is that flaws-and-frictions economics will move from the periphery of economic analysis to its center.

There’s already a fairly well developed example of the kind of economics I have in mind: the school of thought known as behavioral finance [economics].

Krugman’s article is a fairly long (hence its placement in the magazine), but well worth your time to read. So carve out a bit of time, visit the NY Times Magazine website, pour yourself a drink, and enjoy the read.

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Future of Financial Economics Part Deux

Back in March I suggested that an open discussion about the future of financial economics seemed warranted (see Future of Financial Economics). I wrote:

Are the fundamental assumptions about human behavior associated with the dominant paradigm in financial economics appropriate?

The first assumption that I took issue with was that of complete markets. In fact, as I suggested:

One of the things that drew me to the field of strategy in the first place (versus finance or economics) is that we start with a baseline assumption that markets are incomplete, and markets break down.

Markets break down largely because humans do not behave as “rational” actors typically assumed in our most celebrated models.

In addition to the view of markets as complete, I took issue with some of the other assumptions underlying the efficient market hypothesis.

…associated with the [efficient market hypothesis] EMH-dominated financial economics view is an assumption that there is a true, objective, underlying fundamental price for an asset. We might deviate from that price in the short run; but in the long run, the fundamental price will prevail.

I concluded by calling for greater inclusion, and an openness to contributions from behavioral economics and other social science disciplines.

All told, I think the field of financial economics would be well served to be more inclusive when it comes to behavioral approaches to human behavior (whether from economics or psychology) and behavioral views of the firm (whether informed by psychology, sociology, or economics). Thankfully, not only are both processes well underway, but in some quarters, they have been for some time.

With that as background, I was pleased to come across a fascinating set of articles from this week’s issue of the Economist entitled “Economics: What went Wrong?” This collection of articles asked fundamentally important questions about the future of the field of economics (see Economics: What went Wrong?, Other-worldy Philosophers, and Efficiency and Beyond).

On the field of economics:

Barry Eichengreen, a prominent American economic historian, says the crisis has “cast into doubt much of what we thought we knew about economics.”

…two central parts of the discipline—macroeconomics and financial economics—are now, rightly, being severely re-examined. There are three main critiques: that macro and financial economists helped cause the crisis, that they failed to spot it, and that they have no idea how to fix it.

On financial economics:

In 1978 Michael Jensen, an American economist, boldly declared that “there is no other proposition in economics which has more solid empirical evidence supporting it than the efficient-markets hypothesis” (EMH). That was quite a claim. The theory’s origins went back to the beginning of the century, but it had come to prominence only a decade or so before. Eugene Fama, of the University of Chicago, defined its essence: that the price of a financial asset reflects all available information that is relevant to its value.

From that idea powerful conclusions were drawn, not least on Wall Street. If the EMH held, then markets would price financial assets broadly correctly. Deviations from equilibrium values could not last for long. If the price of a share, say, was too low, well-informed investors would buy it and make a killing. If it looked too dear, they could sell or short it and make money that way. It also followed that bubbles could not form—or, at any rate, could not last: some wise investor would spot them and pop them.

That is why many people view the financial crisis that began in 2007 as a devastating blow to the credibility not only of banks but also of the entire academic discipline of financial economics.

On macroeconomics:

In many macroeconomic models…insolvencies cannot occur. Financial intermediaries, like banks, often don’t exist. And whether firms finance themselves with equity or debt is a matter of indifference. The Bank of England’s DSGE model, for example, does not even try to incorporate financial middlemen, such as banks. “The model is not, therefore, directly useful for issues where financial intermediation is of first-order importance,” its designers admit. The present crisis is, unfortunately, one of those issues.

…Economists can become seduced by their models, fooling themselves that what the model leaves out does not matter. It is, for example, often convenient to assume that markets are “complete”—that a price exists today, for every good, at every date, in every contingency. In this world, you can always borrow as much as you want at the going rate, and you can always sell as much as you want at the going rate.

The benchmark macroeconomic model…suffers from some obvious flaws, such as the assumption of complete markets or frictionless finance…nuanced theories are often less versatile. They shed light on whatever they were designed to explain, but little beyond.

On behavioral economics:

…[a] branch of financial economics is far more sceptical about markets’ inherent rationality. Behavioural economics, which applies the insights of psychology to finance, has boomed in the past decade. In particular, behavioural economists have argued that human beings tend to be too confident of their own abilities and tend to extrapolate recent trends into the future, a combination that may contribute to bubbles. There is also evidence that losses can make investors extremely, irrationally risk-averse—exaggerating price falls when a bubble bursts.

“In some ways, we behavioural economists have won by default, because we have been less arrogant,” says Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, one of the pioneers of behavioural finance. Those who denied that prices could get out of line, or ever have bubbles, “look foolish”.

The Economist concludes:

Add these criticisms together and there is a clear case for reinvention…Economists need to reach out from their specialised silos…

I could not agree more.

However you may feel about the future of financial economics, I encourage you to read the articles in full:

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Radio Silence

I’ve been tied up with end of year meetings, graduation, and conference travel lately. This has kept me from posting as regularly as I might like. But I did get to see Hillary Clinton speak at NYU’s commencement last week (see Clinton Gives NYU Commencement Speech).

I quite liked Hillary’s speech, but then again, I’m a sucker for idealistic, inspirational graduation messages. Between you and me, I also enjoy the pomp and circumstance, and the pageantry of the day. And as much as we academics like to complain that graduation ceremonies are long, boring, and suck up otherwise productive hours from a day, a good speaker or two can go a long way toward making the experience worthwhile.

A good set of commencement speeches never fail to remind me why I got into the education business in the first place – to learn, to discover, to share, to teach, and to inspire. Needless to say, I came away from the NYU commencement ceremony feeling reinvigorated and reassured about our academic mission (despite the economic challenges).

So now that I’ve had all the inspiration I can take for one week, let’s switch gears to something not quite as uplifting – the impending bankruptcy of GM (see GM Doesn’t See Deal Before Deadline). According to the NY Times:

With a week remaining before the expiration of a tender offer to its bondholders, General Motors said Tuesday that it did not expect to reach an agreement with the United Automobile Workers and others before bondholders decide.

G.M. is trying to persuade the holders of $27 billion in unsecured notes to exchange them for about 41 cents on the dollar. It must receive tenders for 90 percent of its bonds in order for the offer to be successful and avoid a bankruptcy filing.

Many analysts believe that the offer, which expires May 26, will fail and that G.M. will seek Chapter 11 protection.

But we knew that already.

And we wait…

Posted in Corporate Strategy, Philisophy | Leave a comment