Pop Psychology

“Pop” as in the popping of bubbles.  This month’s Atlantic claims that “asset bubbles are a part of the human condition that regulation can’t cure”.

This is a thought-provoking discussion of experiments run by economists to watch human trading behavior.  Even when the assets being traded had a known, set value that would not change, bubbles were formed as individuals attempted to out-smart and take advantage of each other.

Here, finally, is a security with security-no doubt about its true value, no hidden risks, no crazy ups and downs, no bubbles and panics. The trading price should stick close to the expected value.

At least that’s what economists would have thought before Vernon Smith, who won a 2002 Nobel Prize for developing experimental economics, first ran the test in the mid-1980s. But that’s not what happens. Again and again, in experiment after experiment, the trading price runs up way above fundamental value. Then, as the 15th round nears, it crashes…You get bubbles and crashes. Ninety percent of the time.

Why is it that in a controlled experiment where everyone knows the value of an asset do people trade these assets at elevated prices?

In an experimental market, where the value of the security is clearly specified, “worth” shouldn’t vary with taste, cash needs, or risk calculations. Based on future dividends, you know for sure that the security’s current value is, say, $3.12. But-here’s the wrinkle-you don’t know that I’m as savvy as you are. Maybe I’m confused. Even if I’m not, you don’t know whether I know that you know it’s worth $3.12. Besides, as long as a clueless greater fool who might pay $3.50 is out there, we smart people may decide to pay $3.25 in the hope of making a profit. It doesn’t matter that we know the security is worth $3.12. For the price to track the fundamental value, says Noussair, “everybody has to know that everybody knows that everybody is rational.” That’s rarely the case. Rather, “if you put people in asset markets, the first thing they do is not try to figure out the fundamental value. They try to buy low and sell high.” That speculation creates a bubble.

In other words, the belief in our own superiority over other investors (one of the tenants of behavioral investing) drives irrational outcomes. The article is short and worth the read, but if you just want to jump to the bottom line:

For those of us who invest our money outside the lab, this research carries two implications.

First, beware of markets with too much cash chasing too few good deals. When the Federal Reserve cuts interest rates, it effectively frees up more cash to buy financial instruments. When lenders lower down-payment requirements, they do the same for the housing market. All that cash encourages investment mistakes.

Second, big changes can turn even experienced traders into ignorant novices. Those changes could be the rise of new industries like the dot-coms of the 1990s or new derivative securities created by slicing up and repackaging mortgages. I asked the Caltech economist Charles Plott, one of the pioneers of experimental economics, whether the recent financial crisis might have come from this kind of inexperience. “I think that’s a good thesis,” he said. With so many new instruments, “it could be that the inexperienced heads are not people but the organizations themselves. The organizations haven’t learned how to deal with the risk or identify the risk or understand the risk.”

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