Opinion

The Great Debate

How the Nobel economists changed investing forever

The 2013 Nobel Prize for economics celebrates that financial markets work, but cautions how little we know. One theme unifies the work of all three winners: Eugene Fama, Robert Shiller and Lars Hansen — risk. (A disclosure: until August I worked at Dimensional Fund Advisors, where Fama is a director and consultant.) Risk is unpredictable, but can be very profitable. That sounds simple enough, but it has profound implications — not only for the lords of high finance, but households, too. Risk teaches humility, to overconfident investors and also policymakers. That humility was notably absent at the IMF/World Bank meetings last week. Policymakers should take special note of the prize this year; it reveals how little we really understand about financial markets.

Fama’s work showed that prices incorporate all available information; this is known as the efficient market hypothesis. The implication is that you cannot systematically outperform the market, unless you have information other people don’t or can access part of the market others can’t. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make money. Over time you can expect, but are not guaranteed, that riskier assets generate higher returns. Stocks, on average, return more than bonds because they are riskier. The stock of smaller companies is riskier than larger ones, so they typically generate more returns. It’s a straightforward concept, but often poorly understood. Even many sophisticated investors get it wrong.

The implications of this theory changed markets, even for the average investor. The concept of efficient markets helped create demand for index funds. Index funds are a type of mutual fund, which is a collection of many different stocks. Active funds profess to know which stocks will outperform the market. Index funds don’t make that promise; stocks are weighted by their size relative to the rest of the market or use a weighting based on identifiable price or size characteristics. Because there’s no magic formula or talent presumed in constructing these funds, they are cheap; if no one can beat the market, why pay 1 or 2 percent of your assets to someone who claims they can? If you believe in efficient markets you’d only hold index funds. This has been revolutionary for the average investor. Through the 1960s few Americans owned stock at all, and if they did they only held a handful of individual stocks, which was very risky. Now about 50 percent of the population owns stock, mostly through mutual funds and increasingly with allocations based on indexing. The average household can invest as well as many hedge funds, for a fraction of the price. The existence of index funds shows that the best innovations (in finance or any industry) are often the simplest.

Fama’s later work, and the work of the other new Nobelists, further refined our understanding of risk. Fama’s more recent work helped us understand what kinds of risk investors are compensated for and how the return from risk varies over time and with economic conditions. Shiller’s work showed that asset prices are more volatile than models would predict, but there may be some predictability to returns over long horizons. Shiller may be skeptical that asset prices accurately reflect all information, but he still believes markets work. He advocates more financial innovation, based on his ideas, including products that hedge housing price risk and swings in economic activity.

Hansen’s work provided a way to measure how variables interact without presuming a perfect knowledge of how risky they are. His methods have been used in finance and macroeconomics. As the last five years have shown, financial risk has profound effects on the real economy. But how and through what channels is not well understood; macroeconomists often make unrealistic assumptions about risk or ignore it altogether. But even though Hansen pioneered new ways of using data to understand macro models of the economy and finance, he stresses we should not overestimate what we know.

from Reuters Money:

Tea Party downgrade? Here’s what S&P actually said

Was it a Tea Party downgrade?

Beltway media has offered the usual pox-on-both-political houses analysis of Standard & Poor's downgrade of U.S. debt and this week's market meltdown. The two parties spent Monday blaming one other side for the debacle. According to this narrative, both sides must bear equal guilt.

But what does S&P actually say in its downgrade report?

Politics: The downgrade analysis is very political. S&P issued the downgrade even though we avoided default -- and even after the Treasury pointed out S&P's $2 trillion math error. S&P went ahead with the downgrade due to its concerns about political dysfunction in Washington, which has created "greater policy uncertainty."

Which political party does S&P fault? Let's go to the memo (emphasis added):

The political brinksmanship of recent months highlights what we see as America's governance and policymaking becoming less stable, less effective, and less predictable than what we previously believed. The statutory debt ceiling and the threat of default have become political bargaining chips in the debate over fiscal policy.

from Reuters Money:

Fury brewing at ratings agencies as markets gyrate

Carnival revellers are silhouetted as they carry a burning wooden wagon in Liestal, near Basel, February 21, 2010.  REUTERS/Michael BuholzerSo let me get this straight.

Ratings agencies helped spark the financial meltdown of 2008-9, when they deemed that steaming piles of mortgage junk were brimming with triple-A goodness. They were wrong – and epically so.

Now S&P downgrades the debt of the entire country, further threatens to do so another notch, teams with fellow ratings agencies to bring Europe to its knees with each new appraisal and gets an assist for wiping trillions in wealth from investors’ portfolios in just a few days.

Anyone else think the ratings agencies need a time out?

“If you had asked me a couple of years ago if they could do anything more destructive than the mortgage debacle, I would have said never,” says Roger Kirby, Of Counsel for New York City law firm Kirby McInerney, who is involved in a class action against Moody’s on behalf of shareholders. “But it seems they’re managing to do it again, right now. In order to restore their damaged reputations, they’re interjecting themselves unsolicited into sovereign markets.

from Reuters Money:

How safe is your money-market fund?

Here's a $12 trillion question: Are money-market mutual funds safe?

The industry insists that they are and banking regulators aren't calling in the National Guard, although the U.S. Treasury Department is considering some emergency measures in case of a U.S. debt default.

Yet with the U.S. default risk hissing like a cobra, Congress and the White House at loggerheads and all the bad debt sloshing around Europe, is there a reason to be concerned?

Fear has reared its coiled head again. On Monday, stocks worldwide slumped on fears that Europe’s financial woes would spread to Italy.

from Reuters Money:

Consumer cops: Why we need Mary Schapiro and Elizabeth Warren now

U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Chairman Mary Schapiro answers a question at the Reuters Future Face of Finance Summit in Washington March 1, 2011. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque Two women are fending off a vicious man-handling of investor protection.

As Congress pettily wrangles over the debt limit and the next budget, Mary Schapiro and Elizabeth Warren are fighting to protect you against the ravages of Wall Street.

Wall Street and its Republican allies would like to make the Dodd-Frank financial reforms disappear. The money trust has been pouring millions into lobbying to eviscerate the budget of the Securities and Exchange Commission and blocking the formation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Mary Schapiro, who chairs the SEC, said she can't kick start the myriad pro-investor rules of Dodd-Frank without adequate funding. Republicans, lead by Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, want to "starve the beast" in their fiscal year 2012 proposal.

Flight to “safety” eases China diversification

China appears to be taking steps to diversify its holdings away from the U.S. dollar and may just have chosen a pretty good time to do it.

Longer term a meaningful diversification by China, which holds about a third of its $2.45 trillion currency reserves in U.S. Treasuries, is probably both inevitable and highly risky.

Inevitable, because China probably realises that, given the U.S.’s difficult fiscal and economic challenges it is not sensible to have its own fortunes tied so closely to its major client.

Icelandic, Greek sagas show sovereign risks

– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own. –

Developments in cash-strapped Iceland and Greece nicely illustrate two themes for 2010: sovereign risk and financial balkanization.

Iceland is balking at crushing terms demanded as part of its making whole overseas depositors in its ruined banking system, while Greece is involved in a game of chicken with the euro zone authorities over how, when and with whose assistance it heals its fiscal difficulties.

from Commentaries:

Long on volatility, short on meaning

It's hard not to be cynical about what the markets are supposedly telling us this week.

Don't get me wrong, I think markets can be a good barometer for sentiment and a leading indicator for trends before they bubble to the surface.

But their behavior this week suggests that the few traders and investors working during these dog days of summer are more interested in pushing prices around for short-term gain than making a bet on where the economy and financial markets are heading.

BYD investors, fasten your seatbelts

Wei Gu– Wei Gu is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are her own –

China’s bubbly stock market is making heroes out of some unlikely companies. And none more so than BYD Co. , in which Warren Buffett plans to take a 10 percent stake.

BYD has a much-hyped project to manufacture electric vehicles. Its shares have surged 140 percent in the past three months and 440 percent in the past year. They now trade at 74 times of current year profit and 54 time of next year earnings. That is double the level of capital goods companies and four times the multiple on which Chinese automakers trade.

from The Great Debate UK:

Shareholder confidence vs. value investing

Brendan Woods- Brendan Wood is Chairman of Brendan Wood International, a global intelligence advisory firm. Recently, BWI published the World’s TopGun CEOs as ranked by 2500 institutional investors, which provides insight into the executives in whom shareholders feel the greatest confidence. The opinions expressed are his own. -

The Brendan Wood International's panel of 2500 institutional investors suffered through last year's markets believing value would somehow prevail. Those value investing "diehards" indeed died hard.

Conversely, those who correctly read the status of shareholder confidence and acted on it were spared. In short, shareholders that had lost confidence in the system abandoned their value criteria and sold good companies along with lesser ones.

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