The Great Debate

Would more women as traders make a difference?

This essay is adapted from The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, published this month by The Penguin Press.

If, as many maintain, women could have such a tonic influence on the markets, why are there so few women traders? Why are women not pushing their way onto the trading floors, and why are banks and hedge funds not waving them in? Women make up at most 5 percent of the traders in the financial world, and even that low number includes the results of diversity pushes at many of the large banks. The most common explanations ventured for these numbers are that women do not want to work in such a macho environment, or that they are too risk averse for the job.

There may well be a kernel of truth to these explanations, but I do not place much stock in them. To begin with, women may not like the atmosphere on a trading floor, but I am sure they like the money. There are few jobs that pay more than a trader in the financial world. Besides, women are already on the trading floor: they make up about 50 percent of the sales force, and the sales force sits right next to the trading desks. So women are already immersed in the macho environment and are dealing with the high jinks; they are just not trading. Also, I am not convinced women are as easily put off by a male environment as this explanation assumes.

There are plenty of worlds once dominated by men that have come to employ more women: law and medicine, for example, were once considered male preserves but now have a more even balance between men and women (although admittedly not at the top echelons of management). So I am not convinced by the macho environment argument.

What about the second-mentioned explanation, that men and women differ in their appetite for risk? There have been some studies conducted in behavioral finance that suggest that on computerized monetary choice tasks women are more risk averse than men. But here again, I am not entirely convinced, because other studies, of real investment behavior, show that women often outperform men over the long haul, and such outperformance is, according to formal finance theory, a sign of greater risk taking. In an important paper called “Boys Will Be Boys,” two economists at the University of California, Brad Barber and Terrance Odean, analyzed the brokerage records of 35,000 personal investors over the period 1991–1997 and found that single women outperformed single men by 1.44 percent. A similar result was announced in 2009 by Chicago-based Hedge Fund Research, which found that over the previous nine years hedge funds run by women had significantly outperformed those run by men.

How not to avoid the next panic

jamessaft1.jpg(James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)

A proposal to give banks, hedge funds and private equity firms “affordable” credit default swap-based insurance against market panics will be very effective: it will effectively encourage even more risk taking and turn the next crisis into one about government credit.

Global central bankers assembled at the Jackson Hole conference last week heard the proposal, by two Massachusetts Institute of Technology economists Ricardo Caballero and Pablo Kurlat. Their idea is that most of the damage in panics is due to a combination of investors overestimating the damage during a market seizure and policy-makers being too slow to pull the trigger on bailouts.

The solution, therefore, is to send the banks into the next panic ready armed with a Fed-backed get out of jail free card which the authorities can activate at a moment’s notice.