Forecast | Mark Buchanan

Summary of: Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics
By: Mark Buchanan


Welcome to an eye-opening journey through ‘Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology, and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics’ by Mark Buchanan. This book takes you on a deep dive into the foundational principles of economics such as Adam Smith’s concepts of the division of labor and the invisible hand. As we indulge in a riveting exploration, we will discover the roles of equilibrium, efficiency, and the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) in the world of economics. Furthermore, the book will guide you to uncover the limitations of conventional economic thinking and unveil how leveraging and high-frequency trading impact financial markets.

Embracing Equilibrium in Economics

Building on Adam Smith’s influential work “The Wealth of Nations,” economists further refined critical concepts such as the division of labor and the invisible hand. To solidify the scientific nature of these ideas, 18th and 19th-century economists adopted the concept of equilibrium, borrowing ideas from Greek physicist Archimedes and Sir Isaac Newton. This provided the groundwork for economist Léon Walras to develop a mathematical representation of equilibrium in the context of supply and demand, shaping economics into the discipline we know today.

Adam Smith’s groundbreaking 1776 work, “The Wealth of Nations,” forever changed our understanding of economics. Smith’s insights into the division of labor demonstrated how companies could boost productivity by assigning employees to specific tasks in the production process. Consequently, improved efficiency benefits both the company and society through increased sales and lower prices.

The invisible hand, another of Smith’s core concepts, suggested that when individuals pursue their own interests, broader societal benefits can emerge. However, these groundbreaking ideas needed a more scientific foundation to gain credibility within the academic community.

To accomplish this, early economists turned to the concept of equilibrium, a term first explored by Archimedes when he described equal weights balanced at equal distances on a lever. They also drew upon Isaac Newton’s theory of gravity, which posits that unbalanced forces drive objects toward equilibrium, as seen when an apple falls from a tree.

The marriage of economics with equilibrium culminated in the work of Léon Walras, who, in 1874, incorporated mathematics to visualize how supply and demand operate in balance. By relating Smith’s invisible hand theory to the state of equilibrium, Walras made significant strides in buttressing economics with a scientific foundation.

Today, the concept of equilibrium remains integral to modern economic thought, thanks to the groundbreaking work of thinkers such as Archimedes, Newton, Smith, and Walras.

An Exploration of Market Equilibrium

Market equilibrium occurs when many suppliers offer their products at an ideal price point, satisfying both buyers and sellers and making it efficient. A specific price, where supply meets demand, exists for every saleable good. This balance can be seen when a supermarket sells its apples at a price that all customers are willing to pay, leading to pareto optimality – the best outcome for society. However, this ideal equilibrium still fluctuates due to the rational use of new, unpredictable information in financial markets. While the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) suggests that all information is instantly reflected in prices, it remains a question whether investors truly use information in the most efficient way possible.

In an efficient market, buyers and sellers converge at an optimal price point, achieving equilibrium. One example can be observed in a supermarket selling 100 apples at a price that attracts 80 customers willing to pay. As the supermarket lowers the price of the apples, it can sell the remaining 20, creating an economic equilibrium.

Economists also discovered that such equilibrium is pareto optimal, reflecting the best overall outcome for society. In other words, any adjustment in the price or quantity of a product would result in the detriment of somebody in society. For instance, decreasing apple prices could reduce the supermarket’s revenue, while raising prices might push the product out of reach for some consumers.

In financial markets, information efficiency plays a crucial role. The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH), formulated by economist Eugene Fama in 1970, posits that the value of financial products, such as stocks, instantly reflect new information. For example, when Apple unveils a groundbreaking item, eager investors buy shares, driving up their value.

However, the unpredictability of information causes continuous price fluctuations. Although markets endeavor to utilize resources effectively and create optimal results for society, the validity of the EMH is still in question. We must ask ourselves if investors truly make the best possible use of constantly changing information.

Debunking Efficient Market Hypothesis

A 2009 study analyzed the impact of information on stock prices, aiming to find empirical evidence for the Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH). The EMH suggests that stock price volatility should increase after essential news announcements, and prices should stabilize when they reach a new value based on that news. Conversely, prices should remain stable without news. However, the study found that price stabilization occurred more quickly after news events, contradicting the EMH. Human nature plays a significant role in this, as people tend to panic when the reason for stock price fluctuations is unclear, leading to selling, whereas a known cause for fluctuations allows for more rapid stabilization. The EMH’s assertion that information is the sole driver of price changes is refuted by this study, which demonstrates that information is not always used optimally by investors.

Unmasking Irrationality’s Illusion

The Efficient Market Hypothesis (EMH) presumes people make consistently rational choices, yet this is far from reality. Economist Richard Thaler’s experiment, where participants had to choose a number between 0 and 100 to be closest to two-thirds of the average of everyone’s choice, shows that people don’t always act rationally. The optimal answer is 0, but participants chose a wide array of numbers, with the average being 18.9, and the winning entry 13. Absolute rationality may never exist; an example is when stock prices fall rapidly. Ideally, one spends an optimal amount of time on research to decide whether to sell or hold on to stocks. However, deciding the optimal research duration presents a paradox, demonstrating rationality’s limitations. Therefore, questioning and revisiting the notion of pure rationality is necessary for developing economic models.

Leverage: Efficiency vs Stability

In 2007, the major banking crisis took the world by surprise, as many economists failed to foresee its severity. To prevent similar disasters, ongoing research is being conducted, with one example being a virtual economic model. By simulating hedge funds and leveraging, researchers discovered that while leveraging increases market efficiency, it simultaneously decreases stability, leading to a higher frequency of extreme events. A balance between efficiency and stability is crucial to maintain equilibrium in the market.

The 2007 banking crisis wreaked havoc on global markets, with a significant amount of wealth destroyed. Sadly, the majority of expert economists were blindsided by the severity of this event. In order to avoid repeating history and to better manage future economic challenges, economists continuously evolve their understanding of the market through rigorous analysis and experimentation.

One such investigation involved the creation of a virtual economic model including hedge funds, investments, and leveraging. The process of leveraging allows hedge funds to borrow funds from banks to increase their returns; however, this comes at a cost.

In the model, banks set limits on the amount of leverage a hedge fund could access using a ratio based on the fund’s existing wealth. Leveraging proved to be an efficient market tool, enabling hedge funds to invest borrowed money and thus helping stock prices stay close to their actual value. But it wasn’t all smooth sailing.

As leveraging increased, so did the instability of the market. The virtual model revealed that high leveraging led to more frequent extreme events. When stock prices sank, the assets held by hedge funds diminished, forcing these institutions to sell their shares. This kick-started a domino effect, leading stock prices to continue dropping as more and more funds followed the selling frenzy. In the end, such races to sell could annihilate vast amounts of wealth.

The key takeaway from this research is that leveraging plays a dual role in the markets. It boosts efficiency within the market by allowing for access to borrowed funds to invest; however, at the same time, it undermines market stability. To achieve a stable market, it is essential to strike a delicate balance between efficiency and stability, as an unstable market cannot be in equilibrium.

High Frequency Trading Unraveled

Algorithms have become a cultural norm, embedding themselves in social media data-gathering and even online dating. This ubiquity has extended to the world of stock trading, where High Frequency Trading (HFT) employs algorithms to buy and sell mispriced stocks. As a result, HFT has made trading substantially cheaper and contributed to 73% of total volume traded in 2010 despite representing just 2% of actively trading firms. However, HFT also decreases the stability of financial markets, evidenced by the 2010 flash crash, which led to a 9% drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average index within a mere 10 minutes. Instances like these highlight the need to reconsider conventional economic thinking and find inspiration in other scientific fields for potential solutions.

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