Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Efficiency versus stability


I had an opinion piece published today in Bloomberg Views looking at the relationship between market efficiency and stability, a topic which hasn't received much attention in the economics literature until recently. The point of the essay was to explore two distinct recent studies which suggest that adding more derivative instruments to markets tends to make them less stable, even if they do push markets toward the ideal of market completeness and efficiency.

I wanted to make available here some further technical information on the two studies I mentioned, but as publication arrived very quickly and I've been pressed with other deadlines I haven't yet managed to write the post as I wanted. However, I can at least offer some information with the idea of updating it very shortly (later today, Thursday 25 August).

I've given some extensive discussion of the first study I mentioned, by economists William Brock, Cars Hommes and Florian Wagener, in an earlier post.

The second study by Matteo Marsili is quite technical and relies for parts of its analysis on ideas and techniques imported from physics. I will tomorrow try to give some simplified discussion of the gist of this argument. What makes this particularly fascinating is that it works fully within the confines of standard general equilibrium models, and examines how market stability should evolve as the market approaches the ideal of market completeness. Agents are assumed to be fully rational, there are no problems with asymmetric information, etc. Even here, however, Marsili finds that the equilibrium becomes more and more unstable as the ideal is approached. Efficient markets are also unstable markets.


Marsili's argument is one he has been developing in a series of papers (with various co-authors) over several years. This paper from last year offers what is perhaps the most concise argument. It looks at a market with informed (fundamentalist) traders and non-informed (noise) traders, and shows, first, that the market becomes efficient as the number of informed traders grows. They are assumed in the model to have different kinds of private information about market outcomes, and the market becomes efficient, roughly speaking, once there are enough traders to cover the space of outcomes so all private information gets aggregated into market prices. The paper then introduces a non-informed trader -- a chartist or trend follower -- and shows that this trader has a maximum impact on the market precisely at the point at which it becomes efficient. The conclusion is very much against standard economic thinking:
[The results suggest} that information efficiency might be a necessary condition for bubble phenomena - induced by the behavior of non-informed traders...
Another paper from two years ago approaches the problem from a slightly different angle. This study looks explicitly at how the proliferation of financial instruments (derivatives) provides more means for diversifying and sharing risks and takes the market to an efficient state. However, it finds that this state is what physicists refer to as a "critical state", which is a state characterized by extreme (essentially infinite) susceptibility to small disturbances. Any small noise stirs up huge fluctuations. Again, efficiency trails instability in its wake. As the paper asserts:
This suggests that the hypothesis of Arbitrage Pricing Theory (the notion that arbitrage works to keep market in an efficient state) may not be compatible with a stable market dynamics.
This paper also makes the important point that market stability really ought to be thought of as a public good because well functioning markets do help everyone. But like most public goods, private individuals acting in their own interests will not likely provide it.

Finally, the paper I discussed in the Bloomberg article is from last year and analyses a model set up specifically so as to include the finance sector. It is very much akin to standard general equilibrium models, and includes essentially two components:

1. There are investors who aim to take their current wealth and preserve it (or make it grow) into the future. They do this by investing in various instruments provided by a sector of financial firms. These investors are assumed to be rational and have full information and they invest their wealth optimally over the set of possible investments.

2. There are financial firms who create the investment instruments and take on risks in supplying them. They also act optimally, and they hedge their risks by trading between themselves. Again, the firms are rational and have full information.

Marsili then studies what happens to this world of investors and financial firms optimally making decisions as the number of different financial instruments grows. The first result confirms expectations -- the financial firms are ever more successful in hedging their risks and they can provide the financial instruments more cheaply. Investors can therefore invest more effectively. The market becomes efficient.

But there are also two unexpected consequences. As Marsili describes them,
As markets approach completeness, however, two "unintended consequences" also arise: equilibrium portfolios develop a marked susceptibility to idiosynchratic shocks and/or parameter uncertainty and hedging engenders divergent trading volumes in the interbank market. Combining these, suggests an inverse relation between financial stability and the size of the financial sector...
In other words, the character of the optimum portfolios for both the investors and the financial firms becomes hugely sensitive to tiny shocks to the economy. As the efficient state is approached, these agents have to work ever harder to adjust their holdings to remain in the optimal condition. The market only remains efficient through an ever faster and more vigorous churning of investment positions. This shows up in the hedging done by the financial firms, where the volume of trading required to remain optimally hedged actually becomes infinite as the market reaches efficiency.

All three of these papers show much the same thing -- efficiency bringing instability along with it. But this latter paper may be the most interesting as it shows directly how the size of the financial sector also naturally explodes as this efficient-unstable regime is approached. The effect sounds suspiciously like what has happened in the past 30 years or so with massive growth in the financial industries in most developed nations.

What I find really remarkable, however, is that all of this comes from the very models that economists have been using for a long time to make arguments about market efficiency. Why did it take a physicist to look at what happens to stability at the same point? This seems bizarre indeed.


  1. It would be interesting to explore loss/gain profiles of players in stable and non-stable markets, as this will point at vested interest of some players to push markets into unstable regimes. Gut feeling: some dark forces/univisible players make pile of money in unstable market conditions. Proof: eventual traces of rumors spread in the public media and chatter/buzz in blogosphere as telling traces .. I like your blog Mark, A+,, Kemal A. Delic, Aug 25, 2011 , early morning ..

  2. Bizarre indeed! As a practitioner, I have wondered about the efficiency/stability tradeoff for years. Thanks for pointing out the (now) obvious link to equilibrium physics.

  3. There needs to be a more thorough homeostasis investigation of commodity markets whereby insider information is legal via hedgers. There are no short sale restrictions either. It will provide a cleaner examination than equity market analysis.

    "private individuals acting in their own interests will not likely provide it."
    This does not support a homo economicus assumption.

    A necessary condition for bubble phenomena is a convergence of expectations of market participants, regardless of informed / non-informed. Hunt Brothers were informed, Nasdaq bubble represented non-informed masses.

    I think the homeostasis notion is more relevant than an equilibrium.
    "But the main problem we face is plasma turbulence. To compensate for this loss, we have to add more heat and energy."

    can be transformed into

    "But the main problem we face is MARKET turbulence. To compensate for this loss, we have to add more INFORMATION and CAPTIAL."

    Very good and relevant post Mark.

  4. Those two papers seem interesting, but ultimately the question about the effects of new assets and derivatives is an empirical one which cannot be judged solely based on two stylized theoretical models. For example, even here the first paper shows that if informed traders are present, they can restore stability, under some conditions.

    What I find really remarkable, however, is that all of this comes from the very models that economists have been using for a long time to make arguments about market efficiency. Why did it take a physicist to look at what happens to stability at the same point?

    And what I find remarkable is that there is a bunch of economic papers cited in both studies, going all the way back to 1975, that actually deal with similar topics and show that introducing new assets in incomplete markets may decrease welfare (unless they actually made markets fully complete)*. If the authors had put some effort in a literature review, maybe it would be a good idea to actually look at it before going into another pointless round of econ-bashing?

    * this is even briefly mentioned in standard graduate textbook (Mas-Collel, Whinston, Green: Microeconomic Theory, p. 712)

  5. Barabasi makes a similar point in one of his popular books - efficiency implies instability under stress.

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