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The Crowd: “Lars, you are fat!”

On Friday I was doing a presentation on the global economy (yes, yes mainly on global monetary policy) for 40-50 colleagues who are working as investment advisors in the Danske Bank group.

As I was about to start my presentation somebody said “The audience have been kind of quiet today”. I thought that was a challenge so I immediately so I jumped on top of a table. That woke up the crowd.

I asked the audience to guess my weight. They all wrote their guesses on a piece of paper. All the guesses were collected and an average guess – the “consensus forecast” – was calculated, while I continued my presentation.

I started my presentation and I naturally started telling why all of my forecasts would be useless – or at least that they should not expect that I would be able to beat the market. I of course wanted to demonstrate exactly that with my little stunt. It was a matter of demonstrating the wisdom of the crowds – or a simple party-version of the Efficient Market Hypothesis.

I am certainly not weighing myself on a daily basis so I was “guestimating” my own weight then I told the audience that my weight is 81 kilograms (fully dressed). I usually think of my own weight as being just below 80 kg, but I was trying to correct it for the fact I was fully dressed – and I added a bit extra because my wife has been teasing me that I gained weight recently.

As always I was completely confident that the “survey” result would come in close to the “right” number. So I was bit surprised when the  “consensus forecast” for my weight came in at 84.6 kg

It was close enough for me to claim that the “market” – or the crowd – was good at “forecasting”, but I must say that I thought the “verdict” was wrong – nearly 85 kg. That is fat. I am not fat…or am I?

So once I came back home I immediately jumped on the scale – for once I hoped to show that the Efficient Market Hypothesis was wrong. But the verdict was even more cruel. 84 kg!

So the “consensus forecast” was only half a kilo wrong and way better than my own guestimate. So not only am I fat, but I was also beaten by the “market” in guessing my own weight.

I need a cake

PS My height is 183 cm – so my Body Mass Index is 25.08 – that is officially overweight (just a little – above 25 is overweight).

PPS I have done this kind of experiments before. See here.

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Did Casey Mulligan ever spend any time in the real world?

University of Chicago economics professor Casey Mulligan has a new comment on Economix. In his post “Who cares about Fed funds?” Mulligan has the following remarkable quote:

“New research confirms that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy has little effect on a number of financial markets, let alone the wider economy.”

Mulligan’s point apparently is that the Federal Reserve is not able to influence financial markets and as a consequence monetary policy is impotent. First of all we have to sadly conclude that monetarism is nonexistent at the University of Chicago – gone is the wisdom of Milton Friedman. I wonder if anybody at the University of Chicago even cares that Friedman would have turned 100 years in a few days.

Anyway, I wonder if Casey Mulligan ever spent any time looking at real financial markets – especially over the past four years. I have in a number of blog posts over the last couple of months demonstrated that the major ups and downs in both the US fixed income and equity markets have been driven by changes in monetary policy stance by the major global central banks – the Fed, the ECB and the People’s Bank of China. I could easy have demonstrated the same to be the case in the global commodity markets.

Maybe Casey Mulligan should have a look on the two graphs below. I think it is pretty hard to NOT to spot the importance of monetary policy changes on the markets.

Of course it would also be interesting to hear an explanation why banks, investment funds, hedge funds etc. around the world hire economists to forecast (guess?) what the Fed and other central banks will do if monetary policy will not have an impact on financial markets. Are bankers irrational Professor Mulligan?

Anyway, I find it incredible that anybody would make these claims and it seems like Casey Mulligan spend very little time looking at actual financial markets. It might be that he can find some odd models where monetary policy is not having an impact on financial markets, but it is certainly not the case in the world I live in.

Let me finally quote Scott Sumner who is as puzzled as I am about Mulligan’s comments:

“Yes, Mulligan is a UC economics professor.  And yes, Milton Friedman is spinning faster and faster in his grave.”

Yes, indeed – Friedman would have been very upset by the fact that University of Chicago now is an institution where money doesn’t matter. It is sad indeed.

Update: Brad Delong is “slightly” more upset about Mulligan’s piece than Scott and I are…

PS Maybe professor Mulligan could explain to me why the US stock market rallied today? Was it a positive supply shock or had it anything to do with what ECB chief Draghi said? And then tell me again that markets do not care about monetary policy…

Forget about those black swans

It has become highly fashionable to talk about “black swans” since the crisis began in 2008 and now even Scott Sumner talks about it in his recent post “Don’t forget about those black swans”. Ok, Scott is actually not obsessed with black swans, but his headline reminded me how much focus there is on “black swans” these days – especially among central bankers and regulators and to some extent also among market participants.

What is a black swan? The black swan theory was popularized by Nassim Taleb in 2007 book “The Black Swan”. Taleb’s idea basically is that the financial markets underprice the risk of extreme events happening. Taleb obviously felt vindicated when crisis hit in 2008. The extreme event happened and it had clearly not been priced by the market in advance.

Lets go back to back to Scott’s post. Here he quotes Matt Yglesias:

Here’s a fun Intrade price anomaly that showed up this morning. The markets indicate that there’s more than a 3 percent chance that neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney will win the presidential election. That’s clearly way too high.

Scott then counter Matt by saying that we should not forget “something unusual happening”:

1.  One of the two major candidates is assassinated, and the replacement is elected (as in Mexico’s 1994 election.)

2.  Ditto, except one pulls out due to health problems, or scandal.

3.  A third party candidate comes out of nowhere to get elected.

Scott is of course right. All this could happen and as a consequence it would obviously be wrong if the market had price a 100% chance that nobody else than Obama or Romney would become US president.

Scott and I tend to think that financial markets are (more or less) efficient and as a consequence we would not be gambling men. Scott nonetheless seem to think that the odds are good:

“But 3% is low odds.  It’s basically saying once in ever 130 years you’d expect something really weird to happen in US presidential politics during an election year.   That’s a long time!  Given all the weird things that have happened, how unlikely is it?  Some might counter that none of the three scenarios I’ve outlined have occurred in the US during an election year (my history is weak so I’m not certain.)  But mind-bogglingly unusual things have happened on occasion.  On November 10, 1972, what kind of odds would Intrade have given on neither Nixon nor Agnew being President on January 1 1975?”

Scott certainly have a good point, but I will not question the market on this one. The market pricing is the best assessment of risk we have. If not there would be money in street ready to pick up for anybody – and there is not. Obviously Taleb disagrees as he believe that markets tend to underprice risk. However, I fundamentally think that Taleb is wrong and I don’t see much evidence that market underprice black swan events. The fact that rare events happen is not evidence that the market on average underprice the likelihood of this events.

The fashion long-shot bias and central banks

In the evidence from betting markets seem to indicate that if anything bettors tend to have a favourite-longshot bias meaning that they tend to overprice the likelihood that the favourite will loose elections or sport games. Said in another way if anything bettors tend to overprice the likelihood of a black swan events. I happen to think that this is not a market problem in markets in general, but it nonetheless indicates that if anything the problem is too much focus on black swan events rather than too little focus on them.

This to a very large extent has been the case of the past 4 years – especially in regard to central banking and banking regulation. There seem to be a near-obsession among some policy makers that a new black swan could turn up. How often have we heard the talk about the major risk of bubbles if interest rates are kept too low too long and most of the new financial regulation being push through across the world these days is justified by reference to the risk of some kind of black swan event.

Media and policy makers in my view have become obsessed with extreme events happening – you will be reminded about that every time you go through the security check in any airport in the world.

The obsession with black swan events is highly problematic as the cost of policy makers obsessing about very unlikely events happening lead them to implement very costly regulation that lead to massive waste of resources. Again just think about how many hours you have spend waiting to get through airport security over the last couple of years and if you think that is bad just think of the cost resulting from excessive new regulation of the global financial markets. So my suggestion is clearly to forget about those black swans!

Finally three book recommendations:

Risk by Dan Gardner that tells about the “politics of fear” (of black swans).

The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan explains why democracy tend to lead to irrationality while market lead to rationality. Said in another way policy makers would be more prone to focus on black swans than market participants in free markets would be.

Risk, Uncertain and Profit – Frank Knight’s classic. If you are really interested in the issues of risk and uncertainty then there is no reason at all to read Taleb’s books (I have read both The Black Swan and Fooled by Randomness – they are “fun” and something you can read while you are waitin in line at the security check in the airport, but it is certainly not Nobel prize material). Instead just read Knight’s classic. It is much more insightful. It is actually something that frustrates me a great deal about Taleb’s books – there is really nothing new in what he is saying, but he claims to have come up with everything himself.

Expectations and the transmission mechanism – why didn’t anybody think of that before?

As I was writing my recent post on the discussion of the importance of expectations in the lead-lag structure in the monetary transmission mechanism I came think that is really somewhat odd how little role the discussion of expectations have had in the history of the theory of transmission mechanism .

Yes, we can find discussions of expectations in the works of for example Ludwig von Mises, John Maynard Keynes and Frank Knight. However, these discussions are not directly linked to the monetary transmission mechanism and it was not really before the development of rational expectations models in the 1970s that expectations started to entering into monetary theory. Today of course New Keynesians, New Classical economists and of course most notably Market Monetarists acknowledge the central role of expectations. While most monetary policy makers still seem rather ignorant about the connection between the monetary transmission mechanism and expectations. And even fewer acknowledge that monetary policy basically becomes endogenous in a world of a perfectly credible nominal target.

A good example of this disconnect between the view of expectations and the view of the monetary transmission mechanism is of course the works of Milton Friedman. Friedman more less prior to the Muth’s famous paper on rational expectation came to the conclusion that you can’t fool everybody all of the time and as consequence monetary policy can not permanently be use to exploit a trade-off between unemployment and inflation. This is of course was one of things that got him his Nobel Prize. However, Friedman to his death continued to talk about monetary policy as working with long and variable lags. However, why would there be long and variable lags if monetary policy was perfectly credible and the economic agents have rational expectations? One answer is – as I earlier suggested – that monetary policy in no way was credible when Friedman did his research on monetary theory and policy. One can say Friedman helped develop rational expectation theory, but never grasped that this would be quite important for how we understand the monetary transmission mechanism.

Friedman, however, was not along. Basically nobody (please correct me if I am wrong!!) prior to the development of New Keynesian theory talked seriously about the importance of expectations in the monetary transmission mechanism. The issue, however, was not ignored. Hence, at the centre of the debate about the gold standard in the 1930s was of course the discussion of the need to tight the hands of policy makers. And Kydland and Prescott did not invent Rules vs Discretion. Henry Simons of course in his famous paper Rules versus Authorities in Monetary Policy from 1936 discussed the issue at length. So in some way economists have always known the importance of expectations in monetary theory. However, they have said, very little about the importance of expectation in the monetary transmission mechanism.

Therefore in many ways the key contribution of Market Monetarism to the development of monetary theory might be that we fully acknowledge the importance of expectations in the transmission mechanism. Yes, New Keynesian like Mike Woodford and Gauti Eggertsson also understand the importance of expectations in the transmission mechanism, but their view of the transmission mechanism seems uniformly focused in the expectations of the future path of real interest rates rather than on a much broader set of asset prices.

However, I might be missing something here so I am very interested in hearing what my readers have to say about this issue. Can we find any pre-rational expectations economists that had expectations at the core of there understand of the monetary transmission mechanism? Cassel? Hawtrey? Wicksell? I am not sure…

PS Don’t say Hayek he missed up badly with expectations in Prices and Production

PPS I will be in London in the coming days on business so I am not sure I will have much time for blogging, but I will make sure to speak a lot about monetary policy…

Please fasten your seatbelt and try to beat the market

Scott Sumner and other Market Monetarists (including myself) favour the use of NGDP futures to guide monetary policy. Other than being forward-looking a policy based on market information ensures that the forecast of the future development is not biased – in the market place biases will cost you on the bottom-line. Similarly, I have earlier suggested that central banks should use prediction markets to do forecasting rather rely on in-house forecasts that potentially could be biased due to political pressures.

A common critique of using “market forecasts” in the conduct of monetary policy is that the market often is wrong and that “herd behaviour” dominates price action – just think of Keynes’ famous beauty contest. This is the view of proponents of what has been termed behavioural finance. I have worked in the financial sector for more than a decade and I have surely come across many “special” characters and I therefore have some understanding for the thinking of behaviour theorists. However, one thing is individual characters and their more or less sane predictions and market bets another thing is the collective wisdom of the market.

My experience is that the market is much more sane and better at predicting than the individual market participants. As Scott Sumner I have a strong believe in the power of markets and I generally think that the financial markets can be described as being (more or less) efficient. The individual is no superman, but the collective knowledge of billions of market participants surely has powers that are bigger than superman’s powers. In fact the market might even be more powerful than Chuck Norris!

Economists continue to debate the empirical evidence of market efficiency, but the so-called Efficient-Market Hypothesis (EMH) can be hard to test empirically. However, on Thursday I got the chance to test the EMH on a small sample of market participants.

I was doing a presentation for 8 Swedish market participants who were on a visit to Copenhagen. I knew that they had to fly back to Stockholm on a fight at 18:10. So I organized a small competition.

I asked the 8 clever Swedes to write down their individual “bets” on when they would hear the famous words “Please fasten your seatbelts” and the person who was closest to the actual time would win a bottle of champagne (markets only work if you provide the proper incentives).

“Fasten your seatbelts” was said at 18:09. The “consensus” forecast from the 8 Swedes was 18:14 – a miss of 5 minutes (the “average” forecast was 8 minutes wrong). Not too bad I think given the number of uncertainties in such a prediction – just imagine what Scandinavian winter can do to the take-off time.

What, however, is more impressive is that only one of the 8 Swedes were better than the consensus forecast. Carl Johan missed by only 1 minute with his forecast of 18:08. Hence, 7 out 8 had a worse forecast than the consensus forecast. Said in another way only one managed to beat the market.

This is of course a bit of fun and games, but to me it also is a pretty good illustration of the fact that the collective wisdom in market is quite efficient.

I showed the results to one of my colleagues who have been a trader in the financial markets for two decades – so you can say he has been making a living beating the market. The first thing he noted was that two of the forecasts was quite off the mark – 14 minutes to early (Erik) and 14 minutes to late (Michael). My colleague said “they would have been dead in the market”. And then he explained that Erik and Michael probably went for the long shot after having rationalized that they probably would not have any chance going for the consensus forecast – after all we were playing “the-winner-takes-it-all” game. Erik and Michael in other words used what Philip Tetlock (inspired by Isaiah Berlin) has called a Hedgehog strategy – contrary to a Fox strategy. “Foxes” tend to place their bets close to the consensus, while “hedgehogs” tend to be contrarians.

My colleague explained that this strategy might have worked with the “market design” I had set up, but in the real world there is a cost of participating in the game. It is not free to go for the long shot. This is of course completely correct and in the real market place you so to speak have to pay an entrance fee. This, however, just means that the incentive to move closer to the consensus is increased, which reinforces the case for the Efficient-Market Hypothesis. But even without these incentives my little experiment shows that it can be extremely hard to beat the market – and even if we played the game over and over again I would doubt that somebody would emerge as a consistent “consensus beater”.

From a monetary policy perspective the experiment also reinforces the case for the use of market based forecasting in the conduct and guidance of monetary policy through NGDP futures or more simple prediction markets. After all how many central bankers are as clever as Carl Johan?

PS Carl Johan works for a hedge fund!

PPS if you are interested in predictions markets you should have a look at Robin Hanson’s blog Overcoming Bias and Chris Masse’s blog Midas Oracle.

UPDATE: See this fantastic illustration of the Wisdom of the Crowd.

Update 2: Scott Sumner has yet another good post on EMH.

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