Monday, February 02, 2009

George Soros and reflexivity

Soros’s experiences in 1944 laid the groundwork for the conceptual framework he would spend the rest of his life elaborating and which, he believes, has found its validation in the events of 2008. His core idea is “reflexivity”, which he defines as a “two-way feedback loop, between the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs. People base their decisions not on the actual situation that confronts them, but on their perception or interpretation of the situation. Their decisions make an impact on the situation and changes in the situation are liable to change their perceptions.”

It is, at its root, a case for frequent re-examination of one’s assumptions about the world and for a readiness to spot and exploit moments of cataclysmic change – those times when our perceptions of events and events themselves are likely to interact most fiercely. It is also at odds with the rational expectations economic school, which has been the prevailing orthodoxy in recent decades. That approach assumed that economic players – from people buying homes to bankers buying subprime mortgages for their portfolios – were rational actors making, in aggregate, the best choices for themselves and that free markets were effective mechanisms for balancing supply and demand, setting prices correctly and tending towards equilibrium.

The rational expectations theory has taken a beating over the past 18 months: its intellectual nadir was probably October 23 2008, when Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, admitted to Congress that there was “a flaw in the model”. Soros argues that the “market fundamentalism” of Greenspan and his ilk, especially their assumption that “financial markets are self-correcting”, was an important cause of the current crisis. It befuddled policy-makers and was the intellectual basis for the “various synthetic instruments and valuation models” which contributed mightily to the crash.

By contrast, Soros sees the current crisis as a real-life illustration of reflexivity. Markets did not reflect an objective “truth”. Rather, the beliefs of market participants – that house prices would always rise, that an arcane financial instrument based on a subprime mortgage really could merit a triple-A rating – created a new reality. Ultimately, that “super-bubble” was unsustainable, hence the credit crunch of 2007 and the recession and financial crisis of 2008 and beyond.

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