Monday, January 12, 2009

A biological perspective on financial bubbles

Freakonomics has this brilliant and illuminating post by Prof Andrew Lo on the genesis of financial asset bubble driven crises and the prescriptions to combat such occurances. The post is so good and deserves to be quoted extensively! He writes,

Using techniques such as magnetic resonance imaging, neuroscientists have documented the fact that monetary gain stimulates the same reward circuitry as cocaine — in both cases, dopamine is released into the nucleus accumbens. Similarly, the threat of financial loss activates the same fight-or-flight circuitry as physical attacks, releasing adrenaline and cortisol into the bloodstream, which results in elevated heart rate, blood pressure, and alertness.

These reactions are hardwired into human physiology, and while some of us are able to overcome our biology through education, experience, or genetic good luck, the vast majority of the human population is driven by these “animal spirits” ...

From this neuroscientific perspective ... banking-related national crises ... were preceded by periods of rising real-estate and stock prices, large capital inflows, and financial liberalization. Extended periods of prosperity act as an anesthetic in the human brain, lulling investors, business leaders, and policymakers into a state of complacency, a drug-induced stupor that causes us to take risks that we know we should avoid.

In the case of Madoff, seasoned investors were apparently sucked into the alleged fraud despite their better judgment because they found his returns too tempting to pass up. In the case of subprime mortgages, homeowners who knew they could not afford certain homes proceeded nonetheless, because the prospects of living large and benefiting from home-price appreciation were too tempting to pass up. And investors in mortgage-backed securities, who knew that the AAA ratings were too optimistic given the riskiness of the underlying collateral, purchased these securities anyway because they found the promised yields and past returns too tempting to pass up.

If we add to these temptations a period of financial gain that anesthetizes the general population — including C.E.O.’s, chief risk officers, investors, and regulators — it is easy to see how tulip bulbs, internet stocks, gold, real estate, and fraudulent hedge funds could develop into bubbles. Such gains are unsustainable, and once the losses start mounting, our fear circuitry kicks in and panic ensues, a flight-to-safety leading to a market crash. This is where we are today. Like hurricanes, financial crises are a force of nature that cannot be legislated away, but we can greatly reduce the damage they do with proper preparation...

In the long run, more transparency into the “shadow banking” system; more education for investors, policymakers, and business leaders; and more behaviorally oriented regulation will allow us to weather any type of financial crisis. Regulation enables us to restrain our behavior during periods when we know we will misbehave; it is most useful during periods of collective fear or greed and should be designed accordingly. Corporate governance should also be revisited from this perspective; if we truly value naysayers during periods of corporate excess, then we should institute management changes to protect and reward their independence.

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