Refuted economic doctrines #1: The efficient markets hypothesis
I’m starting my long-promised series of posts on economic doctrines and policy proposals that have been refuted or rendered obsolete by the financial crisis. There will be a bit of repetition of material I’ve already posted and I’ll probably edit the posts in response to points raised in discussion.
Number One on the list is a topic I’ve covered plenty of times before (in fact, I was writing about it fifteen years ago
), the efficient (financial) markets hypothesis. It’s going first because it is really the central microeconomic issue in a wide range of policy debates that will (I hope) be covered later in this series. Broadly speaking, the efficient markets hypothesis says that the prices generated by financial markets represent the best possible estimate of the values of the underlying assets.
The hypothesis comes in three forms.
The weak version (which stands up well, though not perfectly, to empirical testing) says that it is impossible to predict future movements in asset prices on the basis of past movements, in the manner supposedly done by sharemarket chartists. While most of what is described by chartists as ‘technical analysis’ is mere mumbo-jumbo, there is some evidence of longer-term reversion to mean values that may violate the weak form of the EMH.
The strong version, which gained some credence during the financial bubble era says that asset prices represent the best possible estimate taking account of all information, both public and private. It was this claim that lay behind the proposal for ‘terrorism futures’ put forward, and quickly abandoned a couple of years ago. It seems unlikely that strong-form EMH is going to be taken seriously in the foreseeable future, given the magnitude of asset pricing failures revealed by the crisis.
For most policy issues, the important issue is the “semi-strong” version which says that asset prices are at least as good as any estimate that can be made on the basis of publicly available information. It follows, in the absence of distorting taxes or other market failures that the best way to allocate scarce capital and other resources is to seek to maximise the market value of the associated assets. Another way of presenting the semi-strong EMH is to say whether or not markets are perfectly efficient, they’re better than any other possible capital allocation method, or at least, better than any practically feasible alternative.
The hypothesis can be tested in various ways. First, it is possible to undertake econometric tests of its predictions. Most obviously, the weak form of the hypothesis precludes the existence of predictable patterns in asset prices (unless predictability is so low that transactions costs exceed the profits that could be gained by trading on them). This test is generally passed. On the other hand, a number of studies have suggested that the volatility of asset prices is greater than is predicted by semi-strong and strong forms of the hypothesis (note to readers – can anyone recommend a good literature survey on this point).
While econometric tests can be given a rigorous justification, they are rarely conclusive, since it is usually possible to get somewhat different results with a different specification or a different data set. Most people are more likely to form their views on the EMH on the basis of beliefs about the presence or absence of ‘bubbles’ in asset prices, that is, periods in which prices move steadily further and further away from underlying values. For those who still believed the EMH, the recent crisis should have shaken their faith greatly. But, although the consequences were less severe, the dotcom bubble of the late 1990s was, to my mind, are more clear-cut and convincing example of an asset price bubble. Anyone could see, and many said, that this was a bubble, but those, like George Soros, who tried to profit by shortselling lost their money when the bubble lasted longer than expected (perhaps long-dated put options would have provided a safer way to bet on an eventual bursting of the bubble, but Soros didn’t try this, and neither did I.)
More important than asset markets themselves is their role in the allocation of investment. As Keynes said in his General Theory of Employment Interest and Money, this job is unlikely to be well done when it is a by-product of the activities of a casino. So, if the superficial resemblance of asset markets to gigantic casinos reflects reality, we would expect to see distortions in patterns of savings and investment. The dotcom bubble provides a good example, with around a trillion dollars of investment capital being poured into speculative investments. Some of this was totally dissipated, while much of the remainder was used in a massive, and premature, expansion of the capacity of optical fibre networks (the fraudulent claims of Worldcom played a big role here). Eventually, most of this “dark fibre” bandwidth was taken up, but in investment allocation timing is just as important as project selection.
The dotcom bubble was just one component of a massive asset price bubble that began in the early 1990s and is only now coming to an end. Throughout this period, patterns of savings and investment made little sense. Household savings plunged to zero and below in a number of developed countries (including nearly all English-speaking countries) and the resulting current account deficits were met by borrowing from rapidly growing poor countries like China (standard economics would suggest that capital flows should go in the other direction). The massive growth of the financial sector itself, which accounted for nearly half of all corporate profits by the end of the bubble, diverted physical and particularly human capital from the production of goods and services.
Finally, it is useful to look at the actual operations of the financial sector. Even the strongest advocates of the EMH would not seek to apply it to, say, the Albanian financial sector in the 1990s, which was little more than a series of Ponzi schemes. They would however want to argue that the massively sophisticated global financial markets of today, with the multiple safeguards of domestic and international financial regulation, private sector ratings agencies and the teams of analysts employed by Wall Street investment banks is not susceptible to such systemic problems, and is capable of correcting them quickly as they arise, without any need for large-scale and intrusive government intervention. I’ll leave it to readers to make their own judgements (maybe with some links when I get around to it).
Once the EMH is abandoned, it seems likely that markets will do better than governments in planning investments in some cases (those where a good judgement of consumer demand is important, for example) and worse in others (those requiring long-term planning, for example). The logical implication is that a mixed economy will outperform both central planning and laissez faire, as was indeed the experience of the 20th century. More to follow!