Many man made and naturally occurring phenomena (being inherently complex systems), including city sizes, incomes, word frequencies, internet links, social networks and earthquake magnitudes, are distributed according to a power-law distribution. One under f Zipf’s law follows the same characteristic, or pink noise. Here is a possible long list, collected year after year, since the 1910′s up to now – 2008 (which I vividly recommend). From vacuum tubes to trading activities in world financial markets. Even, we could easily found them on Pollock’s paintings (recently here). Back in 2002, I have addressed some of his painting features (mostly fractal) regarding the theme “Emergent Aesthetics in Autonomous Collective Systems“. Astonishingly, without having a clue what fractal dimension’s would be, Jackson increased his fractal signatures year over year, while getting old. Indeed, “Action painting”, has he call it, mainly using his body motion and a bucket, were largely enough.
Financial markets are indeed complex systems, even if they are far from being self-regulated. Much after this recent black Monday, I have made here some notes regarding Self-Organization and finance, over two weeks or so. Their basic features – as I see it. However- essentially what brings me here today is-, what happens to their frequency? Are phenomena like the current financial crisis, frequent? Well, much of that depends on our knowledge on power-laws. Good news is that we know how many of them will occur in a very large time window, bad news is that, we don’t know when will they precisely occur. As in Earthquakes (check this out). Does this impel us to do nothing? Not at all. We can’t do anything about earthquakes (at least for now - except prevent them), however we can establish some ground smart rules in order to avoid financial systems to collapse in turmoil (that is, tune them in the precise physical regime). Power-laws are not only our wake-up call, as they are a signature. For good or for worse. It seems that we are all playing across the planet, a reversed El Farol Bar problem. If that’s somehow true we all should ask new questions like: In what frequency should we go to a bar ?! In other words, should we all run to the banks now, asking for our deposits?
Any polynomial relationship that exhibits the property of scale invariance is a Power-Law. Power-law implies that small occurrences are extremely common, whereas large instances are extremely rare (similarly over maps and cities - if you have time, found out the foundation of Berlin city over time). As the large quantity of small dots + low frequency of large dots we may found on Jackson Pollock paintings. The same goes for Black-Swans.
A Black Swan is a highly improbable event that has three characteristics: It is unpredictable, it has incredible impact, and after it happens we invent a reason for it that makes it seem less probable. For those of you that did not have read 2007 Taleb’s book (picture above), wondering what a Black Swan is, or question yourself from where the name arises, just jump for a quick look over here. Nassim started to wrote his book in 2003. Finished it in 2006. So, in what way this “funny” distribution regards financial markets? Well, for many of us now, it his surprising that he have wrote this, back then:
[...] Globalization creates interlocking fragility, while reducing volatility and giving the appearance of stability. In other words it creates devastating Black Swans. We have never lived before under the threat of a global collapse. Financial Institutions have been merging into a smaller number of very large banks. Almost all banks are interrelated. So the financial ecology is swelling into gigantic, incestuous, bureaucratic banks – when one fails, they all fall. The increased concentration among banks seems to have the effect of making financial crises less likely, but when they happen they are more global in scale and hit us very hard. We have moved from a diversified ecology of small banks, with varied lending policies, to a more homogeneous framework of firms that all resemble one another. True, we now have fewer failures, but when they occur ….I shiver at the thought. [...]
Were these words a Black Swan within the Black Swan book itself? Rather not. He continues directly to something we now know and face it in precise context. Please note that this was written in the period 2003-2006:
[...] Banks hire dull people and train them to be even more dull. If they look conservative, it’s only because their loans go bust on rare, very rare occasions. But (…) bankers are not conservative at all. They are just phenomenally skilled at self-deception by burying the possibility of a large, devastating loss under the rug. [...] The government-sponsored institution Fannie Mae, when I look at its risks, seems to be sitting on a barrel of dynamite, vulnerable to the slightest hiccup. But not to worry: their large staff of scientists deemed these events “unlikely”. [...]
What about the costs, and the memory of them? Yes, indeed memory is important while playing game-theory-like games, as his mainly in our daily reality, but in one-two generations it will be probably lost (I hope not), and once again all will start:
[...] the real-estate collapse of the early 1990s in which the now defunct savings and loan industry required a taxpayer-funded bailout of more than half a trillion dollars. The Federal Reserve bank protected them at our expense: when “conservative” bankers make profits, they get the benefits; when they are hurt, we pay the costs.
Should we be surprised? In fact, this is not new. Somehow, fallacy goes on (as George Monbiot tackle it with extreme precision over Guardian Journal very recently – Sep. 30). Not only we were not reacting to these power-law consequences, as many of those economic agents playing within the systems core itself, were thinking of something else:
[...] Once again, recall the story of banks hiding explosive risks in their portfolios. It is not a good idea to trust corporations with matters such as rare events because the performance of these executives is not observable on a short-term basis, and they will game the system by showing good performance so they can get their yearly bonus. The Achilles’ heel of capitalism is that if you make corporations compete, it is sometimes the one that is most exposed to the negative Black Swan that will appear to be the most for survival.[...] As if we did not have enough problems, banks are now more vulnerable to the Black Swan and the ludic fallacy than ever before with “scientists” among their staff taking care of exposures. The giant J. P. Morgan put the entire world at risk by introducing in the nineties RiskMetrics, a phony method aiming at managing people’s risks, causing the generalized use of the ludic fallacy, and bringing Dr. Johns into power in place of the skeptical Fat Tonys. (a related method called “Value-at-Risk,” which relies on the quantitative measurement of risk, has been spreading.) [...]
Starting with the distribution and frequency of these kind of events (among many others), all of these words were written in the period 2003-2006. Since then, you could follow Taleb’s war on “Value at Risk” over here. Or here, at Edge.org which I highly recommend.
Meanwhile, apart from what markets are suffering and complex science may enlightened us, life goes on. Not necessarily as we supposed. As we know, reality, many times excels fiction; one single video frame could value one thousand words. Right at your neighborhood. As you may see below, consequences could be much worse than a tornado: