It’s one of the more annoying side-effects of the financial collapse: instant updates of the Dow Jones Industrial Average are suddenly everywhere, popping up in the corner of cable news shows, in between weather reports on the radio, highlighted on websites, etc. It’s a bizarre form of financial melodrama, as the moods of the market seem to lurch and pivot for no good reason. Yesterday afternoon, on the same day a terrible unemployment report came out, the Dow swung upwards and closed 500 points higher. This morning, it’s down 350 points, although nobody seems to know why. This chart captures the recent flux:
While it’s certainly entertaining to spin post-hoc explanations of market activity, it’s also utterly futile. The market, after all, is a classic example of a “random walk,” since the past movement of any particular stock cannot be used to predict its future movement. This inherent randomness was first proposed by the economist Eugene Fama, in the early 1960′s. Fama looked at decades of stock market data in order to prove that no amount of rational analysis or knowledge (unless it was illicit insider information) could help you figure out what would happen next. All of the esoteric tools and elaborate theories used by investors to make sense of the market were pure nonsense. Wall Street was like a slot machine.
Alas, the human mind can’t resist the allure of explanations, even if they make no sense. We’re so eager to find correlations and causation that, when confronted with an inherently stochastic process – like the DJIA, or a slot machine – we invent factors to fixate on. The end result is a blinkered sort of overconfidence, in which we’re convinced we’ve solved a system that has no solution.
Look, for example, at this elegant little experiment. A rat was put in a T-shaped maze with a few morsels of food placed on either the far right or left side of the enclosure. The placement of the food is randomly determined, but the dice is rigged: over the long run, the food was placed on the left side sixty per cent of the time. How did the rat respond? It quickly realized that the left side was more rewarding. As a result, it always went to the left, which resulted in a sixty percent success rate. The rat didn’t strive for perfection. It didn’t search for a Unified Theory of the T-shaped maze, or try to decipher the disorder. Instead, it accepted the inherent uncertainty of the reward and learned to settle for the best possible alternative.
The experiment was then repeated with Yale undergraduates. Unlike the rat, their swollen brains stubbornly searched for the elusive pattern that determined the placement of the reward. They made predictions and then tried to learn from their prediction errors. The problem was that there was nothing to predict: the randomness was real. Because the students refused to settle for a 60 percent success rate, they ended up with a 52 percent success rate. Although most of the students were convinced they were making progress towards identifying the underlying algorithm, they were actually being outsmarted by a rat.
So don’t listen to those talking heads telling you why the market rose or fell. They’re just like those Yalies, convinced they’ve found a pattern where none exists.