Risk, uncertainty and ignorance in investing and business – Lessons from Richard Zeckhauser
People feel that 50% is magical and they don’t like to do things where they don’t have 50% odds. I know that is not a good idea, so I am willing to make some bets where you say it is 20% likely to work but you get a big pay-off if it works, and only has a small cost if it does not. I will take that gamble. Most successful investments in new companies are where the odds are against you but, if you succeed, you will succeed in a big way.” “David Ricardo made a fortune buying bonds from the British government four days in advance of the Battle of Waterloo. He was not a military analyst, and even if he were, he had no basis to compute the odds of Napoleon’s defeat or victory, or hard-to-identify ambiguous outcomes. Thus, he was investing in the unknown and the unknowable. Still, he knew that competition was thin, that the seller was eager, and that his windfall pounds should Napoleon lose would be worth much more than the pounds he’d lose should Napoleon win. Ricardo knew a good bet when he saw it.
…in any probabilistic exercise: the frequency of correctness does not matter; it is the magnitude of correctness that matters…. even though Ruth struck out a lot, he was one of baseball’s greatest hitters…. Internalizing this lesson, on the other hand, is difficult because it runs against human nature in a very fundamental way… The Babe Ruth effect is hard to internalize because people are generally predisposed to avoid losses. …What is interesting and perhaps surprising is that the great funds lose money more often than good funds do. The best VCs funds truly do exemplify the Babe Ruth effect: they swing hard, and either hit big or miss big. You can’t have grand slams without a lot of strikeouts.
Risk, which is a situation where probabilities are well defined, is much less important than uncertainty. Casinos, which rely on dice, cards and mechanical devices, and insurance companies, blessed with vast stockpiles of data, have good reason to think about risk. But most of us have to worry about risk only if we are foolish enough to dally at those casinos or to buy lottery cards….” “Uncertainty, not risk, is the difficulty regularly before us. That is, we can identify the states of the world, but not their probabilities.” “We should now understand that many phenomena that were often defined as involving risk – notably those in the financial sphere before 2008 – actually involve uncertainty.” “Ignorance arises in a situation where some potential states of the world cannot be identified. Ignorance is an important phenomenon, I would argue, ranking alongside uncertainty and above risk. Ignorance achieves its importance, not only by being widespread, but also by involving outcomes of great consequence.” “There is no way that one can sensibly assign probabilities to the unknown states of the world. Just as traditional finance theory hits the wall when it encounters uncertainty, modern decision theory hits the wall when addressing the world of ignorance.
Hank Paulson says the financial crisis could have been ‘much worse’
While Bear Stearns’ failure in normal markets would not hurt the U.S. economy, we believed that the system was too fragile and fear-driven to take a Bear Stearns bankruptcy. To those who argue that Bear Stearns created moral hazard and contributed to the Lehman failure, I believe just the opposite—that it allowed us to dodge a bullet and avoid a devastating chain reaction.
If Bear had failed, the hedge funds would have turned on Lehman with a vengeance. Lehman would have failed almost immediately and the result would have been much worse than Lehman’s September failure, which occurred after we had stabilized Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and Bank of Americaacquired Merrill Lynch. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if this whole thing started before we’d stabilized Fannie and Freddie.
An interview with Tim Geithner on this topic was done recently at the Yale School of Management and he speaks much more authoritatively on the limits of the Fed powers than I, but here goes. While our responses may have looked inconsistent, Ben, Tim, and I were united in our commitment to prevent the failure of any systemically important financial institution. But we had a balkanized, outdated regulatory system without sufficient oversight or visibility into a large part of the modern financial system and without the necessary emergency powers to inject capital, guarantee liabilities, or wind down a non-banking institution. So we did whatever we could on a case-by-case basis.
For Lehman, we had no buyer and we needed one with the willingness and capacity to guarantee its liabilities. Without one, a permissible Fed loan would not have been sufficient or effective to stop a run. To do that, the Fed would have had to inject capital or guarantee liabilities and they had no power to do so. Now, here’s the point that I think a lot of people miss: In the midst of a panic, market participants make their own judgments and a Fed loan to meet a liquidity shortfall wouldn’t prevent a failure if they believed Lehman wasn’t viable or solvent. And no one believed they were.
AIG is a cautionary tale. We should not have let our financial regulatory system fail to keep up with modern financial markets. No single regulator had oversight visibility or adequate powers to deal with AIG. Its insurance companies were regulated at the state level, its holding company was like a giant hedge fund sitting on top of the insurance companies, and it was regulated by the ineffective Office of Thrift Supervision, which also regulated—get this—Countrywide, WaMu, IndyMac, GE Capital. They all selected their regulator. So you get the picture, it’s regulatory arbitrage.
And I’m concerned that some of the tools we effectively used to stave off disaster have now been eliminated by Congress. These include the ability of Treasury to use its exchange stabilization fund to guarantee the money market funds, the emergency lending authority the Fed used to avoid the failure of Bear and AIG, and the FDIC’s guarantee of bank liabilities on a systemwide basis, which was critical.