In early 2008 I was the oldest intern (35) in Westminster, toiling at the Social Market Foundation. As an experienced financial spiv and prolific economic bluffer, I was asked to present to a roomful of wonks on this thing, “the credit crunch”.*
I wish I could find the slides. But somehow I had the time to look up Northern Rock’s lending book, and Granite, their securitization vehicle with its countless mortgages. I also dived into indices full of Mortgage Backed Securities, grabbed the codes of securitizations, looked them up at the SEC, and tried to drill down, and then …
And then the complexity defeated me – which was the point. There was no way I could demonstrate to this roomful of geeks what was actually going on. When financial markets are brimming all you need to know about the instrument you trade is that it has a few strong bids and offers on a tight spread. When they are not, you need to understand what you hold, because you may be holding it for a while. But given the endogeneity of the variables (those mortgages would turn out to be strongly influenced by the macro economy) and the role of human agents throughout, reacting to a new situation, such knowledge of the present would be impossible. Don’t even ask about the future.
Around that time the Large Hadron Collider had fired up, spitting out terabytes of data from trillions of subatomic collisions. I remember remarking that the scientists had it easy; they didn’t have to include in their calculations what each and every particle thought of it all, and how its opinions changed its actions.
It is no coincidence that some of the most notorious SpAds have some of the best written blogs: McBride’s is sadly gone, but was astonishing at times, and now we have Dom Cummings’. His latest demonstrates swiftly how complexity can build up to impossible levels from as simple a scenario as a chess game. Earlier, he tweeted at me an explanation for why economics has (apparently) fallen in esteem – because, to paraphrase atrociously, it lacks mathematical or empirical rigour.
The tweet is gone, but he later tweeted Von Neumann’s introduction to his 1944 book on game theory, which is excerpted here (around page 23) in Cummings’ long piece. It has this splendid quote:
“An almost exact theory of a gas, containing about 10^25 freely moving particles, is incomparably easier than that of the solar system, made up of 9 major bodies”
Imagine a rectangular water-filled bathtub full of bobbing apples. If you are asked to predict exactly where each apple will be in five minutes, you will fail. But if you are asked to predict what the water level will be if you poured in another litre , all you need is its dimensions and you can get it right to within a millimetre. Extremely complex systems can be understood in certain limited ways. Exact micro forecasts are not the test of the scientific nature of a discipline, and nor are ever more complex models. Macro economics should surely not strive to emulate the Meteorological office, where predicting down to a much lower level is what is needed.
Cummings’ post is about far more than this, and so the point I make is not a step in any specific argument. But in his conclusion he stretches the argument rather far when he implies that a lack of appreciation of complexity theory is behind the over-confidence of a Balls or a Cameron. Their overconfidence must be as much about survivorship bias – the chutzpah of people who have been promoted at a daunting speed to positions of unbelievable authority.
His point about economics is a popular one however. How can the discipline retain credibility when complexity frequently defeats any attempts at forecasts? When the likes of Greenspan were so confident before, and complexity showed up the hubris, haven’t we learned something rather damming about economics?
I take the unfashionable view. Yes, a decade of smooth growth led to confidence, but it wasn’t the confidence of people who thought they’d conquered complexity. It reflected a belief that policymakers could and would control the broad macro economic conditions. They would keep steady the level of water in the bath. Opinions differ on whether this was possible, or how. In my opinion, what we saw was more a failure of management than a call for funky new theories.
*It is sweet now to remember that there was a phoney war period when this was a potentially contained episode merely about credit, or “the subprime crisis”, and not a devastating collapse of nominal incomes. That period needs exhaustive study.