The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Financial Markets Paperback – Mar 30 2009
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"Totally compelling." BBC Business editor Robert Peston "They're wrong about oil, by George. In short, the standard economic assumption that supply and demand drive prices is only a starting point for understanding financial markets. In boom-bust cycles, the textbook theory is not just slightly inaccurate but totally wrong. This is the main argument made by George Soros in his fascinating book on the credit crunch, The New Paradigm for Financial Markets, launched at an LSE lecture last night." The Times "The next generation of economists will have to understand financial bubbles rather than ignore them, as Greenspan and his fellow central bankers have done. They would be well advised to give Soros's theory of reflexivity serious consideration." Sunday Times "(Soros) present(s) a very interesting and disturbing view of how free markets behave, and the nature and extent of the crisis we're in." Sunday Business Post "This was a book that George Soros badly wanted to write. It is probably not what many of its readers expect to read. But it shows that in his deeper thinking about the way markets operate, Soros was several decades ahead of his time... His insights are clear and concisely expressed. They are worth reading for anyone interested in the topic." Financial Times "The runners in the race for the White House should stop and listen to Soros." Independent on Sunday"
About the Author
George Soros is chairman of Soros Fund Management and is the founder of a global network of foundations dedicated to supporting open societies. He is the author of several best-selling books including The Bubble of American Supremacy, Underwriting Democracy, and The Age of Fallibility. He was born in Budapest and lives in New York City.
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l'expérience est partagée avec générosité et le discernement aussi fait place à l'écriture soignée et
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Most of what Soros added is beyond my level of comprehension, possibly explaining why he's rich and I'm not. One point, however, did come out quite clear. Soros points out that buying CDS contracts is the same as going short on those same bonds, while carrying limited risk and unlimited potential profit potential. (Shorting the bonds instead offers unlimited risk and limited profit potential.) This encourages speculating on the short side, and (per Soros) exerts a downward pressure on the underlying bonds.
Soros goes on to claim that Lehman Brothers, AIG, etc. were destroyed by bear raids via shorting stocks and buying CDS. (I see a simpler explanation for AIG's fall - selling too many CDS on different bonds, thinking they would disperse risk and forgetting that they were all highly positively correlated.)
Unlimited shorting of stocks was made possible by abolition of the uptick rule (allowed short sales only when prices were rising), and facilitated by the CDS market.
Soros' bottom line is that the 2008 market crash proves that the efficient-market hypothesis (seeks and finds equilibrium) is now officially dead, giving Soros another opportunity to push his theory of reflexivity (better explained in Wikipedia). He then goes on to offer predictions on where Russia, China, India, etc. are headed in the near future.
Finally, Soros also claims that Obama is facing problems 2X those faced by FDR. The total outstanding credit was 160% GDP in 1929, 260% in 1932 (decline in GDP, accumulation of debt). By comparison, we entered the 2008 crash at 365%, and Soros believes this will rise to about 500% of GDP.
And I find several inaccurate reviews posted by people who apparently glanced at the book only to have a hint enough to write something nasty here.
Sunshine T, the conversation you mention was a reprinted piece of an NYTimes Mag article (written in first person) by Ron Suskind, NOT a conversation Soros had with Karl Rove. It was introduced and opened with a colon. It was a fully indented block of text. Have you been reading English long enough to know that these things mean something is being quoted? Then, next paragraph, Soros himself said "...the aide, presumably Karl Rove..."
Furthermore, Soros points out repeatedly that he is presenting a theory he expects others to investigate. If you want to trash someone's book, READ IT.
Another one-star reviewer, Marius R. completely MISSES THE PRIMARY POINT of the whole book, which is that previous market theories have consistently overlooked the effect humans and our psyches have on the economy. Soros' MAIN POINT is that humans and their psyches are a HUGE factor in the economy.
You got it 180 degrees wrong, M.R. Did you only skim the book also, or is this conscious disinformation?
Yet another, Booklover, didn't review the book either. Did you read it? Your claim as to the "underlying premise" of this book is NOT in this book. That may be Soros' intentions (I doubt it) but it's not in the book.
This is a book review area.
Please take your political outrage somewhere else, you guys. Soros has EARNED the right to have his economic theories analyzed and discussed by intelligent adults. And some of us other intelligent adults appreciate his thoughts and theories.
And some of us even come here to get info on the book itself. And now that I've vented a little of my own outrage....
It was quite a surprise to me actually to get a sense of economic theory and that the so-called experts for ages have not considered the human effect any more than they have. Astonishing. No surprise it would come from someone who has decades of very successful real world experience rather than academia/science labs.
Soros' central claim is that traditional economic theory holds that competitive markets tend toward equilibrium, and this is false. "The belief that markets tend toward equilibrium," he writes, "...is no better than Marxist dogma. Both ideologies cloak themselves in scientific guise in order to make themselves more acceptable, but the theories they invoke do not stand up to the test of reality." (p. 75) Soros calls this faulty approach "market fundamentalism."
I learned economic theory when I was a graduate student at Harvard. The central model I learned was called "general equilibrium (GE) theory," initiated by Walras in the late nineteenth century, and perfected in the mid-twentieth century by Debreu, Arrow, Hurwicz, Hahn, McKenzie and others. GE theory is the basic, underlying model in all of contemporary economic theory. It is highly abstract, but by carefully specifying the conditions under which market equilibrium obtains, it provides an analytical basis for understanding not only markets, but also market failures (cases where competitive markets cannot exist, or lead to socially inefficient outcomes). If one accepts this model, one then analyzes a real-world economy by assessing where the real economy deviates from the model, and what we might expect to occur in light of of this deviation. There is no assurance that this methodology will be successful (Google the Theory of the Second Best), but generally it is the best we have, and it appears to work well in practice.
At the time the architects of GE theory achieved their successes in the mid-twentieth century, which consisted of proving the existence of equilibrium under very general conditions, they fully expected that the theory would extend to proving stability and perhaps even uniqueness in the course of time. To illustrate just how far GE theory was from a plausible dynamic model, Walras had proposed that equilibrium would be achieved by having an "courtier" (broker) or "crieur" (crier) call out prices and adjust them according to the degree of excess demand or supply in each market, until equilibrium was achieved. The idea of what in English we call the "auctioneer" equilibrating a decentralized market economy is so bizarre and indeed absurd that leaving GE theory at this level would of course be highly embarrassing to economic theory. To add insult to injury, it was shown by Saari in 1985 and Bala and Majumdar in 1992, that even with an auctioneer, and with very generous auxiliary assumptions, general equilibrium prices would be unstable, and indeed chaotic. The fact is that to this day there is no plausible model of general equilibrium exhibiting dynamic stability.
It follows that there is absolutely no reason given by economic theory for anything like the "market fundamentalism" that Soros critiques. In particular, there is nothing in economic theory that suggests the impossibility, or even rarity, of crashes, bubbles, and meltdowns. Nothing, I stress, at all.
Nevertheless, I have noticed that despite the above undeniable truth, most economists are indeed market fundamentalists when it comes to issues of stability of equilibrium (they are not fundamentalists when it comes to market failure and the need to regulate the market economy, however). I still recall the moment I heard Alan Greenspan, former Federal Reserve Chairman tell Congress that "Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder's equity -- myself especially -- are in a state of shocked disbelief." I myself stood in shocked disbelief that a real economist, not some free-market crazy, could harbor such theoretically ill-founded beliefs. But, in fact, some of the most influential and perceptive economic theorists share this same believe. In their book Animal Spirits, for instance, Nobel prize winning economic George Akerlof and distinguished (and iconoclastic) Yale professor Robert Shiller, say that "if we thought that people were totally rational, and that they acted almost entirely out of economic motives, we too would believe that government should play little role in the regulation of financial markets, and perhaps even in determining the level of aggregate demand." (p. 173). This is a shockingly uninformed statement. There is nothing in economic theory that says that rational individuals interacting on markets will produce stable, efficient outcomes! The GE model, which is the general framework for investigating macroeconomic behavior on a theoretical level, says that if there are no market externalities, there are market-clearing equilibria that are Pareto-efficient. However, as has been long understood, this model has absolutely no attractive dynamical properties.
I conclude that Soros is correct, not in his critique of economic theory, but rather in his critique of market fundamentalism, the reigning ideology of mainstream economists. Where this ideology comes from, I do not know. I do not recall being taught it by my professors at Harvard, and I do not believe it is in the leading graduate microeconomic textbooks. This doctrine is indeed central to the "rational expectations" school of macroeconomics, and perhaps this is where the idea comes from. On the other hand, neither Greenspan nor Akerlof and Shiller belong to this school of thought, so the ideology is probably of more general proportions. For the record, Soros' critique of the rational expectations school in this book is quite cogent, and I am in complete agreement with him. Only an academic the Ivory Tower could place credence in so bizarre a theory.
Soros' own analysis of where economics went wrong is incorrect. Soros studied at the London School of Economics at a time when the old Marshallian tradition was prominent, and before the GE theory took hold. The Marshallian school analyzed single markets in terms of supply and demand, and assumed that the determinants of supply and demand were distinct, so the two schedules were independent. Soros attacks this notion by claiming interdependence of supply and demand, and he dead right. However, the GE model explicitly accepts this interdependence, without which it would be easy to supply analytically tractable dynamics and plausible stability conditions. However, the market economy is inextricably interconnected, and there is no possibility of treating demand and supply independently.
Soros thus incorrectly attributes "market fundamentalism" to economic theory, whereas in fact it is an aspect of the ideology of economists, not an implication of the GE theory that they learn and use. Because Soros has not studied modern economic theory, he attributes the ideology to an improper independence of supply and demand, which is a attributed of old-fashioned Marshallian theory, not modern GE theory.
Soros then goes on to propose an alternative that is geared to overcoming the independence of the two sides of the market. He does this by developing a philosophical system in which individuals interact with the world in both a "cognitive" and a "manipulative" manner, the first having the aim of understand, the second of influencing and changing. According to Soros' reasoning, the two functions can operate at cross-purposes. Most important, we can analyze the past using the cognitive function and intervene in the present using the manipulative function, which leads to a situation in which the future cannot be known. This two-way connection between facts and opinions Soros calls "reflectivity." Because of reflexivity, the economy involves fundamental uncertainty of form not recognized in standard economic theory. The impossibility of stability of equilibrium is due this reflexivity.
Soros' argument is too speculative for economists to take seriously. Economists work with models. Someone who does not like the GE model is obliged to find an alternative model that does a better job. Soros does not supply another model, so most economists will simply ignore him (given his business acumen, they will `respectfully' ignore him). However, I have worked in this area of the past six or seven years, and my research lends some serious support to his argument. Let me explain.
The GE model has no attractive dynamical properties, but the institutions it recognizes (markets, prices, consumers, producers, firms, money, capital goods, etc.) really exist and more or less operate the way the theory describes. The real world market economies show significant stochastic behavior (there are lots of more or less random fluctuations) but the fluctuations occur around an equilibrium condition that, while rarely attained, is more or less, on the average, approximated over the medium run, and which changes only in response to changes in underlying technology, resource availability, and consumer tastes. This indicated to me, as it does to Soros, is that the problem with the GE model is that it assumes individuals know too much, or rather, that they share too much knowledge. Rather, as stressed by the great economist Friedrich von Hayek, knowledge is distributed all over the economy, each individual economic actor only knowing a small part of the whole.
My reaction to this situation was to develop a computer model of the economy using what is called agent-based modeling. My model appears as "The Dynamics of General Equilibrium", Economic Journal 117 (2007):1289-1309. This model assumes (a) each individual knows only a small part of the total picture, and in particular, has his own, private estimate of prices, and (b) individuals improve their position as firms, workers, and entrepreneurs, by copying the behavior others who appear to be more successful than themselves, as well as experimenting and learning from variations in their own behavior. There are two main findings to be had from this exercise. The first is that the economy does tend toward equilibrium, and if shocked, tends to return to this medium-run equilibrium. Thus the economists' ideological faith in equilibrium seems vindicated.
However, the second finding is that there are significant excursions away from equilibrium, to the point that disequilibrium is the general conditions, as Soros says. Indeed, these excursions are frequent, and periodically sufficient to produce the sorts of bubbles and crises that we see around us. Moreover, these large excursions away from equilibrium occur without any aggregate macroeconomic shock, and are due to what I call "local resonances" that are characteristic of the sort of complex, dynamical, and nonlinear system that a general equilibrium system seems to be. For an introduction to the economy as a complex system, see Eric Beinhocker, The Origins of Wealth: Evolution, Complexity, and the Radical Remaking of Economics (Harvard Business School Press, 2006). Such local resonances are perhaps the codification of Soros' reflexive tenencies.
In short, I believe Soros is closer to understanding the current crisis than the free-market fundamentalists, the liberal super-regulators, or the behavioral economists who blame human irrationality. My formal model, using agent-based techniques, produces the sorts of outcomes Soros stresses, and it does so for reasons that are analytical refinements of Soros' "reflexivity." His pronouncements should be taken seriously, although considerable analytical refinement will be need to turn them into defensible policy tools.
It's definitely worth the price because Soros's ideas and opinions are generally quite good, astute, eminently reasonable and easy to understand. He's rich but none of his books are paint-by-number tracts for how to get rich yourself. For that, beyond a very general framework, you're on your own, but if you want to understand financial markets in general and read intelligent opinions on related social and political situations, then he's one of the masters. If however you're a philosophy major I'd go elsewhere.
So why two stars? Because Soros isn't satisfied just to be a brilliant speculator-- he wants to be a philosopher, and he acknowledges as much. But as a philosopher, he's mediocre at best. His idea of "reflexivity", once you strip away the high-minded rhetoric, is a pretty obvious idea that's not unique or deep either. In short, what it says is that markets are prone to self-reinforcing feedback loops that drive prices away from equilibrium and create opportunities for shrewd investors. It's like if Investor A sees a security, call it Security X, that he wants to buy. He puts in an order for a million shares of Security X, out of 100 million outstanding. Instantly, the price of Security X rises. Praising his good fortune at having made an instant gain, Investor A buys another two million shares. The price rises again. Brilliant! Or at least it looks that way until A realizes that he's the only buyer in the market, and the price of A is being driven by his own purchases. All of this is true, and it can even be used to explain bubbles in the markets. But is it unique or special? No. I think it's just common sense... But the book goes on that way for pages and pages and pages, not really saying anything that's new or unique or insightful, and then it kind of closes with a whimper.
In short, Soros is a brilliant investor, but don't expect to get any real insight into that from reading this book.