I saw Mr. Soros testify before Washington State (home state of my favorite soccer goal keeper) Sen. Maria Cantwell's committee the other day (on TV, of course) concerning possible oil futures speculation. I was impressed with Senator Cantwell (although we'd agree on little, policy-wise) and with Mr. Soros (despite myself). So I picked up this book to see what he had to say on the central economic issue of the day.
I won't bash the book, exactly, but it was pretty rambling, pretty repetitive, and spent a considerably longer time trying to defend/explain his theory of "reflectivity" and bashing Republican politics than discussing the credit crisis. Still it offered some useful points and observations. It's personal account of worlwide historical financial events that Mr. Soros himself not only lived through but participated in as well as a concise account of the events that comprise the subprime mortgage meltdown were themselves worth, in my view, the price of admission.
In the end, though, the central theme of the book, it's overarching structure, is Mr. Soro's longstanding theorem about "reflectivity" in financial markets. He maintains that both the factual "reality" and the participants' resort to emotional facilities as a result of imperfect informational access interact with each other in a kind of feedback loop. As a result of this "reflectivity" serious degrees of uncertainty are injected into the marketplace that are not predicted by "classical" economic theories of "rationality" or "equilibrium". This, he says, invalidates market models based on those classic concepts. What to do about that, of course, he's not quite so clear about, except, perhaps, you should vote Democratic (his advice, not mine).
Unfortunately by his own analysis, this theorem is unsatisfactory as anything other than a cautionary alarm bell. By it's own definition and assertion it is untestable and (in the terms of one of Mr. Soros's own favorite philosophers, Karl Popper) incapable of falsification. Since it's prime tenent is that it's unpredictable and not even of consistent relevance in any given situation, it is roughly akin to the statement of Cretan philosopher, Epimenides, (quoted by Soros himself) that "all Cretans always lie". If, claiming unpredictablility, "reflectivity" yields accurate predictions, it is false.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb has called these same kind of events as said to be caused by "reflectivity" black swans. Inductive reasoning in financial markets has led to some frightening financial meltdowns. Having seen only white swans (even in their hundred thousands) and therefore betting the ranch there ARE only white ones is a sound foundation for disaster. Mr. Taleb helpfully also points out that somewhere downunder there are, in fact, black swans.
Benoit Mandelbrot has suggested that his fractile geometry, rather than bell curves, is a better financial model and, in fact, perhaps allows for better predictability. Don't know about that. The intersection between regulators and markets that Mr. Soros rather convincingly argues must be, at least in part, responsible for the subprime mortgage meltdown, doesn't strike me as a geometric intersection, fractile or otherwise. And besides, Herr Doktor Mandelbrot's math is WAY beyond my (or I'd postulate any other non genius math brain's) comprehension.
For me though, the persuasiveness of Mr. Soros's point about unpredictablity and odd shaped (non bell) curves can be found in the seminal work of William James, who demonstrated 100 years ago what every good salesman has always known (at least by instinct, if not overtly): that human beings ACT on feelings and use their intellectual reasoning to rationalize the result. I would accept, a priori, that no single individual actor in today's complex financial markets in our globally interwoven world can possibly know all the relevant facts about any one proposed action therein. Thus he must have imperfect information. And even as among the myriad of facts he does "know", he will use his experience, his intuition based on it and on the recounted experiences of those he has learned to trust, to value those various factual inputs.
I would submit (and I don't think Mr. Soros would raise too strenous an objection) that gernerally speaking, in a broad enough marketplace, all those individual "emotional" decisions ought to cancel each other out to a degree that would render them indistinguishable for practical purposes from randomness. Perhaps not perfect bell curves (some fat tails and modified kurtosis), but within acceptable (and perhaps hedgeable) limits.
But humans are also herd animals (we, however, call them tribes), and that instinct is a survival trait and still strong. One need only contemplate the blowing of a single car horn on a gridlocked highway that is inevitably followed in nanoseconds by hundreds more, to understand it's continued pervasive presence. When that happens in financial affairs, when smart guys get afraid of being left behind the "easy" money, when they can't stand the other tribe harvesting all that golden fleese or bear the thought of some young ambitious upstart taking over their hard won desk by merely following sombody else's playbook (what have you done for me lately says the boss), then homework vanishes. Smart guy follows smart guy in a kind of stampede. Risk of loss no longer matters or is outweighed by the risk of being stranded alone. Each of us (no I'm not a trader, but empathy demands the collective pronoun) falls all over ourselves to steal candy from the blind confectioner, never mind that we know that the poison pill is there in one of those jars on one of those shelves. It won't happen to me, we say. I'm too smart, I'll see it coming, I'll get away. This time it'll be different. We rationalize the emotional decision to chase after the leaders, to blow our horn, too.
This is far too long, let me try to wind up. In this crisis surely whole truckloads of the "smartest guys in the room" demonstrated levels of greed, arrogance, and impaired judgment that, despite being all too human (to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche, who seems particularly apt in this context) are still, in retrospect, shocking. Still, "free markets" provide efficiencies and multiplicities of choice that cannot be duplicated (or even approached) by any central planner or micromanaging regulator. But when these herd markets fail as spectacularly as they have here, the individualist free marketer along with the "reflectivist" (if I may be so bold as to lable Mr. Soros) are both left wanting a better way, a better regulatory system, for keeping these rampaging smart guys from trampling in their passing our own hard won little (in my case) or not so little (in Mr. Soros's) net eggs. This is a thoughtful book. Even just trying to "deconstruct" it may lead you down interesting thoughtways.