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Rick Bookstaber on Physics Envy in Finance

August 17, 2010 by Jacob Bettany   Comments (0)

I read a New York Times article a while ago on econophysics – the use of the tools of physics in economics – that featured the application of seismology to solve the problems of market crises. I can see the twists of logic that led to this approach: during an earthquake things shake around and fall, and during a market crisis things shake around and fall. Seismology predicts the former, so why not the latter?

This type of logical leap too far is nothing new. I remember the popularity of Kalman filters and the application of the principles of torque to measure the strength of market turns (I’m not kidding) in the seventies. Later came the emergence of chaos theory to model market dynamics and catastrophe theory to model market breaks, the logic being that markets look chaotic, and that market breaks are, well, breaks.

None of these work, and as I will get to in a bit, there is a reason they don’t work. But the use of physics in finance and economics persists, thus the fledgling discipline of econophysics. The reason it persists is first of all, that there are not many jobs for physicist in physics, and most of finance is child’s play once you have gone through the rigors of a physics degree, so a lot of physicists end up in finance. Another reason is that most of those in finance really do have physics envy. They want to have the solid structure, the clean answers, and the sexy mathematical models of physics.

So if you are a physicist by training, what is more natural than to take to your new home with your physics hammer, especially if everyone wants you to look at everything as if it is a nail...

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