Why Did Isaac Newton Lose His Shirt in Financial Speculation? Author Alex Pollock Explains.

By Lynn Parramore, Senior Research Analyst at the Institute for New Economic Thinking. Originally published at the Institute for New Economic Thinking

In a conversation with the Institute for New Economic Thinking, author Alex J. Pollock explains why our flawed thinking leads us into financial and economic error. His new book, Finance and Philosophy: Why We’re Always Surprised, draws on history, philosophy, and Pollock’s own experience in banking to explore why the future is always fundamentally uncertain when it comes to certain human realities.

Lynn Parramore: You focus on the concept of uncertainty. Why is this so hard for people to accept and why does it matter?

Alex Pollock: Uncertainty is important to understand because it tells you that no one is going to create an economic or financial system for you in which you will know exactly how it works.

Economics tries to be physics. It is the dream that an economic or financial system could be understood the way a physical system could be understood – like Isaac Newton making comprehensible and predictable motions of the heavenly bodies. When you try to do that with economic and financial things, it doesn’t work.

LP: You note that Isaac Newton himself lost a great deal of money when the South Sea bubble burst. He didn’t see it coming.

AP: Right! And he was one of the greatest geniuses in history. Intelligence v. stupidity is not is not the issue when it comes to predicting the financial future.

You can look very hard for statistical regularities and so on, but then you’re up Goodhart’s law, named for economist Charles Goodheart. His law is that you find these regularities in your economic or financial data, and that’s nice. You find some correlation. But as soon as you try to use that information to control the system, it breaks down. You’ve impacted the system by trying to use it in ways you don’t expect. Often, people who try to oversee a financial system from on high seek to design it like a machine and run it like a machine. Well, it is not a machine. It is fundamentally different in its essence from a machine, so there is nobody who can run it to get you the nice outcome that you might want.

That is simply the way it is. So don’t put your faith in regulators or central bankers as puppeteers of a puppet show. There are no puppeteers. No one is outside the system looking down. Everyone is inside the system.

LP: You observe that mechanistic metaphors do not apply to financial and economic realities. Why is this so?

AP: Financial interactions are a different kind of reality than philosophical reality. That’s a metaphysical statement. Physical reality is governed by determinative laws and mechanistic in the sense that if you know all the inputs of the laws, you know what will happen. But financial markets and economics relations in general are not governed by knowable laws.

The metaphor of mechanisms is very often used when people are talking about financial things, like the “monetary policy transition mechanism.” Of course, the next thing they say is that the “mechanism” is broken. Doesn’t work the way we thought.

Well, that’s because it’s not a mechanism.

It’s not an organism, either. And it is not a mathematical set of relationships. Instead, it is that very interesting form of reality, which is interactive, expectational, recursive, and involves intense systems of feedback which are inherently unpredictable. That’s just a different mode of reality.

Economic and financial systems are made largely out of human minds, not levers, pulleys and wires. Minds are oriented towards the future, towards predicting and influencing the behavior of others who are trying to do the very same thing. Minds are complex and unpredictable. It’s not that you don’t know the financial and economic future. As economist Frank Knightobserved, you cannot know.

LP: You observe that dentistry is much more of a science than economics.

AP: That’s right. Teeth and gums are physical realities. Dentistry can progress in a way that economics can’t. I have a number of friends who are professional economists and they don’t like that observation!

LP: You explore a number of financial crises in the past. Why does financial history get so little attention?

AP: I came to it fairly late in my own life and career when I came to wondering about the failure of Continental Illinois – my previously extremely prestigious and important employer, which failed in 1984. As I was living through that, I got to thinking about whether such things had happened before or what there might be in history. That really opened up my mind.

I can think of a couple of possible reasons why history receives so little attention. One is that finance is forward-looking. Investing, finance, and economics is about what you’re doing going forward — the investment you’re going to make and how it’s going to turn out. The new business you’re going to create and how it’s going to revolutionize part of the world.

Secondly, there’s an issue of history in general, not just financial history, concerning the natural aging and disappearance of the generations. The people who lived through a crisis grow old, retire and die. Things that were very vivid to them disappear. Up come younger people who think they’re smarter. They’re not, and that is one of the great lessons of financial history. It’s natural, of course, that a young person would look back and imagine that someone who had made financial mistakes must have been dumb. Like Newton!

There’s also something I call the “egocentricity of the present,” which is another way of saying that we believe the present is different. We’re somehow more interesting, more dynamic, more confident than people in the past. We act like there’s never been change before. So, we’re all focused very much on the present, and the result is that the longer view gets lost. How much history is history? Is it two years? Three? Five? How about a hundred? I hope to help people to understand things in a longer time frame.

LP: How does this study of history help us understand the present?

AP: There is something very special about the present if by the present we mean the last two hundred years, which is this astonishing age of economic growth. If you think of a span of, say, 50,000 years, this last little bit is one in which ordinary people become amazingly well off, with access to wonderful vaccines and medicines, and foods from all over the world. They can drive cars, get educated.

One of the questions the book poses is, why can this happen? The answer is that the most important economic thing that ever happened is the discovery of science based on mathematics, which has been used by enterprise and innovation.

Another question posed in the book is, can you have that sustained growth without the cycles of boom and bust? I believe the true answer is no, you can’t. You want the growth; you get the cycles. That’s because growth seems to be uncertainty-generating and uncertainty produces cycles – so there we are. It’s a good news/bad news story.

LP: You say that bubbles happen by mistake. But sometimes it appears that those in power may be incentivized to ignore warnings, like Alan Greenspan and Robert Rubin ignoring Brooksley Born’s warningsabout a potential meltdown in years leading up to the 2008 collapse. What’s your take on that?

AP: I would say that mistakes are inevitable because uncertainty is fundamental. Whether Brooksley Born’s proposals would have prevented collapse — I don’t think they would have. Looking back, you can always think, well, you could have done this or that. Just like if you think about your investments, you would have a perfect record if you could make them looking backwards and know what to do and what not to do.

As far as bad intent, yes, there are always some evildoers. All of us are sinners to some extent and some people are really egregious ones. But I don’t think the sin is the most important factor. It’s what turns out to be mistakes made by people who think they’re doing something smart and in fact end up doing something stupid.

LP: So in your view, uncertainty would be a bigger factor in the housing bubble than issues like robo-signing or credit ratings agencies giving inflated ratings to securitized mortgages because they were paid to do so?

AP: One of things that happens in any bubble is that asset prices grow exaggerated. In this last case, notably house prices. Back in the early ‘80s there was a great oil bubble. People genuinely believed that price of oil would go up forever. That happened to be wrong – an incorrect belief. When the price of oil went the other way, it caused great financial and economic distress at the time.

This time they believed it about houses. If you believe it, you are tempted to take chances you wouldn’t otherwise take, like making loans without documentation, because you believe that house prices will always go up and while they’re going up, your actions reflecting your belief help them to keep going up — temporarily.

There’s an interaction — the more you lend, the more credit pushes against the asset and the higher the price of the asset goes. The higher it goes, the more someone is willing to lend against it. And if that happens, there are inevitably frauds and swindles which emerge as part of the boom. They help the bubble along, but they don’t drive it. Here we have the fundamental interaction of asset prices and credit in the context of a diminished sense of risk. What is risk? Risk is a feeling. When you get used to something, it ceases to feel risky until something really bad happens. That’s what bubbles are like.

You mention credit ratings agencies. Now, they thought about how to rate pools of mortgages and they had what was basically a stress test of a pool to show them how bad the losses could be and so on. They ran models. In all of these models, there was and still is a parameter called “house price appreciation.” Think about the name: house price appreciation. A better name would be house price change. There’s a feeling in there that on average, the housing market is really all about appreciation. Then comes the belief, and for a long time the belief is self-reinforcing.

As the bubble expands, you get very good behavior of the credits, so defaults are very low and losses on the lending business are very low and profits are high. It looks like to almost everybody like a big success. Who is made happy by all this? Almost everyone, including the politicians, some of whom may be getting some contributions. Of course, the price stops going up, the credit stops, and everything goes into reverse. Then everyone is unhappy and finding scapegoats. There are some genuine fraudsters and guilty parties, but that isn’t the fundamental story. The story is this very intriguing behavior of financial-economic-political systems of interaction.

LP: Can you say a bit about regulation in this world of uncertainty?

AP: With all good intentions and people thinking hard, regulators can still do things which actually help cause the next problems.

At the end of the 1980s, a period of financial catastrophe in this country when over a thousand banks failed, people studied what had happened. There were a series of statutes enacted by Congress and a series of regulatory policies were put in place, such as the encouragement of securitization. Well, securitization contributed to the next crisis. Intelligent people not only miss what the next crisis will be, but do things that actually contribute to it.

We need more humility and more understanding and expectation that we’re dealing with fundamental uncertainty. In my book, I propose an advisory body I call the “systemic risk advisor,” which might be worth a try to help avoid crises. Something like that was done after the last crisis with the Office of Financial Research, but in my opinion they made a big mistake making it part of the Treasury Department, which is a political office.

We want to remember that money is temptation, but we try to inculcate virtue and balance. Among the virtues are prudence and leaving margin for error in what you’re doing. There’s not going to be some kind of manipulator who builds a machine which makes this all work. We have to hope for the continued success of the enterprising economy. It’s not guaranteed. But think of yourself if you were in 1900 trying to imagine how much more economic and technical progress there might be. You have to understand that you’re in this cyclical process. Fortunately, for at least 200 years, we’ve been in an upward trend. Maybe that will continue for an infinite number of years into the future.

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  1. fdr-fan

    Regulators are not always inside the system. PM Walpole ended the South Sea Bubble by creating regulators who acted independently for a long time. FDR ended all bubbles by creating regulators who acted independently for 40 years … until Nixon gave the whole system back to the bankers … who thanked him by impeaching him. Normal NYC gratitude.

    We should be asking how Walpole and FDR did it. More specifically, since power is blackmail, we should try to find out who Walpole blackmailed and who FDR blackmailed.

  2. Acacia

    All is uncertain, but maybe we’re in an upward trend that “will continue for an infinite number of years into the future”? Huh?

    1. Anders K

      I read that as a wry, sarcastic remark, particularly as it comes after the author has spoken about other times people believed that things would continue on an ever upward trajectory.

      It was somewhat of a depressing read, reinforcing the status quo – at least to me. Crimes “just happen” and are a small piece so look forward and not backwards, everyone!

      I suspect that part of the message is what will be communicated and the possible actions will be downplayed or dismissed as “unreasonable” or pie-in-the-sky or whatever. I’m a cynical person, though. I really hope for reform, as the other alternatives seem to be revolution or destruction (but I repeat myself).

      1. Acacia

        Okay, but the entire last paragraph seems pretty earnest, again, at least to me. E.g., “We have to hope for the continued success of the enterprising economy.” Etc.

        That said, I agree with the gist of what he’s saying in response to the last question: we need more regulation, and we need to be more realistic about how effective it is. Toothless/compromised regulation is almost worse than no regulation at all.

  3. Ramon

    A very interesting article at a very appropriate moment.

    Reading it reminded me of,

    Teenagers…tired of being harassed by your parents? Act now! Move out, get a job & pay your own way while you still know everything!

    Every generation knows best.

  4. tegnost

    This author overlooks a lot, starting with the repeal of glass steagall. Yes,there is an alternative, and changing whocouldanode into nobodycouldanode is a neat trick. The ecosystem he includes in his analysis is the status quo, the “more equal” side of the inequality equation. It might be relevant in that sense if you isolate it into, “the people who are in control are unable to see the negative results of their actions because they are not impacted until the debt defaults (which are made up of not important peoples lives) start rolling in”, then it’s still seen as the fault of the debtors for being unethical bad not debt paying people, when in fact the “smart people” set them up to fail in order to feed themselves moar. Yes, there are well known historical cycles, one of which is greedy people don’t know when to stop gorging, which is where we are right now.

    1. tegnost

      A good example of the blindness is the homelessness problem, which is ubiquitous across the nation, and worse than I’ve ever seen it in my 60 odd years. No greater symbol of a broken system needs to be heralded, but the PTB and the “more equals” all point their finger at the victims moral failings, like there’s options other than homelessness but all those people just like camping and they’re lazy, too. When people around me talk about “full employment” I mention that all those people in tents must have jobs if the numbers are to be believed. So a systemic issue that the smart people ignore because it’s not their problem, they tweaked the system in their favor to increase asset prices but not wages. Control fraud anyone?

      1. eg

        People telling you there is “full employment” are fools or liars — give the U6 a look, not to mention the underemployment endemic to the “gig economy”

  5. Mike

    It seems the author cannot imagine an economy not based upon those things that exacerbate cyclical events, and to me those things are the way we invest and speculate. Can we not regulate investment in such a way that the banking industry does not speculate as to winners and losers? Socialism was supposed to be such a system, without market games and possibility of bubbles, but it proved not able to compete with the “wild West” of capitalism’s large profits. The glitz of capital’s investments and the possibility of that largess being shared by common people was too much for socialism run by bureaucrats and Stalinist henchmen. The comparison made socialism look poor and weak, or mean and vindictive – take your pick. The only thing left was market socialism, and that gave way to Reagan/Thatcher capitalism quite quickly, so much so that even “progressives” cannot shake the faith.

    1. Tyronius

      Hate to break it to you, Mike- Socialism enabled both the Soviet Union and China to industrialise and modernize much more rapidly than the West was able to manage.

      It pays to carefully examine the Kool aid one is drinking now and again.

  6. Wukchumni

    I’ve watched so many financial bubbles of every sort from baseball cards to Ferraris and everything in between and its so easy to get caught up on the upswing, because when something only accrues in value and never goes down, that’s quite the attractant.

    How many other investment ‘vehicles’ were around in the early 18th century anyhow?

      1. Wukchumni

        Here’s my favorite ‘bubble’ of the time-very similar to the South Sea Bubble, and a large reason why Scotland unified with the UK.

        The Darien scheme was an unsuccessful attempt by the Kingdom of Scotland to become a world trading state by establishing a colony called “Caledonia” on the Isthmus of Panama on the Gulf of Darién in the late 1690s. The aim was for the colony to have an overland route that connected the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. From its contemporary time to the present day, claims have been made that the undertaking was beset by poor planning and provisioning, divided leadership, a lack of demand for trade goods particularly caused by an English trade blockade, devastating epidemics of disease, collusion between the English East India Company and the English government to frustrate it, and a failure to anticipate the Spanish Empire’s military response. It was finally abandoned in March 1700 after a siege by Spanish forces, which also blockaded the harbour.

        As the Company of Scotland was backed by approximately 20% of all the money circulating in Scotland, its failure left the entire Lowlands in substantial financial ruin and was an important factor in weakening their resistance to the Act of Union (completed in 1707). The land where the Darien colony was built, in the modern province of Guna Yala, is virtually uninhabited today.


  7. The Rev Kev

    I think that Isaac Newton had not learned of a very old principle that led him to getting unstuck. That principle is “Bull**** baffles brains” and he mistook the stock market as something subject to scientific principles and analysis. Benjamin Graham, in his 1949 book “The Intelligent Investor” wrote-

    Back in the spring of 1720, Sir Isaac Newton owned shares in the South Sea Company, the hottest stock in England. Sensing that the market was getting out of hand, the great physicist muttered that he ‘could calculate the motions of the heavenly bodies, but not the madness of the people.’ Newton dumped his South Sea shares, pocketing a 100% profit totaling £7,000. But just months later, swept up in the wild enthusiasm of the market, Newton jumped back in at a much higher price — and lost £20,000 (or more than $3 million in [2002-2003’s] money. For the rest of his life, he forbade anyone to speak the words ‘South Sea’ in his presence.

  8. Susan the Other

    I’ll give Pollock a partial benefit of the doubt. He makes very selective omissions however. Like the MIC, the Cold War; the devastation of the environment; overpopulation ponzi and pollution. I could go on. As far as the claim that “the discovery of science based on math” has come to save the day – mathematicians and statisticians can rarely agree on what they’ve actually got. The human race survived for eons by careful observation and action – until now when we are oh so scientific that we can trash the planet in one generation. And etc. Reading Pollock’s half-baked thesis is like a superhero comic book “Hyman Minsky Meets Quantum Mechanics”. What he’s saying is human economies are “transactional” – well, duh. They area “cyclical”. Duh again. And then the zinger “Regulators cause the next problem.” Now that’s the nugget; Pollock is for the status quo. There is no better reason for careful observation and action to mitigate perennial economic problems than Pollock’s premise: uncertainty. He thinks trading in insecurity is a good thing because that’s the original condition of us all. He makes little sense. Who published this miss mash?

  9. JEHR

    For a short period of time, the financial system worked for the benefit of all people within the capitalistic system also described as democratic socialism. Gradually, as regulations were done away with, and as people became more enamoured of being filthy rich, then the financial system began to serve the few who were more duplicitous than the majority of others. “Democratic Capitalism” appears to be an oxymoron which has within itself both destruction and creation and by its very nature causes crises. Another way to look at finance is to think of human nature as a pendulum that swings between greed and avarice at one time and towards selflessness and generosity at another where the change creates crises for someone whichever way it swings.

    Whichever way the pendulum swings, there are people winding up the clock for either the benefit of themselves or for the benefit of all. It is done knowingly and not for some mysterious reason that this article implies.

  10. Synoia

    But financial markets and economics relations in general are not governed by knowable laws.

    Not one mention of Chaos, Or Chaos Theory, or Catastrophe theory, or nonlinear feedback.

  11. jcazador

    Re: Brooksley Born
    This article speaks of a “Brooksley Born proposal”.
    In fact, what she proposed is that derivatives be studied.
    Also relevant to note, the concept of observer influencing observed has a name in science,
    it is called the Heisenberg Principle.

  12. LyonNightroad

    “One of the questions the book poses is, why can this happen? The answer is that the most important economic thing that ever happened is the discovery of science based on mathematics, which has been used by enterprise and innovation.”

    I found this a bit irritating as it totally ignores the discovery of a finite supply of incredibly energy dense fossil fuels. That’s an important part of the story that people like to ignore.

  13. Chauncey Gardiner

    Appreciated Pollock’s observations about the credit cycle, how debt fuels asset price bubbles, the inevitability of price corrections; as well as the unique economic environment of the past 200 years. While respectful of his time horizon caveat, I’m less supportive of Pollock’s argument for viewing the markets and adverse effects on the financial system through what seems to be a variant of the “Random Walk Theory”. Based on the accumulated evidence over the past couple decades, and without rendering a value judgment about policy desirability, I believe that the financial markets have been and continue to be manipulated and heavily gamed in the short term. Over the longer term, however, I believe there will be reversion to the mean when we will see the stock market indexes trading below their long-term mean for a number of years.

    1. cnchal

      > I believe that the financial markets have been and continue to be manipulated and heavily gamed in the short term.

      Of course. My own sense of the ‘economy’ is based on production and consumption, ie the real economy that affects us every day, so it was an ear opener the other day on Wolfstreet’s podcast where he described a company that was run by a hedge fund.

      Here is a company, I forget the name as that isn’t what is important, whose sole purpose is to buy MBS backed by the federal government for the total amount of $100 billion and fund that with repo loans. This company has zero employees and one of it’s expenses is to pay a mangement fee to the hedge fund. It churns through $4 trillion of repo loans annually.

      Roughly speaking, this financial fairy tale could be siphoning a few billion to the hedge fund annually, enough to float a fleet of mega yachts, all money for nothing, extracted from the corrupt financial system.

      The FED has repeatedly said they are not sure why the banks that are supposed to lend into the repo market are not doing it and has had to step in to stop some type of financial contagion from starting a financial fire in the engine room.

      When this started a few months ago the overnight repo rates balooned to nearly 10% which would make these types of financial companies go broke almost instantaneously. It is as if the financial system has these strategically placed IEDs ready to blow the system up as soon as the hedge funds don’t get their way. A hostage situation writ large.

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