the best of all possible worlds/the invisible hand/modern portfolio theory …and stupid stuff


Scientific thinkers of the seventeenth- and eighteenth centuries in Europe described the universe as being like a gigantic, complex, smoothly-functioning watch.  This implies, they argued, that the cosmos must have been made by the supreme watchmaker = God.

G W Leibniz, the inventor of calculus, offered the idea (later lampooned by Voltaire in Candide) that ours is also the best of all possible worlds.  What about war, famine, disease, poverty…?  Leibniz’ view is that though we can imagine a world like ours, only better, that thought-experiment world is not possible.  Put a different way, Leibniz thought that behind the scenes God uses a calculus-like maximizing function for his creation.  The total amount of goodness in the world is the highest it can be.  Were we to make one existing bad thing better, other things would worsen enough that the sum total of good would be reduced.

Adam Smith

Around the same time Adam Smith introduced into economics basically the same idea, the “invisible hand” that directs individuals, all following their own self-interest, in a way that also somehow ends up serving the public interest.  This idea, still a staple of economics and finance, has the same, ultimately theological, roots–that behind the scenes a benificent God is working to create the best possible outcome.

since then

The scientific world has moved on since Leibniz and Smith, thanks to Hegel/Marx (social evolution), Schopenhauer (collective unconscious), Darwin (natural evolution), Kierkegaard (God of religion vs. god of science), Nietzsche (change without progress) and Freud (individual unconscious).

Twentieth-century physicists, starting with Einstein, have suggested that the universe is in fact messier and more unruly than Newton thought.

Nevertheless, the laissez faire assumption of the invisible hand that makes everything ok remains a key element of economic and financial theorizing.

Modern Portfolio Theory

Invented by academics over fifty years ago, MPT is what every MBA student learns in business school.  Its main conclusion is that the highest value portfolio (i.e., the best of all possible portfolios) is the market index.  A cynic might argue that the main attraction of a theory that says practical knowledge or experience in financial markets is useless is that it suits the interests of professors who possess neither.

However, the conclusion is not just convenient for the educational establishment.  It also fits squarely into the 18th century European Enlightenment view of the “invisible hand” guiding the market.

MPT requires a bunch of counter-intuitive assumptions, summed up in the efficient markets hypothesis, including that:

–everyone acts rationally

–everyone has the same information

–everyone has the same investment objectives

–everyone has the same investment time frame

–everyone has the same risk tolerances

–there are no dominant, market-moving players.

Granted all this, one can argue that any portfolio that differs from the market will be worse than the market.

The standard criticism of MPT is that it ignores the bouts of greed and fear that periodically take control of markets.  In fact, even while MPT was being formulated, markets were being roiled by the conglomerate mania of the late Sixties, the Nifty Fifty mania of the early Seventies and the wicked bear panic of 1974, when stocks were ultimately trading below net cash on the balance sheet and still went down every day.

Arguably anyone looking out an ivory tower window should have noticed that MPT had no way of talking about the crazy stuff that was roiling Wall Street almost constantly during that period–and which showed its assumptions were loony.  Nevertheless, theology trumped the facts.


In a way, MPT suits me fine.  The fewer people looking for undervalued companies the easier it is for the rest of us to find them.

However, one basic high-level assumption that even professional investors still make is that the economic/political system in the US functions relatively prudently and therefore the economy remains more or less stable.  But in essence this is only a different way of saying the “invisible hand” guides self-interest-seeking individuals in politics toward a socially beneficial result.

I’m not sure that’s true anymore, if it ever was.  For one thing, Washington has relied almost exclusively on monetary policy to fine-tune the US economy over the past generation–encouraging all sorts of unhealthy financial speculation and intensifying social inequality.  Washington has also done less than the ruling body of any other developed country to help citizens cope with dramatic structural economic changes over the past twenty years.  Resulting dissatisfaction has caused the rise to power of newcomers like Donald Trump who have pledged to address these issues but whose racism, venality and stunning incompetence appear to me to be doing large-scale economic and political damage to the country.

This development presents a significant issue for laissez faire theorists in the way deep emotionally-driven market declines do for the efficient markets hypothesis.  As a practical matter, though, the situation is far worse than that:  recent events in the US and UK illustrate, populating the halls of economic and political power with self-serving incompetents can do extraordinary amounts of damage.  Left unchecked, at some point this has to have a negative effect on stock returns.











Modern Monetary Theory (MMT)

Simply put, MMT is the idea that for a country that issues government debt in its own currency budget deficits don’t matter.   The government can simply print more money if it wants to spend more than it collects in taxes.

Although the theory has been around for a while (the first Google result I got was a critical opinion piece from almost a decade ago), it’s been revived recently by “progressive” Democrats arguing for dramatically increasing social welfare spending.  For them, the answer to the question “What about the Federal deficit?,”  is “MMT,” the government can always issue more debt/print more money.

MMT reminds me a bit of Modern Portfolio Theory (MPT), which was crafted in the 1970s and “proved” that the wild gyrations going on in world stock markets in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s were impossible.


Four issues come to mind:

–20th century economic history–the UK, Greece, Italy, Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, lots of Latin America…   demonstrates that really bad things happen once government debt gets to the level where investors begin to suspect they won’t be repaid in full.

This has already happened three times in the US: during the Carter administration, when Washington was forced to issue Treasury bonds denominated in foreign currency; during the government debt crisis of 1987, which caused a bond market collapse that triggered, in turn, the Black Monday stock market swoon a few months later; and during the Great Bond Massacre of 1993-94.

In other words, as with MPT, the briefest glance outside through an ivory tower window would show the theory doesn’t describe reality very well

–the traditional case for gold–and, lately, for cryptocurrencies–is to hedge against the government tendency to repay debt in inflation-debased currency.  In other words, every investor’s checklist includes guarding against print-more-money governments

–excessive spending today is conventionally (and correctly, in my view) seen as leaving today’s banquet check to be picked up by one’s children or grandchildren.  In the contemporary cautionary tale of Japan, the tab in question has included massive loss of national wealth, a sharp drop in living standards and economic stagnation for a third of a century.  No wonder Japanese Millennials have a hard time dealing with their elders.

Why would the US be different?  Why are Millennial legislators, of all people, advocating this strategy?

–conventional wisdom is that the first indication that a government is losing its creditworthiness is that foreigners stop buying.  This is arguably not a big deal, since foreigners come and go; locals typically make up the heart of the market.  During the US bond market crisis of 1987, however, the biggest domestic bond market participants staged the buyers strike.  Something very similar happened in 1993-94.  I don’t see any reason to believe that the culture of the “bond vigilante” has disappeared.  So, in my opinion, the negative reaction to a policy of constant deficit spending in the US is likely to be severe and to come very quickly.