Financiers of Victorian England would marvel at our nativity about markets and economics

An old post written in Oct 2016 but really fascinating.

Andrew Odlyzko, Professor of Mathematics (?!) and an interdisciplinary researcher writes about Victorian Finance:

Although the financial system was far smaller than today, public opinions about it were not dissimilar.  Respect was often mixed with fear and loathing,  as in an 1850 magazine article that called the London Stock Exchange “an institution destitute of moral principle, but at the same time omnipotent in its influence upon the moral and social condition of nations.”

So what would have surprised those early Victorians observers the most, were they to come alive today?  One candidate would surely be our touching acceptance of financial innovation as socially productive.  Another would have been our faith in central planning, in the presumed ability of policy makers to ensure smooth and steady growth.  The Minsky Instability Hypothesis would have been regarded as obviously true.  What we find in the 19th century are opinions, such as that of The Times, that crashes occur about once a decade, and that they lead people to “the reflection that they are at least the wiser for it, that they will not be taken in a second time,” and yet “the next fit comes on them like the rest, and they go through all the stages of the disease with pathological accuracy.”

The Efficient Market Hypothesis would have seemed to the early Victorians as amusing, but a fantasy.  They understood that some semblance of efficiency could be achieved, but only through diligent efforts of experienced traders.  And even those traders could not always control market irrationalities, and were themselves subject to limitations of groupthink.

Perhaps the greatest and hardest to accept surprise in modern markets would have been the combination of high equity prices and low long term interest rates.  Today’s commentators regard this as natural, and keep reassuring investors that low interest rates help sustain record-high corporate profits, which justify the high share prices. There is certainly evidence that in the short run, low interest rates do boost profits.  But on a long scale, basic economic logic says that interest rate and profits should move the same way. After all, bonds and equity are just different ways to fund ventures, and interest and profits are the cost of capital.  There is a difference between the two, reflecting different risks.  But there should be a strong positive correlation.  And that is how the early Victorians thought about it.  The theoretician Robert Hamilton wrote about it in the 1810s. So did James Morrison, one of the richest merchant bankers of that era, in the 1840s.  And so did others.  Were they to come alive today, they would surely be astounded.  They would wonder why, if Lloyd Blankfein, the head of Goldman Sachs, was indeed “doing God’s work,” was he not mobilizing all that low-cost money lying around in order to compete away the extravagantly high equity returns?  And they would surely conjecture that once capitalism started working properly again, this anomaly would disappear, and either bond or share prices (or both) would crash.

Fascinating to read about history of thought…


One Response to “Financiers of Victorian England would marvel at our nativity about markets and economics”

  1. MS Says:

    Nit picking on the headline: ‘Nativity’ or ‘Naivete’?

    Fascinating nonetheless !

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