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December 10, 2009

Financial Models: Why All the Fuss?

Catherine New
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Professor Paul Glasserman moderated the panel “Does the Practice of Quantitative Finance Need to Be Changed?” at the research symposium on December 4 .

The research symposium “The Quantitative Revolution and the Crisis: How Have Quantitative Financial Models Been Used and Misused” at Columbia Business School on December 4 explored the causes and effects of the proliferation of quantitative finance. Donald MacKenzie, a professor of sociology at the University of Edinburgh, gave the keynote speech (PDF).

Professor Bruce Kogut, in his opening remarks, acknowledged that financial engineering and innovation have received an onerous rap in the fallout from the financial crisis. However, he suggested that the field was ripe for public debate.

“It might be easy to leap to the conclusion that the subtext of today is that financial models created the crisis and hence innovation is bad. But such a deduction is in fact deeply complex and largely suspect,” he said. “Why is there such debate over financial innovations? After all, innovation is a driver of economic growth and wealth, so why all the fuss?” Kogut suggested three possibilites, including the disparity between private and social value, unanswered questions about systemic risk and the speed at which innovation takes place.

Professor Paul Glasserman pointed to popular media portrayals, like WIRED’s “The Secret Formula That Destroyed Wall Street and Nuked Your 401(k)” (Feb. 2009), which excoriated the financial industry’s use of models, as perpetuating misunderstanding about the uses and capabilities of quantitative finance.

“The article sets the record for the most incorrect statements packed into a title,” Glasserman said. “In a very short time there has been a dramatic shift in perception of quantitative finance.”

Glasserman moderated the panel “Does the Practice of Quantitative Finance Need to Be Changed?”, which comprised Professor Emanuel Derman, Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research at Columbia University; Professor Daniel Beunza, London School of Economics; Kent Daniel, Director of Research at Goldman Sachs; and Adam Parker, Director of Reserch and Chief Investment Strategist at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. LLC.

Much of the panel’s discussion focused on when models are useful — and not useful — in financial markets. Derman, author of My Life as a Quant, led the discussion and offered a discourse on what models are and how they can be applied (download presentation PDF). He cautioned that there is never a “right” model but rather ”somewhere north of common sense and south of hubris lies the appropriate use of models.”

Beunza, formerly a visiting professor at the Business School, cautioned that the use of models is a “doubled-edged sword”; his research shows that they lead both to increased arbritrage and better reflexiveness.

Goldman Sachs’ research director Kent Daniel argued that models benefit many fields, such as airline safety, and not only financial markets. However, he cautioned that exacting data was fundamental to the use of models. “A successful quant model has to be subjected to every kind of scrutiny you have,” he said. “If your organization doesn’t do that, you’ll have a failure.”

The symposium "The Quantitative Revolution and the Crisis: How Have Quantitative Financial Models Been Used and Misused" took place on December 4 and was co-hosted by the Center on Japanese Economy and Business and the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics.

Photo credit: Leslye Smith