What is it that distinguishes the thousands of years of history from what we think of as modern times? This is the question Peter L. Bernstein asks in the beginning of his new book, Against the Gods, and the answer put simply is...risk management.
Risk management? Well, that's not very poetic, is it? But as Bernstein points out, risk is essential to the development of our society; this is as true as the maxim 'nothing ventured, nothing gained' is old. But how did we discover the proper method for calculating insurance premiums in the first place? At what price should a crop future be set so as to be fair to both buyer and seller? It is questions like these that Bernstein, the author of a number of books on economics and finance, answers as he traces the emergence of risk management from calculating the probability of dice games to insuring investment portfolios.
Risk management by definition has to do with 'maximizing the areas where we have some control over the outcome while minimizing the areas where we have absolutely no control over the outcome and linkage between effect and cause is hidden from us.' But at the end of the day, a risk is still a risk no matter how carefully measured, so where does the time-honored 'gut feeling' come into play? This is the central question of Against the Gods, and the answers are enlightening.
We have Blaise Pascal and his probability triangle to thank for the birth of risk management. Pascal solidified the notion that there was a difference between playing games and thinking about playing games. His triangle of numbers is ageometric algebraic equation that can be employed to calculate, for instance, the odds that a team down one game to zero in the World Series has of coming back to win the pennant. (There are 22 combinations of wins and losses out of a possible 64 that the underdog will come back to win, by the way.) The problem with applying such calculations to real-life situations is that pure odds only work if each team has an equal chance of winning.
It wasn't until the Reformation that people began to that understand that they must take responsibility for their own decisions, and as Bernstein duly points out: 'Risk management only becomes possible when people are free agents.' So as awareness of self-determination spread, mathematicians put their minds to methods of determining risk while businessmen put their wallets towards using this information to limit risk.
It was in 1976, however, that one of the most highly developed forms of risk management heretofore imagined was spawned, from the mind of a Berkeley finance professor named Hayne Leland. For a premium, portfolio insurance guarded an investor against incurring huge losses in the stock market. Hayne had devised a scheme that severely limited the downside of the riskiest institution of all! For a time, everything went along gloriously for portfolio insurance, making millions for Leland, until the market crash of October 1987, when such huge losses could not be traded against the income of the premiums paid. At the end of the day, the best risk management failed in the face of the market's oldest precept: You cannot expect to make large profits without taking the risk of large losses. Related work was done by economists Robert C. Merton and Myron S. Scholes: For their mathematical theorems that accurately priced options (thereby drastically reducing the risk factor), they were recently awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics. Their theory is explained in depth in Against the Gods.
I felt a growing sense of anticipation as I read this book, expecting that the progress of risk management would lead me directly to the best investment strategies available. And though the book indeed follows this path, risk management as we know it today stops well short of achieving a foolproof method of playing the market. More to the point, it is human nature that does not allow these measurements to limit risk. "Against the Gods" reads like a good piece of historical fiction in which the events, facts, and dates come alive in the midst of the personalities who effected them. Pascal, for example, renounced mathematics twice in his life, both times turning to religion. With the claim of Renunciation, total and sweet, he gave up high living in favor of the monastery, leaving the unsolved intricacies of managing risks to future generations. And perhaps it is well he did, for it seems that we adhere more to the blind faith, rules of thumb, experience, instinct, and conventions that make up our gut than to the results of risk analysis.Woodall Taft is a freelance writer who resides near Silicon Valley.