Louis Bachelier's Theory of Speculation: The Origins of Modern Finance

Louis Bachelier's Theory of Speculation: The Origins of Modern Finance

by Louis Bachelier

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March 29, 1900, is considered by many to be the day mathematical finance was born. On that day a French doctoral student, Louis Bachelier, successfully defended his thesis Théorie de la Spéculation at the Sorbonne. The jury, while noting that the topic was "far away from those usually considered by our candidates," appreciated its high degree of


March 29, 1900, is considered by many to be the day mathematical finance was born. On that day a French doctoral student, Louis Bachelier, successfully defended his thesis Théorie de la Spéculation at the Sorbonne. The jury, while noting that the topic was "far away from those usually considered by our candidates," appreciated its high degree of originality. This book provides a new translation, with commentary and background, of Bachelier's seminal work.

Bachelier's thesis is a remarkable document on two counts. In mathematical terms Bachelier's achievement was to introduce many of the concepts of what is now known as stochastic analysis. His purpose, however, was to give a theory for the valuation of financial options. He came up with a formula that is both correct on its own terms and surprisingly close to the Nobel Prize-winning solution to the option pricing problem by Fischer Black, Myron Scholes, and Robert Merton in 1973, the first decisive advance since 1900.

Aside from providing an accurate and accessible translation, this book traces the twin-track intellectual history of stochastic analysis and financial economics, starting with Bachelier in 1900 and ending in the 1980s when the theory of option pricing was substantially complete. The story is a curious one. The economic side of Bachelier's work was ignored until its rediscovery by financial economists more than fifty years later. The results were spectacular: within twenty-five years the whole theory was worked out, and a multibillion-dollar global industry of option trading had emerged.

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Louis Bachelier's Theory of Speculation

By Louis Bachelier


Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-11752-2

Chapter One

Mathematics and Finance

'Janice! D'ya think you can find that postcard?'

Professor Paul A. Samuelson was in his office at MIT in the Autumn of 2003 relating how, several decades earlier, he had come across the PhD thesis, dating back to 1900, in which Louis Bachelier had developed a theory of option pricing, a topic that was beginning to occupy Samuelson and other economists in the 1950s. Although no economist at the time had ever heard of Bachelier, he was known in mathematical circles for having independently invented Brownian motion and proved some results about it that appeared in contemporary texts such as J. L. Doob's famous book Stochastic Processes, published in 1953. William Feller, whose influential two-volume treatise An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications is widely regarded as a masterpiece of twentieth century mathematics, even suggested the alternative name Wiener-Bachelier process for the mathematical process we now know as Brownian motion. The story goes that L. J. ('Jimmie') Savage, doyen of mathematical statisticians of the post-World War II era, knew of Bachelier's work and, with proselytizing zeal, thought that the economists ought to be told. So he sent postcards to his economist friends warning them that if they had not read Bachelier it was about time they did. Hence Samuelson's appeal to Janice Murray, personal assistant extraordinaire to the Emeritus Professors at MIT's Department of Economics.

'When do you think you received it?' she enquired. 'Oh, I don't know. Maybe thirty-five years ago.'

How was Janice going to handle a request like that? For one thing, his timing was way off: it was more like forty-five years. But Janice Murray did not get where she is today without diplomatic skills.

'There's one place it might be', she said, 'and if it isn't there, I'm afraid I can't help you.'

It wasn't there.

Jimmie Savage's postcards-at least, the one sent to Samuelson-had spectacular consequences. An intensive period of development in financial economics followed, first at MIT and soon afterwards in many other places as well, leading to the Nobel Prize-winning solution of the option pricing problem by Fischer Black, Myron Scholes and Robert Merton in 1973. In the same year, the world's first listed options exchange opened its doors in Chicago. Within a decade, option trading had mushroomed into a multibillion dollar industry. Expansion, both in the volume and the range of contracts traded, has continued, and trading of option contracts is firmly established as an essential component of the global financial system.

In this book we want to give the reader the opportunity to trace the developments in, and interrelations between, mathematics and economics that lay behind the results and the markets we see today. It is indeed a curious story. We have already alluded to the fact that Bachelier's work attracted little attention in either economics or business and had certainly been completely forgotten fifty years afterwards. On the mathematical side, things were very different: Bachelier was not at all lost sight of. He continued to publish articles and books in probability theory and held academic positions in France up to his retirement from the University of Besançon in 1937. He was personally known to other probabilists in France and his work was cited in some of the most influential papers of the twentieth century, including Kolmogorov's famous paper of 1931, possibly the most influential of them all.

Bachelier's achievement in his thesis was to introduce, starting from scratch, much of the panoply of modern stochastic analysis, including many concepts generally associated with the names of other people working at considerably later dates. He defined Brownian motion and the Markov property, derived the Chapman-Kolmogorov equation and established the connection between Brownian motion and the heat equation. Much of the agenda for probability theory in the succeeding sixty years was concerned precisely with putting all these ideas on a rigorous footing.

Did Samuelson and his colleagues really need Bachelier? Yes and no. In terms of the actual mathematical content of Bachelier's thesis, the answer is certainly no. All of it had subsequently been put in much better shape and there was no reason to revisit Bachelier's somewhat idiosyncratic treatment. The parts of the subject that really did turn out to be germane to the financial economists-the theory of martingales and stochastic integrals-were in any case later developments. The intriguing point here is that these later developments, which did (unconsciously) to some extent follow on from Bachelier's original programme, were made almost entirely from a pure mathematical perspective, and if their authors did have any possible extra-mathematical application in mind-which most of them did not-it was certainly not finance. Yet when the connection was made in the 1960s between financial economics and the stochastic analysis of the day, it was found that the latter was so perfectly tuned to the needs of the former that no goal-oriented research programme could possibly have done better.

In spite of this, Paul Samuelson's own answer to the above question is an unequivocal 'yes'. Asked what impact Bachelier had had on him when he followed Savage's advice and read the thesis, he replied 'it was the tools'. Bachelier had attacked the option pricing problem-and come up with a formula extremely close to the Black-Scholes formula of seventy years later-using the methods of what was later called stochastic analysis. He represented prices as stochastic processes and computed the quantities of interest by exploiting the connection between these processes and partial differential equations. He based his argument on a martingale assumption, which he justified on economic grounds. Samuelson immediately recognized that this was the way to go. And the tools were in much better shape than those available to Bachelier.

From an early twenty-first century perspective it is perhaps hard to appreciate that an approach based on stochastic methods was a revolutionary step. It goes back to the question of what financial economists consider to be their business. In the past this was exclusively the study of financial markets as part of an economic system: how they arise, what their role in the system is and, crucially, what determines the formation of prices. The classic example is the isolated island economy where grain-growing farmers on different parts of the island experience different weather conditions. Everybody can be better off if some medium of exchange is set up whereby grain can be transferred from north to south when there is drought in the south, in exchange for a claim by northerners on southern grain which can be exercised when weather conditions in the south improve. In a market of this sort, prices will ultimately be determined by the preferences of the farmers (how much value they put on additional consumption) and by the weather. If one wants a stochastic model of the prices, one should start by modelling the participants' preferences, the weather and the rules under which the market operates. To take a purely econometric approach, i.e. represent the prices in terms of some parametric family of stochastic processes and estimate the parameters using statistical techniques, is to abandon any attempt at understanding the fundamentals of the market. Understandably, any such idea was anathema to right-thinking economists.

When considering option pricing problems, however, the situation is fundamentally different. If the price of a financial asset at time t is [S.sub.t], then the value of a call option on that asset exercised at time T with strike K is [H.sub.T] = max([S.sub.T] - K, 0) so that [H.sub.T] is a deterministic function of [S.sub.T]. This is why call options are described as derivative securities. The option pricing problem is not to explain why the price [S.sub.T] is what it is, but simply to explain what is the relationship between the price of an asset and the price of a derivative security written on that asset. As Bachelier saw, and Black and Scholes conclusively established, this question is best addressed starting from a stochastic process description of the 'underlying asset'. It is not bundled up with any explanation as to why the underlying asset process takes the form it does. In fact, Bachelier did have the right approach, although not the complete answer, to the option pricing problem-and at least as good an answer as anyone for fifty years afterwards-and his service to posterity was to point Samuelson and others in the right direction at a time when the mathematical tools needed for a complete solution were lying there waiting to be used.

Since it was not the norm at the time to include full references, it is impossible to know how much of the literature he was familiar with, but Bachelier's work did not appear from an economic void. Abstract market models were already gaining importance. Starting in the middle of the nineteenth century several attempts had been made to construct a theory of stock prices. Notably, Bachelier's development mirrors that of Jules Regnault, who, in 1853, presented a study of stock market variations. In the absence of new information which would influence the 'true price' of the stock, he believed that price fluctuations were driven by transactions on the exchange which were in turn driven by investors' expectations. He likened speculation on the exchange to a game of dice, arguing that future price movements do not depend on those in the past and there are just two possible outcomes: an increase in price or a decrease in price, each with probability one-half. (These probabilities are subjective probabilities arising from incomplete information, and different assessments of that information, on the part of the market players.) Regnault's study of the relationship between time spans and price variations led him to his law of differences (loi des écarts) or square root law: the spread of the prices is in direct proportion to the square root of the time spans. Bachelier provides a mathematical derivation of this law which governs what he calls the 'coefficient of instability', but Regnault was no mathematician and his theoretical justification is unconvincing. He represented the true price of a security during an interval as the centre of a circle with the interior of the circle representing all possible prices. The area of the circle grows linearly with time and so the deviations from the true price grow with the radius of the circle, which is the square root of time. Regnault did, on the other hand, produce a convincing verification of his law, based on price data that he had compiled on the 3% rentes from 1825 to 1862.

Of course Bachelier was concerned not just with stocks, but also with the valuation of derivative securities. From the beginning of the nineteenth century, it was common to value stocks relative to a fixed bond. Instead of looking at the absolute values of the stocks, tables were compiled that compared their relative price differences with the chosen bond and grouped them according to the size of the fluctuations in these differences. In the same way options were analysed relative to the underlying security and, in 1870, Henri Lefèvre, former private secretary to Baron James de Rothschild, developed the geometric representation of option transactions employed by Bachelier thirty years later. Lefèvre even used this visual approach to develop 'the abacus of the speculator', a wooden board with moveable letters which investors could reposition to find the outcome of a decision on each type of option contract. This ingenious invention was similar to the autocompteur, a device that he had previously introduced for computing bets on racehorses.

Bachelier's thesis begins with a detailed description of some of the derivative contracts available on the exchange and an explanation of how they operate. This is followed by their geometric representation. Next comes the random walk model. Once this model is in place, economics takes a back seat while he develops a remarkable body of original mathematics. Assuming only that the price evolves as a continuous, memoryless process, homogeneous in time and space, he establishes what we now call the Chapman-Kolmogorov equation and deduces that the distribution of the price at a fixed time is Gaussian. He then considers the probability of different prices as a function of time and establishes the square root law. He presents an alternative derivation of this by considering the price process as a limit of random walks. The next step is the connection between the transition probabilities and Fourier's heat equation, neatly translating Fourier's law of heat flow into an analogous law of 'probability flow'. There follow many pages of calculations of option prices under this model with comparisons to published prices. The final striking piece of mathematics is the calculation of the probability that the price will exceed a given level in a particular time interval. The calculation uses the reflection principle, well known in the combinatorial setting as Bachelier himself points out, but his direct proof of this result is a thoroughly modern treatment with paths of the price process as the basic object of study. The two things in the thesis that stand out mathematically are the introduction of continuous stochastic processes and the concentration on their paths rather than their value at a fixed time as the fundamental object of study. There is sometimes a lack of rigour, but never a shortage of originality or sound intuition.

Options and Rentes

Option contracts have been traded for centuries. It is salutary to realize how sophisticated the financial markets were long ago. Richard Dale's book The First Crash describes the London market of the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, where forward contracts, put options (called 'puts') and call options (called 'refusals') were actively traded in Exchange Alley. It seems that the British were at the time a nation of inveterate gamblers. One could bet on all kinds of things: for example, one could buy annuities on the lives of third parties such as the Prince of Wales or the Pretender. Had they known, these luminaries might have taken comfort from the idea that a section of the population had a direct stake in their continued existence, but they would have been less pleased to discover that an equal and opposite section had a direct stake in their immediate demise.

Like these annuities, options were simply a bet, and a dangerous one at that because of the huge amount of leverage involved. Think of a one-year at-the-money call option on a stock, for which the premium is 10% of the current stock price; thus a u1 investment buys options on u10 of stock. If the stock price fails to rise, the investment is simply lost. On the other hand if it rises by 20% then the option pays u2, a 100% return on the investment (as opposed to the 20% return gained by investing in the stock itself). The option investor is taking a massive risk-the risk of losing his entire investment-to back his view that the price will rise. For this reason option contracts have always had a slightly disreputable air about them, which continues to the present day. Lawsuits are regularly taken out by aggrieved parties claiming that the risks in option-like investments were not properly explained to them.


Excerpted from Louis Bachelier's Theory of Speculation by Louis Bachelier Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are saying about this

Paul Embrechts
This gem of a book will please many readers, including students and researchers in economics, finance, mathematics, and physics. Beyond presenting an annotated translation of Bachelier's original thesis, it also provides a historical overview of the key scientific developments in various fields related to the concepts Bachelier introduced. It reads very well and offers great insight into the historical developments of probability and mathematical finance.
Paul Embrechts, ETH Zurich, coauthor of "Quantitative Risk Management"
Chris Rogers
Louis Bachelier's thesis is a seminal work, and to have it readily accessible will be a most valuable contribution to the field. This book represents a timely look back at the scientific origins of the enormously important modern-day finance industry.
Chris Rogers, University of Cambridge, coauthor of" Diffusions, Markov Processes and Martingales, Volumes 1 and 2"
Tomas Bjork
Mark Davis and Alison Etheridge have done a splendid job in translating the Bachelier thesis, thus making it accessible to a wide audience. Apart from the thesis itself, they provide the reader with institutional information, a biography of Bachelier, and a short history of the development of stochastic analysis and mathematical finance. The result is a nice slim volume that will certainly be on the bookshelves of everyone interested in the subject.
Tomas Bjork, Professor of Mathematical Finance, Stockholm School of Economics

Meet the Author

Mark Davis, Professor of Mathematics at Imperial College London, has written three books on stochastic modeling and control, most recently "Markov Models and Optimization". Alison Etheridge, Professor of Probability at the University of Oxford, is the author of "A Course in Financial Calculus" and "Introduction to Superprocesses".

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