Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Rationality of Harry Markowitz

A cute story about a great financial economist:
There is a story in the book about Harry Markowitz,” Mr. Zweig said the other day. He was referring to Harry M. Markowitz, the renowned economist who shared a Nobel for helping found modern portfolio theory — and proving the importance of diversification. It’s a story that says everything about how most of us act when it comes to investing. Mr. Markowitz was then working at the RAND Corporation and trying to figure out how to allocate his retirement account. He knew what he should do: “I should have computed the historical co-variances of the asset classes and drawn an efficient frontier.” (That’s efficient-market talk for draining as much risk as possible out of his portfolio.)

But, he said, “I visualized my grief if the stock market went way up and I wasn’t in it — or if it went way down and I was completely in it. So I split my contributions 50/50 between stocks and bonds.” As Mr. Zweig notes dryly, Mr. Markowitz had proved “incapable of applying” his breakthrough theory to his own money. Economists in his day believed powerfully in the concept of “economic man”— the theory that people always acted in their own best self-interest. Yet Mr. Markowitz, famous economist though he was, was clearly not an example of economic man.

I don't claim to be any better at asset allocation than Markowitz was. I take some comfort in the fact that I am not too far from the recommendations of David Swensen.