Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Review: Against the Gods

Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk by Peter L. Bernstein is the third book I've read in the book swaps I do with my fee only financial advisor. I never would have picked this up to read myself, but I'm much better informed on the topic of risk having read it. Berstein's book is primarily historical, somewhat biographical, and minimally technical in his comprehensive treatment of risk.

The sections and chapters progress historically from the earliest notion of numbers and risk quantification in ancient times to the present day--or at least 1996 when the book came out. The earlier chapters deal with historical developments in the mathematics of probability and statistical theories. The later chapters focus more on risk in modern financial markets. In the concluding chapter titled "Awaiting the Wildness" Bernstein writes:
As we look ahead toward the new millennium, what are the prospects that we can ... hope to bring more risks under control and make progress at the same time? ... despite the many ingenious tools ... created to attack the puzzle, much remains unsolved. Discontinuities, irregularities, and volatilities seem to be proliferating rather than diminishing. (p.329)
Yes, it is a wild and risky world out there! I wonder what the author would say today as we're digging out of the recent implosion in our global financial system? Overall, I enjoyed the book, particularly the biographical sketches of the many intellectual luminaries who contributed to the body of knowledge on risk and probability. I particularly enjoyed the chapter on Prospect Theory which was a core part of Predictably Irrational, another book Brent loaned me. Recognizing the classical view of rationality was wrong and that human "logic" is not so logical leads to some fascinating conclusions about the human condition.
Prospect Theory discovered behavior patterns that had never been recognized by proponents of rational decision-making. Kahneman and Tversky ascribe these patterns to two human shortcomings. First, emotion often destroys the self-control that is essential to rational decision-making. Second, people are often unable to understand fully what they are dealing with. They experience what psychologists call cognitive difficulties. (p. 271)
Prospect Theory discovered asymmetry in human decisions involving gains vs. decisions involving losses. People are more risk averse about winning than losing, i.e. we take more risks to avoid loss than to achieve gains. Adding this discovery to the observation that loss remaining unresolved, such as the loss of a loved one, can provoke intense, irrational, and abiding risk-aversion is a profound insight that explains a lot of human behavior. It also got me thinking more deeply about why I make some of the decisions I do. In addition to the insights on human behavior, this book also confirmed and solidified my thoughts on money management and investing.

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