The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Friday, January 25, 2013

Anti Fragile

One of my favorite authors is Nassim Taleb. He is the author of Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan. His most recent book is Anti Fragile.

Below is an excerpt from an article Mr. Taleb has written in the Wall Street Journal. The full article may be read here.

Learning to Love Volatility

In a world that constantly throws big, unexpected events our way, we must learn to benefit from disorder, writes Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

Several years before the financial crisis descended on us, I put forward the concept of "black swans": large events that are both unexpected and highly consequential. We never see black swans coming, but when they do arrive, they profoundly shape our world: Think of World War I, 9/11, the Internet, the rise of Google GOOG -1.01% .

In economic life and history more generally, just about everything of consequence comes from black swans; ordinary events have paltry effects in the long term. Still, through some mental bias, people think in hindsight that they "sort of" considered the possibility of such events; this gives them confidence in continuing to formulate predictions. But our tools for forecasting and risk measurement cannot begin to capture black swans. Indeed, our faith in these tools make it more likely that we will continue to take dangerous, uninformed risks.

Some made the mistake of thinking that I hoped to see us develop better methods for predicting black swans. Others asked if we should just give up and throw our hands in the air: If we could not measure the risks of potential blowups, what were we to do? The answer is simple: We should try to create institutions that won't fall apart when we encounter black swans—or that might even gain from these unexpected events.

Fragility is the quality of things that are vulnerable to volatility. Take the coffee cup on your desk: It wants peace and quiet because it incurs more harm than benefit from random events. The opposite of fragile, therefore, isn't robust or sturdy or resilient—things with these qualities are simply difficult to break.
To deal with black swans, we instead need things that gain from volatility, variability, stress and disorder. My (admittedly inelegant) term for this crucial quality is "antifragile." The only existing expression remotely close to the concept of antifragility is what we derivatives traders call "long gamma," to describe financial packages that benefit from market volatility. Crucially, both fragility and antifragility are measurable.

As a practical matter, emphasizing antifragility means that our private and public sectors should be able to thrive and improve in the face of disorder. By grasping the mechanisms of antifragility, we can make better decisions without the illusion of being able to predict the next big thing. We can navigate situations in which the unknown predominates and our understanding is limited.
Herewith are five policy rules that can help us to establish antifragility as a principle of our socioeconomic life.

Rule 1: Think of the economy as being more like a cat than a washing machine.

Rule 2: Favor businesses that benefit from their own mistakes, not those whose mistakes percolate into the system. 

Rule 3: Small is beautiful, but it is also efficient.

Rule 4: Trial and error beats academic knowledge.

Rule 5: Decision makers must have skin in the game.   

 


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