Financial markets were supposed to know better. They were supposed to be near-perfect processors of information and assessors of risk. They were supposed to be steering us toward a more prosperous, less economically volatile future. Then they failed, spectacularly. Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market tells the story of how we came to believe that financial markets knew best, and how that belief steered us wrong. Chronicling the rise and fall of efficient market theory and its century-long role in the making of the modern financial industry, the book is both history and intellectual whodunit. It brings to life the people and ideas that forged modern finance and investing, from the Great Depression and into the financial calamity of today. It’s a tale largely about professors, but professors who made and lost fortunes, battled fiercely over ideas, beat the house in blackjack, wrote bestselling books, and played major roles on the world stage. It’s also a tale of Wall Street’s evolution, the power of the market to generate wealth and wreak havoc, and free-market capitalism’s recurrent war with itself.
The efficient market hypothesis—long part of academic folklore but codified in the 1960s at the University of Chicago—has evolved into a powerful myth. It has been the driver of trillions of investing dollars, the inspiration for index funds and vast new derivatives markets. In its strongest form, the theory holds that the decisions of millions of investors, all digging for information and striving for an edge, inevitably add up to rational, perfect markets. That belief has crumbled.
The Myth of the Rational Market introduces a new wave of scholars who no longer teach that investors are rational or that markets are always right. Many now agree with Yale professor Robert Shiller that efficient market theory “represents one of the most remarkable errors in the history of economic thought.” Today the theory is giving way to new hypotheses of market behavior growing out of psychology, physics, evolutionary biology—and even traditional economics. In his landmark intellectual history, Fox uncovers the new ideas that may drive markets in the century ahead.
Twilight of the Efficient Markets, Cosmo Shalizi, American Scientist, November-December 2009. “Fox’s explanations of technical material are superbly accurate and readable … Clearly the result of many years of research and reading, the book is—its epilogue on the ongoing financial crisis notwithstanding—in no sense a rush job. Rather, it is a model of what the popularization of social science can be, but too rarely is, and it will continue to be read when the current crisis is many years behind us.”
“The Myth of the Rational Market” (no link available), Harvard Business Review, October 2009. An “insightful book.” Fox’s “smart journalistic eye and fine prose keep the theoretical discussion lively.”
School for Scoundrels, Paul Krugman, New York Times Book Review, Aug. 9, 2009. “Do we really need yet another book about the financial crisis? Yes, we do — because this one is different. … Fox’s book is not an idle exercise in intellectual history, which makes it a must-read for anyone who wants to understand the mess we’re in.”
Myth of the Rational Market: the rise and fall of the idea of market rationality, Cory Doctorow, boingboing, July 15, 2009. “[W]hat Fox has put together is a thoughtful, often fascinating, always illuminating history of the idea of market rationality, and the fortunes of the economists, bankers, regulators, philosophers and psychologists who’ve sought to explain the stormy seas of the market (and to get rich while doing it, of course).”
‘Myth of the Rational Market’ says you can’t predict stock market, Richard Eisenberg,USA Today, June 29, 2009. “Fox spends more than 300 yawn-inducing pages slogging through the rise and eventual fall of the rational-market theory (his 2002 Fortunearticle inspiring the book was far more interesting).”
Rational Man, Buttonwood’s notebook, Economist.com. ”An intellectual tour-de-force … one of the two financial books I have enjoyed most this year.”
Slaves to Some Defunct Economist, The Economist, June 11, 2009. “Fascinating and entertainingly told. … Mr Fox has written a worthy successor to Capital Ideas, the late Peter Bernstein’s 1990s classic on the emergence of the rational-market myth: bang up-to-date; alas, without the happy ending.”
The Price is (Usually) Right, Burton G. Malkiel, The Wall Street Journal, June 10, 2009. “Mr. Fox’s book is really a lively chapter in the history of ideas … Among much else, Mr. Fox presents lucid explanations of Portfolio Theory, the Capital Asset Pricing Model and Option Pricing Theory without the use of a single equation. And he brings the major players in his drama to life with an appealingly breezy style. … With The Myth of the Rational Market Mr. Fox has produced a valuable and highly readable history of risk and reward. He has not, however, been able to bury the hypothesis that our securities markets are usually remarkably efficient.”
Yale Oddball, Math Whiz Drove Efficient Market to Ruin, James Pressley, Bloomberg, June 9, 2009. “A rich history world’s most seductive investing idea, the efficient markets theory. The jacket copy is right to call this ‘an intellectual whodunit.’”
An Economic Model Turned to Myth, John Authers, Financial Times, June 8, 2009. An “excellent new history … impressively broad and richly researched.”
On Wall Street, the Price Isn’t Right, Roger Lowenstein, The Washington Post, June 7, 2009. “Fox … spins a fascinating historical narrative. … Fox recognizes that true believers in the market’s efficiency suffered from a ‘blinkered’ mindset and ‘tunnel vision.’ Yet I think he lets them off too easily.”
A Most Inefficient Theory, Glenn C. Altschuler, Barron’s, June 1, 2009. A “lucid, lively and learned account.”
The Myth of the Rational Market, Robert J. Hughes, SmartMoney, May 22, 2009. “What makes Fox’s book so rewarding and so readable is his way with the telling anecdote.”
The Myth of the Rational Market, Rob Horning, Popmatters, May 21, 2009. “The slurry of names sometimes muddles what is otherwise a lucid synthesis of the ideas that went into what Fox calls the rational market.”
★The Myth of the Rational Market, Publishers Weekly, May 18, 2009 (ninth item down), starred review. “[T]he rare business history that reads like a thriller. … A must-read for anyone interested in the markets, our economy or government, this dense but spellbinding work brings modern finance and economics to life.”
The Myth of the Rational Market, Library Journal, May 15, 2009 (seventh review down), “Fox argues convincingly … The style here is journalistic, with personal stories that make the book entertaining, but ultimately this is a history of academic thought …”
Two Books, April 24, 2009. Menzie Chinn of the University of Wisconsin and Econbrowser discusses The Myth of the Rational Market and George Akerlof and Robert Shiller’s Animal Spirits: “They are both important books. Well worth reading.”
The price is not always right and markets can be wrong, Richard Thaler, Financial Times, Aug. 5, 2009. Economist Thaler praises Myth in an essay differentiated the “no free lunch” and “the price is right” versions of the efficient market hypothesis.
Poking Holes in a Theory of Markets, Joe Nocera, The New York Times, June 6, 2009. In his weekly column, Nocera calls Myth ”an engaging history of what might be called the rise and fall of the efficient market hypothesis.”
De mythe van de rationele markt, April 14, 2009. Katrijn de Ronde of Dutch financial website z24 runs through the main arguments of the book. In Dutch.