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The Opportunities Brought to You By Distress

As we sift though the debris of today's crisis, economists and policy makers alike are trying to assess why risk management systems and regulatory constraints didn't kick in before the global economy became engulfed in a tsunami of red ink. But economist Andrew W. Lo, the Harris & Harris Group Professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management, director of the school's Laboratory of Financial Engineering and founder and chief scientific officer of AlphaSimplex Group LLC, an investment adviser in Cambridge, Massachusetts, is less surprised than most seasoned observers. Lo has studied the connections between financial decision making, neuroscience and evolutionary psychology for over a decade. Among his findings are that professional traders, far from being cool-headed and rational, can become transfixed by extreme price movements, their decision-making capabilities temporarily hijacked by emotions such as fear and anxiety. In Lo's view, "behavioral blind spots" (which he defines as evolutionarily hard-wired reactions to perceived risks and rewards) are particularly dangerous during periods of economic extreme: bubbles and crashes. During these times, he says, "market forces cannot be trusted to yield the most sensible outcomes."
In an interview with SMR editors, Lo says that balance sheets and income statements are adequate for
measuring a company's profits and losses, but provide no information about future risk. He discusses a number of topics relevant to the financial crisis, including the inadequacies of corporate governance, the weakness of standard accounting practices to assess corporate risk and the need for better information and frameworks to inform risk-based decisions. In Lo's view, the financial crisis of 2008-2009 has tested two core ideas: the belief that corporate governance systems are designed to maximize shareholder wealth, and the assumption that markets and businesses will always react rationally to environmental change. If the latter were true, he says, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and other financial institutions would have seen different outcomes.
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