Markets at Risk

Author Name: 
Robert A. Schwartz

Volatility and risk are of central importance to those of us involved in finance. They lie at the center of virtually all of our work.   Without volatility, without risk, finance would not exist as a subject in our business school curriculum, in our academic research. Finance, quite simply, would not be distinguishable from deterministic economics. Neither would finance departments in banks and industrial firms be endowed with anywhere near the importance that they currently have. 

Risk aversion, risk hedging, risk management, value at risk, risk measurement and risk premium: terms like these are part of our everyday parlance. In our industry we have high powered minds, high powered valuation formulas, high powered trading algorithms, and high powered electronic technology to pull it all together.   And yet, the events of today are showing what risk really is, and how at risk our financial markets truly are. The events of the last several months are showing us how much we do not know.

An ant, a little red or black animal that can crawl around and annoy us, has been classified as one of the dumbest creatures on earth. Yet, collectively, ants are very intelligent. Look at how they construct their colonies, divide tasks between themselves, hunt for food and, as a colony, avoid predators. Collectively, ants are very intelligent. 

So many of our colleagues in this industry are highly intelligent. The quants, the financial engineers, the entrepreneurs, the academicians (if I may be so bold), the PhD’s in chemistry, physics, and mathematics, and so on and so forth. Finance has attracted many brilliant people to its ranks. Yet, collectively, we are not doing so well right now. Collectively, we have just run into a startling, frightening hole. Are we exactly the opposite of ants? How can we individually be so brilliant and, at the same time, collectively be so very dumb?  

There is a great deal about volatility and risk that we do not understand. Even more critically, there is quite a bit about volatility and risk that we think we understand but don’t. This kind of ignorance (what we think we know but don’t) can really come back and bite us.

I believe we have lost sight of the fact that risk isn’t the only contributor to volatility. Risk has a well defined meaning to economists. Risk exists when an outcome can be described as a draw from a probability distribution with known parameters. Flip a fair coin and bet on the outcome: the chance of heads equals 50%, the chance of tails equals 50%, but beyond that we do not know what the outcome will be until after we have flipped the coin. That is risk. Give us the probability distributions, and we will do a good job modeling risk.

But along with risk, there is also uncertainty. With uncertainty, we do not know the probability distribution. In fact, we might not even know what all of the outcomes even are. Dealing wisely with uncertainty is a huge challenge. In my opinion, we have not paid sufficient formal attention to uncertainty as a cause of volatility.    

Also high on the list of our ignorance is systemic risk and uncertainty. Individual firms will fail in free markets. Their demise may be understood in the light of Adam Smith’s invisible hand, or Joseph Schumpeter’s creative destruction. Systemic risk is something else. When a systemic breakdown occurs, it is the free market itself that has failed.

High volatility has been with us for over a year now. In my research, I have been focused on this topic for many years. If you were to pick one word to describe our markets, what would that word be? My choice would be “volatility.” So let’s go for it. Let’s focus on this key property of a financial market.  

I am not thinking of price fluctuations over lengthy, multi-year periods. I do not have in mind risk and uncertainty concerning the more distant future. I am thinking of the very appreciable volatility that we experience, day after day, on an intra-day basis. In today’s turbulent environment, intra-day volatility is indeed dramatic.

We talk about Wall Street versus Main Street. Financial markets are absolutely essential for our broad economy. There is a huge connect between Wall Street and Main Street. Financial capital enables firms to operate, just as oil enables physical capital, from bulldozers to airplanes, to run. But the financial markets are fragile. We do not always think about it, and in “normal” times we do not even see it. But they are fragile. Especially in today’s high frequency, electronic environment, and especially given the large pools of capital that today can fly anywhere around the world at a moment’s notice.

Take a magnifying glass and look at the price movements, the swings that take place intra-day on a daily basis.   Price changes of one percent, two percent or more are common. A one percent daily price move, annualized, translates into 250 percent. We do not see annual swings of this magnitude very often. In the opening and closing seconds and minutes of trading, intra-day price movements are even more accentuated. How come? What explains it?

Academic evidence of accentuated daily and intra-day price volatility has accumulated over the years. In a paper that I am currently completing with Mike Pagano and Lin Peng (my colleague at Baruch), we present evidence on volatility for a sample of 104 Nasdaq stocks that in 2005 together accounted for over 40% of Nasdaq trading.[1] Very strikingly, the three most volatile minutes in a trading day are the two minutes that follow the open and the final minute that precedes the close. 

What explains the accentuated intra-day price volatility? Why are the financial markets so fragile? I will briefly address two related items: price discovery and liquidity creation.

I have been focusing on price discovery for many years. Over the years, I have noted its importance in various publications and talks that I have given. The fact is, security prices – the value of shares – are not found in the upstairs offices of the stock analysts. They are found, they are discovered, in the marketplace.

Share prices are not intrinsic values. Share prices do not follow random walks, and they are not simply and uniquely linked to “the fundamentals.” How can they be when, in the face of enormously complex and imprecise information, investors form diverse expectations of future corporate performance and thus, at any current moment, evaluate shares differently? And markets are not as informationally efficient as some of my colleagues would like to think. I am not a proponent of the Efficient Markets Hypothesis (or EMH as we like to say). I suggest that the word “efficient” be replaced. The proper adjective, in my opinion, is “humbling.” The markets are indeed humbling.

Inaccurate price discovery contributes to volatility, and good price discovery is difficult to achieve, especially when some investors’ are influenced by what they see other investors doing. That is when we get information cascades. That is when we get herding. That is when volatility blows up. When these things happen, a market can get into trouble.

Arm-in-arm with price discovery is liquidity creation. I have just completed a paper on this topic with Asani Sarkar and Nick Klagge, both from the New York Fed.[2] In addressing the dynamic process of liquidity creation, we consider something that we call the sidedness of markets. Sidedness refers to the extent to which buyers and sellers are both actively present in a market, in roughly equal proportions, in brief periods of time (e.g., five minute intervals).

In previous work, Asani Sarkar and I have found that markets are generally two-sided, and that two-sidedness holds under a wide range of conditions.[3] It holds for both NASDAQ and NYSE stocks; at market openings, mid-day, and at the close; on days with news and on days when there is no major news; and for both large orders and small orders. We also observe that buyers and sellers tend to arrive in clusters, that within a day, two-sided trading bursts are commonly interspersed with periods of relative inactivity.

But markets are not always two-sided.   At times liquidity dries up on one side of the market and volatility spikes. Information cascades and herding can take over, and a market can become one-sided.   Even if potential buyers and sellers are both in the offing, neither may be making their presence known. And, when prices suddenly head south, one-sidedness is accentuated as buyers simply step aside. Who wants to step up and try to catch the falling knife?

What are the conditions that lead to two-sidedness? What are the factors that trigger trade bursts? What causes a market to be one-sided? Illiquidity is a cause of volatility and its counterpart, liquidity, does not just happen. Liquidity creation is a process. There is a good deal more that we need to learn about the dynamics of liquidity creation.

As we all know, opacity is needed by the big players. The large traders seek the protection of opacity by either going to a dark pool or, when going to a more transparent limit order book market, by hiding their orders in a stream of retail flow by slicing and dicing them. Nevertheless, there is post-trade reporting for all trades, information can be gleaned on the general sidedness of markets, and smart algos can either help to provide liquidity, or they can game an opaque environment and, in so doing, undermine liquidity creation. The efficacy of liquidity creation hangs in the balance.

Opacity is one thing, fragmentation is another matter. Whether liquidity pools are light or dark, fragmentation can disrupt the natural two-sidedness of markets. Can connectivity between the roughly forty dark pools that exist today in the U.S. be effective? The real concern about the dark pools of today is not that they are dark; it is that connectivity may not be a viable substitute for consolidation. 

It is well known that order flow attracts order flow. We have also seen that, over time, the equity markets have generally tended to consolidate. Consolidation and two-sidedness are natural processes for an equity market. They are the main dynamics that underlie liquidity creation. However, modern technology facilitates the increased fragmentation of markets, and it supports the possibility of fragile, one-sided markets proliferating. True, technology also promises greater integration of markets, but such liquidity aggregation may prove inadequate. The extent to which the natural two-sidedness of markets stays resilient in the face of these developments remains to be seen.

And then there is the temporal dimension of fragmentation. I have for a long time been a proponent of electronic call auction trading. I have urged that calls be included in our predominantly continuous trading environment to open and to close markets. A call is an explicit price discovery mechanism. A call amasses liquidity at specific points in time. A call delivers price improvement for participants who place aggressive limit orders, and this encourages them to in fact place aggressive limit orders. The amassing of liquidity and the delivery of price improvement in call auction trading means that a call is more apt to deliver a two-sided market than its continuous market counterpart. Mike Pagano, Lin Peng and I have done some analysis of Nasdaq’s new calls, and it appears that the calls have achieved volatility decreases that are both substantial and statistically significant.

Another market structure feature that goes to the heart of the volatility issue is circuit breakers and, as it is called in Germany, volatility interruptions. In my opinion, volatility interruptions, which are brief, firm-specific trading halts, have some very desirable properties. The interruptions are a check against order placement errors. Very importantly, they also enable the market to switch from continuous trading to call auction trading; in so doing, they sharpen the accuracy of price discovery.

In addition to calls, circuit breakers, and volatility interruptions, there are other market structure solutions to the problem of extreme market turbulence. After the crash of ’87, I proposed the establishment of voluntary stabilization funds that would buy and sell equity shares according to a strict and well defined procedure. A fund could be established by a listed company itself and run by a third party fiduciary. Shares of the company’s stock would be bought by the fund in a falling market and sold by the fund in a rising market at pre-specified price points, in pre-specified amounts and, very importantly, in call auction trading only.

Such a voluntary procedure would disrupt herding, it would bolster the two-sidedness of markets, and it would help to contain the bouts of sharply accentuated volatility which we can experience at any time, and that have been with us in full force since Labor Day. The paper was published twenty years ago, in the Fall 1988 issue of the Journal of Portfolio Management. I still believe in the proposal.

Dynamism and allocational efficiency are two powerfully positive attributes of a free market. Instability is a free market’s Achilles heel. In the last several months we have been hit by tidal waves of volatility. Now fingers are being pointed at many things including the housing bubble, greed, hubris, accounting rule changes, the absence of certain short selling restrictions, management failure, government failure, regulatory failure, and market structure failure. In my opinion, two of them, regulatory intervention and market structure, are of particular importance. These two things, if properly designed and implemented, could do a lot to better stabilize our markets in a risky and uncertain world.

It is not a matter of free markets versus regulated markets. Regulation is indeed needed. But it must be appropriate. The issues, the concerns, the market failure realities upon which regulations should be based must be better understood.   The sources of government failure also have to be taken fully into account. Excessive regulation, and/or ill-structured regulation, can be extremely costly to financial markets in particular and to society overall. I hope that, after the dust has settled, we have achieved a stronger market structure, and a more appropriate regulatory structure.   But one thing is for sure: the financial turbulence of 2008 certainly has given us all a great deal to think about.




[1] “The Quality of Market Opening and Closing Prices: Evidence from the Nasdaq Stock Market,”Michael S. Pagano, Lin Peng and Robert A. Schwartz, working paper, 2008.

[2] Asani Sarkar, Robert A. Schwartz, and Nick Klagge, “Liquidity Begets Liquidity,“ Institutional Investor’s Guide to Global Liquidity, Winter 2008, forthcoming. 

[3] Asani Sarkar and Robert A. Schwartz, “Market Sidedness: Insights into Motives for Trade Initiation,” Journal of Finance, February 2009, forthcoming.

About Robert A. Schwartz

Robert A. Schwartz is Marvin M. Speiser Professor of Finance and University Distinguished Professor in the Zicklin School of Business, Baruch College, CUNY. Before joining the Baruch faculty in 1997, he was Professor of Finance and Economics and Yamaichi Faculty Fellow at New York University's Leonard N. Stern School of Business, where he had been a member of the faculty since 1965.

Professor Schwartz received his Ph.D. in Economics from Columbia University. His research is in the area of financial economics, with a primary focus on the structure of securities markets. He has published 60 refereed journal articles, five authored books, and twelve edited books, including The Equity Trader Course (co-authored with Reto Francioni and Bruce Weber) Wiley & Sons, 2006, Equity Markets in Action: The Fundamentals of Liquidity, Market Structure and Trading (co-authored with Reto Francioni) Wiley & Sons, 2004, and Reshaping the Equity Markets: A Guide for the 1990s, Harper Business, 1991 (reissued by Business One Irwin, 1993).

He has served as a consultant to various market centers including the New York Stock Exchange, the American Stock Exchange, Nasdaq, the London Stock Exchange, Instinet, the Arizona Stock Exchange, Deutsche Börse, and the Bolsa Mexicana. From April 1983 to April 1988, he was an associate editor of The Journal of Finance, and he is currently an associate editor of the Review of Quantitative Finance and Accounting, the Review of Pacific Basin Financial Markets and Policies, and The Journal of Entrepreneurial Finance & Business Ventures,and is a member of the advisory boards of International Finance and The Journal of Trading. In December 1995, Professor Schwartz was named the first chairman of Nasdaq's Economic Advisory Board, and he served on the EAB until Spring 1999. He is developer, with Bruce Weber, of the trading and market structure simulation, TraderEx (http://www.etraderex.com/).