Reflexivity, financial markets, and economic theory
Soros’ writings focus heavily on the concept of reflexivity, where the biases of individuals enter into market transactions, potentially changing the fundamentals of the economy. Soros argues that such transitions in the fundamentals of the economy are typically marked by disequilibrium rather than equilibrium, and that the conventional economic theory of the market (the ‘efficient market hypothesis‘) does not apply in these situations. Soros has popularized the concepts of dynamic disequilibrium, static disequilibrium, and near-equilibrium conditions.
Reflexivity is based on three main ideas:
- Reflexivity is best observed under special conditions where investor bias grows and spreads throughout the investment arena. Examples of factors that may give rise to this bias include (a) equity leveraging or (b) the trend-following habits of speculators.
- Reflexivity appears intermittently since it is most likely to be revealed under certain conditions; i.e., the equilibrium process’s character is best considered in terms of probabilities.
- Investors’ observation of and participation in the capital markets may at times influence valuations AND fundamental conditions or outcomes.
A current example of reflexivity in modern financial markets is that of the debt and equity of housing markets. Lenders began to make more money available to more people in the 1990s to buy houses. More people bought houses with this larger amount of money, thus increasing the prices of these houses. Lenders looked at their balance sheets which not only showed that they had made more loans, but that their equity backing the loans–the value of the houses, had gone up (because more money was chasing the same amount of housing, relatively). Thus they lent out more money because their balance sheets looked good, and prices went up more, and they lent more, etc. Prices increased rapidly, and lending standards were relaxed. The salient issue regarding reflexivity is that it explains why markets gyrate over time, and do not just stick to equilibrium–they tend to overshoot or undershoot.