Category Archives: Economics

More on the St. Petersburg Paradox…

During last Thursday’s class meeting, we discussed (among other things) the famous St. Petersburg Paradox. The source for this is Daniel Bernoulli’s famous article entitled “Exposition of a new theory on the measurement of risk”. As was the standard academic practice in academia at the time, Bernoulli’s article was originally published in Latin in 1738. It was subsequently translated into English in 1954 and published a second time that same year in Econometrica (Volume 22, No. 1): pp. 22–36. Considering that this article was published 277 years ago in an obscure (presumably peer reviewed) academic journal, it is fairly succinct and surprisingly easy to read. The direct link to the PDF of this article is here: (P.S.: the article is gated but you can access it from anywhere on campus when connected to Airbear).

Also, the Wikipedia article about Bernoulli’s article is worth reading. It provides the mathematics for determining the price at which the apostle Paul would have been indifferent about taking the apostle Peter up on this bet. Specifically, if Paul were a millionaire, he should be willing to pay up to $20.88, On the other hand, if Paul were a thousandaire (total wealth = $1000), he should be willing to pay up to $10.95. Finally, if Paul was quite poor (e.g., total wealth = $2), then he might consider borrowing $1.35 and paying up to $3.35 to place this bet…

Your Tolerance for Investment Risk Is Probably Not What You Think

This WSJ article is authored by Professor Meir Statman,  the Glenn Klimek Professor of Finance at Santa Clara University.  Professor Statman’s research focuses on behavioral finance, which is a very important topic in decision theory that I hope to cover during tomorrow’s meeting of Finance 4335.
The questions financial advisers ask clients to get at the answer actually measure something completely different—often leading to misguided investment strategies.

How government policy exacerbates hurricanes like Harvey

Here’s the (very timely) cover story of the latest issue of The Economist. Quoting from the article, “Underpricing (of flood insurance) encourages the building of new houses and discourages existing owners from renovating or moving out. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, houses that repeatedly flood account for 1% of NFIP’s properties but 25-30% of its claims. Five states, Texas among them, have more than 10,000 such households and, nationwide, their number has been going up by around 5,000 each year. Insurance is meant to provide a signal about risk; in this case, it stifles it.”

As if global warming were not enough of a threat, poor planning and unwise subsidies make floods worse.

On the Economics of Price Gouging

This is an oldie (from 2007) but goody – on the economics of price gouging in the wake of a hurricane. The principles discussed are timeless and well worth pondering!

Mike Munger of Duke University recounts the harrowing (and fascinating) experience of being in the path of a hurricane and the economic forces that were set in motion as a result. One of the most important is the import of urgent supplies when thousands of people are without electricity. Should prices be allowed to rise freely or should the government restrict prices? Listen in as Munger and EconTalk host Russ Roberts discuss the human side of economics after a catastrophe.

Harvey’s Test: Businesses Struggle With Flawed Insurance as Floods Multiply

This WSJ article provides a fairly comprehensive look at the financial implications for #Harvey for small business. What’s particularly disconcerting is that NFIP is already for all intents and purposes technically insolvent (current debt to the US Treasury stands at around $25 billion) and Congress is supposed to reauthorize funding for the program’s next five years by September 30. On the lighter side of things, it’s fun to see a couple of academic colleagues’ names in print in this article; specifically, Erwann Michel-Kerjan of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development Board on Financial Management of Catastrophes and Ben Collier, who is a faculty member at Temple University’s Fox School of Business.

Hurricane will strain a National Flood Insurance Program out of step with needs of small businesses in era of extreme weather.

Risk and Uncertainty – on the role of Ambiguity

This WSJ article from last spring addresses how to measure uncertainty and also explains the subtle, yet important differences between risk and uncertainty. Risk reflects the “known unknowns,” or the uncertainties about which one can make probabilistic inferences. Ambiguity (AKA “Knightian” uncertainty; see reflects the “unknown unknowns,” where the probabilities themselves are a mystery.

A researcher whose work foreshadowed the VIX now has his eye on an entirely different barometer of market uncertainty—ambiguity.

Place Your Bets: When Will the U.S. Hit the Debt Ceiling?

This is an excellent article on how asset prices impound political risks, and the role of so-called “prediction markets” in assessing political event probabilities (in this case, the likelihood of the U.S. defaulting on its debt).

Prediction markets add a crowdsourced opinion to the chaos of Washington.

Insurance featured as one of “50 Things That Made the Modern Economy”

During the past year, Financial Times writer Tim Harford has presented an economic history documentary radio and podcast series called 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy.  While I recommend listening to the entire series of podcasts, I would like to call your attention to Mr. Harford’s episode on the topic of insurance, which I link below.   This 9-minute long podcast lays out the history of the development of the various institutions which exist today for the sharing and trading of risk, including markets for financial derivatives as well as for insurance. Here’s the description of this podcast:

“Legally and culturally, there’s a clear distinction between gambling and insurance. Economically, the difference is not so easy to see. Both the gambler and the insurer agree that money will change hands depending on what transpires in some unknowable future. Today the biggest insurance market of all – financial derivatives – blurs the line between insuring and gambling more than ever. Tim Harford tells the story of insurance; an idea as old as gambling but one which is fundamental to the way the modern economy works.”

Insurance is as old as gambling, but it’s fundamental to the way the modern economy works

The Stupidest Thing You Can Do With Your Money

I highly recommend this Freakonomics podcast (and transcript) about passive versus actively managed investment strategies. It provides historical context for the development of some of the most important ideas in finance (e.g., the efficient market hypothesis) and the implications of these ideas for investing in the long run. Along the way, you get to “virtually” meet with many of the best, brightest and most influential academic and professional finance thinkers who played important roles in shaping this history.

Prior to listening to this podcast, I was not aware of how a quip in a 1974 Journal of Portfolio Management article authored by the MIT economist Paul Samuelson inspired Vanguard founder Jack Bogle to launch the world’s first index fund in late 1975. Samuelson suggested that, “at the least, some large foundation should set up an in-house portfolio that tracks the S&P 500 Index — if only for the purpose of setting up a naive model against which their in-house gunslingers can measure their prowess.” (source: “Challenge to Judgment”, available from

It’s hard enough to save for a house, tuition, or retirement. So why are we willing to pay big fees for subpar investment returns? Enter the low-cost index fund.