Excellent long piece on George Soros and his ideas in the Financial Times. Soros, along with T. H. Huxley, is kind of a hero of mine: someone who’s seriously interested in ideas and their consequences, and who’s really successful.
Soros’s experiences in 1944 [in Nazi-occupied Budapest] laid the groundwork for the conceptual framework he would spend the rest of his life elaborating and which, he believes, has found its validation in the events of 2008. His core idea is “reflexivity”, which he defines as a “two-way feedback loop, between the participants’ views and the actual state of affairs. People base their decisions not on the actual situation that confronts them, but on their perception or interpretation of the situation. Their decisions make an impact on the situation and changes in the situation are liable to change their perceptions.”
It is, at its root, a case for frequent re-examination of one’s assumptions about the world and for a readiness to spot and exploit moments of cataclysmic change – those times when our perceptions of events and events themselves are likely to interact most fiercely. It is also at odds with the rational expectations economic school, which has been the prevailing orthodoxy in recent decades. That approach assumed that economic players – from people buying homes to bankers buying subprime mortgages for their portfolios – were rational actors making, in aggregate, the best choices for themselves and that free markets were effective mechanisms for balancing supply and demand, setting prices correctly and tending towards equilibrium….
Soros sees the current crisis as a real-life illustration of reflexivity. Markets did not reflect an objective “truth”. Rather, the beliefs of market participants – that house prices would always rise, that an arcane financial instrument based on a subprime mortgage really could merit a triple-A rating – created a new reality. Ultimately, that “super-bubble” was unsustainable, hence the credit crunch of 2007 and the recession and financial crisis of 2008 and beyond….
Soros attributes his effectiveness as an investor to his philosophical views about the contingent nature of human knowledge: “I think that my conceptual framework, which basically emphasises the importance of misconceptions, makes me extremely critical of my own decisions … I know that I am bound to be wrong, and therefore am more likely to correct my own mistakes.”
Soros’s radar for revolution is the second key to his investing style. He looks for “game-changing moments, not incremental ones”, according to Sebastian Mallaby, the Washington Post columnist and author who is writing a history of hedge funds. As examples, Mallaby cites Quantum’s shorting of the pound and Soros’s 1985 “Plaza Accord” bet that the dollar would fall against the yen – his two most famous currency trades – as well as a lesser-known 1973 bet that, as a consequence of the Arab-Israeli war, defence stocks would soar. “It’s not that reflexivity tells you what to do, but it tells you to be on the look-out for turn-around situations,” Mallaby said. “It’s an attitude of mind.”