Extremes and equilibria

Not long ago, I was chiding an elderly aunt who lives alone about the lack of protein in her diet (she was mostly subsisting on rice and thin rasam). She hit back citing some research she’d seen on TV which showed that too much protein can result in uric acid related complications, so it’s ok she isn’t eating much protein.

Over the last couple of years, efforts to encourage non-cash payments in India have been redoubled. The Unified Payments Interface (UPI) has come in, payments banks are being set up, and financial inclusion is being pursued. And you already have people writing about the privacy and other perils of a completely cashless economy.

Then you have index funds. This is a category of funds that is 40 years old now, but has gained so much currency (pun intended) in the recent past that the traditional asset management industry is shitting bricks. And so you have articles that compare indexing to being “worse than Marxism” and dystopian fiction about a future where there is only one active investor left.

All these are cases of people reacting to suggestions with the perils of the suggestion taken to the extreme. My aunt needs more protein in her diet, but I’m not telling her to eat steak for every meal (which she anyway won’t since she’s a strict vegetarian). The current level of usage of cash is too high, and there might be more efficiencies by moving more transactions to electronic media. That doesn’t imply that cash in itself needs to be banned.

And as I mentioned in another blogpost recently, we probably need more indexing, but assuming that everyone will index is a stupid idea. As I wrote then,

In that sense, there is an optimal “mixed strategy” that the universe of investors can play between indexing and active management (depending upon each person’s beliefs and risk preferences). As more and more investors move to indexing, the returns from active management improve, and this “negative feedback” keeps the market in equilibrium!

In other words, what more people moving to indexing means is that the current mixed strategy is not optimal, and we need more indexing. To construct scary scenarios of where everyone is indexing in response is silly.

Effectively, what we need is thinking at the margin – analysing situations in terms of what will happen if there is a small change in the prevailing situation. Constructing scare scenarios around what will happen if this small change is taken to the extreme is as silly as trying to find the position of a curve by indefinitely extending its tangent from the current point!

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