Unknown knowns about financial markets

Robert Shiller’s point, in the new edition of Irrational Exuberance, about the lack of attention paid to the warning signals of bubbles, has been preoccupying me. The attention problem was the theme of a conference at the Toulouse School of Economics a couple of years ago, as well as books like [amazon_link id=”000731731X” target=”_blank” ]The Invisible Gorilla[/amazon_link] by Chris Chabris and Dan Simons.

[amazon_image id=”0691166269″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Irrational Exuberance[/amazon_image]   [amazon_image id=”000731731X” link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Invisible Gorilla[/amazon_image]

Of course, this isn’t just an issue in financial markets. One of the interesting essays in Rebecca Solnit’s [amazon_link id=”1595341986″ target=”_blank” ]Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness[/amazon_link], which I read recently, riffs on [amazon_link id=”074325239X” target=”_blank” ]Donald Rumsfeld’s[/amazon_link] famous known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns, adding a fourth category (which she attributes to Slavoj Zizek) of unknown knowns. In her essay, the context is the scale of the US economy and policy devoted to military resources. In the financial markets, it is the existence of bubbles or stresses that exist in the data – in the world – but are not seen.

[amazon_image id=”1595341986″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Encyclopedia of Trouble and Spaciousness[/amazon_image]

Or seen, but not allowed to rise to conscious thought and action. In the year or two before the 2008 crisis, the signals were (with hindsight) very clear – an inverted yield curve, and super-high PE ratios and house price-earnings ratios. Few people paid attention, however. But it’s extraordinarily hard to be just about the only person paying attention to unknown knowns. The Office of Financial Research was intended to be a post-crisis solution to this problem, gathering data and developing visualisations or effective methods of monitoring the markets. I don’t think it has the hoped-for impact.

4 thoughts on “Unknown knowns about financial markets

  1. I find this very interesting. I suspect a lot in economics (and in life) can be analysed by the amount of attention given to certain things. This must cause a lot of volatility – everyone ignoring something until everyone pay’s it close attention.

    Unfortunately, where people put there attention is highly correlated with others (there’s probably some Adler superstar effect going on, we get extra benefit from paying attention to things those around us pay attention to).

  2. Pingback: Unknown knowns about financial markets | Homines Economici

  3. Are the known knowns listed really understood knowns? Canada and Australia avoided the U.S. and E.U. output declines despite comparable household debt and home prices scaled against income. Home prices in coastal metropolitan areas are approaching, and in some neighborhoods surpassing, pre-recession affordability.

  4. The idea of knowns/unknowns in an 2×2 grid actually goes back to 1955, so pre-dates Slavoj Zizek by a bit.

    The Johari window was created by two American psychologists, Joseph Luft (1916–2014) and Harrington Ingham (1914–1995), as a way of thinking about self and others.


    My recollection is that Sohail Inayatullah deployed a version of this as a futures tool in the late 1990s in Questioning The Future, before it became forever associated with Donald Rumsfeld, but I don’t have my copy to hand to verify this.

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