Black-Scholes: The maths formula linked to the financial crash
It's not every day that someone writes down an equation that ends up changing the world. But it does happen sometimes, and the world doesn't always change for the better. It has been argued that one formula known as Black-Scholes, along with its descendants, helped to blow up the financial world.
Black-Scholes was first written down in the early 1970s but its story starts earlier than that, in the Dojima Rice Exchange in 17th Century Japan where futures contracts were written for rice traders. A simple futures contract says that I will agree to buy rice from you in one year's time, at a price that we agree right now.
By the 20th Century the Chicago Board of Trade was providing a marketplace for traders to deal not only in futures but in options contracts. An example of an option is a contract where we agree that I can buy rice from you at any time over the next year, at a price that we agree right now - but I don't have to if I don't want to.
You can imagine why this kind of contract might be useful. If I am running a big chain of hamburger restaurants, but I don't know how much beef I'll need to buy next year, and I am nervous that the price of beef might rise, well - all I need is to buy some options on beef.
But then that leads to a very ticklish problem. How much should I be paying for those beef options? What are they worth? And that's where this world-changing equation, the Black-Scholes formula, can help.
"The problem it's trying to solve is to define the value of the right, but not the obligation, to buy a particular asset at a specified price, within or at the end of a specified time period," says Professor Myron Scholes, professor of finance at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business and - of course - co-inventor of the Black-Scholes formula.
The young Scholes was fascinated by finance. As a teenager, he persuaded his mother to set up an account so that he could trade on the stock market. One of the amazing things about Scholes is that throughout his time as an undergraduate and then a doctoral student, he was half-blind. And so, he says, he got very good at listening and at thinking.
When he was 26, an operation largely restored his sight. The next year, he became an assistant professor at MIT, and it was there that he stumbled upon the option-pricing puzzle.
One part of the puzzle was this question of risk: the value of an option to buy beef at a price of - say - $2 (£1.23) a kilogram presumably depends on what the price of beef is, and how the price of beef is moving around.
But the connection between the price of beef and the value of the beef option doesn't vary in a straightforward way - it depends how likely the option is to actually be used. That in turn depends on the option price and the beef price. All the variables seem to be tangled up in an impenetrable way.
Scholes worked on the problem with his colleague, Fischer Black, and figured out that if I own just the right portfolio of beef, plus options to buy and sell beef, I have a delicious and totally risk-free portfolio. Since I already know the price of beef and the price of risk-free assets, by looking at the difference between them I can work out the price of these beef options. That's the basic idea. The details are hugely complicated.
"It might have taken us a year, a year and a half to be able to solve and get the simple Black-Scholes formula," says Scholes. "But we had the actual underlying dynamics way before."
The Black-Scholes method turned out to be a way not only to calculate value of options but all kinds of other financial assets. "We were like kids in a candy story in the sense that we described options everywhere, options were embedded in everything that we did in life," says Scholes.
But Black and Scholes weren't the only kids in the candy store, says Ian Stewart, whose book argues that Black-Scholes was a dangerous invention.
"What the equation did was give everyone the confidence to trade options and very quickly, much more complicated financial options known as derivatives," he says.
Scholes thought his equation would be useful. He didn't expect it to transform the face of finance. But it quickly became obvious that it would.
"About the time we had published this article, that's 1973, simultaneously or approximately a month thereafter, the Chicago Board Options Exchange started to trade call options on 16 stocks," he recalls.
Scholes had just moved to the University of Chicago. He and his colleagues had already been teaching the Black-Scholes formula and methodology to students for several years.
"There were many young traders who either had taken courses at MIT or Chicago in using the option pricing technology. On the other hand, there was a group of traders who had only intuition and previous experience. And in a very short period of time, the intuitive players were essentially eliminated by the more systematic players who had this pricing technology."
That was just the beginning.
"By 2007 the trade in derivatives worldwide was one quadrillion (thousand million million) US dollars - this is 10 times the total production of goods on the planet over its entire history," says Stewart. "OK, we're talking about the totals in a two-way trade, people are buying and people are selling and you're adding it all up as if it doesn't cancel out, but it was a huge trade."
The Black-Scholes formula had passed the market test. But as banks and hedge funds relied more and more on their equations, they became more and more vulnerable to mistakes or over-simplifications in the mathematics.