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Unformatted text preview: The History of Finance
An eyewitness account. MERTON H. MILLER is Robert
R. McCormick distinguished service professor emeritus at the
University of Chicago (IL 60637).
SUMMER 1999 * * * IT IS ILLEGAL TO REPRODUCE THIS ARTICLE IN ANY FORMAT * * * Merton H. Miller t five years, the German Finance Association
is not very old as professional societies go,
but then neither is the field of finance itself.
Finance in its modern form really dates only
from the 1950s. In the forty years since then, the field
has come to surpass many, perhaps even most, of the
more traditional fields of economics in terms of the
numbers of students enrolled in finance courses, the
numbers of faculty teaching finance courses, and above
all in the quantity and quality of their combined scholarly output.
The huge body of scholarly research in finance
over the last forty years falls naturally into two main
streams. And no, I don’t mean “asset pricing” and “corporate finance,” but instead a deeper division that cuts
across both. The division I have in mind is the more
fundamental one between what I will call the business
school approach to finance and the economics department
approach. Let me say immediately, however, that my
distinction is purely “notional,” not physical — a distinction over what the field is really all about, not
where the offices of the faculty happen to be located.
In the United States, the vast majority of academics in finance teach in business schools, not economics departments, and always have. At the same
time, in the elite schools at least, a substantial fraction
of the finance faculties have been trained in — that is,
have received their Ph.D.s from — economics departments. Habits of thought acquired in graduate school
have a tendency to stay with you. A Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. THE JOURNAL OF PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT 95 All rights reserved. 96 The tension between the micro and macro
approaches was visible from the very beginning of
modern finance — from our big bang, as it were —
which I think we can all agree today dates to the year
1952 with the publication in the Journal of Finance of
Harry Markowitz’s article, “Portfolio Selection.”
Markowitz in this remarkable paper gave, for the first
time, a precise definition of what had hitherto been just
vague buzzwords: risk and return.
Specifically, Markowitz then identified the yield
or return on an investment with the expected value or
probability-weighted mean value of its possible outcomes; and its risk with the variance or squared deviations of those outcomes around the mean. This identification of return and risk with mean and variance, so
instinctive to finance professionals these days, was far
from obvious then. The common perception of risk
even today focuses on the likelihood of losses — on
what the public thinks of as the “downside” risk — not
just on the variability of returns.
Markowitz’s choice of the variance as his measure of risk, counterintuitive as it may have appeared to
many at the time, turns out to have been inspired. It
not only subsumes the more intuitive view of risk —
because in the normal or at least the symmetric distributions we use in practice the downside risk is essentially the mirror image of the upside — but it also has
a property even more important for the development of
the field. By identifying return and risk with mean and
variance, Markowitz makes the powerful algebra of
mathematical statistics available for the study of portfolio selection.
The immediate contribution of that algebra is
the famous formula for the variance of a sum of random
variables; that is, the weighted sum of the variance plus
twice the weighted sum of the covariances. We in
finance have been living on that formula, literally, for
more than forty years now. That formula shows, among
other things, that for the individual investor, the relevant unit of analysis must always be the whole portfolio, not the individual share. The risk of an individual
share cannot be defined apart from its relation to the
whole portfolio and, in particular, its covariances with THE HISTORY OF FINANCE Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. SUMMER 1999 All rights reserved. Email: email@example.com for reprints or permission. MARKOWITZ AND THE
THEORY OF PORTFOLIO SELECTION ---> where I would be heading were I just entering the
field today. It Is Illegal To Reproduce This Article In Any Format. The characteristic business school approach
tends to be what we would call in our jargon “micro
normative.” That is, a decision-maker, whether an individual investor or a corporate manager, is seen as maximizing some objective function, be it utility, expected
return, or shareholder value, taking the prices of securities in the market as given. In a business school, after
all, that’s what you’re supposed to be doing: teaching
your charges how to make better decisions.
To someone trained in the classical traditions of
economics, however, the dictum of the great Alfred
Marshall stands out: “It is not the business of the
economist to tell the brewer how to make beer.” The
characteristic economics department approach thus is
not micro, but macro normative. The models assume a
world of micro optimizers, and deduce from that how
market prices, which the micro optimizers take as
given, actually evolve.
Note that I am differentiating the stream of
research in finance along macro versus micro lines, and
not along the more familiar normative versus positive
line. Both streams of research in finance are thoroughly positivist in outlook in that they try to be, or at least
claim to be, concerned with testable hypotheses. The
normal article in finance journals over the last forty
years has two main sections: the first presenting the
model, and the second an empirical section showing
that real-world data are consistent with the model
(which is hardly surprising, because had that not been
so, the author would never have submitted the paper in
the first place, and the editors would never have accepted the article for publication).
The interaction of these two streams, the business school stream and the economics department
stream — the micro normative and the macro normative — has largely governed the history of the field of
finance to date. I propose to review some of the highpoints of this history, taking full advantage of a handy
organizing principle nature has given us: to wit, the
Nobel Prizes in Finance.
Let me emphasize that I will not be offering a
comprehensive survey of the field — the record is far
too extensive for that — but rather a selective view of
what I see as the highlights, an eyewitness account, as it
were, and always with special emphasis on the tensions
between the business school and the economics department streams.
After my overview, I offer some very personal
views on where I think the field is heading, or at least WILLIAM SHARPE AND THE
CAPITAL ASSET PRICING MODEL That William Sharpe was so instrumental in
transforming the Markowitz business school model
into an economics department model continues the
irony. Markowitz, it will be recalled, submitted his thesis to an economics department, but Sharpe was always
a business school faculty member, and much of his earlier work had been in the management science/operaSUMMER 1999 Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. THE JOURNAL OF PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT 97 All rights reserved. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for reprints or permission.
---> tions research area. Sharpe also maintains an active
consulting practice advising pension funds on their
portfolio selection problems. Yet his capital asset pricing model is almost as perfect an example as you can
find of an economists’ macro normative model of the
kind I have described.
Sharpe starts by imagining a world in which
every investor is a Markowitz mean-variance portfolio
selector. And he supposes further that these investors all
share the same expectation as to returns, variances, and
covariances. But if the inputs to the portfolio selection
are the same, then every investor will hold exactly the
same portfolio of risky assets. And because all risky
assets must be held by somebody, an immediate implication is that every investor holds the “market portfolio,” that is, an aliquot share of every risky security in
the proportions in which they are outstanding.
At first sight, of course, the proposition that
everyone holds the same portfolio seems too unrealistic
to be worth pursuing. Keep in mind first, however, that
the proposition applies only to the holdings of risky
assets. It does not assume that every investor has the
same degree of risk aversion. Investors can always
reduce the degree of risk they bear by holding riskless
bonds along with the risky stocks in the market portfolio; and they can increase their risk by holding negative
amounts of the riskless asset; that is, by borrowing and
leveraging their holdings of the market portfolio.
Second, the idea of investing in the market portfolio is no longer strange. Nature has imitated art, as it
were. Shortly after Sharpe’s work appeared, the market
created mutual funds that sought to hold all the shares
in the market in their outstanding proportions. Such
index funds, or “passive” investment strategies, as they
are often called, are now followed by a large and
increasing number of investors, particularly by U.S.
The realism or lack of realism of the assumptions
underlying the Sharpe CAPM has never been a subject
of serious debate within the profession, unlike the case
of the Modigliani and Miller propositions to be considered later. The profession, from the outset, wholeheartedly adopted the Friedman positivist view: that what
counts is not the literal accuracy of the assumptions, but
the predictions of the model.
In the case of Sharpe’s model, these predictions
are striking indeed. The CAPM implies that the distribution of expected rates of return across all risky assets
is a linear function of a single variable, namely, each It Is Illegal To Reproduce This Article In Any Format. the other components. Covariances, and not mere
numbers of securities held, govern the risk-reducing
benefits of diversification.
The Markowitz mean-variance model is the
perfect example of what I call the business school or
micro normative stream in finance. And this is somewhat ironic, in that the Markowitz paper was originally a thesis in the University of Chicago’s economics
department. Markowitz even notes that Milton
Friedman, in fact, voted against the thesis initially on
the grounds that it wasn’t really economics.
And indeed, the mean-variance model, as visualized by Markowitz, really wasn’t economics.
Markowitz saw investors as actually applying the model
to pick their portfolios using a combination of past data
and personal judgment to select the needed means,
variances, and covariances.
For the variances and covariances, at least, past
data probably could provide at least a reasonable starting
point. The precision of such estimates can always be
enhanced by cutting the time interval into smaller and
smaller intervals. But what of the means? Simply averaging the returns of the last few years, along the lines of
the examples in the Markowitz paper (and later book)
won’t yield reliable estimates of the return expected in
the future. And running those unreliable estimates of
the means through the computational algorithm can
lead to weird, corner portfolios that hardly seem to
offer the presumed benefits of diversification, as any
finance instructor who has assigned the portfolio selection model as a classroom exercise can testify.
If the Markowitz mean-variance algorithm is
useless for selecting optimal portfolios, why do I take its
publication as the starting point of modern finance?
Because the essentially business school model of
Markowitz was transformed by William Sharpe, John
Lintner, and Jan Mossin into an economics department
model of enormous reach and power. THE EFFICIENT MARKETS HYPOTHESIS The mean-variance model of Markowitz and
the CAPM of Sharpe et al. are contributions whose
great scientific value was recognized by the Nobel
Committee in 1990. A third major contribution to
finance was recognized at the same time. But before
describing it, let me mention a fourth major contribution that has done much to shape the development of
the field of finance in the last twenty-five years, but that
has so far not received the attention from the Nobel
Committee I believe it deserves.
98 THE HISTORY OF FINANCE Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. SUMMER 1999 All rights reserved. Email: email@example.com for reprints or permission.
---> I refer, of course, to the efficient markets
hypothesis, which says, in effect, that no simple rule
based on already published and available information
can generate above-normal rates of return. On this
score of whether mechanical profit opportunities exist,
the conflict between the business school tradition in
finance and the economics department tradition has
been and still remains intense.
The hope that studying finance might open the
way to successful stock market speculation served to
support interest in the field even before the modern scientific foundations were laid in the 1950s. The first systematic collection of stock market prices, in fact, was
compiled under the auspices of the Alfred Cowles
Foundation in the 1930s.
Cowles had a lifelong enthusiasm for the stock
market, dimmed only slightly by the catastrophic crash
of 1929. The Cowles Foundation, currently an adjunct
of the Yale University economics department, was the
source of much fundamental research on econometrics
in the 1940s and ’50s.
The Cowles indexes of stock prices have long
since been superseded by much more detailed and computerized data bases, such as those of the Center for
Research in Security Prices at the University of Chicago.
And to those computer data bases, in turn, goes much of
the credit for stimulating the empirical research in
finance that has given the field its distinctive flavor.
Even before these new computerized data bases
came into widespread use in the early 1960s, however,
the mechanical approach to above-normal investment
returns was already being seriously challenged. The
challenge was delivered, curiously enough, not by
economists, but by statisticians like M.G. Kendall and
my colleague, Harry Roberts –– who argued that stock
prices are essentially random walks. This implies,
among other things, that the record of past stock prices,
however rich in “patterns” it might appear, has no predictive power for future stock returns.
By the late 1960s, however, the evidence was
accumulating that stock prices are not random walks by
the strictest definition of that term. Some elements of
predictability could be detected, particularly in long-run
returns. The issue of whether publicly available information could be used for successful stock market speculation had to be rephrased — a task in which my colleague,
Eugene Fama, played the leading role — as whether the
observed departures from randomness in the time series
of returns on common stocks represent true profit It Is Illegal To Reproduce This Article In Any Format. asset’s sensitivity to or covariance with the market portfolio, the famous beta, which becomes the natural measure of a security’s risk. The aim of science is to explain
a lot with a little, and few models in finance or economics do so more dramatically than the CAPM.
The CAPM not only offers new and powerful
theoretical insights into the nature of risk, but also lends
itself admirably to the kind of in-depth empirical investigation so necessary for the development of a new field
like finance. And its benefits have not been confined narrowly to the field of finance. The great volume of empirical research testing the CAPM has led to major innovations in both theoretical and applied econometrics.
Although the single-beta CAPM managed to
withstand more than thirty years of intense econometric investigation, the current consensus within the profession is that a single risk factor, although it takes us an
enormous length of the way, is not quite enough for
describing the cross-section of expected returns.
Besides the market factor, two other pervasive risk factors have by now been identified for common stocks.
One is a size effect; small firms seem to earn
higher returns than large firms, on average, even after
controlling for beta or market sensitivity. The other is
a factor, still not fully understood, but that seems reasonably well captured by the ratio of a firm’s accounting book value to its market value. Firms with high
book-to-market ratios appear to earn higher returns
on average over long horizons than those with low
book-to-market ratios after controlling for size and for
the market factor.
That a three-factor model has now been shown
to describe the data somewhat better than the singlefactor CAPM should detract in no way, of course, from
appreciation of the enormous influence of the original
CAPM on the theory of asset pricing. SUMMER 1999 Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. THE JOURNAL OF PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT 99 All rights reserved. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for reprints or permission. Still other pillars on which the field of finance
rests are the Modigliani-Miller propositions on capital
structure. Here, the tensions between the micro normative and the macro normative approaches were evident from the outset, as is clear from the very title of
the first M&M paper, “The Cost of Capital,
Corporation Finance and the Theory of Investment.”
The theme of that paper, and indeed of the whole field
of corporate finance at the time, is capital budgeting.
The micro normative wing was concerned with
finding the “cost of capital,” in the sense of the optimal
cutoff rate for investment when the firm can finance
the project either with debt or equity or some combination of both. The macro normative or economics
wing sought to express the aggregate demand for
investment by corporations as a function of the cost of
capital that firms are actually using as their optimal cutoffs, rather than just the rate of interest on long-term
The M&M analysis provided answers, but ones
that left both wings of the profession dissatisfied. At the
macro normative level, the M&M measure of the cost
of capital for aggregate investment functions never really caught on, and, indeed, the very notion of estimating aggregate demand functions for investment has long
since been abandoned by macro economists. At the
micro level, the M&M propositions imply that the
choice of financing instrument is irrelevant for the ---> THE MODIGLIANI-MILLER PROPOSITIONS optimal cutoff. Such a cutoff is seen to depend solely
on the risk (or “risk class”) of the investment, regardless of how it is financed, hardly a happy position for
professors of finance to explain to their students being
trained, presumably, in the art of selecting optimal capital structures.
Faced with the unpleasant action consequences
of the M&M model at the micro level, the tendency of
many at first was to dismiss the assumptions underlying
M&M’s then-novel arbitrage proof as unrealistic. The
assumptions underlying the CAPM, of course, are
equally or even more implausible, as noted earlier, but
the profession seemed far more willing to accept
Friedman’s “the assumptions don’t matter” position for
the CAPM than for the M&M propositions.
The likely reason is that the second blade of the
Friedman positivism slogan — what does count is the
descriptive power of the model itself — was not followed up. Tests by the hundreds of the CAPM fill the
literature. But direct calibration tests of the M&M
propositions and their implications do not.
One fundamental difficulty of testing the M&M
propositions shows up in the initial M&M paper itself.
The capital structure proposition says that if you could
find two firms whose underlying earnings are identical,
then so would be their market values, regardless of how
much of the capital structure takes the form of equity
as opposed to debt.
But how do you find two companies whose earnings are identical? M&M tried using industry as a way of
holding earnings constant, but this sort of filter is far too
crude. Attempts to exploit the power of the CAPM for
testing M&M were no more successful. How do you
compute a beta for the underlying real assets?
One way to avoid the difficulty of not having
two identical firms, of course, is to see what happens
when the same firm changes its capital structure. If a
firm borrows and uses the proceeds to pay its shareholders a huge dividend or to buy back shares, does the
value of the firm increase? Many studies have suggested
that it does. But the interpretation of such results faces
a hopeless identification problem.
The firm, after all, never issues a press release saying “we are just conducting a purely scientific investigation of the M&M propositions.” The market, which is
forward-looking, has every reason to believe that the
capital structure decisions are conveying management’s
views about changes in the firm’s prospects for the future.
These confounding “information effects,” present in It Is Illegal To Reproduce This Article In Any Format. opportunities after transaction costs and after appropriate compensation for changes in risk over time. With this
shift in focus from returns to cost- and risk-adjusted
returns, the efficient markets debate becomes no longer
a matter of statistics, but one of economics.
This connection with economics helps explain
why the efficient markets hypothesis of finance remains
as strong as ever, despite the steady drumbeat of empirical studies directed against it. If you find some
mechanical rule that seems to earn above-normal
returns — and with thousands of researchers spinning
through the mountains of tapes of past data, anomalies,
like the currently fashionable “momentum effects,” are
bound to keep turning up — then imitators will enter
and compete away those above-normal returns exactly
as in any other setting in economics. Above-normal
profits, wherever they are found, inevitably carry with
them the seeds of their own decay. OPTIONS Fortunately, however, recent developments in
finance, also recognized by the Nobel Committee, suggest that the conflict between the two traditions in
finance, the business school stream and the economics
department stream, may be on the way to reconciliation.
This development, of course, is the field of
options, whose pioneers, recently honored by the
Nobel Committee, were Robert Merton and Myron
Scholes (with the late Fischer Black everywhere
acknowledged as the third pivotal figure). Because the
intellectual achievement of their work has been commemorated over and over –– and rightly so –– I will
100 THE HISTORY OF FINANCE Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. SUMMER 1999 All rights reserved. Email: email@example.com for reprints or permission.
---> not seek to review it here. Instead, in keeping with my
theme, I want to focus on what options mean for the
history of finance.
Options mean, among other things, that for the
first time in its close to fifty-year history, the field of
finance can be built, or as I will argue be rebuilt, on the
basis of “observable” magnitudes. I still remember the
teasing we financial economists, Harry Markowitz,
William Sharpe, and I, had to put up with from the
physicists and chemists in Stockholm when we conceded that the basic unit of our research, the expected rate
of return, was not actually observable. I tried to parry
by reminding them of their neutrino –– a particle with
no mass whose presence is inferred only as a missing
residual from the interactions of other particles. But
that was eight years ago. In the meantime, the neutrino
has been detected.
To say that option prices are based on observables is not strictly true, of course. The option price in
the Black-Scholes-Merton formula depends on the
current market value of the underlying share, the striking price, the time to maturity of the contract, and the
risk-free rate of interest, all of which are observable
either exactly or very closely. But the option price
depends also, and very critically, on the variance of the
distribution of returns on the underlying share, which
is not directly observable; it must be estimated.
Still, as Fischer Black always reminded us, estimating variances is orders of magnitude easier than estimating the means or expected returns that are central
to the models of Markowitz, Sharpe, or ModiglianiMiller. The precision of an estimate of the variance can
be improved, as noted earlier, by cutting time into
smaller and smaller units –– from weeks to days to
hours to minutes. For means, however, the precision of
estimate can be enhanced only by lengthening the sample period, giving rise to the well-known dilemma that
by the time a high degree of precision in estimating the
mean from past data has been achieved, the mean itself
has almost surely shifted.
Having a base in observable quantities — or virtually observable quantities — on which to value securities might seem at first sight to have benefited primarily the management science stream in finance. And
indeed, recent years have seen the birth of a new and
rapidly growing specialty area within the profession,
that of financial engineering (and the recent establishment of a journal with that name is a clear sign that the
field is here to stay). The financial engineers have It Is Illegal To Reproduce This Article In Any Format. every dividend and capital structure decision, render
indecisive all tests based on specific corporate actions.
Nor can we hope to refute the M&M propositions indirectly by calling attention to the multitude
of new securities and of variations on old securities
that are introduced year after year. The M&M propositions say only that no gains could be earned from
such innovations if the market were in fact “complete.” But the new securities in question may well be
serving to complete the market, earning a firstmover’s profit to the particular innovation. Only
those in Wall Street know how hard it is these days to
come by those innovator’s profits.
If all this seems reminiscent of the efficient markets hypothesis, that is no accident. The M&M propositions are also ways of saying that there is no free lunch.
Firms cannot hope to gain by issuing what looks like
low-cost debt rather than high-cost equity. They just
make the cost of higher-cost equity even higher. And if
any substantial number of firms, at the same time, seek
to replace what they think is their high-cost equity
with low-cost debt (even tax-advantaged debt), then
the interest costs of debt will rise, and the required
yields on equity will fall until the perceived incentives
to change capital structures (or dividend policies for
that matter) are eliminated.
The M&M propositions, in short, like the efficient markets hypothesis, are about equilibrium in the
capital markets — what equilibrium looks like, and
what forces are set in motion once it is disturbed. And
this is why neither the efficient markets hypothesis nor
the Modigliani-Miller propositions have ever set well
with those in the profession who see finance as essentially a branch of management science. RECONSTRUCTION OF FINANCE? I will speculate no further about these and other
exciting prospects for the future. Let me close rather
with a question: What would I advise a young member
of the German Finance Association to specialize in?
What would I specialize in if I were starting over and
entering the field today?
Well, I certainly wouldn’t go into asset pricing ENDNOTE
This is a slightly modified version of an address delivered
at the Fifth Annual Meeting of the German Finance Association in
Hamburg on September 25, 1998. SUMMER 1999 Copyright @ Institutional Investor, Inc. THE JOURNAL OF PORTFOLIO MANAGEMENT 101 All rights reserved. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for reprints or permission.
---> or corporate finance. Research in those subfields has
already reached the phase of rapidly diminishing
returns. Agency theory, I would argue, is best left to the
legal profession, and behavioral finance is best left to the
psychologists. So, at the risk of sounding a bit like the
character in the movie “The Graduate,” I reduce my
advice to a single word: options.
When it comes to research potential, options
have much to offer both the management science/business school wing within the profession and the economics wing. In fact, so vast are the research opportunities for both wings that the field is surely due for a
total reconstruction as profound as that following the
original breakthrough by Harry Markowitz in 1952.
The shift toward options as the center of gravity
of finance that I foresee should be particularly welcomed
by the members of the German Finance Association. I
can remember when research in finance in Germany
was just beginning and tended to consist of replication
of American studies using German data. But when it
comes to a relatively new area like options, we all stand
roughly equal at the starting line. And this is an area in
which the rigorous and mathematical German academic training may even offer a comparative advantage.
It is no accident, I believe, that the Deutsche
Termin Borse (or Eurex, as it has now become after
merging with the Swiss exchange) has taken the hightech road to a leading position among the world’s
futures exchanges only eight years after a great conference in Frankfurt where Hartmut Schmidt, Fischer
Black, and I sought to persuade the German financial
establishment that allowing futures and options trading
would not threaten the German economy. Hardware
and electronic trading were the key to DTB’s success,
but I see no reason why the German scholarly community cannot duplicate that success on the more abstract
side of research in finance as well.
Whether it can should be clear by the time of
the twenty-fifth annual meeting. I’m only sorry I won’t
be able to see that happy occasion. It Is Illegal To Reproduce This Article In Any Format. already reduced the original Black-Scholes-Merton
formula to Model-T status.
Nor has the micro normative field of corporate
finance been left out. When it comes to capital budgeting, long a major focus of corporate finance, the
decision impact of what have come to be called “real”
options –– even simple ones like the right to close
down a mine when the output price falls and reopen it
when it rises — is substantially greater than that of variations in the cost of capital.
The options revolution, if I may call it that, is
also transforming the macro normative or economics
stream in finance. The hint of things to come in that
regard is prefigured in the title of the original BlackScholes paper, “The Pricing of Options and Corporate
Liabilities.” The latter phrase was added to the title precisely to convince the editors of the Journal of Political
Economy –– about as economics a journal as you can get
–– that the original (rejected) version of the paper was
not just a technical tour de force in mathematical statistics, but an advance with wide application for the study
of market prices.
And indeed, the Black-Scholes analysis shows,
among other things, how options serve to “complete
the market” for securities by eliminating or at least substantially weakening the constraints on high leverage
obtainable with ordinary securities. The Black-Scholes
demonstration that the shares in highly leveraged corporations are really call options also serves in effect to
complete the M&M model of the pricing of corporate
equities subject to the prior claims of the debtholders.
We can go even further: Every security can be thought
of as a package of component Arrow-Debreu stateprice contingent claims (options, for short), just as
every physical object is a package of component atoms
and molecules. ...
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