The Statistical Physics of Stock Markets. Thought of the Day 143.0

This video is an Order Routing Animation

The externalist view argues that we can make sense of, and profit from stock markets’ behavior, or at least few crucial properties of it, by crunching numbers and looking for patterns and regularities in certain sets of data. The notion of data, hence, is a key element in such an understanding and the quantitative side of the problem is prominent even if it does not mean that a qualitative analysis is ignored. The point here that the outside view maintains that it provides a better understanding than the internalist view. To this end, it endorses a functional perspective on finance and stock markets in particular.

The basic idea of the externalist view is that there are general properties and behavior of stock markets that can be detected and studied through mathematical lens, and they do not depend so much on contextual or domain-specific factors. The point at stake here is that the financial systems can be studied and approached at different scales, and it is virtually impossible to produce all the equations describing at a micro level all the objects of the system and their relations. So, in response, this view focuses on those properties that allow us to get an understanding of the behavior of the systems at a global level without having to produce a detailed conceptual and mathematical account of the inner ‘machinery’ of the system. Hence the two roads: The first one is to embrace an emergentist view on stock market, that is a specific metaphysical, ontological, and methodological thesis, while the second one is to embrace a heuristic view, that is the idea that the choice to focus on those properties that are tractable by the mathematical models is a pure problem-solving option.

A typical view of the externalist approach is the one provided, for instance, by statistical physics. In describing collective behavior, this discipline neglects all the conceptual and mathematical intricacies deriving from a detailed account of the inner, individual, and at micro level functioning of a system. Concepts such as stochastic dynamics, self-similarity, correlations (both short- and long-range), and scaling are tools to get this aim. Econophysics is a stock example in this sense: it employs methods taken from mathematics and mathematical physics in order to detect and forecast the driving forces of stock markets and their critical events, such as bubbles, crashes and their tipping points. Under this respect, markets are not ‘dark boxes’: you can see their characteristics from the outside, or better you can see specific dynamics that shape the trends of stock markets deeply and for a long time. Moreover, these dynamics are complex in the technical sense. This means that this class of behavior is such to encompass timescales, ontology, types of agents, ecologies, regulations, laws, etc. and can be detected, even if not strictly predictable. We can focus on the stock markets as a whole, on few of their critical events, looking at the data of prices (or other indexes) and ignoring all the other details and factors since they will be absorbed in these global dynamics. So this view provides a look at stock markets such that not only they do not appear as a unintelligible casino where wild gamblers face each other, but that shows the reasons and the properties of a systems that serve mostly as a means of fluid transactions that enable and ease the functioning of free markets.

Moreover the study of complex systems theory and that of stock markets seem to offer mutual benefits. On one side, complex systems theory seems to offer a key to understand and break through some of the most salient stock markets’ properties. On the other side, stock markets seem to provide a ‘stress test’ of the complexity theory. Didier Sornette expresses the analogies between stock markets and phase transitions, statistical mechanics, nonlinear dynamics, and disordered systems mold the view from outside:

Take our personal life. We are not really interested in knowing in advance at what time we will go to a given store or drive to a highway. We are much more interested in forecasting the major bifurcations ahead of us, involving the few important things, like health, love, and work, that count for our happiness. Similarly, predicting the detailed evolution of complex systems has no real value, and the fact that we are taught that it is out of reach from a fundamental point of view does not exclude the more interesting possibility of predicting phases of evolutions of complex systems that really count, like the extreme events. It turns out that most complex systems in natural and social sciences do exhibit rare and sudden transitions that occur over time intervals that are short compared to the characteristic time scales of their posterior evolution. Such extreme events express more than anything else the underlying “forces” usually hidden by almost perfect balance and thus provide the potential for a better scientific understanding of complex systems.

Phase transitions, critical points, extreme events seem to be so pervasive in stock markets that they are the crucial concepts to explain and, in case, foresee. And complexity theory provides us a fruitful reading key to understand their dynamics, namely their generation, growth and occurrence. Such a reading key proposes a clear-cut interpretation of them, which can be explained again by means of an analogy with physics, precisely with the unstable position of an object. Complexity theory suggests that critical or extreme events occurring at large scale are the outcome of interactions occurring at smaller scales. In the case of stock markets, this means that, unlike many approaches that attempt to account for crashes by searching for ‘mechanisms’ that work at very short time scales, complexity theory indicates that crashes have causes that date back months or year before it. This reading suggests that it is the increasing, inner interaction between the agents inside the markets that builds up the unstable dynamics (typically the financial bubbles) that eventually ends up with a critical event, the crash. But here the specific, final step that triggers the critical event: the collapse of the prices is not the key for its understanding: a crash occurs because the markets are in an unstable phase and any small interference or event may trigger it. The bottom line: the trigger can be virtually any event external to the markets. The real cause of the crash is its overall unstable position, the proximate ‘cause’ is secondary and accidental. Or, in other words, a crash could be fundamentally endogenous in nature, whilst an exogenous, external, shock is simply the occasional triggering factors of it. The instability is built up by a cooperative behavior among traders, who imitate each other (in this sense is an endogenous process) and contribute to form and reinforce trends that converge up to a critical point.

The main advantage of this approach is that the system (the market) would anticipate the crash by releasing precursory fingerprints observable in the stock market prices: the market prices contain information on impending crashes and this implies that:

if the traders were to learn how to decipher and use this information, they would act on it and on the knowledge that others act on it; nevertheless, the crashes would still probably happen. Our results suggest a weaker form of the “weak efficient market hypothesis”, according to which the market prices contain, in addition to the information generally available to all, subtle information formed by the global market that most or all individual traders have not yet learned to decipher and use. Instead of the usual interpretation of the efficient market hypothesis in which traders extract and consciously incorporate (by their action) all information contained in the market prices, we propose that the market as a whole can exhibit “emergent” behavior not shared by any of its constituents.

In a nutshell, the critical events emerge in a self-organized and cooperative fashion as the macro result of the internal and micro interactions of the traders, their imitation and mirroring.


Revisiting Catastrophes. Thought of the Day 134.0

The most explicit influence from mathematics in semiotics is probably René Thom’s controversial theory of catastrophes (here and here), with philosophical and semiotic support from Jean Petitot. Catastrophe theory is but one of several formalisms in the broad field of qualitative dynamics (comprising also chaos theory, complexity theory, self-organized criticality, etc.). In all these cases, the theories in question are in a certain sense phenomenological because the focus is different types of qualitative behavior of dynamic systems grasped on a purely formal level bracketing their causal determination on the deeper level. A widespread tool in these disciplines is phase space – a space defined by the variables governing the development of the system so that this development may be mapped as a trajectory through phase space, each point on the trajectory mapping one global state of the system. This space may be inhabited by different types of attractors (attracting trajectories), repellors (repelling them), attractor basins around attractors, and borders between such basins characterized by different types of topological saddles which may have a complicated topology.

Catastrophe theory has its basis in differential topology, that is, the branch of topology keeping various differential properties in a function invariant under transformation. It is, more specifically, the so-called Whitney topology whose invariants are points where the nth derivative of a function takes the value 0, graphically corresponding to minima, maxima, turning tangents, and, in higher dimensions, different complicated saddles. Catastrophe theory takes its point of departure in singularity theory whose object is the shift between types of such functions. It thus erects a distinction between an inner space – where the function varies – and an outer space of control variables charting the variation of that function including where it changes type – where, e.g. it goes from having one minimum to having two minima, via a singular case with turning tangent. The continuous variation of control parameters thus corresponds to a continuous variation within one subtype of the function, until it reaches a singular point where it discontinuously, ‘catastrophically’, changes subtype. The philosophy-of-science interpretation of this formalism now conceives the stable subtype of function as representing the stable state of a system, and the passage of the critical point as the sudden shift to a new stable state. The configuration of control parameters thus provides a sort of map of the shift between continuous development and discontinuous ‘jump’. Thom’s semiotic interpretation of this formalism entails that typical catastrophic trajectories of this kind may be interpreted as stable process types phenomenologically salient for perception and giving rise to basic verbal categories.


One of the simpler catastrophes is the so-called cusp (a). It constitutes a meta-diagram, namely a diagram of the possible type-shifts of a simpler diagram (b), that of the equation ax4 + bx2 + cx = 0. The upper part of (a) shows the so-called fold, charting the manifold of solutions to the equation in the three dimensions a, b and c. By the projection of the fold on the a, b-plane, the pointed figure of the cusp (lower a) is obtained. The cusp now charts the type-shift of the function: Inside the cusp, the function has two minima, outside it only one minimum. Different paths through the cusp thus corresponds to different variations of the equation by the variation of the external variables a and b. One such typical path is the path indicated by the left-right arrow on all four diagrams which crosses the cusp from inside out, giving rise to a diagram of the further level (c) – depending on the interpretation of the minima as simultaneous states. Here, thus, we find diagram transformations on three different, nested levels.

The concept of transformation plays several roles in this formalism. The most spectacular one refers, of course, to the change in external control variables, determining a trajectory through phase space where the function controlled changes type. This transformation thus searches the possibility for a change of the subtypes of the function in question, that is, it plays the role of eidetic variation mapping how the function is ‘unfolded’ (the basic theorem of catastrophe theory refers to such unfolding of simple functions). Another transformation finds stable classes of such local trajectory pieces including such shifts – making possible the recognition of such types of shifts in different empirical phenomena. On the most empirical level, finally, one running of such a trajectory piece provides, in itself, a transformation of one state into another, whereby the two states are rationally interconnected. Generally, it is possible to make a given transformation the object of a higher order transformation which by abstraction may investigate aspects of the lower one’s type and conditions. Thus, the central unfolding of a function germ in Catastrophe Theory constitutes a transformation having the character of an eidetic variation making clear which possibilities lie in the function germ in question. As an abstract formalism, the higher of these transformations may determine the lower one as invariant in a series of empirical cases.

Complexity theory is a broader and more inclusive term covering the general study of the macro-behavior of composite systems, also using phase space representation. The theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman (intro) argues that in a phase space of all possible genotypes, biological evolution must unfold in a rather small and specifically qualified sub-space characterized by many, closely located and stable states (corresponding to the possibility of a species to ‘jump’ to another and better genotype in the face of environmental change) – as opposed to phase space areas with few, very stable states (which will only be optimal in certain, very stable environments and thus fragile when exposed to change), and also opposed, on the other hand, to sub-spaces with a high plurality of only metastable states (here, the species will tend to merge into neighboring species and hence never stabilize). On the base of this argument, only a small subset of the set of virtual genotypes possesses ‘evolvability’ as this special combination between plasticity and stability. The overall argument thus goes that order in biology is not a pure product of evolution; the possibility of order must be present in certain types of organized matter before selection begins – conversely, selection requires already organized material on which to work. The identification of a species with a co-localized group of stable states in genome space thus provides a (local) invariance for the transformation taking a trajectory through space, and larger groups of neighboring stabilities – lineages – again provide invariants defined by various more or less general transformations. Species, in this view, are in a certain limited sense ‘natural kinds’ and thus naturally signifying entities. Kauffman’s speculations over genotypical phase space have a crucial bearing on a transformation concept central to biology, namely mutation. On this basis far from all virtual mutations are really possible – even apart from their degree of environmental relevance. A mutation into a stable but remotely placed species in phase space will be impossible (evolution cannot cross the distance in phase space), just like a mutation in an area with many, unstable proto-species will not allow for any stabilization of species at all and will thus fall prey to arbitrary small environment variations. Kauffman takes a spontaneous and non-formalized transformation concept (mutation) and attempts a formalization by investigating its condition of possibility as movement between stable genomes in genotype phase space. A series of constraints turn out to determine type formation on a higher level (the three different types of local geography in phase space). If the trajectory of mutations must obey the possibility of walking between stable species, then the space of possibility of trajectories is highly limited. Self-organized criticality as developed by Per Bak (How Nature Works the science of self-organized criticality) belongs to the same type of theories. Criticality is here defined as that state of a complicated system where sudden developments in all sizes spontaneously occur.