The Mirage of the Financial Singularity

NEW HAVEN – In their new book The Incredible Shrinking Alpha, Larry E. Swedroe and Andrew L. Berkin describe an investment environment populated by increasingly sophisticated analysts who rely on big data, powerful computers, and scholarly research. With all this competition, “the hurdles to achieving alpha [returns above a risk-adjusted benchmark – and thus a measure of success in picking individual investments] are getting higher and higher.”

That conclusion raises a key question: Will alpha eventually go to zero for every imaginable investment strategy? More fundamentally, is the day approaching when, thanks to so many smart people and smarter computers, financial markets really do become perfect, and we can just sit back, relax, and assume that all assets are priced correctly?

This imagined state of affairs might be called the financial singularity, analogous to the hypothetical future technological singularity, when computers replace human intelligence. The financial singularity implies that all investment decisions would be better left to a computer program, because the experts with their algorithms have figured out what drives market outcomes and reduced it to a seamless system.

Many believe that we are almost there. Even legendary investors like Warren Buffett, it is argued, are not really outperforming the market. In a recent paper, “Buffett’s Alpha,” Andrea Frazzini and David Kabiller of AQR Capital Management and Lasse Pedersen of Copenhagen Business School, conclude that Buffett is not generating significantly positive alpha if one takes account of certain lesser-known risk factors that have weighed heavily in his portfolio. The implication is that Buffet’s genius could be replicated by a computer program that incorporates these factors.