By Tim Harford BBC Radio 4, More or Less
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.
I rather suspect that the incompetant and greedy are desperatley looking for something...
I do however feel that we are perhaps placing a little too much faith in complex mathematical models ?
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