Any mathematical model of reality relies on simplifications and assumptions. The Black-Scholes equation was based on arbitrage pricing theory, in which both drift and volatility are constant. This assumption is common in financial theory, but it is often false for real markets. The equation also assumes that there are no transaction costs, no limits on short-selling and that money can always be lent and borrowed at a known, fixed, risk-free interest rate. Again, reality is often very different.Oops.
When these assumptions are valid, risk is usually low, because large stock market fluctuations should be extremely rare. But on 19 October 1987, Black Monday, the world's stock markets lost more than 20% of their value within a few hours. An event this extreme is virtually impossible under the model's assumptions.
Large fluctuations in the stock market are far more common than Brownian motion predicts. The reason is unrealistic assumptions – ignoring potential black swans. But usually the model performed very well, so as time passed and confidence grew, many bankers and traders forgot the model had limitations. They used the equation as a kind of talisman, a bit of mathematical magic to protect them against criticism if anything went wrong.It's probably too soon to expect any dissertations on the topic, but an option trader with an understanding of Poisson event arrivals (the jump discontinuities of the title) might be making a lot of money trading against traders who use the ordinary stochastic processes.
The Black-Scholes equation has its roots in mathematical physics, where quantities are infinitely divisible, time flows continuously and variables change smoothly. Such models may not be appropriate to the world of finance. Traditional mathematical economics doesn't always match reality, either, and when it fails, it fails badly. Physicists, mathematicians and economists are therefore looking for better models.Perhaps not. But while regulators seek to impose order and write rules, traders and modellers look for more effective ways to make money.
At the forefront of these efforts is complexity science, a new branch of mathematics that models the market as a collection of individuals interacting according to specified rules. These models reveal the damaging effects of the herd instinct: market traders copy other market traders. Virtually every financial crisis in the last century has been pushed over the edge by the herd instinct. It makes everything go belly-up at the same time. If engineers took that attitude, and one bridge in the world fell down, so would all the others.
By studying ecological systems, it can be shown that instability is common in economic models, mainly because of the poor design of the financial system. The facility to transfer billions at the click of a mouse may allow ever-quicker profits, but it also makes shocks propagate faster.
Was an equation to blame for the financial crash, then? Yes and no. Black-Scholes may have contributed to the crash, but only because it was abused. In any case, the equation was just one ingredient in a rich stew of financial irresponsibility, political ineptitude, perverse incentives and lax regulation.
Despite its supposed expertise, the financial sector performs no better than random guesswork. The stock market has spent 20 years going nowhere. The system is too complex to be run on error-strewn hunches and gut feelings, but current mathematical models don't represent reality adequately.
(A gripe about the bridge metaphor. There's no arbitrage condition among bridges. When London Bridge falls down, the traffic doesn't all instantaneously divert to Blackfriars Bridge. Money migrates among assets more rapidly. This is true, whether an epidemic model accurately describes its migration or not.)