In our Fundamentals of Performance Measurement course I often mention the ailment known as “rootaphobia,” or the “fear of roots” (as in square roots; the root symbol). I later mention “tulipomania.” And while the former is contrived, the latter isn’t as it refers to the bubble in tulip bulb prices that occurred in 17th century Holland, as wonderfully documented by Mike Dash in “Tulipomania: The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions it Aroused.” (If you haven’t read it, I recommend it as it entertaining, well written, and comes with much intrigue). That bubble, like all others, came crashing down.
In today’s Wall Street Journal we learn of what might be an up-and-coming flower phenom, as many seek to obtain the various bulbs of the genus Galanthus, or more commonly known as “snowdrops.” A single bulb of some varieties is priced at $50 and this article will no doubt spur more interest in this flower.
And so you might ask, “who cares.” Well, if this becomes a bubble is it because of the financial quants who have developed fancy mathematical models to track the flower’s prices? Most assuredly, no. And yet, we hear from folks like Pablo Triana and Nassim Taleb that the ’87 crash as well as the most recent downturn’s blame lies at the feet of these model developers. Sorry, but I don’t buy it. And while I can’t ignore the potential contribution some of the models may have had, to suggest that they deserve all or most of the credit is an act of hyperbole. While it would be helpful to be able to identify a single cause, without adequate proof one runs the risk of coming up short. I’m a fan of Michael Lewis’ and in a recent book he acknowledged that the cause for the ’87 “market adjustment” (aka “crash”) is unknown.
There are academics who study market crashes and they can perhaps shed some light on the causes to the most recent one, though many of us in the industry can identify several candidates. The human element, as is quite visible in tulipomania and perhaps the figure snowdropsomania cannot be ignored.