The Myth Of The Rational Market

financeI just finished reading an excellent book on finance, The Myth Of The Rational Market by Justin Fox. This book will blow away a lot of what you learned in Econ 101 or have heard on the news. It turns out that many of the core ideas and theories of finance and economics have been under fire for decades.  The issue is that several of these core ideas were easy to conceptualize and remember, like the efficient marketplace, but have been shown to be oversimplifications and poor models of reality.

Definitely worth a read if you have any interest in the history of financial theory.

I had started studying finance because I was curious about why different stocks had different values. It appeared to me that certain stock’s values were solely based on the “Bigger Fool Principle”, that the only way you could make money was if you could find a bigger fool than yourself to take if off your hands. With billions at risk in different markets I felt that there had to be more to it than this. How could growth stocks with no plans of ever returning profits to investors be worth the multiple that people paid for them.

This led me to the capital structure irrelevance principle as what appeared to be at the root of my confusion. This theory was initially proposed by Modigliani and Miller in 1958. The first part asserts that the value of a corporation is unaffected by the source of the corporations finance. So if a corporation needed money it didn’t matter to the value of the stock as to whether the company sold more stock or borrowed the needed money. This part seems to make sense, I can understand why if a corporation all of a sudden needed new financing that that could affect the price of the stock, but not which source of money it decides to use to fill that need.

But a second part that came out of the theory had to do with dividends and that the value of a stock was independent of the dividend plan. So according to Modigliani and Miller, a stock’s value was not connected to whether it paid out profits as dividends. This just didn’t seem correct to me at all and I kept searching and searching for something that would refute this. However, it appears that this aspect of the theory is still standing.

As a very simple model I can see how you could say that it wouldn’t make a difference if you distribute profits to investors as dividends or you use those profits to fund further growth. In fact I think Warren Buffet’s life makes an incredibly compelling case that in the right hands keeping free cash flow within a corporation and using it to fund future growth is advantageous. However as an investor this assumes that my goals and the company’s goals are aligned.  But if the goal of an investment is to use profits to fund some other aspect of my life such as buying a house or paying for college for kids then the simple return of a dividend is more advantageous and valuable. But more to the aspect of the theory it makes the assumption that managers of a company, given profits will be able to turn them into more profits or that the company will even continue to exist. I believe that there is risk in putting off returns for greater future returns that doesn’t seem to be calculated correctly into current stock prices.