Amid all the hand-wringing about financial systems in meltdown mode, the subject of modeling hasn’t gotten a lot of notice. Banks and other financial institutions employed legions of Ph.D. mathematicians and statistics specialists to model the risks those firms were assuming under a variety of scenarios. The point was to avoid taking on obligations that could put the company under.

Judging by the calamity we are now living through, one would have to say those models failed miserably. They did so despite the best efforts of numerous professionals, all highly paid and with a lot of intellectual horsepower, employed specifically to head off such catastrophes.

What went wrong with the modeling? That’s a subject of keen interest to engineers who must model the behavior and risks of their own complicated systems. Insights about problems with the mathematics behind financial systems come from Huybert Groenendaal, whose Ph.D. is in modeling the spread of diseases. Groenendaal is a partner and senior risk analyst with Vose Consulting LLC in Boulder, a firm that works with a wide variety of banks and other companies trying to mitigate risks.

“In risk modeling, you use a lot of statistics because you want to learn from the past,” says Groenendaal. “That’s good if the past is like the future, but in that sense you could be getting a false sense of security.”

That sense of security plays directly into what happened with banks and financial instruments based on mortgages. “It gets back to the use of historical data,” says Groenendaal. “One critical assumption people had to make was that the past could predict the future. I believe in the case of mortgage products, there was too much faith in the idea that past trends would hold.”

Therein lies a lesson. “In our experience, people have excessive confidence in their historical data. That problem isn’t unique to the financial area,” says Groenendaal. “You must be cynical and open to the idea that this time, the world could change. When we work with people on models, we warn them that models are just tools. You have to think about the assumptions you make. Models can help you make better decisions, but you must remain skeptical.”

Did the quantitative analysts who came up with ineffective financial models lose their jobs in the aftermath? Groenendaal just laughs at this idea. “I have a feeling they will do fine. If you are a bank and you fire your whole risk-analysis department, I don’t think that would be viewed positively,” he says.

Interestingly enough, Groenendaal suggests skepticism is also in order for an equally controversial area of modeling: climate change.

“Climate change is similar to financial markets in that you can’t run experiments with it as you might when you are formulating theories in physics. That means your skepticism should go up,” he says.

We might add there is one other similarity he didn’t mention: It is doubtful anyone was ever fired for screwing up a climate model.

— Leland Teschler, Editor