Category Archives: celebrity forecasters

Didier Sornette – Celebrity Bubble Forecaster

Professor Didier Sornette, who holds the Chair in Entreprenuerial Risks at ETH Zurich, is an important thinker, and it is heartening to learn the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is electing Professor Sornette a Fellow.

It is impossible to look at, say, the historical performance of the S&P 500 over the past several decades, without concluding that, at some point, the current surge in the market will collapse, as it has done previously when valuations ramped up so rapidly and so far.


Sornette focuses on asset bubbles and has since 1998, even authoring a book in 2004 on the stock market.

At the same time, I think it is fair to say that he has been largely ignored by mainstream economics (although not finance), perhaps because his training is in physical science. Indeed, many of his publications are in physics journals – which is interesting, but justified because complex systems dynamics cross the boundaries of many subject areas and sciences.

Over the past year or so, I have perused dozens of Sornette papers, many from the extensive list at

This list is so long and, at times, technical, that videos are welcome.

Along these lines there is Sornette’s Ted talk (see below), and an MP4 file which offers an excellent, high level summary of years of research and findings. This MP4 video was recorded at a talk before the International Center for Mathematical Sciences at the University of Edinburgh.

Intermittent criticality in financial markets: high frequency trading to large-scale bubbles and crashes. You have to download the file to play it.

By way of précis, this presentation offers a high-level summary of the roots of his approach in the economics literature, and highlights the role of a central differential equation for price change in an asset market.

So since I know everyone reading this blog was looking forward to learning about a differential equation, today, let me highlight the importance of the equation,

dp/dt = cpd

This basically says that price change in a market over time depends on the level of prices – a feature of markets where speculative forces begin to hold sway.

This looks to be a fairly simple equation, but the solutions vary, depending on the values of the parameters c and d. For example, when c>0 and the exponent d  is greater than one, prices change faster than exponentially and within some finite period, a singularity is indicated by the solution to the equation. Technically, in the language of differential equations this is called a finite time singularity.

Well, the essence of Sornette’s predictive approach is to estimate the parameters of a price equation that derives, ultimately, from this differential equation in order to predict when an asset market will reach its peak price and then collapse rapidly to lower prices.

The many sources of positive feedback in asset pricing markets are the basis for the faster than exponential growth, resulting from d>1. Lots of empirical evidence backs up the plausibility and credibility of herd and imitative behaviors, and models trace out the interaction of prices with traders motivated by market fundamentals and momentum traders or trend followers.

Interesting new research on this topic shows that random trades could moderate the rush towards collapse in asset markets – possibly offering an alternative to standard regulation.

The important thing, in my opinion, is to discard notions of market efficiency which, even today among some researchers, result in scoffing at the concept of asset bubbles and basic sabotage of research that can help understand the associated dynamics.

Here is a TED talk by Sornette from last summer.

Hal Varian and the “New” Predictive Techniques

Big Data: New Tricks for Econometrics is, for my money, one of the best discussions of techniques like classification and regression trees, random forests, and penalized  regression (such as lasso, lars, and elastic nets) that can be found.

Varian, pictured aove, is emeritus professor in the School of Information, the Haas School of Business, and the Department of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley. Varian retired from full-time appointments at Berkeley to become Chief Economist at Google.

He also is among the elite academics publishing in the area of forecasting according to IDEAS!.

Big Data: New Tricks for Econometrics, as its title suggests, uses the wealth of data now being generated (Google is a good example) as a pretext for promoting techniques that are more well-known in machine learning circles, than in econometrics or standard statistics, at least as understood by economists.

First, the sheer size of the data involved may require more sophisticated 18 data manipulation tools. Second, we may have more potential predictors than appropriate for estimation, so we need to do some kind of variable selection. Third, large data sets may allow for more flexible relationships than simple linear models. Machine learning techniques such as decision trees, support vector machines, neural nets, deep learning and so on may allow for more effective ways to model complex relationships.

He handles the definitional stuff deftly, which is good, since there is not standardization of terms yet in this rapidly evolving field of data science or predictive analytics, whatever you want to call it.

Thus, “NoSQL” databases are

sometimes interpreted as meaning “not only SQL.” NoSQL databases are more primitive than SQL databases in terms of data manipulation capabilities but can handle larger amounts of data.

The essay emphasizes out-of-sample prediction and presents a nice discussion of k-fold cross validation.

1. Divide the data into k roughly equal subsets and label them by s =1; : : : ; k. Start with subset s = 1.

2. Pick a value for the tuning parameter.

3. Fit your model using the k -1 subsets other than subset s.

4. Predict for subset s and measure the associated loss.

5. Stop if s = k, otherwise increment s by 1 and go to step 2.

Common choices for k are 10, 5, and the sample size minus 1 (“leave one out”). After cross validation, you end up with k values of the tuning parameter and the associated loss which you can then examine to choose an appropriate value for the tuning parameter. Even if there is no tuning parameter, it is useful to use cross validation to report goodness-of-t measures since it measures out-of-sample performance which is what is typically of interest.

Varian remarks that Test-train and cross validation, are very commonly used in machine learning and, in my view, should be used much more in economics, particularly when working with large datasets

But this essay is by no means methodological, and presents several nice worked examples, showing how, for example, regression trees can outperform logistic regression in analyzing survivors of the sinking of the Titanic – the luxury ship, and how several of these methods lead to different imputations of significance to the race factor in the Boston Housing Study.

The essay also presents easy and good discussions of bootstrapping, bagging, boosting, and random forests, among the leading examples of “new” techniques – new to economists.

For the statistics wonks, geeks, and enthusiasts among readers, here is a YouTube presentation of the paper cited above with extra detail.


Top Forecasting Institutions and Researchers According to IDEAS!

Here is a real goldmine of research on forecasting.

IDEAS! is a RePEc service hosted by the Research Division of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

This website compiles rankings on authors who have registered with the RePEc Author Service, institutions listed on EDIRC, bibliographic data collected by RePEc, citation analysis performed by CitEc and popularity data compiled by LogEc – under the category of forecasting.

Here is a list of the top fifteen of the top 10% institutions in the field of forecasting, according to IDEAS!. The institutions are scored based on a weighted sum of all authors affiliated with the respective institutions (click to enlarge).


The Economics Department of the University of Wisconsin, the #1 institution, lists 36 researchers who claim affiliation and whose papers are listed under the category forecasting in IDEAS!.

The same IDEAS! Webpage also lists the top 10% authors in the field of forecasting. I extract the top 20 of this list here below. If you click through on an author, you can see their list of publications, many of which often are available as PDF downloads.


This is a good place to start in updating your knowledge and understanding of current thinking and contextual issues relating to forecasting.

The Applied Perspective

For an applied forecasting perspective, there is Bloomberg with this fairly recent video on several top economic forecasters providing services to business and investors.

I believe Bloomberg will release extensive, updated lists of top forecasters by country, based on a two year perspective, in a few weeks.

The Evolution of Kaggle

Kaggle is evolving in industry-specific directions, although it still hosts general data and predictive analytics contests.

“We liked to say ‘It’s all about the data,’ but the reality is that you have to understand enough about the domain in order to make a business,” said Anthony Goldbloom, Kaggle’s founder and chief executive. “What a pharmaceutical company thinks a prediction about a chemical’s toxicity is worth is very different from what Clorox thinks shelf space is worth. There is a lot to learn in each area.”

Oil and gas, which for Kaggle means mostly fracking wells in the United States, have well-defined data sets and a clear need to find working wells. While the data used in traditional oil drilling is understood, fracking is a somewhat different process. Variables like how long deep rocks have been cooked in the earth may matter. So does which teams are working the fields, meaning early-stage proprietary knowledge is also in play. That makes it a good field to go into and standardize.

(as reported in

This December 2013 change of direction pushed out Jeremy Howard, Kaggle’s former Chief Data Scientist, who now says he is,

focusing on building new kinds of software that could better learn about the data it was crunching and offer its human owners insights on any subject.

“A lone wolf data scientist can still apply his knowledge to any industry,” he said. “I’m spending time in areas where I have no industrial knowledge and finding things. I’m going to have to build a company, but first I have to spend time as a lone wolf.”

A year or so ago, the company evolved into a service-provider with the objective of linking companies, top competitors and analytical talent, and the more than 100,000 data scientists who compete on its platform.

So Kaggle now features CUSTOMER SOLUTIONS ahead of COMPETITIONS at the head of its homepage, saying We’re the global leader in solving business challenges through predictive analytics. The homepage also features logos from Facebook GE, MasterCard, and NASA, as well as a link Compete as a data scientist for fortune, fame and fun ».

But a look at the competitions underway currently highlight the fact that just a few pay a prize now.


Presumeably, companies looking for answers are now steered into the Kaggle network. The Kaggle Team numbers six analysts with experience in several industries, and the Kaggle Community includes scores of data and predictive analytics whizzes, many with “with multiple Kaggle wins.”

Here is a selection of Kaggle Solutions.


This video gives you a good idea of the current focus of the company.

This is a big development in a way, and supports those who point to the need for industry-specific knowledge and experience to do a good job of data analytics.

2014 Outlook: Jan Hatzius Forecast for Global Economic Growth

Jan Hatzius is chief economist of Global Investment Research (GIR) at Goldman Sachs, and achieved notoriety with his early recognition of the housing bust in 2008.

Here he discusses the current outlook for 2014.

The outlook is fairly rosy, so it’s interesting Goldman just released “Where we worry: Risks to our outlook”, exerpted extensively at Zero Hedge.

Downside economic risks include:

1. Reduction in fiscal drag is less of a plus than we expect

2. Deleveraging obstacles continue to weigh on private demand

3. Less effective spare capacity leads to earlier wage/inflation pressure

4. Euro area risks resurface

5. China financial/credit concerns become critical