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Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable


  • Zeckhauser, Richard

    (Harvard U)


From David Ricardo making a fortune buying British government bonds on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo to Warren Buffett selling insurance to the California earthquake authority, the wisest investors have earned extraordinary returns by investing in the unknown and the unknowable (UU). But they have done so on a reasoned, sensible basis. This essay explains some of the central principles that such investors employ. It starts by discussing “ignorance,” a widespread situation in the real world of investing, where even the possible states of the world are not known. Traditional finance theory does not apply in UU situations. Strategic thinking, deducing what other investors might know or not, and assessing whether they might be deterred from investing, for example due to fiduciary requirements, frequently point the way to profitability. Most big investment payouts come when money is combined with complementary skills, such as knowing how to develop real estate or new technologies. Those who lack these skills can look for “sidecar” investments that allow them to put their money alongside that of people they know to be both capable and honest. The reader is asked to consider a number of such investments. Central concepts in decision analysis, game theory, and behavioral decision are deployed alongside real investment decisions to unearth successful investment strategies. These strategies are distilled into eight investment maxims. Learning to invest more wisely in a UU world may be the most promising way to significantly bolster your prosperity.

Suggested Citation

  • Zeckhauser, Richard, 2007. "Investing in the Unknown and Unknowable," Working Paper Series rwp07-005, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.
  • Handle: RePEc:ecl:harjfk:rwp07-005

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    References listed on IDEAS

    1. Max H. Bazerman & William F. Samuelson, 1983. "I Won the Auction But Don't Want the Prize," Journal of Conflict Resolution, Peace Science Society (International), vol. 27(4), pages 618-634, December.
    2. Paul A. Samuelson, 2011. "Why We Should Not Make Mean Log of Wealth Big Though Years to Act Are Long," World Scientific Book Chapters,in: THE KELLY CAPITAL GROWTH INVESTMENT CRITERION THEORY and PRACTICE, chapter 34, pages 491-493 World Scientific Publishing Co. Pte. Ltd..
    3. Grossman, Sanford J, 1981. "The Informational Role of Warranties and Private Disclosure about Product Quality," Journal of Law and Economics, University of Chicago Press, vol. 24(3), pages 461-483, December.
    4. Craig R. Fox & Amos Tversky, 1995. "Ambiguity Aversion and Comparative Ignorance," The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Oxford University Press, vol. 110(3), pages 585-603.
    5. Bohnet, Iris & Zeckhauser, Richard, 2004. "Trust, risk and betrayal," Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Elsevier, vol. 55(4), pages 467-484, December.
    6. Sergiu Hart & Yair Tauman, 2004. "Market Crashes without External Shocks," The Journal of Business, University of Chicago Press, vol. 77(1), pages 1-8, January.
    7. W. Kip Viscusi & Richard J. Zeckhauser, 2005. "Recollection Bias and the Combat of Terrorism," The Journal of Legal Studies, University of Chicago Press, vol. 34(1), pages 27-55, January.
    8. Kahneman, Daniel & Tversky, Amos, 1979. "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica, Econometric Society, vol. 47(2), pages 263-291, March.
    9. Zeckhauser, Richard & Thompson, Mark, 1970. "Linear Regression with Non-Normal Error Terms," The Review of Economics and Statistics, MIT Press, vol. 52(3), pages 280-286, August.
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    Cited by:

    1. Abbas Mirakhor & S. Nuri Erbas, 2007. "The Equity Premium Puzzle, Ambiguity Aversion, and Institutional Quality," IMF Working Papers 07/230, International Monetary Fund.
    2. Chavas, Jean-Paul & Barham, Bradford, 2007. "On the Microeconomics of Diversification under Uncertainty and Learning," Staff Paper Series 515, University of Wisconsin, Agricultural and Applied Economics.
    3. Nicolai J. Foss & Peter G. Klein, 2013. "Entrepreneurship, entrepreneurial governance and economic organization," Chapters,in: Handbook of Economic Organization, chapter 22 Edward Elgar Publishing.
    4. Richard Zeckhauser & W. Viscusi, 2008. "Discounting dilemmas: Editors’ introduction," Journal of Risk and Uncertainty, Springer, vol. 37(2), pages 95-106, December.
    5. V. Yukalov & D. Sornette, 2011. "Decision theory with prospect interference and entanglement," Theory and Decision, Springer, vol. 70(3), pages 283-328, March.
    6. Alpaslan Akay & Peter Martinsson & Haileselassie Medhin & Stefan Trautmann, 2012. "Attitudes toward uncertainty among the poor: an experiment in rural Ethiopia," Theory and Decision, Springer, vol. 73(3), pages 453-464, September.
    7. Roy, Devjani & Zeckhauser, Richard, 2013. "Ignorance: Lessons from the Laboratory of Literature," Working Paper Series rwp13-039, Harvard University, John F. Kennedy School of Government.

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