Robert C. Merton and the Science of Finance
Posted: 12 Jan 2020
Date Written: December 2019
Starting with his 1970 doctoral dissertation and continuing to today, Robert C. Merton has revolutionized the theory and practice of finance. In 1997, Merton shared a Nobel Prize in Economics “for a new method to determine the value of derivatives.” His contributions to the science of finance, however, go far beyond that. In this article I describe Merton's main contributions. They include the following:
1. The introduction of continuous-time stochastic models (the Ito calculus) to the theory of household consumption and investment decisions. Merton's technique of dynamic hedging in continuous time provided a bridge between the theoretical complete-markets equilibrium model of Kenneth Arrow and the real world of personal financial planning and management.
2. The derivation of the multifactor Intertemporal Capital Asset Pricing Model (ICAPM). The ICAPM generalizes the single-factor CAPM and explains why that model might fail to properly account for observed market excess returns. It also provides a theory to identify potential forward-looking risk premia for use in factor-based investment strategies. It is therefore both a positive and normative theory.
3. The invention of Contingent Claims Analysis (CCA) as a generalization of option pricing theory. CCA applies the technique of dynamic replication to the valuation and risk management of a wide range of corporate and government liabilities. Merton's CCA model for the valuation and analysis of risky debt is known among scholars and practitioners alike as the Merton Model.
4. The development of financial engineering, which employs CCA to design and produce new financial products. Merton was the first to apply CCA to analyze government guaranty programs such as deposit insurance, and to suggest improvements in the way those programs are managed. He and his students have applied his insights at both the micro and macro policy levels.
5. And finally, the development of a theory of financial intermediation that explains and predicts how financial systems differ across countries and change over time. Merton has applied that theory, called functional and structural finance, to guide the design and regulation of financial systems at the levels of the firm, the industry, and the nation. He has also used it to propose reforms in pensions, sovereign wealth funds, and macrostabilization policy.
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