The risk, return, and correlation measures used by MPT are based on expected values, which means that they are mathematical statements about the future (the expected value of returns is explicit in the above equations, and implicit in the definitions of variance and covariance). In practice, investors must substitute predictions based on historical measurements of asset return and volatility for these values in the equations. Very often such expected values fail to take account of new circumstances which did not exist when the historical data were generated.
More fundamentally, investors are stuck with estimating key parameters from past market data because MPT attempts to model risk in terms of the likelihood of losses, but says nothing about why those losses might occur. The risk measurements used are probabilistic in nature, not structural. This is a major difference as compared to many engineering approaches to risk management.
Options theory and MPT have at least one important conceptual difference from the probabilistic risk assessment done by nuclear power [plants]. A PRA is what economists would call a structural model. The components of a system and their relationships are modeled in Monte Carlo simulations. If valve X fails, it causes a loss of back pressure on pump Y, causing a drop in flow to vessel Z, and so on.
But in the Black–Scholes equation and MPT, there is no attempt to explain an underlying structure to price changes. Various outcomes are simply given probabilities. And, unlike the PRA, if there is no history of a particular system-level event like a liquidity crisis, there is no way to compute the odds of it. If nuclear engineers ran risk management this way, they would never be able to compute the odds of a meltdown at a particular plant until several similar events occurred in the same reactor design.
—Douglas W. Hubbard, 'The Failure of Risk Management', p. 67, John Wiley & Sons, 2009. ISBN 978-0-470-38795-5
Essentially, the mathematics of MPT view the markets as a collection of dice. By examining past market data we can develop hypotheses about how the dice are weighted, but this isn't helpful if the markets are actually dependent upon a much bigger and more complicated chaotic system—the world. For this reason, accurate structural models of real financial markets are unlikely to be forthcoming because they would essentially be structural models of the entire world. Nonetheless there is growing awareness of the concept of systemic risk in financial markets, which should lead to more sophisticated market models.
Mathematical risk measurements are also useful only to the degree that they reflect investors' true concerns—there is no point minimizing a variable that nobody cares about in practice. MPT uses the mathematical concept of variance to quantify risk, and this might be justified under the assumption of elliptically distributed returns such as normally distributed returns, but for general return distributions other risk measures (like coherent risk measures) might better reflect investors' true preferences.
In particular, variance is a symmetric measure that counts abnormally high returns as just as risky as abnormally low returns. Some would argue that, in reality, investors are only concerned about losses, and do not care about the dispersion or tightness of above-average returns. According to this view, our intuitive concept of risk is fundamentally asymmetric in nature.
MPT does not account for the personal, environmental, strategic, or social dimensions of investment decisions. It only attempts to maximize risk-adjusted returns, without regard to other consequences. In a narrow sense, its complete reliance on asset prices makes it vulnerable to all the standard market failures such as those arising from information asymmetry, externalities, and public goods. It also rewards corporate fraud and dishonest accounting. More broadly, a firm may have strategic or social goals that shape its investment decisions, and an individual investor might have personal goals. In either case, information other than historical returns is relevant.
Financial economist Nassim Nicholas Taleb has also criticized modern portfolio theory because it assumes a Gaussian distribution:
After the stock market crash (in 1987), they rewarded two theoreticians, Harry Markowitz and William Sharpe, who built beautifully Platonic models on a Gaussian base, contributing to what is called Modern Portfolio Theory. Simply, if you remove their Gaussian assumptions and treat prices as scalable, you are left with hot air. The Nobel Committee could have tested the Sharpe and Markowitz models – they work like quack remedies sold on the Internet – but nobody in Stockholm seems to have thought about it. 1:p.279