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4 May, 2015 - 12:22

The framework of MPT makes many assumptions about investors and markets. Some are explicit in the equations, such as the use of Normal distributions to model returns. Others are implicit, such as the neglect of taxes and transaction fees. None of these assumptions are entirely true, and each of them compromises MPT to some degree.

  • Investors are interested in the optimization problem described above (maximizing the mean for a given variance). In reality, investors have utility functions that may be sensitive to higher moments of the distribution of the returns. For the investors to use the mean-variance optimization, one must suppose that the combination of utility and returns make the optimization of utility problem similar to the mean-variance optimization problem. A quadratic utility without any assumption about returns is sufficient. Another assumption is to use exponential utility and normal distribution, as discussed below.
  • Asset returns are (jointly) normally distributed random variables. In fact, it is frequently observed that returns in equity and other markets are not normally distributed. Large swings (3 to 6 standard deviations from the mean) occur in the market far more frequently than the normal distribution assumption would predict 1. While the model can also be justified by assuming any return distribution which is jointly elliptical 2, 3, all the joint elliptical distributions are symmetrical whereas asset returns empirically are not.
  • Correlations between assets are fixed and constant forever. Correlations depend on systemic relationships between the underlying assets, and change when these relationships change. Examples include one country declaring war on another, or a general market crash. During times of financial crisis all assets tend to become positively correlated, because they all move (down) together. In other words, MPT breaks down precisely when investors are most in need of protection from risk.
  • All investors aim to maximize economic utility (in other words, to make as much money as possible, regardless of any other considerations). This is a key assumption of the efficient market hypothesis, upon which MPT relies.
  • All investors are rational and risk-averse. This is another assumption of the efficient market hypothesis, but we now know from behavioral economics that market participants are not rational. It does not allow for "herd behavior" or investors who will accept lower returns for higher risk. Casino gamblers clearly pay for risk, and it is possible that some stock traders will pay for risk as well.
  • All investors have access to the same information at the same time. In fact, real markets contain information asymmetry, insider trading, and those who are simply better informed than others. Moreover, estimating the mean (for instance, there is no consistent estimator of the drift of a brownian when subsampling between 0 and T) and the covariance matrix of the returns (when the number of assets is of the same order of the number of periods) are difficult statistical tasks.
  • Investors have an accurate conception of possible returns, i.e., the probability beliefs of investors match the true distribution of returns. A different possibility is that investors' expectations are biased, causing market prices to be informationally inefficient. This possibility is studied in the field of behavioral finance, which uses psychological assumptions to provide alternatives to the CAPM such as the overconfidence-based asset pricing model of Kent Daniel, David Hirshleifer, and Avanidhar Subrahmanyam (2001) 4.
  • There are no taxes or transaction costs. Real financial products are subject both to taxes and transaction costs (such as broker fees), and taking these into account will alter the composition of the optimum portfolio. These assumptions can be relaxed with more complicated versions of the model.
  • All investors are price takers, i.e., their actions do not influence prices. In reality, sufficiently large sales or purchases of individual assets can shift market prices for that asset and others (via cross elasticity of demand.) An investor may not even be able to assemble the theoretically optimal portfolio if the market moves too much while they are buying the required securities.
  • Any investor can lend and borrow an unlimited amount at the risk free rate of interest. In reality, every investor has a credit limit.
  • All securities can be divided into parcels of any size. In reality, fractional shares usually cannot be bought or sold, and some assets have minimum orders sizes.
  • Risk/Volatility of an asset is known in advance/is constant. In fact, markets often misprice risk (e.g. the US mortgage bubble or the European debt crisis) and volatility changes rapidly.

More complex versions of MPT can take into account a more sophisticated model of the world (such as one with non-normal distributions and taxes) but all mathematical models of finance still rely on many unrealistic premises.