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May 6th — Signals From a Very Brief But Emblematic Catastrophe on Wall Street

Jul 2010
Working Paper
09-020
By  Paul A. David

This essay begins by looking closely at the underlying structural causes of the discontinuity that appeared in the behavior of the U.S. stock market at 2:40pm in the afternoon of 6th May 2010, because the emblematic “catastrophic” aspect of the collapse of equity prices, and their subsequent equally abrupt rebound, renders these events potentially informative about things that can happen in a wider array of dynamical systems or processes – including those with consequences about which there is cause for serious concern. What transpired in those 7 minutes is viewed as being best understood as a hitherto unrecognized “emergent property” of structural conditions in the U.S. national stock market that all the actors in the story collectively had allowed to come into existence largely unremarked upon, through an historical process that was viewed generally as benign and therefore left to follow its own course of evolution unimpeded. The deeper significance of the events of May 6th lies in the attention it directs to the difference between a society being able to create and deploy technical “codes” enabling greatly enhanced connectivity for “exchange networks” - the condition of “hyper-connectivity” among an increasing number of its decentralized sub-systems, and a society that also provides timely mutually compatible institutional regulations and administrative rules for the coherent governance of computermediated transactions among “community-like” organizations of human agents. Regulating mechanisms operating to damp volatility and stabilize systems in which there is beneficial positive feedback are considered, as are a variety of circumstances in which their absence results in dysfunctional dynamic behavior.

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paul david
paul a. david