Millenium bridge, endogeneity and risk management

In less than 48 hours, last week two friends mentioned the Millennium Bridge as an illustration of a risk management concept. There are several documents with that example, here (for the initial idea of using the Millennium Bridge to illustrate issues in risk management) here or there, e.g.

When we mention resonance effects on bridges, we usually thing of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge (where strong winds set the bridge oscillating) or the Basse-Chaîne Bridge (in France, which collapsed on April 16, 1850, when 478 French soldiers marched across it in lockstep). In the first case, there is nothing we can do about it, but for the second one, this is why soldiers are required to break step on bridges.

But for the Millennium bridge, a ‘positive feedback‘ phenomenon (known as Synchronous Lateral Excitation in physics) has been observed: the natural sway motion of people walking caused small sideways oscillations in the bridge, which in turn caused people on the bridge to sway in step, increasing the amplitude of the oscillations and continually reinforcing the effect. That has been described in a nice paper in 2005 (here). In the initial paper by Jon Danielsson and Hyun Song Shin, they note that “what is the probability that a thousand people walking at random will end up walking exactly in step? It is tempting to say “close to zero”, or “negligible”. After all, if each person’s step is an independent event, then the probability of everyone walking in step would be the product of many small numbers – giving us a probability close to zero. Presumably, this is the reason why Arup – the bridge engineers – did not take this into account. However, this is exactly where endogenous risk comes in. What we must take into account is the way that people react to their environment. Pedestrians on the bridge react to how the bridge is moving. When the bridge moves under your feet, it is a natural reaction for people to adjust their stance to regain balance. But here is the catch. When the bridge moves, everyone adjusts his or her stance at the same time. This synchronized movement pushes the bridge that the people are standing on, and makes the bridge move even more. This, in turn, makes the people adjust their stance more drastically, and so on. In other words, the wobble of the bridge feeds on itself. When the bridge wobbles, everyone adjusts their stance, which sets off an even worse wobble, which makes the people adjust even more, and so on. So, the wobble will continue and get stronger even though the initial shock (say, a gust of wind) has long passed. It is an example of a force that is generated and amplified within the system. It is an endogenous response. It is very different from a shock that comes from a storm or an earthquake which are exogenous to the system.

And to go further, they point out that this event is rather similar to what is observed in financial markets (here) by quoting The Economist from October 12th 2000 “So-called value-at-risk models (VaR) blend science and art. They estimate how much a portfolio could lose in a single bad day. If that amount gets too large, the VAR model signals that the bank should sell. The trouble is that lots of banks have similar investments and similar VAR models. In periods when markets everywhere decline, the models can tell everybody to sell the same things at the same time, making market conditions much worse. In effect, they can, and often do, create a vicious feedback loop.