Non-ergodic economics, expected utility and the Kelly criterion

21 April, 2012 at 15:18 | Posted in Economics, Statistics & Econometrics | 4 Comments

Suppose I want to play a game. Let’s say we are tossing a coin. If heads comes up, I win a dollar, and if tails comes up, I lose a dollar. Suppose further that I believe I know that the coin is asymmetrical and that the probability of getting heads (p) is greater than 50% – say 60% (0.6) – while the bookmaker assumes that the coin is totally symmetric. How much of my bankroll (T), should I optimally invest in this game?

A strict neoclassical utility-maximizing economist would suggest that my goal should be to maximize the expected value of my bankroll (wealth), and according to this view, I ought to bet my entire bankroll.

Does that sound rational? Most people would answer no to that question. The risk of losing is so high, that I already after few games played – the expected time until my first loss arises is 1/(1-p), which in this case is equal to 2.5 – with a high likelihood would be losing and thereby become bankrupt. The expected-value maximizing economist does not seem to have a particularly attractive approach.

So what’s the alternative? One possibility is to apply the so-called Kelly-strategy – after the American physicist and information theorist John L. Kelly, who in the article A New Interpretation of Information Rate (1956) suggested this criterion for how to optimize the size of the bet – under which the optimum is to invest a specific fraction (x) of wealth (T) in each game. How do we arrive at this fraction?

When I win, I have (1 + x) times more than before, and when I lose (1 – x) times less. After n rounds, when I have won v times and lost n – v times, my new bankroll (W) is

The bankroll increases multiplicatively – “compound interest” – and the long-term average growth rate for my wealth can then be easily calculated by taking the logarithms of (1), which gives

(2) log (W/ T) = v log (1 + x) + (n – v) log (1 – x).

If we divide both sides by n we get

(3) [log (W / T)] / n = [v log (1 + x) + (n – v) log (1 – x)] / n

The left hand side now represents the average growth rate (g) in each game. On the right hand side the ratio v/n is equal to the percentage of bets that I won, and when n is large, this fraction will be close to p. Similarly, (n – v)/n is close to (1 – p). When the number of bets is large, the average growth rate is

(4) g = p log (1 + x) + (1 – p) log (1 – x).

Now we can easily determine the value of x that maximizes g:

(5) d [p log (1 + x) + (1 – p) log (1 – x)]/d x = p/(1 + x) – (1 – p)/(1 – x) =>
      p/(1 + x) – (1 – p)/(1 – x) = 0 =>

(6) x = p – (1 – p)

Since p is the probability that I will win, and (1 – p) is the probability that I will lose, the Kelly strategy says that to optimize the growth rate of your bankroll (wealth) you should invest a fraction of the bankroll equal to the difference of the likelihood that you will win or lose. In our example, this means that I have in each game to bet the fraction of x = 0.6 – (1 – 0.6) ≈ 0.2 – that is, 20% of my bankroll. The optimal average growth rate becomes

(7) 0.6 log (1.2) + 0.4 log (0.8) ≈ 0.02.

If I bet 20% of my wealth in tossing the coin, I will after 10 games on average to be  times more than when I started (≈ 1.22 times more).

This game strategy will give us an outcome in the long run that is better than if we use a strategy building on the neoclassical economic theory of choice under uncertainty (risk) – expected value maximization. If we bet all our wealth in each game we will most likely lose our fortune, but because with low probability we will have a very large fortune, the expected value is still high. For a real-life player – for whom there is very little to benefit from this type of ensemble-average – it is more relevant to look at time-average of what he may be expected to win (in our game the averages are the same only if we assume that the player has a logarithmic utility function). What good does it do me if my tossing the coin maximizes an expected value when I might have gone bankrupt after four games played? If I try to maximize the expected value, the probability of bankruptcy soon gets close to one. Better then to invest 20% of my wealth in each game and maximize my long-term average wealth growth!

On a more economic-theoretical level, the Kelly strategy highlights the problems concerning the neoclassical theory of expected utility that I have raised before (e. g. in Why expected utility theory is wrong).

When applied to the neoclassical theory of expected utility, one thinks in terms of “parallel universe” and asks what is the expected return of an investment, calculated as an average over the “parallel universe”?  In our coin toss example, it is as if one supposes that various “I” are tossing a coin and that the loss of many of them will be offset by the huge profits one of these “I” does. But this ensemble-average does not work for an individual, for whom a time-average better reflects the experience made in the “non-parallel universe” in which we live.

The Kelly strategy gives a more realistic answer, where one thinks in terms of the only universe we actually  live in, and ask what is the expected return of an investment, calculated as an average over time.

Since we cannot go back in time – entropy and the “arrow of time ” make this impossible  – and the bankruptcy option is always at hand (extreme events and “black swans” are always possible) we have nothing to gain from thinking in terms of ensembles .

Actual events follow a fixed pattern of time, where events are often linked in a multiplicative process (as e. g. investment returns with “compound interest”) which is basically non-ergodic.

Instead of arbitrarily assuming that people have a certain type of utility function – as in the neoclassical theory – the Kelly criterion shows that we can obtain a less arbitrary and more accurate picture of real people’s decisions and actions by basically assuming that time is irreversible. When the bankroll is gone, it’s gone. The fact that in a parallel universe it could conceivably have been refilled, are of little comfort to those who live in the one and only possible world that we call the real world.

Our coin toss example can be applied to more traditional economic issues. If we think of an investor, we can basically describe his situation in terms of our coin toss. What fraction (x) of his assets (T) should an investor – who is about to make a large number of repeated investments – bet on his feeling that he can better evaluate an investment (p = 0.6) than the market (p = 0.5)? The greater the x, the greater is the leverage. But also – the greater is the risk. Since p is the probability that his investment valuation is correct and (1 – p) is the probability that the market’s valuation is correct, it means the Kelly strategy says he optimizes the rate of growth on his investments by investing a fraction of his assets that is equal to the difference in the probability that he will “win” or “lose”. In our example this means that he at each investment opportunity is to invest the fraction of x = 0.6 – (1 – 0.6), i.e. about 20% of his assets. The optimal average growth rate of investment is then about 11% (0.6 log (1.2) + 0.4 log (0.98)).

Kelly’s criterion shows that because we cannot go back in time, we should not take excessive risks. For high leverage increases the risk of bankruptcy. This should also be a warning for the financial world, where the constant quest for greater and greater leverage – and risks – creates extensive and recurrent systemic crises. A more appropriate level of risk-taking is a necessary ingredient in a policy to come to curb excessive risk taking.



  1. Your calculation is wrong: 0.6 log (1.2) + 0.4 log (0.98) ≈ 0.11

    It should be: 0.6 log (1.2) + 0.4 log (0.80)


    • You’re, of course, absolutely right (1-x is 0.2 and not 0.02 as I must, inadvertently, have read it)!
      Thanks 🙂
      I’ll make necessary corrections.

  2. […] This post by economist Lars Syll from earlier this year does an excellent job of laying out the main issues […]

  3. Lars, fantastic posts.

    The Kelly critierion is a great starting point, but it’s a recipe for disaster in the real world. The reasons why are pretty long and detailed, but the KC assumes:

    no forced bankruptcy
    infinitely divisible bets
    no stopping when discouraging streaks happen
    no leverage
    perfect play – you play/wager perfectly every time

    There are more, but you get the picture. One of the big points is the KC gives the highest expected total wins, but most people would never want to have risk at this level – it’s too much. The KC optimizes for the wrong preferred outcome.

    But I don’t want to detract from your point or from further investigations in this area, because this is and must be hugely fertile ground.

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