OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

'Financial math' evolves from molecules to big money

04/23/1997

CORVALLIS, Ore. - On Wall Street they call them "quants" or "rocket scientists," derisive terms for mathematical experts whose work they desperately need - and pay dearly for - but can barely understand.

But with a more dignified name of "financial engineers" and a wealth of new careers opening to them, this field of financial mathematics has spawned a new program with increasing student interest at Oregon State University.

OSU, like some other leading research institutions around the nation, is finding that it has the mathematicians and scientists who can create and teach the type of complex models needed in this world of options, derivatives, "volatility per unit time" and other such concepts. And the demand is there.

"It's not easy stuff, this is work at the very forefront of mathematics," said Edward Waymire, an OSU professor of mathematics. "One of the leading formulas in this field evolved from work Albert Einstein did decades ago in an attempt to understand molecular motion."

But it's also an area that's growing quickly, Waymire said, with potential applications not only to the world of high finance but also insurance, banking, agriculture, forestry and even fisheries - the theoretical value of a salmon at some point in the future becomes a mathematical quandary.

To meet this growing need, OSU has recently added new courses in financial mathematics and interest rate theory. It's hiring new faculty who are leaders in the field. The financial mathematics emphasis is being blended with the university's existing program in actuarial science, and the program offerings already are the best among Pacific Northwest universities.

According to Enrique Thomann, an OSU associate professor of mathematics, this developing field just begins where basic accounting, algebra or calculus leave off.

Much of it is oriented, Thomann said, to options trading, in which financial managers are trying to calculate a fair value for an "option to buy" some underlying asset at a specified future date and agreed price - whether it be a share of stock, an ounce of gold or a mortgage interest rate.

"The difficulty begins when you're buying today, and have to pay today, for the right to buy something that will be delivered in the future and you don't have any idea what the future price will be," Thomann said.

The origins of options trading, OSU educators say, date back as far as 17th century Holland when people were speculating on the future price of tulips. However, the options market was scattered and irregular until 1973, when creation of the Chicago Board of Options standardized the varied financial instruments offered for sale.

The science of valuing options has been greatly refined over the years, and the complexities turned into somewhat stock formulas, such as the "Black-Scholes Formula," that are already commonly used by financial analysts around the world.

But the increasing complexity of the field, the emerging needs of new business and industry and the value of these options in helping people to insure against various risks have prompted an explosion of demand for experts who really understand the subtleties of this field - and there aren't many.

"These options are becoming more complex all the time, and not just on Wall Street," Waymire said. "A market that used to be priced by a formula you could input on a hand calculator has grown to include derivative products that often require a supercomputer and real mathematician."

With its research-oriented mathematics department and wealth of other scientists trained in abstract computer modeling, OSU was well suited to develop new programs in this field, Waymire said. It has already worked with Oregon banks who faced problems they couldn't address.

Waymire and Thomann said they expect many universities to soon become more aware and involved with this trend and the growing demand for students trained in financial mathematics. Development of specialized expertise at such colleges could supplement the traditional, but limited number of schools that have been prominent in the field.

Such knowledge, the educators say, can fit nicely with students who wish to pursue a high tech career - some of the greatest demand at the moment is for improved computer software in financial math that can help analysts more easily make sense of its complexities. The new courses are attracting OSU students in economics, business, computer science and other fields.

"It's always interesting to see how applied, physical and abstract sciences often find such common ground," Waymire said. "I doubt even Einstein could have guessed that his modeling of atomic movement would one day be influencing a trillion dollar industry on Wall Street."