Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Excerpts from Dylan Grice's latest piece

Via Zero Hedge.

The pedestrian ‘push’ buttons at New York’s intersections don’t actually work. They were deactivated in the 1970s when computer-controlled automatic traffic signals were installed but left in place because removing them is too costly. Apparently most ‘close door’ buttons in lifts don’t work either. But give us a button and we’ll press it, not because the button works but because the sense of being in control makes us feel good (when subjects are crammed into a lift for example, those closest to the controls show lower stress levels). Feeling in control doesn’t mean that we are in control, but who cares? As Slartibartfast said in Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, “I’d rather be happy than right!”

Slartibartfast would have been a splendid economist. Squabbling amongst themselves in the press - when fiscal retrenchment should proceed; where monetary policy should go from here; how to avoid deflation; etc – they use loaded words such as “optimal”, “equilibrium” and “calibration”, language which gives the impression of learned discussion between experts who understand their subject matter. In fact, the overwhelming evidence of regular financial calamity (which has unambiguously increased as central banks have gained influence, see chart below) clearly demonstrates that they do not. But that doesn’t deter our brightest economists from happily believing their own propaganda. They really think they’re in control!

Let them press their buttons. Let them believe they know the unknowable if, like Slartibartfast, it makes them happy. Frankly, there’s not much we can do, other than allow the occasional giggle and avoid making the same mistake of failing to accept that some things just can’t be known. Our effort and energy should focus on what can be.

But what can we do? Chuckle, and focus on doing homework in areas where we at least have a chance of knowing. We know, for example, that scarcity is developing in certain commodity markets and that China’s age of self sufficiency in things like coal and grain is probably over. We know that historically when a large producer has turned to world markets those markets have become vulnerable to violent upward spikes. We also know that wars have frequently been fought over scarce resources and that China now has more fighter ships than the US.

We know that the developed economies’ demography is set to decline and that while we’re not sure what the effect will be, that Japan’s experience isn’t encouraging. We know that overstretched government balance sheets have historically posed an inflation risk but that bond yields are at levels rarely seen in the past few centuries, let alone decades. We know that entry valuations determine long-run returns and so bonds are likely to be an appalling investment here. We also know that while equities still aren’t cheap in an absolute sense they’re as cheap as they’ve been since the crash of 2008, so there are bound to be opportunities within these markets for providing decent long-run returns (see chart below). And we know that as we’re exploring the many (hopefully) profitable areas in the coming months, the Slartibartfasts will be in their fool’s paradise, pressing their buttons and in their own tragi-comic way, adding to the richness of the whole experience.