Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Child's Perspective

The UDB grew until it encompassed virtually all asset classes and nearly every nation around the world. Many markets and countries have now fallen off the former trend but the consequences are just starting. In covering something this large and complex, we tend to use a lot of statistical analysis here at Financial Jenga. But occasionally, a simpler perspective can be really helpful.

I occasionally play babysitter for my young nieces on weekdays and they sometimes overhear my phone conversations with friends and colleagues. Yesterday, they were here and overheard me ranting about the bankers' attempt to get even looser accounting treatment. Right afterwards, the 5 year old said: "Those must be really bad people if they lie so much."

She made me think a bit. We've always known that the only way to offset a bubble bursting is to inflate an even bigger bubble somewhere else. And most of us learned from our parents that if you lie, you'll just have to make up bigger lies to cover it up too. I'd just never made the connection before but a child did.

At the heart of every bubble is a lie, often multiple lies. At a minimum, there is extraordinary mis-valuation and mal-investment. But usually, it is much worse than that - deliberate fraud and orchestrated deception on a large scale. One of the earliest was the South Seas Bubble, which rested on visions of wealth from commerce with exotic countries when in fact there was little basis and certainly no profit from such activities. In much the same way, the tech bubble produced fantasies of fabulous profits from commerce using exotic technologies. Both visions were fed to credulous "investors" by a whole host of con men and by the belief that the herd must be stampeding to rich pastures.

Every bubble has its (many) victims and its villains. The best way to avoid them is to remember something else your parents probably told you: "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."