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Sunday, 12 February 2012

Rational Markets?

The degeneration of Economics in the nineteen seventies was accompanied by an unprecedented elevation of the worst aspects of the subject as a new philosophy in politics. Economic theory moved increasingly away from common sense, into a model-world where relationships could be made 'perfect' through the power of 'the market'. Every aspect of life could be imagined as a trade. A cohabiting couple of human beings engages in a mass of interactions for which no payment is offered or received, but it is arguable that the benefits and costs that are accepted by either party tended to balance-out; and if that were not the case, the relationship would end. In an even more extreme case, over a very long term, it can be postulated that the care and money that parents levy on a child over many years balances broadly with the care that the parents received from their parents plus any benefits the parents receive in later life from their children. For some people the nuclear family turns out to be a very bad deal, and as society has become less constrained by traditional and religious rules there are more cases of parents abandoning children [or accepting the children being taken from them] and young adults severing contact with their parents.

In countries where monetarism and the dogma of rational markets dictated policy, family life responded to the withdrawal of state spending from social and peripheral educational services [such as libraries and Darby and Joan Clubs] by taking on more of the aspects of a market. The perceived lack of an acceptable trade-off between the parties in a cohabitation could easily lead to a rupture: and nobody seemed to care. Religion had less and less influence on personal behaviour as the church leaders treacherously followed secular intellectual fashion: the Bishops acquiesced as the law was changed to facilitate the new fashion. Social norms by which people had for centuries recognised that some relationships - especially the most intimate - were not conducted on a market basis were abandoned. Margaret Thatcher declared that "there is no such thing as society". The next generation of politicians who have accepted Thatcherism as positive reform movement affect to be surprised at signs of absolute societal failure, reflected in child abuse and child neglect and the riots of summer 2011; whilst such societal failure is obviously the outcome of policies that were wantonly adopted by the patrons and exemplars of the pathetic crew of politicians who sit on the front benches of both sides of the House of Commons.

Thatcher's nominally 'conservative' cohorts, who discounted traditional morality and loyalty, also supported deindustrialisation as a manifestation of modernity and applauded the emergence of the cyberspace excrescences of so-called 'financial services' which they patently could not understand. 'New Labour' went along with the fashion and repudiated its roots in trade unionism; with the exception that it was still prepared to take the unions' donations while ignoring their members' interests. Now the breakdown of social cohesion [exemplified in the disappearance of the symbols of trade union autonomy such as bands, clubs, benevolent funds and rest homes] is causing acute concern all across the political spectrum. Applied Thatcherism has undeniably ended in something much worse and more far-reaching than the 'market failure' that collapsed the financial services boom.

Since the financial services collapsed in 2008 firms in the sector have survived only under huge governmental subsidies and an outpouring of money from central banks: but the firms continue to exploit practices that politicians and bureaucrats still have not understood. The profundity of that incomprehension is evident in the political nonsense that has been spoken about 'bankers' bonuses' in recent weeks, to which reference has several times been made in this blog.

Meanwhile it remains painfully obvious that markets do not behave according to any version of equilibrating supply and demand modelling that has featured in Economics since the eighteen-seventies. Trade in even the most simple material commodities that cross the boundaries of states [or of economic communities] is hamstrung by taxes and tax reliefs or rebates, quotas, tariffs, currency manipulation, prejudicially applied safety regulations and a host of other influences which ensure that asking prices are by no means the outcome of open competition. Demand is similarly affected by tax and regulatory interventions and while people grumble about the price of petrol they buy it to enable them to go shopping for quons which they know are priced at several times more than the cost of the materials of which they are constructed.

In share and bond markets the disparity of reality from Economists' models is even more stark. Very few commentators even pretend that share markets, bond markets or any form of 'casino banking' establish prices according to 1870s supply-and-demand models. Speculative Economists still make good livings from advising the economic regulators of  privatised utilities [and the firms they regulate] on the fantasy of 'rational' pricing, but otherwise the notion lives on only in academe. Government bonds are priced according to what interventionist central banks will pay for them, and shares even in successful companies are sold according to the decisions of corporate strategists in investment institutions for whom the revenue-generating potential of the shares is a minor issue - if it is considered at all. The current hoo-ha about the 'premium' above market price that should be offered by Glencore for the mining corporation Xstrata is a case in point. There was a price for Xstrata shares that had been set more-or-less by supply-and-demand on the date when the bid was announced, and the potential buyer offered approximately 8% above that price. The stage army of analysts and representatives of shareholding organisations declared that the premium should be more: the consensus settled around 30%. This was based on the sort of premium that had been offered for very different companies - in disparate sectors of the economy - during the previous few weeks. The only way a really worthwhile valuation can be established for any share is by looking back to today from the future. What a share is really worth today depends entirely on what will be paid out in dividend to the shareholders in future years, and whether the sale price of the share will increase or diminish - relative to overall price inflation - in future.

Nobody investing an insurance company's reserves, or future pensioners' savings, or child trust funds, should follow short-term movements in the prices of even [relatively] secure investments: the investments for which they are Trustees must be made for the long term. Thinking about such investment must transcend short-term conditions. The 'rational' behaviour of a hedge-fund manager who dives in and out of asset ownership with a view to profiting instantaneously from momentary juxtapositions of market positions and the availability of purchasing-power is wholly inappropriate for long-term investing institutions. Those pension funds and similar organisations that have tried to square the circle by investing a segment of their portfolio in shares in hedge funds have taken a massive gamble that could work adversely for the funds that they manage.

There is no 'right answer' to the question of how any buyer of bonds or of shares can optimise the security and the profitability of their investments in the future. But it is glaringly apparent that any suggestion that 'markets' are innately 'rational' on a day-by-day basis is nonsense. Economic theory implicitly requires participants in the market to anticipate the next move before it happens, and to back their hunch with significant trading activity. That moribund Economic theory has taken its final refuge in the universities where its aficionados still delude students whose challenges to the dogma will soon force it into its ultimate dissolution.

Pragmatism and cool thinking are of supreme value to long-term savers at this time: Economists' versions of 'rationality' bring nothing useful to the matter.

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