Book Review: The Delusions of Crowds by William Bernstein

My finance book of the year recommendation is one that perfectly matches the 2021 markets moment: William Bernstein’s The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups.

Over and over again this year I found myself describing developments in financial markets that seem, frankly, nuts. All I’ve done this year, it seems, is write about wacky finance trends. 

Delusions_of_Crowds

If Bernstein’s investing book The Four Pillars of Investing is an all-time finance classic, his 2021 book is utterly timely, anticipating a year of financial delusions.

In The Delusions of Crowds, Bernstein toggles between stories of financial delusions and religious delusions. Both types of madness depend on two common human frailties. One he describes as the “Asch Effect,” based on a social psychological experiment which showed how humans can be convinced of obviously wrong things by the social pressure to conform to the opinions of others. When the religious leader or the financial whiz says something is true, and enough people around us agree, we tend to agree, despite evidence to the contrary.

Another common thread is our ability as humans, in the face of contradictory evidence, to completely discount one set of facts if they conflict with our pre-existing beliefs. When the apocalypse does not arrive on the prophesized date, Bernstein notes, true believers do not necessarily reject the prophet. Insteaed, we listen eagerly for the prophet’s update on the next plausible date for the End of Times, rather than settle our cognitive dissonance through doubt or disbelief. Contradictory evidence is merely an opportunity to double-down on our fervent faith, not change our beliefs. The South Sea bubble, railroad stocks in 1840 Britain, the stock pools of 1929. The Fifth Monarchy of 1666, the seventh-day adventism of 1843, the Y2K mania. Bernstein does not mention the QAnon phenomenon, but clearly this recent movement falls within Bernstein’s historical pattern.

For those looking for a pure financial wisdom book, I should warn that Bernstein spends considerable time on non-financial matters. Specifically, he digs deep into the clear connection between “End Times” prophecies from past centuries and powerful Evangelical movements today. Bible-inspired numerology and prophecy has entranced people for a millennium. Bernstein makes the case that this madness not only follows historic patterns but also represents a current threat. Apocalyptic beliefs linked to what he terms dispensationalist Protestantism infuses our current politics.

Personally, I am somewhat immune to the Asch Effect. On the other hand, I tend to redouble my strongest views in the face of contrary evidence, often to my embarrassment. Which I will now demonstrate for you, in the course of reviewing the goofiest financial trends of 2021. Those trends, with caveats.

Meme Stocks

The Robinhood app and Reddit-Bro inspired investing in “Meme Stocks” like Hertz, GameStop and AMC kicked off in January 2021 with a bang. We should have known then that the entire year would be an unending string of delusions and madness. Most of these rockets have yet to fall to earth as the year ends, again not what I would have expected.

GameStop
Stop The Game. Stop.

Caveat: Spotting undervalued companies unloved by institutional investors was the original plausible investment thesis behind some of these meme stocks. That’s cool but only accounted for the earliest movements toward stock appreciation, before the madness took over. 

Cryptocurrency 

These are closer to religion than financial bets or investments. The fundamental correct price of Bitcoin remains zero. That’s the same fundamental price as with all the other crypto currencies I’ve ever heard of. Anyway, hundreds of billions of smart investment capital disagree with me. Since approximately 2013, every time I talk to an audience of folks about investing the first question is always “should I/how can I invest in crypto?” My answer is always the same. Something to the effect of I would sooner recommend lighting one’s paper money on fire flying down the highway at 90 miles an hour. But again, I am clearly the idiot in the room. Up until now I have been wrong, wrong, and then wrong again about Bitcoin.

blockchain_column
Kevin Roose thought he was joking at first

Caveat: I (kind of) understand blockchain technology might be the coolest tech since the invention of the selfie-stick. But cryptocurrencies are not the same as blockchain, and I will continue to disparage the former while being open to the future awesomeness of the latter.

SPACs 

Shall we all invest in an enterprise best described as “an undertaking of great advantage, but nobody to know what it is?” That was the infamous published description of a speculative business advertised around the time of the South Sea Bubble of 1720, a phrase which equally applies to the Special Purpose Acquisition Companies (SPACs) that hit maximum popularity in early 2021. 

Bubble
Picture of South Sea Bubble or really any SPAC you’d like it to be

You put your money into an empty vessel and hope that the named backer finds a private company to take public through purchase. Why wouldn’t you want to put your money into an unknown business that has A-Rod, Sammy Hagar, or Kevin Durant as its backer? Note: That’s both a rhetorical and a sarcastic question.

Caveat: SPAC investors typically get an option to request their money back once an acquisition target gets announced. So, it’s a bit like a free option for the original SPAC backers.

NFTs 

Have people entirely lost their minds? You bought a digital thing and you value it highly because there can only be one copy (or a limited number of copies) of the digital thing? And this is worth $1 thousand or $1 million, or $50 million to you? 

Caveat: Art collecting is always insane when viewed from a finance perspective. Probably best to just leave it to aesthetics and the phrase “There is no accounting for taste.”

Tesla

There are only so many times I can point out how stupid this stock has been in the past, is now in the present, and always will be in the future, for ever and ever, amen. And at each point in time, I have not only been proven wrong, but proven colossally wrong. Like, it’s the wrongest stock-picking call anyone has ever made in the history of making wrong market calls. I feel really great as Tesla shares have zoomed from a ridiculous $100 billion valuation to a ludicrous-mode $1 trillion market capitalization in less than 2 years. But still: Y’all are crazy. I feel extraordinary conviction on this.

Tesla_truck

Caveat: I understand the cars are great. I have no problem with the cars. Just the stock, and its price. And it’s bizarre owner, Elon Musk. Him I have a problem with. But again, I’m the idiot, I admit that.

The most common ending to human delusions, financial and religious, is heartbreak. In finance, however, some bubbles serve the purpose of creating the conditions for future economic innovation. After the wreckage of a burst bubble, we can often see in retrospect how the creative destruction was necessary, or at least that it seeded new growth. This will be useful to remember, when the current crazy ends in tears.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle.

Please see related posts:

All Bankers Anonymous Book Reviews in one place

Book Review: The Four Pillars of Investing, by William Bernstein

The NFT Revolution

Tesla – How Do I Hate Thee?

What If You Back The Wrong SPAC?

This Is Your Bitcoin Warning

Stop The Game. Stop.

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Hamilton And Sovereign Debt

Bastard_OrphanHow does a profane, hip-hop, hit of a show, and a chapter, dropped in the middle of a behemoth book on Alex Hamilton, by Ron Chernow capture the current zeitgeist, show us to treat our debt with sacred honor?

Hamilton, the musical by Lin-Manuel Miranda, swept through my household this Summer like a hurricane, buffeting us as if we lived in a forgotten corner of the Caribbean. While the beautiful nerds of my household joyfully sing about the Revolutionary War, I tackled Ron Chernow’s biography Alexander Hamilton, upon which Miranda based his amazing show. A story Chernow tells about national debt illustrates Hamilton’s particular genius.

Serving President George Washington as the first Treasury Secretary of the United States, when the new country flirted with financial ruin, every action Alexander Hamilton took carried particular weight. He faced a terrible choice.

Soldiers in the Revolutionary War had received state IOUs in return for their military service. Years after the end of fighting with the British, many of these debts remained unpaid. In addition, different states had repaid debts to different degrees. Virginia was nearly debt-free for example, while Massachusetts still owed tremendous amounts to soldiers.

Some believed this new federal government would not, and could not, pay off its debts to soldiers. Chernow writes that these debts traded at fifteen cents on the dollar as former soldiers sold early, in part because they needed the money, and in part because full payment seemed doubtful. Speculators bought the debt at extreme discounts, hoping to make money if the young government could restructure the debt somehow. At that price, even a settlement of thirty cents on the dollar offered a financial windfall to debt-buyers.

What kind of deal would Hamilton, as Treasury Secretary, offer on the debt? Should he restructure it and offer a lesser amount? Should he seek a way to punish the speculators? Could he track down the former soldiers who had sold their IOUs, to compensate them, instead of the investors? Wait for it…

Let’s pause for a moment and really wallow in the awful optics and politics of Hamilton’s choice. Nobody deserved more respect than the first patriots who suffered and died under Washington, when his “ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower” defeated a global Superpower, in Miranda’s purposefully anachronistic phrasing. But most of the government debt issued to soldiers wasn’t owed to them anymore, but rather to buyers of their debt. These were some of the least sympathetic people. You know, Wall Street-type people.

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Jefferson and Madison

The most powerful member of Congress, James Madison, and the Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, vehemently opposed rewarding the speculators. As Virginians, they also argued that consolidating the debts at the federal level would reward less prudent states at their state’s expense.

Picture, as well, Hamilton’s childhood as a near-destitute orphan in the Caribbean. He was not a natural friend of Wall Street. He’d served as a captain of an artillery company under fire in the Battery in Manhattan and the Battle of Kips Bay; he had personally led a bayonet charge on an entrenched position of Redcoats at Yorktown. Was Hamilton prepared to honor commitments that would enrich these greedy speculators who bought government debt at pennies on the dollar from his fellow soldiers? Wait for it…

He was, and he did. He consolidated the states’ debt into federal debt. On his first and second days after confirmation as Treasury Secretary in 1789, he took out fresh federal loans from the Bank of New York and The Bank of North America in Philadelphia.

Hamilton understood the value of communicating a policy of honoring one’s debts, a policy that strengthens the nation. “In nothing are appearances of greater moment than in whatever regards credit. Opinion is the soul of it and this is affected by appearances as well as realities,” he wrote in his 40,000-word Report on Public Credit, delivered to Congress in January, 1790.

He further set the precedent that the government does not interfere in private transactions of its public securities, even if the optics and politics would make it expedient to change terms, after the fact.

As Chernow reports, Hamilton reframed the moral issue into one of honoring private property and “security of transfer.” The soldiers were not as heroic as they seemed, nor the speculators as greedy. Investors after all, had risked their capital. The ex-soldiers, in turn, had shown little faith in the government. That the buyers of soldiers’ debt made extraordinary short-term fortunes was, in the far-seeing perspective of Hamilton, irrelevant to the more important work of establishing a solid financial footing for the country. Meanwhile, Madison and Jefferson fumed.

The United States has never defaulted on its debt. Not through the ruin of a burned capital in 1812, nor through a crippling Civil War, nor the World Wars and Depression of the Twentieth Century. Hamilton’s honoring of national debts – against all the political, fiscal and moral pressure of his day – bolstered us as a nation. It set us up for national prosperity.

As the fictional Jefferson of the Hamilton musical ruefully admits: “I’ll give him this: His financial system is a work of genius. I couldn’t undo it if I tried, and believe me, I tried.”

Or the fictional Madison: “He took our country from bankruptcy to prosperity. I hate to admit it, but he doesn’t get enough credit for all the credit he gave us.”

Contemporary debates

Shifting to 2016 for a moment, what would Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have done with Hamilton’s conundrum? Historical hindsight isn’t necessarily fair, but I’ve listened to their views on Wall Street, the industry where I previously worked, and which they consistently attack as a cesspool of greed, corruption, and speculation.

unhappy_trumpWe also have GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s views on the record on our national debt. In stark contrast to Hamilton, Trump presented his approach in an interview with CNBC in May. He explained “I’ve borrowed knowing that you can pay back with discounts. [As President,] I would borrow knowing that if the economy crashed, you could make a deal.”

See, that’s not really how the bond market works. Hamilton had the foresight to know that once you default on debt – which is what “pay back with discounts” means – you set a precedent for how lenders view your credit in the future. I would even argue that once you even say that out loud – if anyone takes you seriously – you risk submarining your nation’s future ability to borrow.

Think about how lucky we are to be alive right now, with Hamilton on our side.

A version of this post ran in the San Antonio Express News.

 

Please see related post:

Trump: Sovereign Debt Genius

 

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