When You Just Can't Afford to Be Wrong

John Mauldin |

What would it have been like to be in the decision-maker's seat at a central bank in the midst of the crisis in 2008-09? You'd know that you won't have the luxury of going back and making better decisions five years later. Instead, you have to act on the torrent of information that's coming at you from every quarter, and none of it is good. Major banks are literally collapsing, the interbank market is almost nonexistent, and there is panic in the air. Perhaps you feel that panic in the pit of your stomach. This week we'll perform a little thought experiment to see if we can extrapolate what is likely to happen in when the next crisis kicks in.

This week's letter was triggered by a semiformal debate in Maine last week. David Kotok assembled about 50 economists, financial analysts, money managers, and media personalities to share a few days of fabulous food, what turned out to be great fishing, and awesome conversation. There were more Federal Reserve economists this year than in the past, as well as more attendees with the title "Chief Economist" on their business cards, many from large institutional names you would recognize. This was my seventh year to attend "Camp Kotok." David really did a marvelous job of bringing a diverse group of thinkers together, and I think everyone agreed this was the best conference ever. I learned a lot.

Before we get into the letter, a little side note. Luciana Lopez from Reuters attended for the first time this year and wanted to do interviews. David asked me if I would take her out on the lake in our boat, since most of the other attendees went out in small canoes. Trey and I were glad to share our space. While we were out fishing, she asked if she could interview me. I said "Sure" and waited for her to bring out her recorder. She pulled out an iPhone 5 and started asking questions. Not the usual studio setting I am used to. I had serious trepidations about how this was going to look on-screen.

She sent a link to her edited interviews last Monday, and I have to admit I was impressed at what she could do with a simple iPhone 5. I am supposed to be on top of a changing world, but sometimes these things still take me by surprise. I make no representations about the quality of the content of the interviews, at least my portion of them, but the phone is another matter. And in a few years this will be a $100 consumer item.

In her interviews, Luciana asked two questions: "When will the Fed start to taper?" and "Who will be the next Fed chair?" You can see some of our answers at reut.rs/13if7Er and reut.rs/13gegE8.

We Can't Take the Chance

On Saturday night David scheduled a formal debate between bond maven Jim Bianco and former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member David Blanchflower  (everyone at the camp called him Danny). Jim Bianco needs little introduction to longtime readers, but for newbies, he is one of the top bond and interest-rate gurus in the world. His research is some of the best you can get – if you can get your hands on it.

Blanchflower needs a little setup. He is currently a professor at Dartmouth and has one of the more impressive resumés you will find. He is not afraid to be a contrarian and voted in the minority in 18 out of 36 meetings in which he participated as an external member of the Bank of England's interest rate-setting Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) from June 2006 to June 2009. (The MPC is the British equivalent of the US Federal Open Market Committee.) Blanchflower's The Wage Curve, drawing on 8 years of data from 4 million people in 16 countries, argued that the wage curve, which plots wages against unemployment, is negatively sloping, reversing the conclusion from generations of macroeconomic theory. "The Phillips Curve is wrong, it's as fundamental as that," Blanchflower has stated. Blanchflower is also known as the "happiness guru" for his work on the economics of happiness. He quantified the relationship between age and happiness and between marriage, sex, and happiness. Who knew that people who have more sex are happier? Well, we all did, but now we have economic proof.

I got to spend a good deal of time with Danny on this trip and enjoyed hearing him talk about what it was like to be responsible for setting monetary policy in the midst of a crisis. We also argued late into the night on a variety of subjects. He is an altogether fun guy as well as a professional who takes his economics seriously. He is far more mainstream than your humble analyst, as were many of the denizens of Camp Kotok. On the other hand, I can't think of a major stream of economic thought that wasn't represented aggressively at one point or another. If you have thin skin or weak data, this outing is one you might not enjoy. You need to bring your A game with this crowd.

The format for the debate between Bianco and Blanchflower was simple. The question revolved around Federal Reserve policy and what the Fed should do today. To taper or not to taper? In fact, should they even entertain further quantitative easing? Bianco made the case that quantitative easing has become the problem rather than the solution. Blanchflower argued that quantitative easing is the correct policy. Fairly standard arguments from both sides but well-reasoned and well-presented.

It was during the question-and-answer period that my interest was piqued. Bianco had made a forceful argument that big banks should have been allowed to fail rather than being bailed out. The question from the floor to Danny was, in essence, "What if the Bianco is right? Wouldn't it have been better to let banks fail and then restructure them in bankruptcy? Wouldn't we have recovered faster, rather than suffering in the slow-growth, high-unemployment world where we find ourselves now?"

Blanchflower pointed his finger right at Jim and spoke forcefully. "It wasn't the possibility that he was right that preoccupied us. We couldn't take the chance that he was wrong. If he was wrong and we did nothing, the world would've ended and it would've been our fault. We had to act."

That sentence has stayed with me for the past week: "We couldn't take the chance that he was wrong." Whether or not you like the implications of what he said, the simple fact is that he was expressing the reigning paradigm of economic thought in the world of central bankers.

Now, let's hold that train of thought for a few minutes as we introduce an essay by French geophysicist and complex systems analyst Didier Sornette  and his colleague Peter Cauwels. Sornette is Professor on the Chair of Entrepreneurial Risks at the Department of Management Technology and Economics of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich. (This introduction comes from work I have been doing in collaboration with Jonathan Tepper, my co-author for Endgame.)

By far the biggest advances in understanding the dynamics of bubbles in recent years have come from Sornette. He has developed mathematical models to explain earthquake activity, Amazon book sales, herding behavior in social networks like Facebook, and even stock market bubbles and crashes. He wrote a book titled Why Stockmarkets Crash. He found that most theories do a very poor job of explaining bubbles.

Sornette found that log-periodic power laws do a good job of describing speculative bubbles, with very few exceptions. Classic bubbles tend to have a parabolic advances with shallow and increasingly frequent corrections. Eventually, you begin to see price spikes at one-day, one-hour, and even ten-minute intervals before crashes. 

After a crash, journalists go looking for the cause. They'll blame something like portfolio insurance for the crash of 1987 or the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers for the Great Recession, rather than blaming a fundamentally unstable market. Sornette disagrees:

Most approaches to explain crashes search for possible mechanisms or effects that operate at very short time scales (hours, days or weeks at most). We propose here a radically different view: the underlying cause of the crash must be searched months and years before it, in the progressive increasing build-up of market cooperativity or effective interactions between investors, often translated into accelerating ascent of the market price (the bubble). According to this "critical" point of view, the specific manner by which prices collapsed is not the most important problem: a crash occurs because the market has entered an unstable phase and any small disturbance or process may have triggered the instability. Think of a ruler held up vertically on your finger: this very unstable position will lead eventually to its collapse, as a result of a small (or absence of adequate) motion of your hand…. The collapse is fundamentally due to the unstable position; the instantaneous cause of the collapse is secondary. In the same vein, the growth of the sensitivity and the growing instability of the market close to such a critical point might explain why attempts to unravel the local origin of the crash have been so diverse. Essentially, anything would work once the system is ripe.

To continue reading this article from Thoughts from the Frontline – a free weekly publication by John Mauldin, renowned financial expert, best-selling author, and Chairman of Mauldin Economics – please click here.

DISCLOSURE: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors, and do not represent the views of equities.com. Readers should not consider statements made by the author as formal recommendations and should consult their financial advisor before making any investment decisions. To read our full disclosure, please go to: http://www.equities.com/disclaimer

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