Friday, February 29, 2008

The Power of the Down Market

Adam Smith, often dubbed the father of economics, is best known for his magnum opus, The Wealth of Nations. What is lesser-known about his writings, though, is what he wrote about prior to Wealth; The Theory of Moral Sentiments. Between these two works it can be argued that Smith was trying to describe the morality of humankind by superimposing economic theories onto it. Since 1776 social science has come a long way in understanding much of the behaviors of individuals: And we have finally come to the point in human history where we can recognize that markets, such as the stock market, and human behavior have many parallels—and form a symbiotic relationship with one another.

Take, for instance, the current behavior of the stock markets. Right now, as I look at the Dow Jones Industrial Average, I see that it is down 315 points; Standard & Poor’s 500 Index is down 37 points itself. When many people look at the numbers which we have been seeing in the stock markets lately they fear a word that is often brought up in the evening news, “recession.” Words like “inflation,” “stagflation,” and such are used. Perhaps some people would either categorize the behavior of the markets as overly complex, perhaps even irrational.

Just as people require corrections, controls in their behavior, to move forward and progress, the stock market requires the same. Just as risk is necessary to be in any system in which there is reward, so must there be correction. These corrections are a reflection of human nature inasmuch as people exhibit both rational and irrational components in behaviors. In his column in Forbes magazine, Paul Johnson writes an excellent column depicting the mechanics behind what is happening in the stock market right now and an impetus that helped to cause it. Pointedly:

All the same, markets are determined by moral strengths and weaknesses, and it is useful to identify what those are at each major episode. The state of the present market is the consequence of undue patience combined with excessive greed.

He continues to weave the intricate tapestry of morality, impatience, greed, and how they all tie into one another and become progress. The theme of rational components to seemingly irrational things, and how the up and down sides of each turn into our tomorrow, better than our today.

Mr. Johnson has some very brilliant insights.

No matter what we do, we exist as components of a much larger system: As people, we form communities; as workers at firm or a shop we put together a product, provide a service, or otherwise add value to something. Because we are part of something, and everything changes, we will eventually need to cope with change. Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once wrote about life that it “is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them - that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.

Management theory dictates that we survey those things around us and formulate plans to manage them and control systems to put situations back where they need to be should they fall outside of the tolerances which we set for them—this is something business students are usually taught in their first semester of school. However, anyone who has had management experience understands that no good plan survives combat intact and that no amount of control systems will hedge against change happening. There is nothing that can stop the ebb and flow of life of causing the unexpected to happen.

We learn to accept change. Better yet, we learn to balance the ebbs and move with the flows of what life throws at us. In a market that is “up” we live the good life and become richer in as many ways possible; in “down” markets we learn also how to accept it and learn ways to become richer. Necessity is the impetus for innovation, and difficult times offer us the opportunity to shine. In other words, accepting change is good, but learning how to use it to propel you forward is best.