Saturday, October 24, 2009

What should we really expect?

Kevin Drum is amazed to learn that John Meriwether, founder of Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund that failed spectacularly in 1998, and founder of another hedge fund which failed last year, is starting a third fund.  And it looks like people will invest in it.  Are people crazy, wonders Kevin? See the whole post for more details on the losses incured, and profits earned by Meriwether in these extremely profitable failures.  What could induce anyone to invest in a fund which is so likely to fail?  How could so many people be so careless with their hard earned money?

I, on the other hand, find this not surprising at all.  This appears to be a case of large number of very wealthy people behaving in an insane fashion.  If you witness a large number of people behaving in a maner that seems irrational given their circumstances, perhaps they are behaving rationally, you've just got their circumstances wrong.

How can people put so much of their hard earned money into such a risky venture, indeed a venture likely to fail?  Perhaps, they are not actually putting in their money, nor is it hard earned.

As I've commented elsewhere (see here, here and here) the federal governmnet of the United States creates a number of extremely valuable services that the people of the United States are bound and determined to give away, at least to extremely wealthy people, for free, or as near to free as our political system will allow.  The Federal Government by licensing the airwaves (and guaranteeing that those using the airwaves will not have their signals meet interference), creating the mechanism for incorporation (by which the risk of running a business is shared by the community, vastly increasing the value of the business), protecting copyrights and definding physical and financial assest provides, as I say, a large number of very valuable services.  The value that these services add to other aspects of the economy is our money.  That is it is value added by us via the legislation passed by our Congress.  Nonetheless, for the past several decades we have been busily increasing the value of these services and decreasing what we charge for them, where the starting point wasn't a very high charge to begin with.  The result is that folks fortunate enough to be running a business that uses these services are pretty much guaranteed a very high income even if you do little work.  Furthermore, we have made clear that this is not going to change much for some time to come. 

The upshot is that we, the people, are generating lots of money and then giving our money away to these people, with no strings attached, no obligation in return, no obligation of any kind. In response, they behave exactly as one could expect. They treat this not as their hard earned gains from past work, but rather as a windfall.  As people tend to do, the money often gets gambled or put to some bizzare, irrational use.  People are not as careful and protective of a windfall, or other people's money, as they are of their own.  Also, keep in mind that we are making sure that this gravey train will not be ended in the future.  As a result these people do not need to worry that their future income and wealth depends upon the success of any current investment.  They have every expectation of their future income being as high or higher than their current.  We will make sure of that.  And they risk this money in exactly the manner that one would expect.

There is another way to look at this issue.  We the people of the United States create these valuable services.  Yet we have so little concern for that wealth that we give it away with no obligation on the part of the recipeint, no demand that they pay us, or do us any service in return.  If we don't care about the proper use of these money, why would we expect the folks we give it to, to care? 

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