Fiscal Cliff

A prayer for 2013

Politicians, economists and investors would do well to take time to look beyond the next microsecond to fixing longer-term problems

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 May, 2016, 5:01pm

These are perilous economic and financial times. Leading dogmatic US politicians are determined to drive their country over the fiscal cliff, at the risk of tipping their nation and the ailing Western world into renewed recession with potentially devastating effects for the rest of the globe.

In Asia, a new government in Japan is preparing to print and spend its way out of recession as the lesser evil in spite of already horrendous government indebtedness. In response, the Tokyo stock market rose to 10-month highs, although it's still at 26 per cent of its December 1989 record levels.

In China, the new government seems wedded to growth rates of 7.5 per cent a year, even though a wiser course would be to rebalance the economy towards consumption and the common man.

Rule No 12 of John Templeton's legendary golden rules for investment success seems appropriate: "Begin with a prayer."

Templeton was a Christian, but his reason for advocating prayer was not so much to ask an almighty power to deliver miracles. As Templeton explained: "If you begin with a prayer, you can think more clearly and make fewer mistakes."

In the holiday lull between Christmas and New Year it would be a good idea for politicians, economists and investors everywhere to offer a prayer and then enjoy some cool reflection on how to tackle the myriad issues facing them.

One mountain-high obstacle is that instant communications have foreshortened our time-horizons to be far too brief for clear thinking, let alone for proper planning of policies.

Politicians are constrained by the next election, never more than a few months away. Corporate CEOs concentrate on the next quarter's results or even tomorrow's market response to a new discovery or reaction to a fresh scandal, however little it may have to do with the underlying soundness or performance of the company.

Stock market "investors" with computer programmes and billions on tap are preoccupied by what will happen in the next microsecond. To them, a millisecond is a missed opportunity.

Templeton recognised that successful investing cannot be done in a day or week or year. His first two rules make this plain. "Invest for maximum total real return," he advised. "This means the return on invested dollars after taxes and after inflation."

Second: "Invest - don't trade or speculate. The stock market is not a casino, but if you move in and out of stocks, every time they move a point or two, or if you continually sell short … or deal only in options … or trade in futures … the market will be your casino. And, like most gamblers, you may lose eventually - or frequently."

Whether investors win or lose, make fortunes or are wiped out, matters to them and their families. But politicians can take countries to economic ruin or war. It is sadly evident in today's America - witness the fiscal cliff shenanigans - that politicians have become captured by dogma. In addition, few politicians think problems through to their conclusions or understand how the repercussions of policies might be more harmful than at first inspiration.

Blogger and investor Barry Ritholtz draws attention to this in his Washington Post column, "Why don't bad ideas ever die?" He quotes Cambridge economist Joan Robinson, who said: "The purpose of studying economics is not to acquire a set of readymade answers to economic questions, but to learn how to avoid being deceived by economists."

Some of Ritholtz's pet peeves concern investing. He attacks the idea of "shareholder value", claiming that concentration on increasing share prices leads to a decline in long-term research and development and in a company's long-term prospects.

He also attacks gurus, shamans and prognosticators, greed and sloth, institutional mandates, incompetency, the status quo, bias and good stories that ignore data, all of which lead to bad investing decisions.

But Ritholtz also draws attention to flawed thinking that damages economic policy. Belief in the lazy principle behind classical economics, homo economicus - that human beings are rational and constantly make objective, intelligent judgments - is dangerous. So is the arrogance that economics is a science that responds to economists' models.

Austerity, the puritanical idea that peoples must do penance for sins in the form of spending cuts and tax increases to produce balanced budgets, is also dangerously misguided. Supply-side economics and the belief that tax cuts will pay for themselves may work when tax rates are at confiscatory high levels of 75 per cent-plus, but can only lead to trouble at today's more modest tax levels.

Let us pray for 2013.