The residents of the island of New Guinea first saw the white man in 1930. The white men were strangers to New Guineans. The New Guineans had never gone to far off places and most of them lived in the vicinity of where they were born, at most making it to the top of the hill around the corner. Given this, they were under the impression that they were the only living people.
This impression turned out to be wrong and the New Guineans started to develop stories around the white men who had come visiting. Jared Diamond writes in The World Until Yesterday that the New Guineans told themselves that “Ah, these men do not belong to earth. Let’s not kill them – they are our own relatives. Those who have died before have turned white and come back.”
The New Guineans tried to place the strange looking Europeans into “known categories of their world view”. But over a period of time they did come to realise that Europeans were human after all. As Diamond writes “Two discoveries went a long way towards convincing New Guineans that Europeans really were human were that the feces scavenged from their campsite latrines looked like typical human feces (i.e., like the feces of New Guineans); and that young New Guinea girls offered to Europeans as sex partners reported that Europeans had sex organs and practiced sex much as did New Guinea men.”
To the men and women of New Guinea, Europeans were what former American defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld called the “unknown-unknown”. As Rumsfeld said “[T]here are known knows; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown-unknowns-there are things we do not know we don’t know.”
People take time to adjust to unknown-unknowns, like the New Guineans did. But there are also situations in life in which individuals, institutions and even countries tend to ignore the chance of something that they know can happen, just because it hasn’t happened in the recent past or it hasn’t happened to them specifically. For such people, institutions and countries, the option tends to become an unknown-unknown even though it is not one in the specific sense of the term.
Take the case of film director Sajid Khan whose most recent movie was Himmatwala. Before the movie was released the director often said “I can’t say I am a great director but I am the greatest audience, since childhood I have done nothing other than watching films. Cinema is my life. I can never make a flop film because I make film for audience and not for myself .”
Of course this statement was right before Himmatwala released. Khan’s previous three outings as director Heyy Babyy, Housefull and Housefull 2 had been a huge success. Himmatwala fizzled out at the box office and its first four day collections have been nowhere near what was expected. As the well respected film trade website Koimoi.com points out “The numbers are too bad for a film like Himmatwala, which was expected to create shattering records at the Box Office being a ‘Sajid Khan Entertainer’ and moreover due to the coming together of two successful individuals – actor Ajay Devgn and director Sajid Khan for the first time. However, the formula didn’t work this time it seems!”
Khan’s overconfidence came from the fact that none of his previous films had flopped and that led him to make the assumption that none of his forthcoming films will flop as well. He expected the trend to continue. Khan had become a victim of what Nobel prize winning economist Daniel Kahneman calls the ‘availability heuristic’.
Kahneman defines the availability heuristic in Thinking, Fast and Slow as “We defined the availability heuristic as the process of judging frequency by “the ease with which instances come to mind.”” In Khan’s case the instances were the previous three movies he had directed and each one of them had been a superhit. And that led to his overconfidence and the statement that he can never make a flop film.
Nate Silver summarises the situation well in The Signal and the Noise. As he points out “We tend to overrate the likelihood of events that are nearer to us in time and space and underpredict the ones that aren’t.” And this clouds our judgement.
Another great example is of this are central banks around the world which have been on a money printing spree. As Gary Dorsch, Editor, Global Money Trends points out in a recent column “So far, five central banks, – the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank have effectively created more than $6-trillion of new currency over the past four years, and have flooded the world money markets with excess liquidity. The size of their balance sheets has now reached a combined $9.5-trillion, compared with $3.5-trillion six years ago.”
This money has been pumped into various economies around the world in the hope that banks and financial institutions will lend it to consumers and businesses. And when consumers and businesses spend this borrowed money it will revive economic growth. But that has not happened. The solution that central banks have come up with is printing even more money.
One of the risks of too much money printing is the fact it will chase the same number of goods and services, and thus usually leads to a rise in overall prices or inflation. But that hasn’t happened till now. The fact that all the money printing has not produced rapid inflation has led to the assumption that it will never produce any inflation. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank, has even gone to the extent of saying that he was 100% sure he could control inflation.
Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England, has made similar statements. “Certainly those people who said that asset purchases would lead us down the path of Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe I think have been proved wrong ,” he has said. What this means is that excess money printing will not lead to kind of high inflation that it did in Germany in the early 1920s and Zimbabwe a few years back.
King and Bernanke like Sajid Khan are just looking at the recent past where excess money printing has not led to inflation. And using this instance they have come to the conclusion that they can control inflation (in Bernanke’s case) as and when it will happen or that there will simply be no inflation because of money printing (in King’s case).
As Albert Edwards of Societe Generale writes in a report titled Is Mark Carney the next Alan Greenspan “King’s assertion that because the quantitative easing(another term for money printing) to date has not yet produced rapid inflation must mean that it will never produce rapid inflation is just plain wrong. He simply cannot know.” Nassim Nicholas Taleb is a lot more direct in Anti Fragile when says “central banks can print money; they print print and print with no effect (and claim the “safety” of such a measure), then, “unexpectedly,” the printing causes a jump in inflation.” Just because something hasn’t happened in the recent past does not mean it won’t happen in the future.
People who make economic forecasts are also the victims of what we can now call the Sajid Khan syndrome. They expect the recent trend to continue. The Indian economy grew by 8.6% in 2009-2010 and 9.3% in 2010-2011. And the Indian politicians and bureaucrats told us with glee that the Indian economy had decoupled from the world economy, which was growing very slowly in the aftermath of the global financial crisis.
Montek Singh Ahluwalia, the deputy chairman of the Planning Commission is a very good example of the same. In a television discussion in April 2012, he kept insisting that a 7% economic growth rate for India was a given. Turns out it was not. The Indian economy grew by 4.5% in the three months ending December 31, 2012. Ahluwalia was way off the mark simply because he had the previous instances of 8-9% rate of economic growth in his mind. And he was projecting that into the future and saying worse come worse India will at least grow by 7%.
It is not only experts who become victims of the Sajid Khan syndrome taking into account events of only the recent past. In the aftermath of September 11, 2001, when aeroplanes collided into the two towers of the World Trade Centre, many Americans simply took to driving fairly long distances, fearing more terrorist attacks.
But driving is inherently more risky than flying. As Spyros Makridakis, Robin Hograth and Anil Gaba write in Dance with Chance – Making Your Luck Work for You “In 2001, there were 483 deaths among commercial airline passengers in the USA, about half of them on 9/11. Interestingly in 2002, there wasn’t a single one. And in 2003 and 2004 there were only nineteen and eleven fatalities respectively. This means that during these three years, a total of thirty airline passengers in America were killed in accidents. In the same period, however, 128,525 people died in US car accidents.” Estimates suggest that nearly 1600 deaths could have been avoided if people had taken the plane and not decided to drive,.
So what caused this? “Plane crashes are turned into video images of twisted wreckage and dead bodies, then beamed into every home on television screens,” write the authors. That is precisely what happened in the aftermath of 9/11. People saw and remembered planes crashing into the two towers of the World Trade Centre and decided that flying was risky.
They just remembered those two recent instances. What they did not take into account was the fact that thousands of planes continued to arrive at their destinations without any accident like they had before. So most people ended up concluding that chances of dying in an aeroplane accident was much higher than it really was.
The same logic did not apply to a car crash. As the authors write “Car crashes, on the other hand, rarely make the headlines…Smaller-scale road accidents occur in large numbers with horrifying regularity, killing hundreds and thousands of people each year worldwide…We just don’t hear about them.” And just because we don’t hear about things, doesn’t mean they have stopped happening or they won’t happen to us.
Another version of this is the probability of dying due to a terror attack. As Kahneman writes “Even in countries that have been targets of intensive terror campaigns, such as Israel, the weekly number of casualties almost never came close to the number of traffic deaths.”
A good comparison in an Indian context is the number of people who die falling off the overcrowded Mumbai local train network in comparison to the number of people who have been killed in the various terrorist attacks in Mumbai over the last few years. The first number is higher. But its just that people die falling off the local train network almost everyday and never make it to the news pages, which is not the case with any terrorist attack, which gets sustained media coverage sometimes running into months.
To conclude it is important to look beyond the recent past and ensure that like Sajid Khan and others, we do not fall victims to the Sajid Khan syndrome.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on April 4, 2013.
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek)
Gold prices fell below Rs 30,000 per ten grams for the first time in seven months on February 21, 2013. Data from www.goldprice.org shows that the yellow metal has fallen by around 6.5% in dollar terms over the last 30 days. In rupee terms the fall has been a little lower at 5.7%.
This fall has meant that everyone who has been recommending gold (including this writer) have ended up with eggs on their face. But every forecast cannot be right all the time. There are situations when a forecast is wrong till it is proved right.
Allow me to explain. Every bull market has a theory. So why has the price of gold gone up over the last few years? The answer is very simple. Central banks around the world have printed a lot of money. This money has been pumped into the financial system with the hope that banks will lend it to people and businesses, who will then spend this money and thus help in reviving the economy.
The fear was that with all this extra money chasing the same number of goods and services, there would be a great rise in prices. To protect themselves from this rise in price and loss of purchasing power, investors around the world had been buying gold. This pushed up its price. Unlike paper money gold cannot be created out of thin air by the government and thus is looked upon as a hedge against inflation.
But the inflation is still to come. And so this theory which drove up the price of gold doesn’t seem to be working. As a result the price of gold has taken a beating. With no inflation there is really no reason for people to buy the yellow metal and protect themselves against loss of purchasing power.
As Gary Dorsch, Editor, Global Money Trends points out in a recent column “So far, five central banks, – the Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank, Bank of England, the Bank of Japan and the Swiss National Bank have effectively created more than $6-trillion of new currency over the past four years, and have flooded the world money markets with excess liquidity. The size of their balance sheets has now reached a combined $9.5-trillion, compared with $3.5-trillion six years ago.”
But even with so much money being printed there has been very little inflation. So money is being diverted to other asset classes rather than buying up what John Maynard Keynes referred to as the barbarous relic.
Also this lack of inflation has made central bank governors and politicians around the world victims of what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls the great turkey problem. As he writes in his latest book Anti Fragile “A turkey is fed for a thousand days by a butcher; every day confirms to its staff of analysts that butchers love turkeys “with increased statistical confidence.””
With the butcher feeding it on a regular basis, the turkey starts to expect that the good times will continue forever and the butcher will continue feeding it. That is what seems to be happening with central bank governors and politicians around the world. The fact that all the money printing has not produced rapid inflation till now has led to the assumption that it will never produce any inflation. Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve of United States, the American central bank, has even gone to the extent of saying that he was 100% sure he could control inflation.
And using this conclusion central banks are printing even more money. This is like the lines from La Haine, a French film released in 1995 “Heard about the guy who fell off a skyscraper? On his way down past each floor, he kept saying to reassure himself: So far so good… so far so good… so far so good.”
But the person falling from a skyscraper has to hit the ground at some point of time. The good days of every turkey being reared by a butcher also comes to an end. As Taleb writes “The butcher will keep feeding the turkey until a few days before Thanksgiving. Then comes that day when it is really not a very good idea to be a turkey. So with the butcher surprising it, the turkey will have a revision of belief – right when its confidence in the statement that the butcher loves turkeys is maximal and “it is very quiet” and soothingly predictable in the life of the turkey.”
Or as the line from La Haine goes “How you fall doesn’t matter. It’s how you land!”
Similarly all the money printing has to end up somewhere. As Taleb puts it “central banks can print money; they print print and print with no effect (and claim the “safety” of such a measure), then, “unexpectedly,” the printing causes a jump in inflation.”
Or as James Rickards author Currency Wars: The Making of the Next Global Crises puts it “They can’t just keep printing…All major central banks are easing…Eventually so much money will be printed that this will lead to inflation.”
There is a reason to why the inflation is taking time even with governments around the world printing money rapidly. Henry Hazlitt has an explanation for it in his brilliant book, The Inflation Crisis and How to Resolve it.
In the initial stages of inflation, the man on the street does not know that the government is printing money and hence he has confidence in the paper money he is using. He does not think that the paper money is going to lose value anytime soon, and does not rush out to spend it. Gradually news starts to get around the government is printing money and this is when there is some rush to spend money before it loses its value. This is when prices start to go up at the rate at which money is being printed. In the final stage, as the central bank backed by the government of the day, continues to print money, people start to feel that this will continue indefinitely. And hence they try to get rid of paper money, as soon as they get it. This in turn leads to prices rising at a rate even faster than the rate at which money is being printed.
This is how most inflations evolve whenever governments print money at a very rapid rate.
Once the market starts discounting the idea of inflation, the price of gold will rise at a very rapid rate. But till that happens, people like me, who have and continue to recommend investing in gold, will look stupid. Also it is important to remember that every bull market has its bear runs. In the middle of the bull run in gold prices in the seventies gold prices fell by nearly 44%. The price of gold as of end of December 1974 was at $186.5 per ounce (one ounce equals 31.1 grams). By end of August 1976, it had fallen to $104 per ounce, or nearly 44.2% lower. But prices rallied again from there and peaked very briefly at $850 per ounce on January 21, 1980.
So as I said at the beginning forecasts can be wrong for a long time, till they are proven right. And when they are proved right, even for a brief period, its then when the ‘real money’ gets made.
Taleb talks about people who had been predicting a financial crisis in the developed world. There predictions were wrong for a very long till they were proven right. As he writes “You were wrong for years, right for a moment, losing small, winning big, so vastly more successful than the other way.”
Hence, I would still recommend buying gold, limiting it to around 10% of the overall portfolio or even lower, depending on how much money you are willing to back what is a particularly risky trade. Investment in gold has to be looked upon as a speculation on the continued printing of money and the eventual arrival of rapid inflation. This strategy can prove to be tremendously beneficial. As Taleb writes “If you put 90 percent of your funds in boring cash…and 10 percent in very risky, maximally risky, securities, you cannot possibly lose more than 10 percent, while you are exposed to massive upside.” Gold has to be played like that.
The article originally appeared on www.firstpost.com on February 22, 2013
(Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at [email protected]. Nearly 14% of his investment portfolio is in gold through the mutual fund route. He continues to buy gold through the SIP route)