Friday, August 31, 2007

Market Fear: The Poison and The Antidote

If behavioral finance teaches us one thing, it is that Fear trumps Greed. In fact, it's not even close. Fear is like the Harlem Globetrotters playing the Washington Generals. Sure, ostensibly it's a real contest, but despite the ups and downs along the way, we always know who's going to win in the end. The outcome is predetermined, inexorable.

(Authors Note: I used to use the Yankees and the Red Sox for this analogy. But then David Ortiz hit that home run off Mariano Rivera in 2004 and rendered my metaphor obsolete. A pox on your house, Red Sox Nation!!!)

Fear drives the market. Why? Because losing hurts more than winning feels good. Because the future is uncertain, and the default emotion in cases of uncertainty is fear. Because you're not paranoid, the Market really is out to get you, and fear is the greatest weapon in the Market's arsenal.

How do we fight our fear? With "reason"? Well, some people do. And by "some people" I am chiefly referring to Vulcans - the supremely rational beings from the eponymous planet who are not afflicted by such human weaknesses as emotion. (Then again, Vulcans mate only once every seven years, so you can see why emotions could be a big drawback.)

No. For most of us on Planet Earth, we are forced to fight the battle on an emotional level. Reason definitely helps, but only so far as it helps us reacquire our emotional equilbrium.

Fear is a poison. But there is an antidote - Control. Not actual control (which is irrelevant) but the belief that that you have control. Fear beats Greed. Perception beats Reality - at least where our emotions are concerned.

We have seen this play out recently on marketwide level with the recent actions of the Fed Charmain, Ben Bernanke. The market flagged due to fear. (It always does due to fear.) But the fires of fear were stoked in large part because one of the main sources of investors' (sense of) control is the Federal Reserve Board.

After months of hearing "Inflation remains our primary concern", investors began to wonder if the esteemed Dr. Bernanke really "got it". The Market was saying; "Does he understand our concerns? Does he even care?"

Investors were riding shotgun with the Fed Chairman on a dangerous road. They were concerned there may be a cliff up ahead, but they were even more concerned that the Fed Chairman was asleep behind the wheel.

The first shot of control was injected back in July when Chairman Bernanke acknowledged that the mortgage crisis (and credit crunch) were on his radar screen. (Whew! He's not sleeping after all.) The second shot of control came when he lowered the discount rate. (He's awake and he's willing to hit the brakes.)

People called his decision to lower the discount rate a "largely symbolic move". Exactly. Symbols are important, especially when the symbolic gesture tells people, "Relax. I'm on it".

The Market has been calling (or is it whining?) for an interest rate cut. And I, for one, think that would be splendid. But investors got something even more important. They got back their sense of control.

It's like the immortal words of Mick Jagger:

"You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need."

Bernanke's awake. It'll do for now.

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