Recession Risk, The Ultimate Risk Paradigm Of Modern Business Operations

The business cycle rotates periodically between boom and bust. This is one of the inevitable consequences of centrally planning the economy’s interest rates and forcing them below their market equilibrium levels. Because it is inevitable, it is “predictable” and thus every business person must conduct their affairs in light of the fact that at some point in the future they will be faced with a recession. The key measure of risk for a business person operating in a central bank-managed economy, then, is “How will I feel when the recession comes?”

If a recession poses no risk to the financial structure of his holdings and he is positioned in his operations to weather a storm, he may be termed “low risk.” If instead a recession represents an existential threat and/or the potential for severe hardship for his operations, he may be termed “high risk.”

As an ideal, a sufficiently low risk operator should eagerly anticipate a recession as it will represent a cheap buying opportunity during which he will consolidate the failing enterprises of his competitors, scooping up their assets at bargain prices and thereby leap ahead of them without the use of leverage or cheap competitive tactics. Conversely, a sufficiently high risk operator will find the economic Sword of Damocles plunging through his neck in a recession, permanently severing the connection between himself and his former assets. How then to manage financial and operational risk so that continued growth can occur in a manner that is sustainable in all possible economic environments?

In terms of financial risk, we could sort our assets in two ways, by asset quality and by financing quality. The asset with the highest asset quality is the one which has the largest earnings yield relative to its current value. The asset with the highest financing quality is the one which is cheapest to own (ie, annual interest cost).

Practically speaking, sorting assets by asset quality and financing quality and then selling low quality assets and paying down outstanding debt would move an organization toward a more favorable balance between asset quality and finance quality, with an emphasis on equity in the balance sheet. The capital that is freed up in the process is now available to purchase a higher quality asset in the future.

In a recession, the cash flows from low quality assets dwindle while the finance charges on debt remain fixed; not only does such a mixture create a problem in a recession but it falsifies the true “free cash” position of the company in a boom because, to operate prudently, extra cash must be maintained on the balance sheet to offset the risk this low quality asset and debt represent should a recession appear.

The insistence on focusing on the management of financial risk first offers us clues as to a sound growth strategy overall. To be successful and sustainable through all potential economic conditions, growth must be purposeful and planned and should only occur when three conditions are met: there is abundant free cash on the balance sheet, the organization has people “on the bench” and ready for new opportunities and a good buying opportunity (represented by a fair or discount to fair value price) presents itself.

A debt-laden balance sheet is not cash rich because the cash which may be present is actually encumbered by the debt as an offset in a recessionary environment. When we are talking about a cash rich balance sheet, we’re by implication talking about an unlevered balance sheet. Otherwise, the cash is not “free” but rather is “phantom” cash– it will disappear the moment adverse economic conditions present themselves.

The organizational bench condition may be harder to evaluate objectively, but there is a decent rule of thumb. When people in each position in the organization are sufficiently organized to handle their own responsibilities with time to spare, there is organizational bandwidth to spend on promotions and new responsibilities, such as management of newly acquired assets. In contrast, when people in relatively higher positions within the organizational hierarchy are spending their time doing the work of people relatively lower in the organizational hierarchy, it indicates that there is a shortage of quality personnel to fill all positions and that those personnel available are necessarily being “mismanaged” with regards to how they are spending their time as a result.

Further, it implies the risk that growth in such a state might further dilute and weaken the culture and management control of both legacy assets and those newly acquired. This is a risky situation in which every incremental growth opportunity ends up weakening the organization as a whole and creating hardships to come in the next recession. If it’s hard to find good people, inside the organization or without, and there is a general attitude of complacency about what could go wrong in a recession, it is a strong indicator that underperforming assets should be sold and the balance sheet delevered to reduce organizational risk in the event of a recession.

Growth should be fun, exciting and profitable. If it’s creating headaches operationally, or nightmares financially, it should be avoided. You shouldn’t own or acquire assets you don’t love owning. Perhaps the best rule of thumb overall is to ask oneself, “Does owning this asset bring us joy?” If yes, look for opportunities to buy more. If no, sell, sell, sell!

Ultimately, there are three ways to get rich: randomly, with dumb luck and unpredictable market euphoria for the product or service offered (billion-dollar tech startups); quickly, with a lot of leverage, a lot of luck in terms of market cycles and a lot of risk that you could lose it all with poor timing (private equity roll-up); and slowly, with a lot of cash, a lot of patience and a lot less risk while taking advantage of the misery of others during inevitable downward cycles in the economy.

If you were fearful in the last economic cycle, it suggests your financial and organizational structures were not as conservative as you might have believed. It may be an ideal, but it’s one worth reaching for: a recession represents a golden buying opportunity for a cash rich organization to leap ahead of the competition and continue its story of sustainable growth and success.

Review – Panic: The Betrayal Of Capitalism By Wall Street And Washington

Sadly, Panic: The Betrayal Of Capitalism By Wall Street And Washington does not appear to be in print any longer. Luckily, I found a good used copy on Amazon and will cherish its now-secret message all the more.

As I read through this book several months ago, instead of summarizing my thoughts I just want to record a few key ideas and quotes for later reference.

“The Anti-Entrepreneurs”

In any modern state the government will always be the banks’ biggest client and therefore will always make most of the rules, even if it pretends not to.

The ideologues of modern finance offered to make any fool rich if only he renounced the first obligation of the capitalist, the burden of judgment.

This process of confronting uncertainty and successfully resolving it usually by dint of hard work, diligent analysis, and sound judgment is the only source of what many economists have called “entrepreneurial profit” or sometimes “true profit”.

Underpinning the ideology of modern finance is the notion that the insight, judgment and even diligence of the entrepreneur are irrelevant for investing in public securities markets. These markets, we are told, are special, too powerful and too perfect to allow any entrepreneur’s judgment to matter.

If the ideology of modern finance had a motto, it might be “thinking doesn’t work.”

Capitalism demands free markets because it needs free minds.

The bureaucrat of capital dreams of a world in which failure is impossible.

Crony capitalists on the right and socialists on the left united as always behind their most fundamental belief, that wealth is to be captured by power and pull rather than created in the minds of men.

“New Risks in Old Bottles”

The great mission of modern investment theory is to replace all idiosyncratic risk with systemic risk.

The primary skill for finance, under this theory, becomes diversification, which becomes an advanced statistical methodology for making sure a relatively small number of securities accurately represents a much larger class of securities.

If I know nothing, my need for diversification is infinite.

All investment is reduced to insurance.

Ignorance is the father of panic.

“The Misinformation Economy”

One way to think about panic is as a general, nonspecific response to a poorly understood particular and specific problem.

“To build a perfect model of the universe would require all the matter and energy in the universe, because the only perfect model, the only model that shed no information and made no compromises in order to achieve its object, would be the universe itself.”

The mortgage meltdown can be understood as an instance of model failure.

information is differentiation; information is what comes as a surprise against the background of knowledge already possessed.

If uncertainty and risk are nearly synonyms. then information and risk are nearly opposites.

It is not particularly unusual for all thirty stocks in the Dow to go up and down at the same time; that rarely happened when market participants were interested in the value of individual companies.

“The Reign of Risk”

Modern portfolio theory was a late bloom of the great eighteenth and nineteenth century impulse to explain human society by mechanical or “scientific” principles as regular as those of classical physics.

If economics were about entrepreneurship, it would not look like physics. It would look a little like philosophy. Mostly it would look like literature. [The Lion’s note: if you ascribe to the Austrian school, it does!]

To treat investment as a quantitative exercise relying on the efficiency of markets and advanced mathematics to eliminate the hazards of human judgment. [the ambition of investors under Modern Portfolio Theory]

MPT created a field for which PhDs could be granted and journal articles published. Before MPT, investment theory had been mere reflection upon experience, a wisdom literature dominated by amateurs like Benjamin Graham.

[MPT…] can be deeply attractive to those trying to support capitalist lifestyles with only bureaucratic talents.

The most important question any investor can ask: For what are investors paid? MPT’s answer: For accepting risk.

risk is not the foundation of profit but its most dreaded enemy.

The modern theory conceptually severed financial markets from the rest of the economy. [My note, ” Macro is to Micro as Financial is to Real”]

“The Romance of Risk”

Men and societies become richer precisely as they employ insight, skill and experience, effort and discipline to reduce risk.

Investors are paid for being right, not for the possibility of being wrong.

In life, men who make one good judgment tend to make more good judgments; men who make one bad judgment tend to make more bad ones.

the most important but the most difficult-to-identify ability in business management (or investment) is the ability to judge other men’s ability to judge. [meta-judgment]

“Zoom, Zoom, Zoom”

What modern capital markets do very well is raise large amounts of capital from a broad base of investors who are persuaded to give their money to perfect strangers with precious little idea of what those fortunate recipients are going to do with it. [And, I’d add, little control or legal right to have any say in such decisions; “crowd-sourcing”]

different markets make different trade-offs between liquidity and price discovery one one hand and confidence about value on the other.

Public equity investors demand liquidity in large part because they are unsure about value.

Humor is surprise

It is reasonable to call markets better or worse depending on how much surprise they can absorb before convulsing in dramatic disequilibrium

Lacking a more substantial basis on which to make decisions, financial markets set prices to an astonishing extent by watching– prices!

The most dramatic resolution of this conflict is to eliminate most of the shareholders altogether by taking public companies private

public companies have no owners

Companies, like most assets, do better with strong owners than weak owners.

“Strategic Ambiguity”

When New Dealers tried to set up a banking system immune to panic, their top priority was to remove Mom-and-Pop from their role as bank police.

“Insolvent Immunity”

Here is the quickest way to determine whether you are operating in an honest capitalist system or a corrupt imitation thereof: check the bankruptcy rates.

“Black September”

“Things are somewhat amiss when a country’s finance minister plays bond salesman for a supposedly privately owned company.”

By this time the government had: (a) intimated that deficits in the financial sector were so large and widespread that “anyone could be next” (b) terrified private investors from making investments that might preserve the solvency of deteriorating institutions (c) assumed unprecedented responsibility for investment banks outside the Federal Reserve system and then abandoned that responsibility and (d) made clear that its policy would change on an ad hoc basis. [on the US federal government’s initial response to the financial panic of 2008]

To assume that the buying and selling of shares amounts to managing the firm is the most extreme form of efficient market worship.

“Capitalism Without Capitalists”

The term for someone who rests his economic fate on unknowable future events is not “owner” or even “investor,” but “speculator.”

the government, the biggest player and the weakest owner of all. [criticizing the present ownership of major banks]

Another great review of this book was posted by “CP” at CreditBubbleStocks.com.

And after reading this book, I was inspired to purchase Frank Knight’s Risk, Uncertainty and Profit for my library for further study.

 

Review – How To Get Rich

How To Get Rich: The Distilled Wisdom of One of Britain’s Wealthiest Self-Made Entrepreneurs

by Felix Dennis, published 2009

This will likely be one of the shortest reviews on record here. One reason is because I don’t want to spoil too much of this book for anyone else who might be interested in it; I do think it has to be fully read by oneself for it’s message to be understood.

Another reason is that I am not rich myself, so I don’t know how valuable my critical impressions of Dennis’s logic and experience will be and I don’t have any real opportunity to run a controlled experiment and find out. I’m going to take his thesis into mind and live my life as I see fit and maybe I’ll end up rich, or at least quite wealthy.

When Dennis says “rich” he means “filthy” rich. As in, it’d take several generations of slouches to piss through it all. This is the kind of rich he’s talking about. He’s not talking about retiring with a pension. And this book is psychological in that Dennis spends a lot of time detailing the mindset and motivations of people who are rich, not just particular strategies or actions to achieve this level of wealth (though he discusses that, too).

Besides the survey of rich life and rich world views, the book provides numerous general lessons on business, business management and entrepreneurial practices which are all valuable in their own right even if one doesn’t want to be rich, but doesn’t feel like being poor, either.

This book’s strongest point is honesty. And now, Felix Dennis’s “Eight Secrets to Getting Rich”:

  1. Analyze your need. Desire is insufficient. Compulsion is mandatory.
  2. Cut loose from negative influences. Never give in. Stay the course.
  3. Ignore ‘great ideas’. Concentrate on great execution.
  4. Focus. Keep your eye on the ball marked ‘The Money Is Here’/
  5. Hire talent smarter than you. Delegate. Share the annual pie.
  6. Ownership is the real ‘secret’. Hold on to every percentage point you can.
  7. Sell before you need to, or when bored. Empty your mind when negotiating.
  8. Fear nothing and no one. Get rich. Remember to give it all away.

Want To Lose Money In An Uninspired Way? Become A GM Investor

The UAW, which represents tens of thousands of GM hourly workers, has negotiated a base pay increase as well as an increased profit-sharing bonus, with the help of executive management (Bloomberg):

“When GM was struggling, our members shared in the sacrifice,” UAW Vice President Joe Ashton, who directs the union’s General Motors Department, said in a statement released last night. “Now that the company is posting profits again, our members want to share in the success.”

One Berkley “labor professor” (what the hell is that?) compared the compensation negotiations to economic stimulus:

“It’s an impressive agreement in a very tough economy,” said Shaiken, the Berkeley professor. “This agreement amounts to a stimulus package because it generates jobs and puts purchasing power into the economy.”

Question: why would anyone in their right mind want to be a GM shareholder?

Management has conspired with Marxist labor unions to increase hourly wages during a time period of general economic weakness, great challenges for the auto industry in particular and a near-death environment for GM specifically. Additionally, unionized factory employees are now being treated like they have capital-at-risk, when they do not. Factory employees don’t own or control GM capital and have nothing to do with intelligently or otherwise allocating that capital– it makes absolutely no sense that any entrepreneurial gains from the successful allocation of that capital should accrue to factory workers as some bargaining chip for securing their employment, especially when there are tens of millions of unemployed people looking for work in this country.

This is an odd inversion of the socialist principle of a divorce between costs and benefits.

To add insult to injury, the company has evidently become an auxiliary extension of the US government and its stimulus policy.

GM shareholders aren’t playing with fire, they’re standing outside the charred remains of a multistory apartment structure expecting to enjoy a high standard of living by moving in.

More Thoughts On Lone Ranger Investing, Informational Asymmetries And “Going Private”

A few days ago I linked to a post from Hedge Fund News in which the author expressed some deep skepticism and reservations about common stock investments in the present era. The primary concerns were that the market is “rigged” to a large extent via Fed front-running and black-box trading algorithms. Stock market investing is largely about an informational edge. Without friends in high places, an army of analysts and a mainframe computer, how is the little guy supposed to have an edge anymore?

First, a contrarian take on the contrarian take.

Front-running the Fed works, until it doesn’t. Many try to front-run the Fed without any real, personal insight into what’s going on there (aka, having a whisper network that’s tapped in to the Fed) and those people get steamrolled in periods like the one we just witnessed in August 2011, when many market participants hit the “Eject” button all at once and the Fed isn’t there with a trampoline to catch everyone. Some do have those networks and their front-running is largely successful (though you have to wonder what the hell happened at PIMCO over the last two months with Alan Greenspan on retainer) and to that I have no response besides to observe that “Life isn’t fair, deal with it.” Some people are born with a Golden FRN lodged between their butt cheeks and some aren’t. It’s obviously not the majority of the market because if it were that’d defeat the whole purpose of having that kind of informational advantage.

For the average, little guy investor, all the Fed does is introduce extreme volatility into the picture. And volatility isn’t risk. In fact, volatility provides true opportunities for the value investor that he otherwise might never have gotten as the inevitable panics that ensue tend to drag down the good companies with the bad. Then, you buy good companies cheaply.

I look at the black-box trading the same way. So what if there are black-boxes? They add volatility to markets. Volatility is opportunity, not risk. Use limit orders if you’re worried about getting manipulated by these robots putting out false bids.

The concern about informational asymmetries caused by institutionalism and hedge fund analyst armies is more substantive. But it still doesn’t mean doom for the little investor (or maybe better to call him the “lone ranger investor”, because he might have a few thousand or he might have a few million). I am going to paraphrase a few points from Jason Zweig’s commentary from chapter 8 of The Intelligent Investor:

  • Institutions (and hedge funds) have billions of dollars under management; this massive AUM forces them to gravitate towards the same large-cap stocks
  • Investors tend to pour money into institutional vehicles as markets rise, and pull it out as it falls; this forces these players to buy high and sell low
  • Many institutions are obsessed with relative benchmarks, the performance and composition of which shape their trading patterns and selections; their creativity and independence is stifled as a result
  • Many institutions box themselves in with an arbitrary mandate or theme which forces them to make their investment decisions within a confined space, often without regard to absolute value found elsewhere in the market place

Now, let’s flip each of these points around to see how the lone ranger investor is advantaged by each:

  • The lone ranger has comparatively little AUM so he has the flexibility to allocate his portfolio into nearly any stock he wants, from nano-cap to mega-cap
  • The lone ranger is in sole control of his buying and selling as he doesn’t face redemption requests or sudden influxes of hot money like institutions do
  • The lone ranger doesn’t have to compete with any benchmark if he doesn’t want to, instead he can just chase absolute returns and not worry about how he measures against a given index or benchmark over a given period of time
  • The lone ranger is free to choose any style, theme and type of investment strategy he likes and never has to worry about a regulation or outside investors having a problem with it

A video of Ray Dalio over at Credit Bubble Stocks features Dalio riffing on the high degree to which average hedge fund returns are correlated with the broader markets. The implication is that hedge funds aren’t being creative and independent in their strategies and trades. What good is an army of analysts, in other words, if you’ve got them looking at the same exact companies (AAPL, NFLX, BAC, etc.) that everyone else is looking at? What good is it to be a hedge fund when all this really means is you can hold more than 5% of your portfolio in something like AAPL and then lever the hell out of it and cross your fingers hoping Ben Bernanke’s got your back?

Informational advantages come in three flavors:

  1. Investments no one else is interested in, ensuring you have little to no competition for information (for example, a micro-cap with no institutional sponsorship and no analyst coverage)
  2. Investments in which you have a special relationship with insiders or other connected people, ensuring you have better quality information
  3. Investments in which you have a unique perspective or framework for understanding, ensuring that even if information is fairly distributed amongst all participants, only you will know what to do with it

Number two is damn near impossible (and extremely legally risky) to get in the current era of financial market regulation for most people. But there is nothing to stop the lone ranger investor from focusing on numbers one and three. In fact, this is where he should be focused.

The real risk, and this was suggested in the Hedge Fund News piece, is that number two might be so pervasive in particular situations that it overwhelms number one and number three. But for the most part, those situations are fairly obvious and can be avoided. For example, don’t buy AAPL if that’s what everyone is trading.

So, that’s some of the advantages the lone ranger has, in spite of it all. But the HFN piece wasn’t total fluff and he’s right to still be skeptical. I was particularly struck by his suggestions about corporate governance. This is a big problem as I see it.

Yesterday I spent some time listening to Albert Meyer talk about his experience with uncovering numerous well-publicized frauds and accounting shenanigans of the last decade ($KO, $TYC, Enron and the New Era Philanthropy Ponzi). The way Albert made it sound, corporate governance in this country is in shambles and a true embarrassment to the idea of free and honest markets.

Albert talked about the problem with option issuance overhang. Even though these items are now expensed following a FASB rules change, Meyer insists that the true costs of executive compensation for many (most?) companies listed on US exchanges is severely understated. He called into question the practice of huge stock buybacks by most companies, which he said is really just the way in which companies cover up the inevitable dilution that would otherwise occur from executive stock option exercising– and it all comes at the expense of shareholders and mutual fund investors whose mutual funds buy the new shares of recently exercised options. One example he gave was $EBAY, which he said reported income of $800M in a particular period but should’ve reported an $800M loss (a swing of $1.6B) once you had factored in the option issuance and subsequent buybacks to prevent dilution.

Albert said there were only 7 companies in the US that do not compensate executives with stock options. He cited numerous examples of Congressional and regulatory (SEC) corruption with regards to the protective relationship these cretins have with American corporate boards and C-level management teams and the stock option issuance scam. He said there is a lot less of it going on outside of the US which is yet another reason why he finds himself seeking out investment opportunities there.

I’m getting into a digression here when I don’t mean to be, but I assure you this is all related. The point is this: the predominating corporate structure for business in this country, specifically amongst publicly-listed companies with career professional management teams who are not also owner-operators of the company, creates a uniquely perverse set of incentives that truly pits the interests of shareholders (the actual owners of the company, its assets and cash flows) against management and even their own boards! The reality in many cases is that executives and obedient, captured boards work together the milk the wealth of the company for themselves with outsized compensation packages based primarily on stock option issuance, leaving shareholders with all the risks and none of the rewards.

And as the HFN piece points out, the entrepreneurial spirit is particularly absent in these kinds of arrangements because it must be. There is no real connection between the performance of the business (good or bad) and the compensation of the board and management. In the event that the company does well, the gains are secretly dissipated through executive stock option exercising and subsequent colossal buybacks. In the event that the company does poorly, management and the board issue themselves numerous stock options at rock-bottom prices with long duration expirations, virtually guaranteeing that should the business ever turn around they’ll be there to siphon off all the gains for themselves and leave shareholders with nothing.

In effect, it’s a game, and a dirty one that the lone ranger investor doesn’t have many tools besides selectivity that he can use to win. It’s such a widespread practice that you really have to either get in at the absolute bottom or find a company where the corporate governance is much more shareholder aligned (high percentage of insider ownership, predominance of cash compensation for executives without major options issuance, share buybacks that occur at market lows not at market highs when management is cashing in their chips and exercising options, low percentage of institutional sponsorship and a truly independent board where ideally executive management doesn’t have many or any seats) if you ever hope to win it.

That is why I’ve been thinking a lot about “going private.” By going private, I don’t mean taking companies that are public, private, though that might be a good start as I honestly think that in many ways having access to public financing is simply an excuse for poorly managed companies to engage in Ponzi finance without it looking like such.

Instead, what I am talking about is being an enterprising, entrepreneurial investor primarily within the private investment space. This means not only starting your own businesses, but making contacts and seeking out investment opportunities that are not party to the public capital markets. In many cases, it means investing locally and investing in what you know about. It also potentially means outsize returns via informational asymmetries and reduced competition (amongst yourself and other potential investors).

In that vein, I was struck by this comment from Mark Cuban that I saw quoted on Tim Ferriss’s 4 Hour Blog in a post about rethinking investing:

YM: Do you have any general saving and investing advice for young people?

CUBAN: Put it in the bank. The idiots that tell you to put your money in the market because eventually it will go up need to tell you that because they are trying to sell you something. The stock market is probably the worst investment vehicle out there. If you won’t put your money in the bank, NEVER put your money in something where you don’t have an information advantage. Why invest your money in something because a broker told you to? If the broker had a clue, he/she wouldn’t be a broker, they would be on a beach somewhere.

Cuban’s sentiment echoes my own here and I find myself sharing this perspective with friends and family members who ask me for investment advice or what to do with their 401k.

The first thing I tell people is, don’t put your money in your 401k if you don’t know what you want to do with it once it’s there. People get taken in by the idea of pre-tax investing and employer matching, but ultimately those advantages are wasted if you are just going to make clueless, doomed-to-fail investments with that money. What good is having 6% matching or investing with 35% more money because you don’t pay taxes on the principal when you put it in, if you’re just going to lose 100% of it anyway?

The second thing I ask them is, what kind of options do you have and what kind of informational advantages do you have when you put your money into your 401k or the stock market in general? Most don’t have a clue. That’s a warning sign! If you don’t know what your informational advantage is, you don’t have one and you’re basically investing blind. Meanwhile, your opponents not only aren’t blind, they’ve got Lasik. They will take your money and run the first chance they get.

The final recommendation I make is, instead of investing in the stock market or a 401k (which the person admittedly knows nothing about), I suggest they save up to start their own business or invest in the business of a friend or family member who they know, trust and have tangible proof of their success. It would be much better to make private arrangements to invest equity or loan money privately in a situation like that than it would be to dump their hard-earned wealth into a Wall Street rucksack and then wake up 20 years later wondering where it ran off to.

When I make those suggestions to others I start to wonder if we would all be better off if we did the same.

Personal Dilemmas Of The Immoral Economy

The WSJ.com has just posted an article, “Buy, Sell, Fret: Retail Traders Swing Into Action“, that is ripe for commentary from the twin perspectives of value investing and Austrian economics. With any luck, we may even venture into the philosophic territory by the end of this episode. Let’s get started:

In a throwback to the day-trading era, the market’s stomach-churning gyrations are creating a new class of stock obsessives hanging on every dip and rebound.

Average investors are scrambling to stay ahead of the massive swings—often via mobile devices like iPads and smart-phones, leading to sharp spikes in trading volumes at many brokerages.

“I am distracted and frankly unnerved,” says Andy Lavin, a public-relations executive in Port Washington, N.Y., who manages about $800,000 of his own money.

Mr. Lavin says he has been checking his iPad regularly during meetings and on his way to work. On Monday, he bought $15,000 in futures on the Chicago Board Options Exchange Volatility Index. After President Barack Obama addressed the decision by Standard & Poor’s to downgrade long-term U.S. debt, Mr. Lavin dashed to monitor the market reaction.

“If you look away for a second, you lose,” Mr. Lavin says.

One of the themes I’d like to explore here is perception versus reality. For example, Mr. Lavin’s perception is that it is his inability to keep up with the markets, tick by tick, that expose him to potential ruination. The reality is that it is his decision to split his attention and capabilities between his professional job and daytrading which exposes him to ruination.

As a value investor, daytrading is obviously an intellectually bankrupt strategy detached from an understanding of fundamental reality because the economic value of companies do not change as often, rapidly or dramatically as their security prices might. So, anyone who becomes obsessive about the frequent changing of security prices without any regard to the underlying economic value of the company the securities belong to is engaging in a speculative gamble, not trying to keep up with an investment portfolio. Daytrading while at work is as absurd as playing online poker at work, or visiting a virtual blackjack table on your iPad while sitting in a meeting. The illusion (delusion?) of control is precisely the same, as is the inappropriateness of the simultaneity.

As an Austrian economist, this appears to be an outstanding example of some of the many unintended consequences of Federal Reserve monetary policies as well as federal government interventionist policies.

In terms of monetary policy, Ben Bernanke’s reckless inflationary mandate creates new malinvestment in the economy by distorting entrepreneurs’ and other economic actors’ view of the true supply of savings in the economy. Interest rates are driven down below their free market equilibrium levels providing the illusion of wealth that doesn’t actually exist. Entrepreneurs (and daytraders are entrepreneurs, though they’re a variety more ephemeral than a butterfly) usually end up in grossly speculative activities because with the new supply of money in their hands and the lowered cost of borrowing at their backs it pays to do so, or so they think.

Similarly we can see the broad effects of an interventionist, regulatory political framework. Such a superstructure creates so many obstacles and added costs for “normal” economic activity that the productively-eager are pushed into enterprises with the lowest cost of entry and the least number of hoops to jump through before one can nominally start making money. Does it get any easier than opening up an electronic brokerage account and ACHing a large deposit?

At the nexus of these two philosophies, economics and investing, we see another tragedy unfolding– where is the comparative advantage (economist) or the analytical edge (investor) in a public relations professional-turned-daytrader? Why has this man, who appears to be quite successful at his chosen career given the size of his gambling stake — I mean, accumulated personal savings — which amounts to $800,000, investing this money on his own in the financial markets?

Why isn’t he putting that $800,000 of capital to work in his own business, where he seems to be demonstrating an ability to earn outsize returns on capital? Assuming this individual is reasonable and not merely gambling, what might this say about the condition of the economy as a whole that he has not chosen this seemingly obvious alternative?

Continuing:

The high-stakes drama is also making once-calm investors jittery. Richard Chaifetz, chief executive of Chicago-based ComPsych Corp., which provides mental-health counseling for 13,000 companies, says his firm has seen a 15% increase in calls from stressed out employees who are watching the stock markets from their desks.

This is another unintended consequence of inflationary monetary policies and, as a certain French economist of the 19th century might say, “that which is unseen”.

The Federal Reserve and its army of statisticians can only (attempt to) calculate that which is priced in units of money. But that which is not priced in money (until it ends up as a psychotherapist or pharmaceutical bill, anyway) can not be calculated.

What kind of effect on national productivity must this be having with so many people so distracted and made anxious by volatility in the financial markets?

Even some 401(k) investors are getting more active. Before this week, Ryan Jones rarely monitored his investment accounts. Now the 30-year old advertising strategist checks his phone several times a day for market reports and devotes his lunch time to rejiggering his portfolio.

“I’m just a regular guy who started the month with a 401(K) balance, and am trying to make sure it’s still there next month,” he says.

I look at quotes like the one above as proof positive that the 401(K) is not as good a tax-reduced deal as it is marketed as, and especially not for all the “regular guys” trying to manage them on their own with limited allocation options, to boot.

There’s just no way for these people to manage their money intelligently in a 401(K). And yet again, it transforms every saver into a part-time stock analyst and investor. This is not where the average person’s comparative advantage is located. Seeing how widespread the 401(K)-miracle wealth thesis is, I’d even call it something of a mania. Rather than taking their savings and investing in something local, tangible and familiar, many people have learned to wish upon a stock market star, cast their savings into a 401(K) like a penny into a fountain and then attempt to patiently wait the duration of their professional career until they can all cash out easy millionaires and retire to Florida or wherever.

But for that reality to become a reality, someone has to do a lot of work in the meantime because, contrary to what people might’ve thought [amazon text=George S. Clayson was adovcating in his book&asin=1897384343], the money doesn’t multiply itself unaided. Do people really believe that they can unintelligently, haphazardly and especially as in present times, anxiously invest their money in the stock markets and thereby wind up rich by retirement?

Another confused “investor”:

Andrew Schrage, a 24-year-old website editor, shifted the allocations in his $50,000 portfolio, away from equities and further into bonds, selling some of his technology stocks on Tuesday after announcements by the Federal Reserve that the central bank planed to keep interest rates near zero.

Mr. Schrage, who lives in Chicago, says he is planning to plow the money back into stocks, but is waiting for the right opportunity.

“This volatility has forced me to adopt a day-trading mentality,” Mr. Schrage says.

Wrong. The volatility hasn’t forced you to do anything, Mr. Schrage. It is your adoption of the fallacious belief that volatility is risk that has forced you into an uncomfortable position where you suddenly find yourself daytrading to try to avoid it.

The language of this article is curious. This 24-year-old website editor has $50,000 of capital in a financial market portfolio. Does he have $50,000 of capital in his website business? It almost sounds like he is a 24-year-old financial trader, who does some website editing on the side.

I don’t mean to heap scorn on age but it is fascinating that this young man has managed, in only 24 years on this earth so far, to not only find time to educate himself on how to edit websites but also on how to watch the Fed and trade accordingly. And this is, yet again, demonstration of the principle that this activity is pseudo-economic. It is not connected to real economic activity and any derivatives thereof but rather is driven by the moves and anticipation of moves by the central bank.

This is a centrally-planned economy, with centrally-planned financial markets. The trouble for most people is that the central planning aspect is too subtle for them to notice, being obscured under numerous layers of propagandistic “this is free market capitalism” rhetoric.

Nearly finished:

Dan Nainan, a 30-year-old comedian, spent Tuesday in his New York office fixated by the market fluctuations, refreshing the screen on his online brokerage account every couple of minutes throughout the day. About a half-hour before the close of trading, Mr. Nanian sold $120,000 worth of his Apple stock. “I felt a tremendous sense of relief,” he says, “and I’m not buying again.”

In a choppy market like this one, a single lunch meeting or conference call that results in missed trading opportunities can translate into thousands of dollars in losses. Andrew Clark, a 30-year old, real-estate consultant in Birmingham, Ala., sold about half of his Apple Inc. stock on Monday morning after it opened 3.2% down. During a client meeting, he missed a brief rally when the stock went up 1.7%.

“I would have bought those back at that point,” Mr. Clark says. “If you aren’t glued to these movements, you miss so much.”

What other times and places have seen 30-year-old comedians with $120,000+ stock portfolios? These are interesting and unusual times.

Andrew Clark’s comment is instructive because he believes he knows what he has missed when he really hasn’t got a clue. He’s missed Ben Graham. He’s missed out on observing the impact of frequent trading commissions on his bottom line. He’s missed out on the fact that his whole investment strategy revolves, admittedly, around the sure-fire failure of selling low and buying high.

Millions of people like this are born in every generation. They have no way to learn their lessons except by experience. Even then, if their experiences aren’t severe and near-death enough, they’re prone to forget them. They drift idly around during their blissfully ignorant existences like gnats above the highway. If the macroeconomic conditions are just right and they’re presented with the opportunity, they’ll launch themselves straight into the windshield of a market panic and spend the rest of the cruise down the motorway of life wondering how they got there and bemoaning the loss of their more innocent days.

These are people who would probably do just fine managing their personal affairs in more humble, honest economic settings. That’s part of the true villainy of the Bernanke-ite economy, to tempt all these people with fleeting prosperity at the risk of utter ruin, and to do it all at the point of a gun.

After all, who would play these games and take this farcical economic structure seriously if they were free to leave at any time without threat of going to jail, or worse?

Here we arrive at the moral, and the conclusion.