Saturday, November 21, 2009

A New Religion

Two new branches in economics called behavioral economics and neuroeconomics attempt to explain the recent financial calamity. To explain briefly, the crisis is due to old thinking patterns that existed when man was living in the Stone Age. In other words, certain mental patterns or heuristics are hard wired in the brain and caused the bubbles and busts in the real estate and stock markets. These wrong patterns of though or inner bias are seen in overconfidence, herd mentality and knee jerk reactions to new information. These reside more in the intuitive process of making judgments than in rational thinking.

The burgeoning field of Neuroeconomics even uses brain scans to provide biological proof of these wrong thinking patters. One bias is called ‘money illusion’ where people underestimate inflation, for example or react against a financial loss rather than a gain even when the arrangement is similar. This field has provided undisputed evidence that man cannot be a true investor until he recognizes these erroneous mental patterns in his brain. Brain scans show areas in the brain that work when the so-called ‘money illusion’ occurs. But how does one explain the many successful stories of investors in the market? In one word: plain dumb LUCK.

A typical investment success is more attributable to luck than to inner ability. These ideas prove the point raised by the writer Nassim Taleb in his books like ‘The Black Swan’ wherein investment success is more due to luck rather than skill. Investing in the stock market or real estate for most people is actually like gambling in a casino due to this inner bias. But gambling may even provide better returns rather than investments. True financial geniuses like Warren Buffet or George Soros are those rare rational individuals who can logically assess an investment correctly. These people seem to possess characteristics of autistic individuals.

A lot of books write about the new economics. These books debunk the classic economic theories such as the efficient market theorem wherein people are rational investors rather than irrational fools which is the true reality. This irrationality impacts both the institutional lenders as well as the investing public. New theories abound such as the adaptive market hypotheses that try to bridge the new findings with the old. These new books are useful to read:

1. Your Money and Your Brain: How the New Science of Neuro-economics Can Help Make You Rich by Jason Zweig, 2007

2. The Mind of the Market by Michael Shermer, 2008

3. The Subprime Solution: How Today’s Global Financial Crisis Happened and What to do about it by Robert J. Shiller

4. Animal Spirits: How Human Psychology Drives the Economy and Why it Matters for Global Capitalism by George A. Akerlof and Robert J. Shiller

5. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Someday these new branch of economics may soon replace religion and spiritualism. After all, seekers of truth really try to find out more about themselves, to know who they really are, to find the truth and be free. Behavioral economics and neuro economics can soon provide the answers in the field of investing. Hence, you will know more about yourself by understanding these new theories rather than looking for a spiritual guru in India, for example. I guess this is as close as modern man can get to a new relevant religion. A religion for the moneyed class so to speak.

A new religion that is tied to the material life and how one can prosper in the affluent age. Where a true rational investor can be made after understanding the ‘hidden’ laws of neuro and behavioral economics. Of course, the spiritual founders or gurus of these new ways of thought are Warren Buffet or George Soros who have mastered themselves, surveyed the illiterate investor masses in the market and profited immensely. The annual meetings of Berkshire Hathaway can now be seen to be like a spiritual meeting, perhaps like Khumb Mela in India where masses of the investing public learn at the knee from an oracle or guru. Sometimes it takes a catastrophe like the recent financial mess to allow the truth to come out.

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