I have recently started to read the work of Ben Hunt at Epsilon Theory. His ideas are interesting in that he examines markets from a behavioral economics perspective, with ample doses of game theory and history, a combination that few people can bring to the table. (In a random but pleasant development, I will get to have lunch with him next week in Dallas when he visits my town. I look forward to it.)
I have read this piece twice and expect to look at it a few more times. He leads off with some interesting thoughts on the role and significance of sweeping social narratives, and in particular the "Narrative of Gold," but there is more than thinking on gold in today’s Outside the Box. Pure gold bugs will be annoyed, but since I am neither gold bug nor pure, I find this a very useful essay. A small taste –
The source of gold’s meaning, whether you are a market participant in 1895 or 2013, comes from the Common Knowledge regarding gold. J.P. Morgan said that gold is money, and he was right, but only because at the time he said it everyone believed that everyone believed that gold is money. Today that same statement is wrong, but only because no one believes that everyone believes that gold is money….
To market participants in 2013 gold means lack of confidence in money, and their behavior in buying and selling gold similarly reflects this meaning. Buying gold today is a statement that you believe that global economic events may spiral out of the control of Central Bankers. It is insurance against some sort of massive monetary policy mistake that cannot be fixed without re-conceptualizing the global economic regime – hyperinflation in a developed nation, the collapse of the Euro, something like that – not an expression of a commonly shared belief in some inherent value of gold.
Thus the Narrative of Gold is still significant, but mostly in contrast to the narrative that has assumed primacy today: the Narrative of Central Banker Omnipotence. Like all effective narratives, says Ben, this one is simple: central bank policy will determine market outcomes.
Then Ben makes a crucial point:
You may privately believe that J.P. Morgan is still right, that gold has meaning as a store of value. But if you participate in the market on the basis of that belief, then you will buy and sell gold in an incredibly inefficient manner. You would be a smart gold investor in 1895, but a poor gold investor today.
This is some of the best, most fundamental thinking about gold that I have seen. But Ben's thesis is larger than that. He wants to understand the manner in which historical correlations and correlation-based investment strategies come under tremendous stress in markets undergoing structural change. "I get VERY nervous," he says,
when I am told that … a socially constructed behavior such as the assignment of value to highly symbolic securities is "timeless and universal", particularly when the composition and preference functions of major market participants are clearly shifting, particularly when monetary policy is both massively sized and highly experimental, particularly when political fragmentation is rampant within and between every nation on earth.
How Gold Lost Its Luster, How the All-Weather Fund Got Wet, and Other Just-So StoriesBy Ben Hunt
"Gold is money. Everything else is credit."
– John Pierpont Morgan
"The relationships of asset performance to growth and inflation are reliable – indeed, timeless and universal – and knowable, rooted in the durations and sources of variability of the assets' cash flows."
– Bob Prince, Co-Chief Investment Officer, Bridgewater Associates
Like every middle-aged white guy I know, I am a big fan of Rudyard Kipling. I grew up on his Just-So Stories and as an adult found that his novels and poems spoke to me, as they did to my father and his father before that. Kipling writes simply, directly, and evocatively. Whether it's a poem, a short story, or a novel, the man knows how to tell a story. He was the youngest winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (as well as the first English-language recipient), and after a too-long period of disfavor in the academy he now enjoys a well-deserved renaissance of interest and acclaim.
Continue reading here.