The month of August has so far been a repeated drumming for global markets. Falling oil prices, the devalued yuan and a collapsing Chinese stock market have people running scared, and if we’re totally honest it’s probably too soon to know what it really happening as easily panicked sellers jump the gun.
Instead I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the fall of the BRICs, the supposed new economies of the developing world. Back in 2003, two Goldman Sachs analysts wrote a paper called “Dreaming With BRICs: The Path to 2050” which made a convincing case that Brazil, Russia, India and China would grow substantially over the next half century. For a while that seemed true, and the few BRIC mutual funds available returned solid results to investors who bought the BRIC story.
Today much of that story sits in tatters. Russia is more regional gangster than growing economic power, a victim of its own pointless efforts to reestablish hegemonic influence and maybe even undo NATO. Brazil is a longer story, but financial mismanagement has largely undermined Brazil’s early 21st century economic kick start, leaving interest rates too high and an economy on a path to recession. India is perhaps the only country that sits separate from this mess, but as a democracy (one mired in corruption no less) it’s own worst enemy is often protectionist populism that threatens to undo it’s own promise.
But with the Chinese economy heading for what looks to be a potentially prolonged slow down (or worse) it seems safe to say that we’ve lost the path to 2050 and aren’t in danger of finding it anytime soon. This is a useful reminder that predictions about the futures of markets, no matter how grounded in math they may be, are in fact almost always misguided. That may seem obvious with much of the recent history a testament to predictions gone wrong, but it is surprisingly easy to be sold on investment ideas that seem to be an inevitable certainty.
There are a multitude of reasons for this, not the least of which is the human defect to see patterns in randomness. Attempts to control and manage huge events; to understand, tame and control random elements of nature is the underpinning of almost every story of hubristic arrogance that leads to tragedy, both literary and literal. Whether we are watching a history of the Titanic, or Alan Greenspan testifying to the benefits of derivative markets, there is always an iceberg somewhere threatening to make a mockery of our certainty.
I’m of the opinion that there may be somethings simply to complex to be fully understood. That shouldn’t mean we shy away from complicated markets, rather we should be mindful about the risks of participating. After all, the Titanic sunk largely as a result of the assumption it could not. But people had been sailing across the ocean for centuries with considerably greater danger. That’s a useful reminder about investing. Good investment strategies don’t seek out perfect investments, ones that cannot be undone by bad markets, instead they assume that markets are filled with risks and aim to navigate the dangers.