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Warning: Your brain is killing America's capitalism

Date: Tuesday, November 3, 2009
Author: Paul B. Farrell, Marketwatch.com

Warning: The investor's brain is infected with a deadly disease. And like P.T. Barnum, Wall Street knows your brain's a sucker just waiting for any excuse to get back to playing their game at their casino by their rules.

Yes, you have a disease. Not swine-flu pandemic, but even more toxic -- to your financial health. Your brain's infected with the 800-year-old "this time is different syndrome." But unlike the swine flu, there's no cure, no shot to protect you from a pandemic. You're exposed.

And yes, Wall Street is taking advantage of you, adding new fees and higher commissions, siphoning off returns. They'll keep it up until the next crash, soon. Then they'll raid the Treasury again -- more bailouts, with your cash. And Congress will give the crooks trillions again, thanks to their lobbyists.

There's no cure. You have it. Congress has it. And with a recovery and a new bull primed to roar, Wall Street's dying to take advantage of your disease.

Want a professional diagnosis? Read "This Time Is Different: Eight Centuries of Financial Folly" by economists Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff. "The best empirical investigation of financial crises ever published," says Harvard's Niall Ferguson, author of "The Ascent of Money." But it's more than just a history of 800 years of never-ending, self-destructive bull/bear, boom/bust cycles.

"This Time Is Different" is the single best book on behavioral economics out there today. Why? Because it exposes a toxic dark side of behavioral economics, behavioral finance, neuroeconomics, investment psychology and the "new behavioral science of irrationality." "This Time Is Different" exposes a secret other behavioral economics best-sellers are in total denial about: Thaler and Sunstein's "Nudge," Ariely's "Predictably Irrational," Shiller and Akeroff's "Animal Spirits" and Zweig's "Your Money & Your Brain." Here's why.

The false and misleading promise of behavioral economists

First off: You have to understand why other behavioral economics books are misleading you back into an old Wall Street trap. They all have an implied promise that's not only misleading but also toxic in the investor's brain. Their promise: "If you follow our advice, your irrational brain will become 'less irrational,' more rational, even make you rich." This promise is dangerous and will cost you dearly.

This promise harks back to Wall Street's two-centuries-old theory of the "rational investor." Psychologist Daniel Kahneman's, the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economics, killed that theory. He proved the investor's decision-making is irrational. Unfortunately, the new behavioral economists are unwittingly reversing everything gained by Kahneman.

Look closely: You'll see how behavioral economists are reviving Wall Street's toxic message in every one of their books, with implied promises to make American investors more rational again. And as you'll see later, that's just another symptom of your brain's "this time is different" disease:

  • "Your Money & Your Brain" boldly promises that "new science of neuroeconomics can help make you rich." Yes, rich. That sounds great in bull markets. Like when the book was published in 2007 and the Dow was pushing 14,000. But today, since Wall Street's lost $10 trillion of our money, we just want to hang on, as we watch the too-greedy-to-fail fools running Wall Street banks race back into the same old high-risk gambling games, like high-frequency trading, that are destined to lose another $10 trillion, wipe out Main Street again, and trigger the "Great Depression 2."

  • "Nudge's" subtitle promises that if you trust their strategies you'll be "Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness." Warning: That'll last just as long as Sunstein's on the White House payroll. Then forget it. Even his co-author Thaler sees danger in mixing behavioral scientists with politicians: "Our goal is to give benevolent nudgers an instruction manual. The evil nudgers have already mastered most of these tools" of behavioral economics. Get it? The bad guys (GOP?) not only use the same behavioral "weapons" as the good guys, they've mastered them. For example, the "evil nudgers" are already killing health-care reforms. And someday they'll win, control Washington again. Then who's "benevolent?" Who's an "evil" nudger?

  • "Predictably Irrational" is a bit more realistic. "Not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day, but we make the same types of mistakes," overpaying, underestimating and procrastinating. Because "we fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions" that sabotage our decisions. But unfortunately, like all other behavioral economic books, there's some obligatory hype; A claim that the book will help you "break through systematic patterns of thought to make better decisions ... change the way you interact with the world." A "predictably irrational" false promise.

  • "Animal Spirits" is more partisan politics than objective science, claims that behavioral economics can correct the past three decades of Reaganomics. But then it makes a dangerous leap of faith using the same faulty logic: Leaping from "powerful psychological forces are imperiling the wealth of nations today" to "the necessity of an active government role" (Dems?) to manage America's out-of-control "animal spirits." The Keynes/Friedman debate aside, "Animal Spirits'" formula of adding behavioral economics to Keynesian economics and concluding that the two will improve democracy sounds too much like political hype. Worse, these behavioral economists are making wild assumptions that government leaders will become more rational and moral when they discover the wisdom in the behavioral economists' books. Unfortunately, that's not only incredibly nave, it's "predictably irrational."

Now here's the second and more important reason "This Time Is Different" is the single best behavioral economics book on the market today. Very simple: It has no illusions that our "this time is different" disease can be cured. It makes no misleading pie-in-the-sky promises. And there's not even a hint that the global disease will be cured. Other behavioral economists' books are misleading, promising a cure -- which only proves their brains are also infected with the disease. There is no cure.

800 years of history: 'This Time It's Never Different'

Economic growth-recession cycles and bull-bear market cycles will never end. They're as natural and as inevitable as spring following winter. Nobody can stop America's endless economic, market, financial and business cycles with all their manic insanity.

Moreover, Wall Street does not want behavioral economics to help Main Street investors. Why? Because if those promises really worked, if investors wised up to the con game, Wall Street couldn't get rich siphoning off a third of Main Street's investment returns.

The disease is that deadly. And it will continue infecting investor's brains everywhere for the next 800 years. Here's how Reinhart and Rogoff explain the global impact of this deadly disease:

"This Time Is Different" is a "quantative history of financial crises in their various guises. Our message is simple: We have been here before. No matter how different the latest financial frenzy or crisis always appears, there are usually remarkable similarities from past experience from other countries and from history."

And "no country, irrespective of its global importance, appears to be immune to it. The fading memories of borrowers and lenders, policy makers and academics, and the public at large do not seem to improve over time, so the policy lessons on how to 'avoid' the next blow-up are at best limited."

"The essence of the 'this time is different' syndrome is simple. It is rooted in the firmly held belief that financial crises are things that happen to other people in other countries at other times; crises do not happen to us, here and now. We are doing things better, we are smarter, we have learned from past mistakes. The old rules of valuation no longer apply."

"The current boom, unlike the many booms that preceded catastrophic collapses in the past (even in our country), is built of sound fundamentals, structural reforms, technological innovation and good policy. Or so the story goes." Similar self-delusional "stories" guarantee the cycle will perpetuate ad infinitum.

"The lesson of history, then, is that even as institutions and policy makers improve there will always be a temptation to stretch the limits. Just as an individual can go bankrupt no matter how rich she starts out, a financial system can collapse under the pressure of greed, politics and profits no matter how well-regulated it seems to be. ... Technology has changed ... but the ability of governments and investors to delude themselves, giving rise to periodic bouts of euphoria that usually ends in tears, seems to have remained a constant."

"If there is one common theme to the vast range of crises ... it is that, excessive debt accumulation, whether it be by the government, banks, corporations, or consumers, often poses greater systemic risks than it seems during a boom. ... Highly indebted governments, banks, or corporations can seem to be merrily rolling along for an extended period, when bang -- confidence collapses, lenders disappear and a crisis hits. ... Highly leveraged economies ... seldom survive forever ... history does point to warnings signs that policy makers can look to access risk -- if only that do not become too drunk with their credit bubble-fueled success and say, as their predecessors have for centuries, 'this time is different'."

Unfortunately, even the best-and-brightest get "too drunk." Remember Greenspan, Paulson, Bernanke, now Summer and Geithner.

Bottom line: "This Time Is Different" should be in every investor's library, it's the best reminder of behavioral economics truths and the best chronicle of eight centuries of financial history. Other behavioral finance books will mislead you with their self-help pop-psychology promises of a cure. But bull-bear cycles are natural and inevitable, and you are vulnerable. Unfortunately, the book also warns that over the long-haul "This Time Is Different' disease is also sabotaging capitalism, damaging America's role in the world, and killing your retirement.