When we talk about the global financial crisis, one question that pops up in lots of people’s heads is about where the money went. Since every trade involves two parties, it is argued that every loser has a corresponding winner, and that most commentary about the global financial crisis (of 2008) doesn’t talk about these winners. Everyone knows about the havoc that the crisis caused when prices went down (rather suddenly). The havoc that the crisis caused when prices initially went up (rather slowly) is less well documented.
The reason winners don’t get too much footage is that firstly, they are widely distributed, and secondly they spent away all their money. Think about a stock or a CDO or a bond being a like a parcel that you play by passing the parcel. The only thing is that every time you receive the parcel, you make a payment, and then pass on the parcel after receiving a higher payment. Finally, when the whistle blows, one person has the parcel in his hand, and it explodes in his face, ruining him. We know enough about people like this. A large number of banks lost a lot of money holding parcels when the whistle blew. Some went bust, while others had to be bailed out by governments. We know enough of this story so I don’t need to repeat here.
What is interesting is about the winners. Every person who held the parcel for a small amount of time was a winner, albeit a small winner. There were several such winners, each of whom “won” a small amount of money, and spent it (remember that the asset bubble in the early noughties was responsible for increasing consumption among common people). This spending increased demand for various goods and services produced in several countries. This increasing demand led to greater investment in the production facilities of these goods and services. Apart from that, they also increased expectations of growth in demand of these goods.
The damage the crisis did on the way up was to skew expectations of growth in different sectors, thus skewing investment (both in terms of financial and human capital). The spending caused by “small wins” for consumers put in place unreasonable expectations, and by the time it was known that this increased demand came as a result of an asset bubble, a lot of capital had been committed. And this would create imbalances in the “real economy”.
Yes, the asset bubble of the last decade did produce winners. The winners begat more winners (people whose goods and services were bought). However the skewed expectations that the wins created were to cause damage in the longer term. Unfortunately, I don’t see this story being told adequately, when the financial crisis is being talked about. After all, the losers are more spectacular.
The basic idea of this post is that interpersonal relationships (not necessarily romantic) need to be treated as balance sheets and not as P&L statements, i.e. one should always judge based on the overall all-time aggregate rather than the last incremental change in situation.
Just to give you a quick overview of accounting, the annual statement typically has two major components – the P&L statement which reflects what happened between the last release of the statement and the currrent point, and the balance sheet which reflects the position of the company at the point of time of release of the statement.
I think Bryan Caplan had made this point in one of his posts, but I’m not able to find it and hence not able to link it. The point is that you should look at relationships on a wholesome basis, and not just judge it based on the last action. The whole point is that there is volatility (what we refer to in my office as “the dW term”) and so there are obviously going to be time periods during which you record a loss. And if on each of these occasions you were to take your next course of action based on this loss alone, you are likely to be the loser.
I’m not saying that you should ignore the loss-making periods and just move on. You do need to introspect and figure out what you need to do in the next accounting period in order to prevent this kind of a loss from repeating. You will need to “work the loss”, not make a judgment to break the relationship based on it. I think a large part of the problems in this world (yeah, here goes another grand plan) stems from people using one-period losses in order to take judgments on relationships.
Another thing is not to generate the accounting statements on a shorter time period. This is similar to one funda I’d put long ago about how you shouldn’t review your investments at extremely short intervals since that will lead to a domination of the volatility term (dW) and thus cause unnecessary headache. You might notice that corporates rarely release their accounts statements more frequently than once a quarter – this has more to do with volatility than with the difficulty in generating these statements.It is similar in the case of interpersonal relationships. Don’t judge too often – the noise term will end up dominating.
One caveat though – very occasionally the last loss may be so bad that it more than wipes out the balance sheet and takes to zero (or even less) the value of the firm. In that kind of a situation, there is no option but to shut down the firm (or break the relationship) and move on. Once again, however, the clincher in the decision to break up has to be the balance sheet which has gone to zero (or negative) and not just simply the magnitude of the last loss.
Life based on a balance sheet view is a balanced life.