Inflating the Enemy's Power: The Status Explanation

In the last post I mentioned some interesting research about the psychological tendency to fixate on enemies, inflate their powers and imagine that they are behind most of our problems.

There is an obvious status explanation for these phenomena.  Admitting that you are struggling against the chaos of life can appear as very low status since each aspect of the chaos is generally some minor obstacle that by itself should not be much of a problem. However, if the problems are all caused by a great enemy plotting against us then it is higher status both because the powerful enemy decided to focus on us and because the problems are not a combination of minor issues.  Even if this was only going on inside a single person's head (as opposed to being a constant theme of the media and blogosphere), lying to others starts with self deception.

The Asian Distraction

New research supports the notion that we fixate on enemies, and inflate their power, as a defense mechanism against generalized anxiety.

This provides another interpretation for why some people believed that Japan in the late 1980's and early 1990’s might take over the world.

A research team led by social psychologist Daniel Sullivan of the University of Kansas reports on four studies that suggest people are “motivated to create and/or perpetually maintain clear enemies to avoid psychological confrontations with an even more threatening chaotic environment.”

Without the threat of the Soviet Union, the American public had to focus on something to take its place.  After Japan’s spent two decades without significant economic growth, growing government debt and an aging population they are no longer much of a bogeyman. The next bogeyman is China, as people now believe that China is going to eventually take over the world.  China’s growing economy is competing with America’s economy on numerous levels, but the areas where the US is struggling are caused more by structural problems inherent in the US economy than the emergence of China’s economy from poverty.  If there is a tendency is to inflate the enemy's power, that would explain why a large fraction of people are apparently blind to the unsustainable high levels of government driven investment fueling China's current growth. They just figure that China has a long term plan that they will have no trouble bringing about. The article elaborates on the conditions causing this tendency.

Those who were forced to contemplate their lack of control over significant life events “reported a stronger belief in opponent-led conspiracies,” the researchers report.

This can explain why protectionism with regards to China might get more popular the worse unemployment becomes.  If it is seen as a way to thwart China’s plans, it can very easily become popular with an American population worried about keeping their jobs.

In our third study, we showed that if people perceived the broader social system as ordered, they were more likely to respond to a threat to personal control by boosting their faith in the government, rather than by attributing more influence to an enemy.

So if the government solution to a perceived problem is protectionism, this will solve the problem for both types of people worried about their personal control.  Too bad this won't solve any of our real problems and will make the economic situation even worse. 

HT: Marginal Revolution

Gold's Relative Tax Rate

Considering the implications of the last post, I thought some data would be helpful. Remember, the government doesn’t see gold as an investment but as a collectible.

Source: Tax Foundation

When capital gains taxes were cut for most financial assets other than gold, gold underperformed the market, although the subsequent maneuverings of the twelve to 18 month capital gains tax rate had less clear effects:

The effects of the next relative tax cut for the market and gold is unclear, as it happened during a time period when central bankers were still mildly worried about deflation. Bernanke’s helicopter speech was only 6 months before. The dollar had been falling for a year, and would continuing falling for a year and half more. In an environment like that even an increasing tax disadvantage can get overwhelmed pretty quickly.

In general, it is rather difficult for a casual look back to accurately the determine market impact. There is a lot of noise preventing the market watcher from knowing what is being priced in at any one moment. Looking at past news stories, unless the story is about a specific announcement, would only help in the rare cases where the financial journalist knows what they were talking about.  In these cases, falling back on theory is probably the best approach.  When the opportunity cost of holding an investment has decreased, then when all other things are held constant it becomes a more attractive investment.  Whether this is already priced in and whether this signal is greater than the general noise of the market are the next two questions.

The tax hike and the anti-investment

It is important to note that gold isn’t going to be impacted by the upcoming change in the capital gains tax rate. Gold is already taxed more than other assets because under current tax law gold is a collectible. The capital gains tax on collectibles is 28%, 13% higher than the current tax rate of other assets. With a hike in the capital gains tax rate from 15% to 20% at the end of 2010 this spread decreases to 8%.  If the healthcare bill passes the senate and the house in its currently proposed form then this spread will be reduced even further at the end of 2011.

Gold has always been one of the closest things to an anti-investment; people invest more in gold when they aren’t sure that other investments are a good way to preserve their capital. The current trend in policy of taxing other forms of investment more while not taxing collectibles at a higher rate is only going to make the anti-investment look relatively more attractive.

This Gold/S&P 500 chart helps put the relative performance of gold and equities (unadjusted for dividends) in historical context. Gold’s best relative performance occurred during the deflationary crash of 1929 and the inflationary scare of the 1970’s.

Source: Palantir Finance

Digging Deeper into the Household Situation

In my last post, I mentioned that the lack of children might be a signal that society isn’t looking forward to the future.  There are a few problems with this, mainly that as societies become richer they naturally have more children. This inclination isn’t because people aren’t focused on the future, but because wealthier societies have children that are more likely to survive they don’t need to have that many. On top of that, each child requires greater investment in education so in an advanced society increased investment in fewer children looks like a better strategy than less investment in more children.  With birth control, families are able to make that choice.  So less children per household wouldn’t be a signal of a hyper-present oriented society, but less children overall would still be suggestive.  If less people have children then the pleas to “think of the children” will be more likely to fall of deaf ears.  Data from the U.S. Census Bureau is helpful in digging deeper into these questions.

As mentioned above, the people per household and family have shrunk over time.

Looking at the breakdown of household sizes, this gradual decrease is due to the disappearance of large families and the emergence of the single person household.

In order to determine whether the one person households have been increasing purely due to an aging population, the breakdown in one person households by gender is informative.  If the trend is age driven, single female households should be increasing at a rate much higher than single male households due to the greater female life expectancy.  This is not actually the case, so the increase in single person households is likely preference driven.

The preference for single households increases the nonfamily households as a percent of total households.


Non-family households have increased even faster than the percent of one person households.  This may be due to an increased preference of cohabitation over marriage or due to a rising economic necessity for people to have roommates.

It isn’t just nonfamily households that are saving money on rent, a larger percentage of married households than before do not have their own household. These households are most likely living in the house of one of their parents. In bad economic times, this trend is likely to continue.

Even though household sizes have remained relatively constant, families with young children have also decreased as a percent of the total. This is due to both to the aging of the population as well as a decrease in the propensity of the average couple to have children.

Overall, it does look like the decrease in children in our society is due both the decrease in family size and the increasing prevalence of one person households.  The decrease in family size may be a reallocation of investment, but the decision not to have children is more likely to be both a cause and a symptom of present oriented behavior.  

Another Way to Measure Time Preference

The time preference of a society is important to understand because if there isn’t much future oriented activity, then the future is going to be worse than the present.  There are many ways to look at the time preference of a population. The rate of interest, the savings rate, survey data, or even trying to gauge the propensity of the population to engage in short term unproductive activities.  Some people point to the obesity rate as a measure of inability of the average American to think about the future.  One interesting and underappreciated method of looking at the time preference of society as a whole is to see how many people have life expectancies lower than twenty years. Life expectancy is a better measure than pure age because an aging healthy population is more likely to look to the future than a young population that dies early. The population data was taken from the UN World Population Prospects 2008 database* and the life expectancy data is from U.S. Decennial Life Tables at the US Census Bureau. For the life expectancy data, I used basic linear interpolations and projections to create estimates of life expectancy in 2010 and 2030 and created the following chart.

If people with kids are more future oriented than people without children, then the situation is actually much worse than it appears. The below chart doesn’t adjust for the change in average household size, but it does show that the amount of children in society is dropping.


By both of these metrics and assuming that there isn’t any breakthrough in life extension technology in the near term, the U.S. is going to become more short term oriented in the future. On a demographic basis, the US is in a better position than Japan and much or Europe, so the problems there can be assumed to be even more severe. Compared to Europe, the US even has a higher life expectancy after the age of 65. The pattern of developed countries using short term solutions that only address the symptoms of actual long term problems is going to get worse. 


* The population data has age groups in 5 year increments, and when the cut off for 20 year life expectancy was between these 5 year increments it was assumed that each year contained one fifth of the total in that age group in order to simplify the calculations. Voting age was assumed to be twenty and up to both simplify the calculation and to partially adjust for the lack of participation of younger voters.

Irresponsible investors

These investors think that they are backstopped by the American people.  Having found themselves in a bad position, these investors are shifting their assets into riskier assets knowing that if they screw up someone else will pick up the bill. Nope, I'm not talking about wall street banks, but public pension funds. As the New York Times states:

But states and other bodies of government are seeking higher returns for their pension funds, to make up for ground lost in the last couple of years and to pay all the benefits promised to present and future retirees. Higher returns come with more risk.

Meanwhile, more and more corporations have been moving their assets into safer assets.  On top of that, these pension plans have very optimistic return expectations.

Most have been assuming their investments will pay 8 percent a year on average, over the long term. This is based on an assumption that stocks will pay 9.5 percent on average, and bonds will pay about 5.75 percent, in roughly a 60-40 mix.

Considering the current valuation of the market and the outlook for GDP growth, 9.5% equity return expectations are quite unrealistic. They'll be lucky to get 5%. But it's okay, the people living in these municipality will pay for the rest.

Is it a stock picker's market?

The below chart shows the average 60 day correlation of equities within four different sectors. It looks like many of the sectors are reacting to company specific news again, not just news about the business cycle.  If correlations stay low, this is good news for stock pickers who can try and pick the outperforming stocks instead of having their particular stock act like every other stock in the market.

Source: Palantir Finance

However, if there is a downturn in the market then correlations between equities will jump. This is because of data sampling issues – even if two assets are driven by the same major underlying trends, they won’t move together unless the major trend is changing. One way to look at this effect is to look at the correlation between the stock market indices for the United Kingdom and Japan.

Weekly returns of UK’s FTSE vs. Japan’s Nikkei when the VIX, the stock market volatility index of the US’s S&P 500 market, is under 20. When things are calm in the world the correlation is rather low at 0.29.

Weekly returns of UK’s FTSE vs. Japan’s Nikkei when the VIX is over 20. When the VIX is over 20, signaling that the US market is adjusting to a significant information flow, then the correlation between these two markets is much higher at 0.52.  In more volatile time periods, stocks and stock markets are more likely to be reacting to the same information so their correlations are going to be higher.

Source: Palantir Finance

Right now, the VIX is a bit under 18, helping explain why correlations are low again.  In a market downturn, stock pickers will be hit with the double whammy of falling prices and a smaller diversification effect. Stock pickers can partially avoid this problem by picking lower beta stocks which have tended to outperform in the long run due to their relatively strong performance during downturns, but then they would be missing out on a lot of the returns of the recent rally.

Thin Tails... relative to the hype

A lot of people think that this last recession was caused by fat tails in the market. When they think of the market, they are generally thinking about a stock market like the Dow Jones Industrial Average or the S&P 500.  Fat tails refers to a distribution of returns with more extreme points than suggested by a simplistic approach that only looks at the standard deviation and assumes a normal distribution.  The below chart shows the kurtosis (The higher the kurtosis, the fatter the tail) and volatility of the S&P 500 market over the past 80 years. Click on the chart to enlarge.

Source: Palantir Finance

It is interesting to note that the returns of the S&P 500 during the downturn didn’t have fatter tails than past market meltdowns. While it is true that deleveraging and liquidity events caused some positions popular with leveraged quantitative funds to all move in the same direction and models with uncorrelated and always rising house prices banks used to asses their risk were quite unrealistic, the popular myth that quants just didn’t understand that general market returns are not normally distributed is not true on many different levels.

Correlations between Greece and California

They each have tax receipts that vary with the economy along with fixed expenditures. The recent downturn has made their expenditures far higher than their receipts. Neither California nor Greece have control of their money supply, so printing money is not a solution.  Both live in a union where capable workers can easily leave, so raising taxes won't help much either.  Therefore, they have to make cuts.  This leads people on the receiving end of cuts in each area to periodically riot in protest of realityMegan McArdle's comments on the California students can be equally applied to government workers in Greece.
...I'm not sure what they think is supposed to happen.  There's no money.  This is not some question of reallocating resources from bad uses to good--everything is being cut because their institutions are under serious financial duress.
California is a little bit better off than Greece, at least they weren't caught lying about their finances.