The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Nov 26, 2010

Investor Guff

I am never disappointed when a bunch of investment types are thrown into a room with a 'senior' figure of philosophical bent. They strive to outdo each other in demonsrating just how deeply they have thought about matters of economic and historical import. They ask five-minute long questions. They look around the room after their questions, less interested in the answer than in the admiring reactions of their peers. Above all, they try to show the guru that they are no less knowledgeable than he is, and if he says, 'That is a good point!' they look smugger than a successful mugger.

Invariably, of course, the questions are the sort that one often finds discussed just that week in the Financial Times or the Economist. There are few original thoughts in the world, and those among investment managers are less original than most.

And so it turned out at George Magnus's lunchtime talk the other day. He himself spoke only for about a quarter of an hour, and then opened the floor to debate. After the usual hesitant silence, the alpha males started talking at once. One (with a heavy accent) said, "Everyone believes that in the next few decades, China will be bigger than the US. Historically, no handover from one superpower to another has happened peacefully, or without serious geopolitical risk. In lieu of war, how do you see the transition from US to China?"

Magnus, and some of the others who jumped in, thought he had said 'in view of war', so they spent the next few minutes debating possible escalations of violence between the two countries.

When the discussion faltered to a halt, the fellow said, "I said 'in lieu of war'." Were there any bashful faces? No.

Magnus brought up the Washington Consensus, and how there appears to be a less well-defined Beijing Consensus, and another worthy piped up. "Who'd want to live under a Beijing Consensus? The US has always been a benign superpower, so the Washington Consensus totally makes sense."

I've not heard the US being called 'benign' by too many people, but the fun didn't end there. Another fellow jumped up. "Two million Vietnamese killed. 'Benign'? Now China - there's a civilisation that's not bellicose."

Amazingly, Magnus seconded that view. Clearly nobody thinks the view of the countries around the South China Sea, or Vietnam or India, or Korea, or even Russia, or Tibet, is worth anything. The Chinese are no less 'benign' than the US, if by 'benign' you mean 'kick 'em in the teeth.'

Of course it's true that while the US hegemony is constantly chafed under, and people like to bash the Americans as often as they like to drink Coke, they also like to run to the Americans for security every time someone else flexes their muscles.

(But I can barely understand why an economic idea such as the Washington Consensus was suddenly interpreted as US hard power.)

Someone else popped up with: "But George, how can we convert your compelling ideas into trades?" Well, as it happens, George was speaking in the long run, ten to twenty years out. Which investment manager has that kind of horizon? They'd just like to make money in the next couple of years before their luck turns.

There was more such guff, but I tuned out shortly thereafter.


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