Constants and Change: Why you shouldn’t Ask Historians for Advice on the Stock Market.

Some time ago, a friend asked me, which themes and issues I — as a historian — see most significant in the near future.

We were then talking about investments and stock markets. Long term financial sustainability.

I then remembered a podcast by the U.S. think tank Council on Foreign Relations, where the author, a political scientist, elaborated on various issues that, due to their global character, would of major significance in the near future:

Climate change, epidemic diseases, terrorism, water, cyber security etc.

In retrospect, I feel bad for citing this answer.

Not only did it require minimal intelectual work from my part — I just repeated what speaker told me some time before —, I didn’t honestly answer his question, either.

He wanted my opinion as a historian. I did barely better than sending him a link to the podcast.

While I still have no own answer to his question, I can give you some reasons why a historian makes a bad advisor when it comes to stock market investments. Thats short-, mid-, or long-term if we keep in business slang vocabulary.

Short-term — for a historian that is years or decades — I would say, look for consistencies, meaning developments that go beyond presumed breaks and paradigm shifts.

Take the stock market crash in 1929. It didn’t mark the assent of German national socialism or the decent into another world war. It influenced both, but was based on a global development and had global consequences that went beyond Black Friday in both directions on the time axis.

If you were heavily invested into the stock marked, this assessment probably didn’t help you much. Not in 1929, nor in 2008. You just lost your money and some academic observing the (re-) emergence of populist politics cashing in on the consumers’ dissatisfaction does not bring your cash back.

What about long term then?

Say you want to make sure you can retire comfortably and give your (grand-)children the opportunity of higher education.

Well, if you are looking to secure your far future offsprings tuition fees, invest in change.

Buy shorts (although I’m never quite sure if I understand these correctly), bet on bankruptcies, expect major wars, and reorganisations of the the global geopolitical order.

Historically speaking (that is long-term in this case), things that you can invest in on the stock market don’t last very long.

Name three companies that were founded over a hundred years ago. Okay, well, two hundred now — think about your descendant who wants to go to college from the example above.

Didn’t think so.
(Some examples below)

Also, I personally think humanity still can’t look beyond the three generation horizon. We care about our grandchildren. Everything beyond — sadly — is not our problem.

So what about investing into more general ideas?

Progress? Modernity? Globalisation?

Well I got news for you. Historians started to contemplate if these concepts are cyclic, too (Osterhammel 2017).

Was that good advice?

I think it was an interesting discussion, but I probably won’t yield much dividends, at least financially.

Long story short, don’t trust a historian with your money.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  1. Bank of England (1695)
  2. Vacheron Constantin (Swiss watchmaker, 1755)
  3. Kongō Gumi Co., Ltd. (Japanese construction company founded in 578 and bought up in 2006; so close…)
    All curtesy of google.

 

 

Image: https://www.macrotrends.net/1319/dow-jones-100-year-historical-chart

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Change VS. Make America Great Again

Trump and Obama

Trump and Obama: Source: http://www.weeklystandard.com

“Trump and Obama are doing essentially the same thing.”

My 90-year-old landlord is convinced I should write my dissertation about Donald Trump. He says it would be “more interesting”. Fair enough.

Instead I’m “stuck” with Obama’s Middle Eastern policy. How he tried to extend his slogan of “Change” into that troubled region by promoting a “New Beginning”.

I marvel at questions like  these:
Why was there a new beginning needed?
How did the ‘new’ look like in the eyes of the charismatic 44th President of the United States?
And what on earth did he refer to as ‘old’? Bush? Clinton? Cold War diplomacy? The New Deal? Slavery?

Then it struck me, sipping my tea at the window and watching my landlord bring the trash bins to the street.

Trump is essentially doing the same thing!

Let that sink in.

The beloved champion of the free world that seduced Europe in his 2008 speech at the Brandenburg Gate.

And then what many on this side of the Atlantic consider an erratic Twitter lunatic on the who starts fires everywhere, and whose ego might as-well bring the end of humanity as we know it.

They are doing the same thing.

Making an un-great America great again or changing America for the better. Where is the difference? For Trump, the past is bad, of course. And for Obama? If everything was alright, there would be no need for change.

Two Presidents. Is this a pattern? Let’s have a look at some past slogans:

John Kerry (2004): Let America be America Again

George W. Bush (2000): Reformer With Results

Walter Mondale (1984) America Needs a Change

Jimmy Carter (1976) A Leader, For a Change

Gerald Ford (1976): He’s Making us Proud Again

Warren G. Harding (1920): Return to Normalcy

James Blaine (1884): Ma, Ma, Where’s my Pa, Gone to the White House, Ha, Ha, Ha

Alright the last one is an honorary mention, though it seems like politics were more fun back in the 19th century.
(Have a look: https://www.presidentsusa.net/campaignslogans.html)

The others all promote change in one way or the other. Promising their voters a departure from the current status quo, which of course is undesirable, seemed to be a common thing.

Just like Trump.

Just like Obama.

Like pretty much every other politician. They rarely promote the status quo.

Or would you vote for “Same old thing with Nils”?

No.

Change sells.

The present is never perfect, and future promises are easily made.

Politicians get votes and voters are inevitably disappointed.

But it wins elections.

Just like Trump.

Just like Obama.

The devil, of course, lies in the details.