Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Symbolic Interactionism & The Stock Market

Jason Zweig has written an excellent tribute to Jerry Goodman, better known as the financial writer "Adam Smith". He quotes Goodman writing in "The Money Game":

"A stock is, for all practical purposes, a piece of paper that sits in a bank vault. Most likely you will never see it. It may or may not have an Intrinsic Value; what it is worth on any given day depends on the confluence of buyers and sellers that day. The most important thing to realize is simplistic: The stock doesn’t know you own it. All those marvelous things, or those terrible things, that you feel about a stock, or a list of stocks, or an amount of money represented by a list of stocks, all of these things are unreciprocated by the stock or the group of stocks. You can be in love if you want to, but that piece of paper doesn’t love you, and unreciprocated love can turn into masochism, narcissism, or, even worse, market losses and unreciprocated hate."

This is a lovely bit of writing, and at the risk of ruining a powerful, direct paragraph, it captures the realities of a symbolic interactionist view of investing. Symbolic interactionism can be summarized in three points:

1) Humans act toward things on the basis of the meanings they ascribe to those things.
2) The meaning of such things is derived from, or arises out of, the social interaction that one has with others and the society.
3) These meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretative process used by the person in dealing with the things he/she encounters.

There are lots of alternative ways of viewing this interaction between an investor and his assets. I think it was Kindleberger (and not Minsky) who came up with the word "revulsion", capturing quite brilliantly the visceral aversion investors can feel in a downturn. The "equity risk premium" might sound like a nice, solid, finance-y concept, but behind it lies an ephemeral symbolic interactionism.

So, say what you want about art historyPresident Obama, but for my money (no pun intended), sociology remains an incredibly important discipline and lens for the real-world investor.

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