Give me only good news!

We believe firmly in something that just ain’t so, and by a convincing amount

“It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble.
It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so”
— Mark Twain

It takes little experience in the investment business to realise that investors prefer good news. As a bear in the bull market of 1999 I was banned from an institution’s building as being “dangerously persuasive and totally wrong!” The investment industry also has a great incentive to encourage this optimistic bias, for little money would be made if the market ticked slowly upwards. Five steps forward and two back are far more profitable.

Similarly, we environmentalists were shocked to realise how profoundly the general public preferred to believe good news on our climate, even if it meant disregarding the National Academies of the world. The fossil fuel industry, not surprisingly, encouraged this positive attitude. They had billions of dollars to protect. If the realistic information were to be widely believed, most of their assets would be stranded.

When dealing with realistic limits to growth it is also obvious how reluctant everyone is to accept the natural mathematical limits: There simply cannot be compound growth in a finite world. A modest 1% growth compounded for the 3,000 years of ancient Egypt’s population would have multiplied its economic output by nine trillion times! Yet, the improbability of feeding ten billion or so global inhabitants in 50 years is shrugged off with ease. And the entire economic and political system appears eager to encourage optimism on resources for it is completely wedded to the virtues of quantitative growth forever.

Hard realities in these three fields are inconvenient for vested interests and because the day of reckoning can always be seen as “later,” politicians can always find a way to postpone necessary actions, as can we all: “Because markets are efficient, these high prices must be reflecting the remarkable potential of the internet”; “the U.S. housing market largely reflects a strong U.S. economy”; “the climate has always changed”; “how could mere mortals change something as immense as the weather”; “we have nearly infinite resources, it is only a question of price”; “the infinite capacity of the human brain will always solve our problems.”

Having realised the seriousness of this bias over the last few decades, I have noticed how hard it is to effectively pass on a warning for the same reason: No one wants to hear this bad news. So a while ago I came up with a list of propositions that are widely accepted by an educated business audience. They are widely accepted but totally wrong. It is my attempt to bring home how extreme is our preference for good news over accurate news. When you have run through this list you may be a little more aware of how dangerous our wishful thinking can be in investing and in the much more important fields of resource (especially food) limitations and the potentially life-threatening risks of climate damage. Wishful thinking and denial of unpleasant facts are simply not survival characteristics.

This is an excerpt from Jeremy Grantham's 3Q2015 GMO quarterly letter, you can read the full version here

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