The Inherent Conundrum of Operant Behavior
Thoughts, wanderings and questions. Often contradictory, but almost always within the shroud of my world.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Politics. Religion. Sex. Race. 
Got your attention. Suddenly you're interested.
If if that didn't get your attention, you must be in denial.

Politics, religion, sex and race. All things you are never supposed to discuss with people you have only known a short while. But these are the only things that pique peoples' interest.

Oh sure, you can talk about that great fishing trip and the one that got away, or how nice the leaves look this time of year, but people just won't be interested. They may try to look interested, but will really be trying to get out the door.

Irony. Isn't it grand?

But that's just it. We are all so trained to 'make a nice first impression', that what we really make is no impression at all. In order to make an impression, you've got to talk about Politics, Religion, Race or Sex. You may offend someone, or be offended yourself, but at least the conversation will be interesting.

But alas, I struggle with talking about these things with strangers, and that whole first impression thing.
So one day, one day I'll break out of the chains.
That's right one of these days, I'm going to walk up to someone and declare,
"Hi, I'm a transgender, racially diverse lawyer looking for a new religion. I'm also running for public office... can I count on your vote?"


Thursday, November 03, 2005

Blame the Analysts 
A lot of problems in the U.S. stem from a faceless horde of mystical people called "market analysts". And by that, I mean all those people who determine the price of stocks, bonds, funds, futures, etc.

It's a myth that the buyer and seller determine the price. It's really the market analyst. And to be fair, it is a natural progression. The number and complexities of the markets have grown so diverse that the buyer and seller wouldn't know where to start on setting a fair price. Enter the "Professional". The analyst is a specialist, doing all the number crunching, pouring over financial statements, setting benchmarks, and really knowing their segment of the market. They know it so well in fact, that they think they know what will happen to the market before it happens. For example, they expect X company to post 17-21% gains over last quarter. And sure enough, X company posts a 19% gain.

But there is an evil side to this set-up. The analysts have way too much power, and almost no accountability. And the most insidious thing about this is the tendency of "self-fulfilling prophecy".

What first brought my attention to this was the Enron fiasco. First, I'll concede that yes, the company may have been headed for seriously troubled waters, and yes, there were greedy people at the top (as well as through-out the company). But on the other side of the coin is a list far more impressive: The talent at that company was astounding. Not only were they some of the brightest, most innovative people on the planet, they believed in the company as well. Forget hindsight. If you are a smart person, surrounded by smart people doing smart things, inside a company with stellar performance, you too would believe there was very good future ahead.

But the company never had a chance. While most companies that are headed for a fall have time to clean house, start new initiatives, and generally weather the storms, Enron didn't.

Why? The analysts killed the company.

At the first sign of trouble, the CEO didn't find a scape-goat, didn't immediately blame him for all ills, and above all, didn't demand his resignation. After all, at this point, the first signs of controversy were just beginning to surface. But the analysts have the knee-jerk reaction of lowering what the stock is worth. The market reacts like a bungee cord and drives down the stock even further. The stock analysts see the trend of the stock plummeting, don't see a manufactured scape-goat and perpetuate the cycle.

Now the Bond analysts jump in with their wisdom. The stock is no longer worth what is was, so naturally the company isn't worth what it was, so they decide to downgrade the credit standing. The stock analysts see this as a bad omen, and further devalue the stock. This vicious cycle continues until the company's credit gets so low that it triggers loans to be immediately due. Well once the loans are called by the bank, and naturally the company doesn't have the cash on hand, the downward spiral of bond and stock prices picks up tremendous speed, until bankruptcy is the natural conclusion.

And that is self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fast forward to today. A year ago, gas prices were hovering around $1.50/gallon. In the last few months, they have gone well over the $3.00 mark, and are now hovering in the $2.50 range. So who is to blame for the outlandish prices? If you listen to the media and 90% of the public, it's the hurricane's, emerging markets, but mostly, the gas companies. And yes, all those are factors, but equally at fault, if not more so, are all those analysts setting the prices.

By nature, all markets are considered to be futures markets. You buy a stock thinking it will be worth more tomorrow than it is today. So really, for you to purchase a stock, the price must be undervalued. Everyone else has the same attitude, they just may not agree with you on the price of that stock. So since everyone else has the same attitude, the stock market reflects not today's conditions, but tomorrow's predicted conditions. An example of this is the stock price going up, prior to a company that expected to report earning increases. By the time the company actually releases the information, it is already reflected in the price of the stock.

The oil market is no different. Every year, there are hurricane's in the gulf. The price/barrel reflects that well in advance of the season. Converting from gasoline to heating oil takes time, and money, and this too is built into the price/barrel long before the first cold snap hits the north east. Likewise, emerging markets are just that: emerging. This isn't a secret, and isn't something that suddenly catches everyone off guard over a period of a couple of months. Age and capacity of refineries as well as current and future government regulations are all known and built into the price/barrel.

The other thing that no one, including the media, talks about are the contracts that are currently in place. Most companies negotiate with their suppliers, and it is no different for those who supply the gas. Isn't it baffling to think that there has been limited inflation despite the sharp increase in the price of gas at the pumps? The media and politicians love to bring this up. However, it's one indication that the long term contracts companies have with the gas companies haven't yet expired. The longer the higher gas prices persist, the greater number of contracts will need to be re-negotiated at substantially higher prices. And that is when inflation will start to show.

So back to the analysts. They are the experts. They know what will happen before it happens.
So why the wild swings in price/barrel? If the price reflects what will happen tomorrow, and the analysts are indeed knowlegable, then price should follow a curve, not jagged mountains. Jagged Mountains implies the analysts are blithering idiots.

I really don't know why the analysts are pushing the prices up. So far, I haven't heard an explanation that wasn't known a year ago. My suspicion is that the analysts are smart. And as with all things in the market, it has to do with money. Whether personally or professionally, the oil/gas analysts are profiting from either the price or volume of gas being sold.

Yup, blame the analysts. Too much power; not enough accountability.


About Operant Behavior

Stimulus Response is really about the environment, and how the environment reacts. This envrionment may be as broad as the universe, or as egocentric as a single individual's brain waves.


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