What Is The Markets?

fruit market in Obaköy, part of Alanya, Turkey
*This* is a market. Accept no substitutes

We’re hearing a lot about how ‘the markets’ are reacting to changes in the Greek and Italian governments. It would seem the broad assessment is ‘unhelpfully’. Mysterious beasts, these markets. The only clear thing is that they’re damnable tricky to please. Whatever you do, it turns out to be not even close to what they wanted. Basically, the markets are a dreadful girlfriend. I know, in reality they are just bunches of people. But you can never trust people in bunches.

The other day I heard someone say that markets are powerful mechanisms for finding the correct price of things because they depend on the ‘wisdom of crowds‘. This is a real and very interesting phenomenon. If you ask a crowd to estimate something, it often happens that the average of their guesses is more accurate than even the closest individual one. In other words, the crowd as a whole seems to know better than any one of its members. It’s as if all their ignorance, being distributed randomly, cancels itself out – leaving nothing behind but the smart.

Which in fascinating and useful to know. It’s not however how markets work. And particularly not financial markets, where what is being traded isn’t a tangible commodity but – when it comes down to it – promises. People making promises to repay a certain amount of money in the future (or, thanks to some of the more complex financial instruments, the past) in return for money now. People packaging up those promises and re-selling them as promises about promises. People trading on promises yet to be made. All for money – which is of course itself only a promise. It’s not a crowd trying to estimate something objective. It’s a crowd all trying to second-guess each other – a deeply unstable situation. It could turn into a stampede at the first peal of thunder. Yet this is what we’re depending on now, so soon after our experience with the property market. We’re incurable.

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