Monday, May 19, 2008

Pet Loss Trauma

There is nothing more sad than a child who loses a dear pet, or, for that matter, their one-and-only favorite cuddly-toy. For many youngsters, this is their first brush with mortality - a head-on, rub-yer-noses-in-it confrontation with life, parochial loss, and the immutability of death.

Each generation since the emergence of civilisation seemingly has a similar encounter with respect to stability, their money, and financial markets (or their precursors). Those in our lifetimes are burnished in our memories - like 1987 - though such recent episodes are mild by comparison, despite their eye-popping one-day moves which were, with hindsight little more than speed-bumps in the great candle-chart of time as measured and punctuated by price, leverage and speculation.

Whether by war, mismanagement, revolution, or natural disaster, complete, total and utter losses and/or hierarchical reorderings are distinct possibilities and recurrent in the history of man, culminating in the extreme in societal obliteration. It is, of course, not binary, but rather a continuum that's yielded extreme inflations (just look at the dozen or so >20% prints on UK CPI, and that is only since the 1960s!); extended depressions, and elongated misery that historically have been persistent enough to lay waste to the most prudent of asset allocations.

Little in modernity even rates on the historical comparative scale. 1970s Britain was gut wrenching and soul-destroying for many, yet no one missed an FA Cup, or north-London derby. And one might suggest that 1970s USA too was a brush with disaster, yet no one can recall a popular fascination or collective memory imprint such as those associated with the Great Depression, or Weimar or post-WWII Japanese inflation. Japan in the 1990s, or the US Tech wreck? Hardly. Yugoslavia in 1990s? Yes civil war leaves meaningful scars, but even the Levant, like its namesake re-rises like a mushroom in a wet and verdant pasture.

Argentina begins to register on the scale, with its vaporisation of savings, impovesishment of the middle-class, wiping clean the slate of debts, and near-mass unemployment, though Russia, post-Soviet demise was perhaps singularly the only event in our generational modernity that qualifies, bar none. Everything else is, by comparison, spilled milk.

It is almost impossible for children to project-froward, imagining loss, particularly one that is so finely and tenuously tethered, just as "the people" and markets have great difficulty imagining how delicately balanced modern civilisation's systems are, and how quickly they - along with everything financial - can be swept away by events unfolding or as yet unimagined. Today, despite the impressive litany of knowledge and skills man has acquired that diminishes the value of historical comparisons, so too has mankind and civilisation reached a scale and complexity that are also unprecedented. Urbanisation, "just-in-time" global logistics, Malthusian limits, heretofore not seen dependency ratios, mind-boggling agricultural intensity and environmental degradation, each of these capable of producing "shocks" that can rupture the web of dependencies with resultant cascades that could be "fatal" to financial systems - and societies - in the historical sense.

Of course, we all have to grow up. We all must experience "that crushing loss" to one's tender innocence and so, still-raw nerves, at some point, just as each generation encounters it's financial Waterloo. Yet contemplating such possibilities and ruminating upon whether THIS is the "big one" makes me long for my rabbit, exhausted as I am from trying to protect one's hard-fought gains and patrimony, however modest it might be...

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