FedUpUSA

The Short Story of How We Lose

 

A curious thing happened to a middle-aged Frenchman in Monte Carlo last year. He had unexpectedly received a year-end bonus of 10,000 from his employer, and decided to visit Le Grand Casino for a weekend, where he could relax and gamble with his new found wealth. Since his wife and daughters were visiting his stepmother that weekend, he would be able to focus entirely on making some money. His first night was judiciously spent at the Roulette tables, where his sharp instincts and calculated patience presumably allowed him to double his allotted wealth in just five hours. It was an excellent night for the man, who was now 10,000 richer, and he spent the next afternoon lounging in a cabana at the hotel’s pool.

That night, the man locked away the initial 10,000 in his room’s safe and took the rest back down to the casino floor, where he quickly locked up a seat at his favorite Roulette table from the night before. His playing strategy remained the same as always – place a minimum bet on two out of three columns, switching one column each time he won a bet, and sitting out one roll each time he lost – no deviations from the strategy whatsoever. After a series of wild fluctuations in his bankroll, the man was left with only two more bets, and he decided to place them both on black. The tiny steel ball deftly rolled around the wheel for several revolutions and tensely bounced between a few numbered slots before finally choosing to settle on number 21 – red.

The man quietly finished his glass of red wine, shuffled up to his room and lay awake in bed. He couldn’t help feeling extremely frustrated about the events of that evening. Frustrated with the insidious game of roulette, with his own careless betting decisions, with his “bad luck”, with the other players who had won, with the man spinning the little steel ball, with the tiny ball itself. He kept replaying the spins in his mind, fantasizing about the money he would still have in his pocket if he had just made a few different decisions.

What especially haunted him was the would-be expression on his wife’s face when he unexpectedly brought home 20,000. The 10,000 bonus would surely lift her into a state of pleasant surprise, but the man speculated that, if he had managed to double that bonus in just two short days at the casino, her pleasant surprise would be magnified ten-fold into a state of blushing pride .

On his journey back home the next day, the man began to realize just how strange his lingering feelings from the night before were. After all, he was exactly even from gambling at the end of his trip, and had actually been comped for a night’s stay at the hotel and a few meals. He had even expected to lose a bit of money going into the trip, since Roulette laid players some of the worst odds in the Casino. The man reflected on the fact that his brief excitement from winning 10,000 on the first night had paled in comparison to his prolonged dismay from losing that same 10,000 on the second night. It was indeed a curious psychology that continued to puzzle the curious man, so he decided to do some Internet research when he arrived home. Hopefully, he thought, a new and more fundamental understanding of this psychology would finally put his mind at ease.

It didn’t take too many Google searches before the man came across the concept of “myopic loss aversion“, which explains that people are significantly more likely to experience pain or displeasure from losing a monetary amount than excitement or pleasure from winning that same amount, especially when they frequently evaluate financial outcomes. This disproportional dynamic is obviously powerful when it involves money that one can barely afford to lose, but it also forcefully applies to losses that may be small relative to an individual’s bankroll. Even the multi-millionaire corporate executive who drops fifty grand gambling at a Vegas poker table will be beating himself up soon after, despite the fact that he will most likely make  multiples of that by the end of the year (or at least he believes that he will).

Many of us may be familiar with the painful/shameful process of losing significant sums of money invested in the “wrong” place at the “wrong” time, but it is much more difficult to imagine the negative reactions produced when an entire economy of millions is serving up losses which, in a few short years, will threaten to wipe out all of the financial gains accumulated over decades. After the most potent “winning streak” in human history, the majority of American society has been blindsided by equally potent losses, which continue to mount and show no signs of abatement:

  • It is estimated by Zillow that average home prices in the US have declined ~27% from their peak in June 2007, effectively destroying $9.8 trillion  worth of homeowner’s equity (in an economy worth ~$14 trillion). [1]
  • About 15.7 million homeowners have negative home equity (owe more on home than it is worth), representing a whopping 27% of all mortgaged single-family homes. Joseph Stiglitz infers that these trends will lead to a total of about 9 million people losing their homes through foreclosure between 2008-2011. [2].
  • According to officially under-stated statistics, the unemployment rate jumped from 5% in 2008 to ~9.6% in 2011, and the U-6 number puts it at ~16.5%. [3]. The official rate is only that “low” because millions of people have given up looking for jobs over the past few years (magically removing them from the official labor force), and millions of other people with part-time, low-paying jobs are counted as employed (26% of new private-sector hires are temporary [4]).
  • Between 2006 and mid-2008, Americans had lost about 22% of total retirement assets or $2.3 trillion, and $2.5 trillion in savings and investment assets. [5]. Although a decent amount of this value has been recovered during 2009-10, it has mostly gone to a significantly smaller percentage of people who have held on to such assets and has only been achieved on the backs of taxpayers, who now owe interest on an additional $4 trillion+ in public debt (plus a few more trillion if we include the GSEs). [6]. When the markets crash again, that public debt will be money completely wasted for a large majority of Americans, if it is not considered to be already.
  • Credit card defaults hit a near-record rate of 11.4% in 2010, more than double the rate in 2007, and the average late fee had risen almost 10% from $25.90 in 2008 to $28.19. [7].
  • Public employees face at least a $2.5 trillion state pension shortfall mostly accumulated since 2008, and the gap can only be made up through drastic cuts to pension benefits, layoffs and cuts to public services for all other citizens. [8].
  • Profits of most small businesses (unincorporated organizations such as partnerships and sole proprietorships) have fallen 5% in the last two years. [9], [10]. These businesses employ over half of all private sector employees and have created 64% of net new jobs over the last 15 years. [11].

There are many other losses that have befallen the American people over the last few years on top of those listed above, and recently they have also seen the costs of necessities increase. The real interest burden of private and public debt continues to weigh heavily on businesses, consumers, patients, students and civil servants. State welfare programs such as unemployment insurance, food stamps, Section 8 and Medicaid provide temporary crutches to dull the searing pain, but it is clear that these programs only continue to exist on recklessly borrowed time and will be selectively restricted to the American people in short order. The federal retirement program of Social Security, on which many retired Americans have come to rely on, is at the brink of insolvency (the difference between outlays and receipts for the SSA in 2010 was $76 billion [12]), and Medicare isn’t looking too much better.

American politicians and officials are promising their constituents that this value lost will be recovered, but most of them remember too many broken promises to find any comfort in hollow words. When structural shortages of oil imports become a factor, Americans will have systematically lost not only their financial investments, but their entire way of life and lofty perspectives of reality. Sooner rather than later, we will be forced to fully experience the penetrating anguish and regret associated with unprecedented loss, as the tiny steel ball ceases to bounce around and settles in its pre-determined slot. It is at this time which we will realize that there is only a thinly-veiled political fiction separating us from the furiously desperate protesters in the crowded streets of the Middle East.

The Automatic Earth

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