On Social Mood and Uncertainty

All my mistakes have become masterpieces


My son-in-law runs a twenty million dollar company in his shower shoes. OK, they’re leather flip-flops, same difference.  I don’t think he’s worn socks since his wedding day some seven years ago. By all accounts, he’s a superb chief executive-the company makes tons of money. But all the workers, including him, go to work more ready for the beach than a day at the office. They provide sophisticated financial services for wealthy individuals and corporations nationwide. They do all of their business by phone and internet, so meeting body-to-body with their clients doesn’t happen. But, even if it did, it probably wouldn’t matter. I suspect their clients would be similarly attired. This sort of casualness in the workplace is now so common that I’m probably the only guy in town to notice it.

Eccentric dress at work comes into vogue during the speculative phase of a bull market. There are other influences, of course. I think the techies in Silicon Valley had a lot to do with this one.  Business dress at the market peak during the 60s was a little weirder. Men’s clothing broke out in peacock colors and sketchy fabrics like double knits. The sexual revolution, helped along by Syntex (makers of The Pill), was probably a contributor.

Socionomics, the science of social prediction, holds that under conditions of certainty, people tend to reason consciously (apples are on sale, peaches are not, buy apples this week), while under conditions of uncertainty (what’s the market gonna do?), people tend to herd unconsciously (I dunno, what does your guru say?). Because we do not like to be too different from our peers, fashion is another area of uncertainty that makes us herd together (whattaya gonna wear to the party Saturday night?).

Socionomics hypothesizes that our response to uncertainty varies with social mood. As it rises, we become more confident, are more aggressive in business and investments, and we follow the tastemakers as they push the envelope of fashion propriety. Eventually, after overdoing everything including the market, comes the agonizing reappraisal (What the hell were we thinking?).

Eventually, social mood hits the skids, the market crashes and we get rid of our strange fashions along with our stocks.

Tattoos are popular this time around. My son-in-law has one with his kids’ names on it on the inside of his upper arm. After the market bottoms, he’ll have no trouble hiding it with Brooks Bros. long sleeve shirts, and maybe a coat.

I had some rude ties to throw out after that earlier silly season. But I never owned a Nehru jacket or a leisure suit. Ever. Cross my heart.


As the bear market continues, smart-alecks will compete for bragging rights by claiming they were ahead of the curve getting out of stocks. You can just hear it, about this time next year:

“Jees, the market sucks. Glad I switched my 401k to money markets a year ago. Managed to break even, thank God”

“Yeah, that’s good. To tell you the truth, I dumped everything in ‘07. Don’t know what came over me, just took my profits and ran. Lucky, I guess.”

First liar doesn’t stand a chance.



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