Apocalypse and Bubbles

Peter Thiel, entrepreneur, VC, angel, Facebook board member, and hedge fund manager, penned a long and thoughtful piece about the possibility of an impending apocalypse and how that might lead to financial bubbles. It was written in 2008 but I only came across it yesterday (on Hacker News). He calls it The Optimistic Thought Experiment. I you are an investor and haven't seen it before, I suggest you go read it in its entirety.

For those who would rather have the cliff notes, Peter's argument goes like this (Peter's words are in italics, mine are not):

1) if the truth were to be told, our slumber is not as peaceful as it once was. Beginning with the Great War in 1914, and accelerating after 1945, there has re-emerged an apocalyptic dimension to the modern world. In a strange way, however, this apocalyptic dimension has arisen from the very place that was meant to liberate us from antediluvian fears. 

Peter argues that science in all of its form (nuclear weapons, biological catastrophes, etc) has vastly increased the probability of some form of apocalypse.

2) A mutual fund manager might not benefit from reflecting about the danger of thermonuclear war, since in that future world there would be no mutual funds and no mutual fund managers left. Because it is not profitable to think about one ’s death, it is more useful to act as though one will live forever.

Peter argues that betting on the apocalypse makes no sense so rational investors don't do it.

3) Globalization may end by accident or by terrible miscalculation: It may end by world war.  Because there would be no winners in a new world war, every path away from globalization will end in catastrophe. Thus, in spite of the many uncertainties surrounding the costs and benefits of a more globally integrated world, investors have no choice but to bet on globalization. There are no good investments in a twenty-first century where globalization fails.

Peter argues that globalization is the anti-apocalypse bet.

4) Even the most preposterous bubbles of recent decades — Japan in the late 1980s and high-end real estate today — would have been far more restrained, had they not been stoked much further by the narrative of globalization.

He goes on to connect financial bubbles with bets on globalization. This is the most fascinating part of the essay to me. I've gone back and read it a few times now.

5) the pace and amplitude of these booms has accelerated tremendously, in complete contradiction to the widespread notion that markets are becoming more smooth and efficient over time. During the last quarter century, the world has seen more asset booms or bubbles than in all previous times put together: Japan; Asia (ex-Japan and ex-China) pre- 1997; the internet; real estate; China since 1997; Web 2.0; emerging markets more generally; private equity; and hedge funds, to name a few.

And then Peter explains that the recent slate of financial bubbles, which he calls unprecedented in history, are related to the growing sense of impending doom.

And here is the money quote:

But because we do not know how our story of globalization will end, we do not yet know which it is. Let us return to our thought experiment. Let us assume that, in the event of successful globalization, a given business would be worth $ 100/share, but that there is only an intermediate chance (say 1:10) of successful globalization. The other case is too terrible to consider. Theoretically, the share should be worth $ 10, but in every world where investors survive, it will be worth $100. Would it make sense to pay more than $10, and indeed any price up to $100? Whether in hope or desperation, the perceived lack of alternatives may push valuations to much greater extremes than in nonapocalyptic times.

It's a fascinating argument. I can't say whether I buy it or not. But it's in my head now and as a result it will be part of the way I look at the world, investing, and valuations. How much it will be a part of that remains to be seen.

At the end of the essay, Peter talks about China, Web 2.0, and hedge funds in the context of this "optimistic thought experiment". I've been thinking a lot about all three having most of my eggs in the middle basket and having taken a lot of eggs out of the latter basket and thinking about putting some eggs in the first basket. It was a good time for me to come across this essay.

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