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Volatile markets aren't as whacky as they seem:

September 18, 2006

Even in a going-nowhere year like 2006, the ups and downs of the financial markets strike a lot of people as too much.

Stock prices, in particular, are constantly described as volatile-swinging in arcs far wider than economic conditions could possibly warrant.

Look at emerging markets stocks, which jumped 25 percent in the first few months of this year, then gave the whole gain back again in less than six weeks.

These stocks from economies on the frontiers of capitalism, ranging from China to Brazil, have since rebounded. The Morgan Stanley Capital Markets Emerging Markets index so far this year shows a net gain of 13 percent, including dividends. That compares with a 5.5-percent advance for the Standard & Poor's 500 Index.

"During the second quarter, the stock market was pure roller coaster," said John W. Rogers Jr., CEO of Ariel Capital Management LLC in Chicago, in the latest report to shareholders of the Ariel mutual funds.

"Many investors would like to wait until markets 'settle down' before investing," says David Kelly, senior economic adviser at Boston fund manager Putnam Investments, in a Web site commentary. "The problem with that is that markets generally don't settle down."

If confusion and uncertainty decrease and a sense of good order increases, Kelly points out, markets typically don't turn calm-they rise. "When uncertainty is low, cheap stock prices are hard to find," Kelly says.

Nothing irrational about that, is there? Those who want a market to stand still for their benefit may be the irrational ones.

So it's encouraging to read about new deep-thinking efforts to portray markets as they are, not as we imagine they ought to be. "The economy is not an equilibrium system, or a system at rest, as historically assumed, but rather it is a complex adaptive system," in the words of Eric Beinhocker, author of the new book "The Origin of Wealth" (Harvard Business School Press, 527 pages).

Whatever else it may achieve, the book will have performed a considerable feat if it helps investors not to expect or yearn for orderly equilibrium conditions in markets.

The American Heritage Dictionary says equilibrium is "a condition in which all acting influences are canceled by others, resulting in a stable, balanced or unchanging system."

From such abstractions, it's only a short leap to wish for equilibrium in one's own life and in the surrounding environment.

The very same imperative, it appears, encourages thinkers to build economic models that impose some form of order on a disorderly world.

Said Beinhocker in comments published on the Web site of the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., "Economic theory often appears to be in an ivory tower, full of assumptions about perfectly rational people and perfectly predictable markets, and unconcerned with the messiness of the real world."

For any investor who has ever noticed a gap between the theory and practice of managing money, this is useful stuff.

So I hereby resolve to put aside the fruitless hope for order, stability, peace and calm in the markets. Better to concentrate instead on getting comfortable being uncomfortable, in a setting where change may be the only constant and abnormality the norm.


Keenan Hauke's Investing column, which normally appears in this space, will return next week.
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