Every gambler knows, the secret to survivin
Is knowin what to throw away and knowin what to keep.
I don’t know much about the stock market, or economics, but I know the look of the gambler. You’d be surprised what you can learn when you observe the people in a Las Vegas Casino, instead of focusing on the spinning fruit and the cha-chinging in your ears.
The last person I’m referring to is the true gambler, who’s made peace with a career based on a zero-sum game, and knows enough to keep his emotions in check with the gravitas of a head of state. I mean the punters, their flushed faces and shiny eyes, the irrational exuberance and inevitable drained look of vague horror when the ride’s over.
Nobody Chinese is telling me to buy stocks now. Last summer, it was virtually impossible to have a casual dinner with a Zhongguo pengyou without the subject coming up, some variation of “Don’t worry. Very easy to make money until the Olympics.”
These folks were trying to do me a favor, god bless ‘em, and lord knows I’m somewhere between a dog-track junkie and a home real-estate-course customer when it comes to fast money. But I have been burned by my own greed enough times to start listening to whom Kramer called ‘the little man’ inside each of us. The little man knows everything, Jerry. Knows that ‘trust me’ is the motto of the used-car salesman, and ‘double your money guaranteed’ is the swan song of the nincompoop, before he graduates to poorer-but-wiser. Ask questions, the little man said, lots of open-ended questions.
And that’s what I did, the due diligence of someone who’d rather get poorer slower than he got wiser. It seemed that everyone had a friend who was placing their, uh, picking their stocks for them. Was it a mutual fund? No, not really. Were the companies solid? Not too many intelligible answers about P/E ratios or dividend yields, terms I had looked up on Google, just to have something to act smart with. But they were guaranteed at least ten percent a year, and trusted their stock-picking friends to at least double their money by the Olympics.
In China, winning money has a thousand friends, sitting around a circular table pouring it shots of sorghum liquor. Losing money waits in the hall to come scoop up the hot pot grease once in a while. This summer, friends would translate for me amidst the raucous restaurant banter. The stock market was crazy, but good crazy, a bull bucking up record charts, leaving giant golden droppings in its path. Those conversations have blown away with the winter wind. Now they make vague reference to friends in dire trouble, who had borrowed vast sums and were now up all night thinking of how to tell Laolao the family fortune was gone.
So it is with too much information and not enough focus that I read story after story about the American economy tanking, oil and gold spiraling, prices inflating, and the whole flaming ship of fools bringing the world’s economies swirling around a widening gyre. The Han Seng down 6.6%, the Chinese economy not so big and robust after all.
Granted it’s easy to play the spectator, and smug to say I told you so. Yet once again events bear out the principle that if you want to drive your stock car to riches, you better read the driver’s manual first, and start with a go cart.