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The stock market swoon and our hatred of (some kinds of) volatility

The stock market swoon and our hatred of (some kinds of) volatility

The steepest one-day point drop in the history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average last week shook stock investors into an awareness that all is not sweetness and light in the financial markets. The sudden downside stock market volatility had been preceded by the breathless upside volatility of a months-long melt-up—one that had financial gurus outbidding each other to increase their targets for major stock indices. (See here and here.) Investors, too, felt that heaven had arrived on Earth, at least financial heaven.

After years of steady gains—with only the occasional drop—stock and bond market investors had gotten used to narrow swings in price that didn’t disturb their sleep. In fact, whenever the stock (or bond market) looked like it might crash, the world’s central banks offered reassurance both in words and deeds. The deeds included unprecedented buying of bonds (which kept interest rates low) and in some cases the purchase of stocks. The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are two central banks which buoyed stocks through purchases though they bought stocks for different reasons.

Whether the current volatility presages a market meltdown or not, I’ll leave to others. But volatility in the stock market isn’t the only kind of volatility humans don’t like. In fact, the entire project of human civilization might be characterized as an attempt to dampen volatility. The basis of civilization, that is, living in settlements, is agriculture, especially agriculture devoted to the production of grains. Why grains? Because grains can be stored from season to season and thereby smooth out food supplies throughout the year and cushion an unexpected drop in supplies from year to year due to drought, floods or other natural catastrophes.

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