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August 8, 2000—Risky Business and Bum Luck

A very worthy lady financial journalist has written us to say our Frederick's of Hollywood Bankruptcy Headline Contest is very funny but terribly silly.  We would only slightly demur.  We started the darn thing to lighten up these Dog Days of August, but also to highlight the startling rise in bankruptcies as well as the clear and present danger of burgeoning risk in the systems that hold mankind together.  So watch out.  More on this in a minute.

Our best Frederick's headline of the week comes from a sophisticated young lady in the Southeast whose wit would play very well in England.  About Frederick's, she says, "Bum luck!"

To get more on Frederick's, we have recommended the folks at BankruptcyData.com (www.bankruptcydata.com/fredericks.htm). More importantly, investigate this bankruptcy site to capture the emerging, accelerating trend towards corporate bankruptcies.  In fact, sign up for their free daily bankruptcy alert which will either provide you with glee or ulcers.

All this is merely prelude to the main act.  The story of 2000--not just in business, but in aviation, health, public schools, homicideville, banks, geopolitics, and on and on--will be vastly increased risk.  We're just beginning to see people talk about it now.  Vice President Gore, desperately projecting his own conduct onto the Republicans, accuses Governor Bush of risky schemes.  Yet it is clearly the present Administration that has pushed domestic and global credit markets into a truly bad pickle.

Plague situations--Lyme Disease, Aids, West Nile Virus, and a host of other pesky conditions--have been intensified by complacency.  Craziness in the stock markets has reached new heights, with the ever prescient Ray DeVoe reporting on rising "Stock Market Rage ... suggesting even more irrationality and frustration than I had imagined."  Stock market rage has included death threats to analysts who call a spade a spade, putting out deep sells on technology stocks overtaken by blimp-like valuations.

If the U.S. and the world are much less safe today than when the senior Bush left office, it stems from an inability to see or care about what's coming next--which is what risk management is all about.  Prosperity, hubris, and utter opportunism can very well conceal the beasts in our jungle for quite a while.  We would contend, moreover, that the exceptional stress that today overwhelms our citizens also leads to tremendous blindness about the present and the future.

Aviation gives us a good metaphor that perfectly visualizes our present estate.  See  "Flying Safer Skies:  A Surprising Number of Crashes Come When Skilled Pilots Don't See the Mountain Right in Front of Them," Boston Globe, pp. Fl, F3, F4, July 25, 2000.  Between 1990 and 1999, the largest number of fatalities on commercial aircraft occurred because of "Controlled Flight into Terrain."  In plain English, that means the pilots could not see the mountains they were flying into.  Now we are finally putting Enhanced Ground Proximity Warnings Systems into the planes that will make all the difference.

But in countless other areas, where death, tragedy, and the Four Horsemen are on the way, we are not installing new systems or new infrastructure.  Domestically, while we are producing budget surpluses based on gutting the defense budget, we show no signs of building relevant societal structures or revising our constitutional arrangements to mitigate risk.

This misunderstanding of the looming risks in our midst is probably leading to a miscalculation of major proportions on the part of all our leading political parties.  They are relying on bad, skewed polling data, at least according to our research.  In general, they believe Americans are suffering from prosperity, having become fat, dumb, and happy.  Despite the prosperity, Americans, save for a few Wall Street types and a clutch of fatuous dotcom millionaires, are not that contented.  First off, the standard of living for most of the middle class has not improved:  it has often declined.  That's why we have two working parents desperately trying to sustain the economic burdens formerly shouldered by one salaryman.

Furthermore, there is growing anecdotal evidence that Americans sense they are now engaged in a risky business, but the experts don't know that our citizens are scared or that they are haunted by a sense of risk.  See "Scared? Try to be Rational For Once in Your Life," New York Times, July 30, 2000, New York Metropolitan, p. l9.  "Some researchers say that while they must occasionally fight off the impulse to write off ordinary people as fools, they also sometimes find that the lay individual's assessment of risk, while perhaps not strictly rational, has something that mere numbers cannot catch."  This article says that there are interesting cultural forces that shape how we see risk--what we think is risky and what we don't.  More interesting to this observer are the cultural forces that blind the sophisticated and the researchers to deep risks, while average, less articulate people smell the dangers around the corner.  And we think Richard Nixon's silent majority does feel the risk.  In this vein, it is no accident that TV's current horrific but sensationally popular prime-time winner happens to have "survivor" in its title.

Ray DeVoe, in his July 28 issue of The DeVoe Report, tells of the commodity trader and potato futures expert who got the drift of the markets completely wrong.  When DeVoe queried him on this, the expert said, "Never forget one thing, young man, I was right, the market was wrong."

Well, risk is rising, and the markets are wrong.  We will hear lots more about it.  And the best and brightest are not on top of it.

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