Speaking to the Washington Post, President Trump said, “My gut tells me more sometimes, than anybody else’s brain can ever tell me.” This comment generated scoffs aplenty, as people imagine the receptacle of a daily intake of gallons of Diet Coke and multiple Big Macs somehow provides anything intelligent. However, this classic Trump quip has some merit after reading John Coates’s The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind.
Part II of the book is titled “Gut Thinking,” and the book’s thesis is that our minds and bodies are connected in our actions. Coates focuses his story on treasury bond traders who successfully act by instinct gained from experience. He writes, “Thinking, one could say, is something we do only when we are no good at an activity.”
“There are few phenomena in finance more remarkable, even mysterious,” Coates writes, “than this close linkage between market and body.”
The fact is, our bodies react to news and risks quicker than our brains do. Conscious thought is left in the dust when we react and especially when we take risks. Of course neoclassical economists would poo-poo the notion of our bodies reacting to threats and risks, after all, we’re all rational beings, doing what’s rational at all times. Yeah, right.
While the above is essentially Coates’s contention, he later writes,
Lifting the hood of our brain does not reveal the netherworld of Kant’s unsayable, nor the volcanic will of Nietzsche’s superman, nor yet the hellish subterranean den of Freud’s subconscious. It reveals something that is a lot closer to the inner workings of a BMW.
Not everyone’s brain is of BMW quality, not to mention the various levels of body quality. Traders, Coates contends, must have IQs that are “high enough,” but more important is “a hearty appetite for risk and a driving ambition.” Also important is physical stamina. He points out that many traders are ex-athletes.
Certainly, the president, has the ambition and risk appetite. His gut feelings, as Coates describes gut feelings generally, “act powerfully,” and “are not only real; they are essential to rational choice.”
The author contends the gut “has its own ‘brain.’ The vagus nerve, the main nerve in the rest-and-digest nervous system, links the brain stem, voice box, lings, heart, pancreas and gut. In total, 80 percent of its fibers carry information back to the brain, mostly from the heart and gut.”
As the book progresses, the focus turns to dopamine, testosterone, and cortisol. Dopamine modulates levels of motivation, how eagerly humans (or animals) want things. Dopamine drives humans to try new things and solve F.A. Hayek’s knowledge problem. “The knowledge of the circumstances of which we must make use never exists in concentrated or integrated form,” explained Hayek, “but solely as the dispersed bits of incomplete and frequently contradictory knowledge which all the separate individuals possess.”
Trying new things involves taking risks and that’s where testosterone comes in. Traders and entrepreneurs are driven by testosterone. Coates worries that testosterone lowering obesity, “may be dimming the gut feelings and entrepreneurial drive upon which our prosperity and happiness depend.”
Winning trades increase testosterone while market crashes deplete the hormone, sometimes for years. Testosterone feedback, unfortunately, can lead to traders and entrepreneurs to believe themselves invincible. And thus, rallies turn into bubbles. Coates mentions ill-conceived takeovers and record-breaking skyscrapers, providing biological support to Mark Thornton’s work on The Skyscraper Curse.
Cortisol is testosterone’s opposite. As markets crash, cortisol is released “causing [the] body and brain to hunker down for a long term.” Cortisol essentially immunizes the body against trauma, suppressing testosterone production, while being a powerful anti-inflammatory.
Cortisol levels rise with volatility. Coates speculates that this hormone forms “the physiological foundation of the derivatives market.”
Cortisol and CRH (a chemical produced during stress) lead traders (and everyone else one can assume) to be vulnerable “to rumor and suspected conspiracy.” Coates writes, “Each rumored catastrophe is now given as much credence, and has as much effect on markets, as hard economic data.”
“Cortisol is the molecule of irrational pessimism,” explains Coates. Older folks are especially susceptible because they stop producing testosterone and produce high levels of cortisol.
While professional traders and investors have high amounts of testosterone flowing through them, amateurs have “chronically raised cortisol levels.” The constant anxiety forces them to bail out of what could be winning trades.
The November 30th edition of the Elliott Wave Financial Forecast cited examples of the financial press attempting to keep individual investor spirits high. This was before the December downdraft in stock prices. For example, “Ignore the Gloom,” USA Today said.
Trump’s gut has it right. The stock market is in trouble and he knows he needs to blame someone — Fed Chair Jerome Powell — early and often.