The only game in town


The stock market is as crooked as the dice game in Guys and Dolls.

The stock market is down. It must be some crazy thing China has done. Those Communist countries just don’t understand how capitalism works.

No, wait! The market just went up. Did China fix its capital markets already?

Not really. More likely it’s that our Federal Reserve has hinted that it’s not going to raise interest rates any time soon because a bunch of economists are afraid of deflation.

Oh lookee there. The market is down again. It seems that a Greek finance minister has threatened to resign and people are jumping out of windows all over Europe. Why? We’ll explain later.

It’s all a hustle. The stock market is as crooked as the dice game in Guys and Dolls. One of the best scenes in that classic movie and play is when “Big Julie from Chicago” decides he’s been losing enough. To turn things around, the wise guy demands a change of dice. Then he pulls his own set out of his pocket.

“But these dice don’t have no numbers on them,” Nathan Detroit says.

“That’s OK,” says Big Julie. “I got ‘em memorized.”

The stock market is like that. Every day the pros roll a giant pair of blank dice and at the end of the day they tell us whether we’ve won or lost and why. And the commentators always know exactly why.

Sure they do. But did you ever wonder why people who are so sure of why things happened before can never tell you what’s going to happen next?

Can a hiccup in Greece or China really matter that much over here? And what’s the significance of the price of oil falling? Or rising?

Don’t ask me. Ask Big Julie from Wall Street. He owns the dice.

Yet I stay in the stock market, even though I know the game is fixed. I’m like the gambler who keeps playing roulette at the local casino even though he knows the wheel is crooked. Asked why he says:

“It’s the only game in town.”

I retired (more or less) 15 years ago. Had I converted my nest egg back then to cash and buried it in the backyard, I would have fared better than someone who invested it in certificates of deposit. The other day I looked at the interest rates my bank was paying on savings. A whopping 0.2 percent. That’s not keeping up with inflation — and we don’t have any inflation.

So I put most of my money in the stock market and pray a lot. It’s a tricky thing for a skeptical agnostic to pull off. Sometimes I win and sometimes I lose. And I don’t know why.

I certainly don’t believe anything the so-called analysts on television tell me. If they really knew what was going on, they’d keep it to themselves and make a fortune.

In any case, most of those analysts sell stocks for a living. When they’re on the tube, they never say: “We’re in a stock bubble here. Things are going to collapse soon. You might want to think about getting out.”

Instead, when the bubble — stock, real estate, dot-com, whatever — pops, the market nosedives, and the TV geniuses say: “Wow! Where did that come from? Who knew?”

Then the banks get taken care of. And the hedge fund managers get taken care of. And the rest of us, the pilot fish of the economy, regret that we didn’t pick a better whale to seek shelter beneath.

As I’ve written before, my father — a Ukrainian immigrant — was a shrewd observer of the human scene.

When some politician would argue that raising the minimum wage was bad for the economy but cutting taxes for the rich was good, when the stock market went up and down for no apparent reason, he’d nod his head and say:

“They’re all in it together, kid. Remember that.”

And I always have.

By Donald Kaul

OtherWords columnist Donald Kaul lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

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