The Trouble With Mass Delusions

Excerpted from Paul Singer's Elliott Management letter to investors,


The trouble with mass delusions is that they are recognized as such only when they are over – when the dazzling absurdity of certain widely held beliefs is unmasked by subsequent events. Interestingly, many delusions relate to war. At the beginning of World War I, there was a widespread misconception that the war would be over in months. In hindsight, this delusion was fueled by a deep misunderstanding, among citizens and military experts alike, of the impact that evolving technology would have on modern warfare. Parenthetically, we would argue that the current drawdown of military capability throughout the developed world is based on a delusion that ignores thousands of years of immutable, or at least always repeating, human history of almost continuous (in the grand scheme of things) warfare.

Economics also provides its share of delusions, including the debt-fueled bubbles of both the 1920s stock market and the first dotcom boom. The real estate boom of the 2000s was another one, as excess demand was fueled by the combination of near-free money, the most marginal financial products ever invented, and the frenetic selling of houses to people who could not afford them and did not actually own them in any meaningful sense of the word.

These examples are easy, because they were mass beliefs that were unreasonable in the extreme at the time they were held. Of course, at the time not everyone held the same deluded views, but the disbelievers were (and always are) discredited, demoralized and ignored while the delusions were alive. The problem is that while the delusions remain intact there is no proof available to convince the believers of their folly. Simply repeating that a mass belief is crazy does not make it so (nor convince anyone else that it is nuts). Furthermore, the amount of time necessary to reveal the truth is sometimes too long for nonbelievers to bear, so they just stop trying.

There is a current set of delusions that is powerful and dangerous:

that monetary debasement can be infinitely pursued without negative consequences; that the financial system is now solid and sound; that the low volatility and high prices of stocks, high-end real estate and bonds are real; that bonds are a safe haven; and that large financial institutions which get into trouble in the future can be unwound in a much safer way than they could be in 2008.

We have discussed each of these elements in the pages of this report and previous ones in an attempt to reveal the fallacy and unsustainability of such beliefs. But, as stated above, they will only enter the history books as mass delusions if they are unmasked in the future as unjustifiable and erroneous beliefs at the time they were held.

We think that test will be met, perhaps soon.