The peculiar thing about markets or currencies is that their value is almost entirely based on faith and perception. Anything that has a ‘value’ is assessed on the basis of the most abstract ideas.
Consider a house and what it is made of. If you put the raw materials in piles, it hardly amounts to anything. Yes, there’s the market value of labour to assemble it and there’s the competition for the land which creates warps around the world in cost of living on various spots, but these are based on little more than our shared ideas of value. The price of a car parking space in Mayfair is the same as a 250 acre macadamia farm with five bedroom house and pool in rural Queensland. You can buy a four-bedroom house in Detroit for the cost of a laptop from PC World.
The British pound has plummeted in the last few days, not because of anything other than perception. We haven’t thrown anything in the sea. Nothing has changed. But the pound is several percent less valuable against other leading currencies than it was a few days ago.
It has been a terrible year for perceptions. A cultural anxiety has infected most corners of the world and all sorts of things that would have seemed unthinkable a decade ago are now upon us. The most extraordinary and terrifying presidential campaign of all time. Fractures in the political landscape of Europe. The Middle East. Brexit. Korea.
I remember going to a talk during the last financial crisis and one of the speakers was asked what he thought it was that would get us out of this mess. In a very non-religious way, he said “faith”. By faith, he meant optimism – a sense that things are going to get better rather than a wallowing in the difficulties of the time.
History delivers these optimistic triggers from time to time. Sometimes they take human form: Kennedy, Mandela, Suu Kyi. Sometimes they emerge from some strange collective sense of ourselves.
It’s hard to glean exactly what it is that turns around the supertanker of sentiment, and sometimes, maybe, it’s even hard to sense it when it is beginning to happen.
I remember a newsreader being pilloried many years ago for advocating the sharing of more good news. But maybe he had a point. We’re all so wired in to the bad or ridiculous or notorious things that are happening in the world these days. Twitter, Facebook, news sites – all delivering us a snacking diet of outrage, discontent and ridicule. No wonder that sometimes we lose our sense that there’s a lot that is good. We spray tan ourselves in grey without thinking about it.
I know it’s wishful thinking but I wonder whether a conscious, collective effort to be more optimistic is any bad thing. I do believe in self-fulfilling prophecies – good and bad. Hooking in to the good stuff really can’t hurt.
Which takes me finally, and oddly, to my favourite ad: a paean to optimism. I’m a PR man, not an advertising man, but I absolutely love this ad. I’m old enough to remember it originally airing on TV. It was more recently graced with a brilliant origin story in the final stretch of Mad Men. Soak up its infectious optimism. It’s hard not to – and maybe it will trigger something. In the meantime, I’m off to meditate.