Monday, June 09, 2008

The biggest long bet

Big news today at The Long Now Foundation as we join Fortune magazine in announcing the largest "long bet" yet: a million-dollar wager between investment guru Warren Buffett and New York money management firm Protégé Partners LLC. Buffett, a critic of expensive financial services, is betting that the returns of the market over the ten years from 02008 through 02017 (as reflected by the S&P 500, a widely used stock market index containing the stocks of 500 large, publicly held companies) will exceed the payout of the expert hedge fund investors after their fees, costs and expenses are subtracted.

Long Now board member Kevin Kelly elaborates:

Buffett's million dollar bet was made on Long Bets, the accountability mechanism founded in 2002 by Stewart Brand and myself, and operated by Long Now Foundation. The intention of Long Bets is to encourage responsibility in prediction-making (by keeping a public roster of predictions), to encourage long-term thinking (by offering a opportunity to shape a long-term bet), and to sharpen the logic of forecasting (by recording the logic of predictions and bets.)
The hope of Long Bets is that these public wagers will prompt people to consider the implications of current developments in the near-distant future -- and then to keep their attention on what happens.

Buffett's bet is an ideal Long Bet. It makes a huge difference to anyone who invests in stocks (as do a large percentage of the US, either directly or indirectly) whether a boring index fund yields as much as fancy private hedge funds. The answer either way would be a huge influential signal. When economist Julian Simon won the famous bet against biologist Paul Ehrlich (Simon betting that the long-term prices of commodity minerals would decrease over ten years; Ehrlich betting they would increase), his win essentially eradicated the argument of resource scarcity from the environmental debate. Environmentalists then shifted their concern to the many other issues needed to foster a healthy environment.

This bet has a similar potential. But as in all great bets, its outcome is uncertain.

At stake is not just the money -- all of which goes to charity regardless of who wins. The true currency of Long Bets is reputation, and real-name accountability has been a core principle from day one. As Kelly suggests via the Simon-Ehrlich comparison, if Buffett were to win, not only would the opinions of the folks at Protégé be called into question, but so too would their business model.

Which would, of course, be equally true even if the bet didn't exist: the performance claims of hedge fund managers can, in principle, be tracked and evaluated on whatever timeframe and against whatever criteria one likes, big bet or not. What this bet does is the same thing they all do: it puts a symbolic frame, and specific, tangible stakes, around an existing (or potential) debate, with the specific intention to put it to the test, and to learn from that process in a public way. This fact highlights what Long Bets is really all about. In a sense, everyone makes hundreds of bets per day: in an uncertain world, everything we do, or don't do, is loaded with some degree of risk. These bettors, along with many investors like them (and by extension, millions of others on whose behalf they act) have billions of dollars riding on their decisions already. However, putting a frame around this aspect of their effort creates a focus for discussion. It's a tool for directing attention in a particular way, and fuel for the type of conversation that we ought to be having more often.

What else is long-term thinking but the cultivation of an underdeveloped mode of attention?

I've been working with Long Now, and especially Long Bets, since 02006, and am delighted to see an unprecedented big bet draw attention to a worthy forum. Also, as concerned as I may be about the long-term fate of the hedge fund manager, I'm particularly looking forward to seeing what other -- perhaps even more momentous -- issues may follow this into the limelight.

(Here's the Fortune article, and the bet.)

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