NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- With the stock market achieving new highs on several days in May, the question isn't if there will be a correction, but when.
While calling market tops is notoriously hard, perhaps we can look to the great philosophers for wisdom on how the markets might behave.
There's certainly been a huge run up in the market since the 2008 crash -- the S&P 500 has tripled since its February 2009 low -- and the fact is some real earnings growth is being recorded by many companies currently. S&P 500 average price-to-earnings ratio is only at about 17 right now, which is not out of line with historic norms.
The interesting philosophical question is why we have so little idea when turning points in the market may come. Much of it is linked to deep psychological insights which economists are only beginning to understand. As the 19th century German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer explained, we have two experiences in life -- our experience of the external world (the things we observe), but then also all our inner experiences (thoughts, feelings, emotions, pains). The latter, which are a major part of our lives, are utterly hidden from anybody else. In response, the famous 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote in his Remarks on the Philosophy of Psychology, Vol II, "It is then as if I realized the inner is always hidden." This has huge economic implications: If all our inner lives are so hidden, how on earth can we make predictions about human behavioral patterns and ones that are going to affect the market?
Schopenhauer also went on to write in The World as Will and Representation that this inner life doesn't seem to be subject to laws in the way physics is, "For in man individuality stands out powerfully, everyone has a character of his own, and hence the same motive does not have the same influence on all, and a thousand, minor circumstances, finding scope in one individual's wide sphere of knowledge, but remaining unknown to others, modify its effect." Instinctively, we all know the truth of this statement: People are capable of anything for nearly any reason -- hence the impossibility of predicting the behavior of complex systems, like the markets, where humans are involved.
There is an interesting research project seeking funding at Northwestern University and University of Colorado, Boulder that wants to explain stock market movements in rather Freudian terms. The research says, "We plan to test the hypothesis that precognitive dreaming and remote viewing of images that will be presented in the future and are tied to stock market changes, can be used to make useful predictions about stock fluctuations." Basically, can understanding our inner, subconscious thoughts help predict the movement of the markets?
It was certainly dreams that allowed Joseph in the Old Testament to predict seven good years and seven bad years for the Egyptian Pharaohs. To be fair, the researches are modest about their objectives, "Regardless of the results of this experiment the reminder of our relative ignorance will spark research interest in the physics and the psychology of time."
It may of course be we cannot progress in these areas until we know much more about the chemistry of the brain, which itself may then turn out to have real implications for economic behavior. That could be the subject of another post, at the very least.
Jeremy Josse is the author of Dinosaur Derivatives and Other Trades, an alternative take on financial philosophy and theory (published by Wiley & Co).