All dressed up
Protruding from the sand along England’s northeast shore near Hartlepool is a vertical wooden mast. The mast dates back to the Napoleonic Wars, when Napoleon’s armies were marching through Europe, sweeping all before them in the aftermath of the French Revolution. It was all part of France’s aggressive attempt to take what it deemed as its rightful place at the head of the European table.
Of course, with Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia in 1812, the French Army suffered one of the worst military defeats in history. At the time of our Hartlepool story, Britain, the mightiest naval power the world had ever seen, was locked in combat with France.
Hartlepool, a small port community, was founded in the 7th century. Around the time of the Napoleonic Wars, Hartlepool had a population of about 900 people — all of whom seemed to be obsessed with the possibility of being attacked by France. Gun emplacements were established and defenses constructed in order to repel any French aggression. The Hartlepudlians stood ready to fight the first Frenchman who dared set foot upon their beloved sand.
One night during a terrible storm, a French fishing boat that had been pressed into the service of the Emperor, capsized and sank off the coast near Hartlepool. There was only one survivor — a monkey who found himself washed ashore, exhausted, battered and bruised from his ordeal. He was still clinging to the mast, now buried in the sand, which remains there to this day.
One can only imagine how glad he must have been to end up on Hartlepool’s beach. Unfortunately for him, he happened to be wearing a French naval uniform, which would, sadly, be the direct cause of his tragic demise a few hours after his miraculous escape from a watery grave.
Historians guess that the monkey was dressed in a sailor’s uniform for the amusement of the ship’s crew, but the Hartlepudlians were most definitely not amused. Keep in mind; these were not exactly worldly people, even by early 19th century standards. Upon finding him in a uniform with which they were unfamiliar, they immediately arrested him as a French spy and proceeded to force the confused monkey to stand trial right there on the beach. You can’t make this stuff up folks.
The monkey was questioned to discover why he had come to Hartlepool; but with the monkey unable (or perhaps unwilling) to answer their questions, and with the locals uncertain as to what a Frenchman looked like, they reached the inevitable conclusion that the monkey was a French sailor and therefore a spy. The monkey was sentenced to death and hanged from the mast on the beach.
Minstrels later immortalized the tale in “The Monkey Song,” a popular ditty of the time. I’ll spare you the words, but it makes a great drinking song in your favorite pub. Needless to say, it made a laughing stock of the good folks of Hartlepool. To this day, the citizens of Hartlepool are known, much to their chagrin, in England (and around the world) as “monkey hangers.”
Now at this point you are no doubt thinking to yourself, “Massey has finally lost it. Where is he going this time and what does this have to do with the economy and stock market?” Not much actually, but it’s a great story and I couldn’t resist using it to entice you in. Okay, since you have indulged me and my tales of monkeys swinging from yardarms, I’ll tell you.
The people on that storm-tossed beach were confronted with something they didn’t recognize, and though logic suggested they ought to investigate further before they took any action, the animal spirits of a group of excitable people ensured that they forgot about clear-headed analysis and did something that their descendants still regret over two centuries later.
Today, investors all over the world are confronted by markets that have been dressed up for the amusement of the crew in charge of the ship (think central bankers), and nobody seems to recognize what they are looking at. Sure, they look like markets, but at the same time there is an unfamiliarity that is extremely unnerving to at least a few in the gathering crowd.
The majority of the mob, however, has decided that they look enough like markets to charge in blindly in the expectation that all will be as it should. Perhaps that is why markets are rallying in the face of possibly the worst recession since the Great Depression. Things are not as they should be. Far from it. Everywhere one looks are signs that the markets are just monkeys dressed up in fancy costumes. There, how about that for a metaphor you’ve never heard before? As we proceed through the rest of this year, I’ll work hard to help you identify who is real and who is in costume. Stay tuned.
It has been said that, “We learn from failure, not from success.” It has also been said that, “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” Which one will you be? Thanks for reading.
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About Nick Massey
Nick Massey is a retired financial advisor and CFP, and former President of Massey Financial Services. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.