October 27th, 2006

krazy koati

It's sleek and chic and magnifique

Robert Hope-Johnson little suspected that he was the start of a multibillion-dollar industry the day in 1934 he agreed to sell Lord Esme Gordon his moustache for a mere £27 1s 8d. ``Actually,'' he said, ``I thought it was kind of silly.'' But the inescapable economic facts are: some people grow moustaches better than others do, some people look better in moustaches than others do, and since the people who grow moustaches well are not all people who look good in them, entrepreneurs will start selling. While the industry is just over 72 years three months old it keeps saying it will be ``73 on my next birthday''.

Problems with the transportation of stock have always plagued the industry. In 1958 when the first shipment of moustaches from Houston intended for Rotterdam arrived in Newark aboard the legendary containerized cargo vessel Ideal-X the harbor master, suspecting a scam, impounded the load and sent back to Houston cargo boxes containing a tire fire. Even gathering stock is hard: moustache-growing is usually a part-time avocation, since the low production means even a highly skilled moustache-grower earns under US$2400 per year. It has long been argued greater centralization would earn them higher wages, from trimming costs and from making it easier to match stock with demand. However, despite the United States Mustache Growers Association set up after independents flooded the market with Rollie Fingers-style moustaches from 1978 to 1980, these efforts have come to little more than the occasional social gathering. That isn't to say the conventions aren't a lot of fun. They aren't, but that's because an incessant group of whiners demands they talk business during the day. Everyone has to either share boring stories about frosted doughnuts or snowstorms or get into more boring and insanely bitter arguments about whether the panel topic is a starting point or the limits of the discussion. You're better off coming in after supper.

Still the low overhead -- apart from transportation costs -- needed to start and little processing needed after a moustache is harvested mean that companies have always blossomed into business, sometimes growing wildly and collapsing as precipitously. This makes the moustache industry very attractive to ambitious investors as there is always something going on worth trading over. Claude Elwood Shannon, who invented the computer ``bit'' as well as a two-seat unicycle, earned three quarters of a million dollars on moustache stocks from 1973 to 1976, although it turned out he had made a mistake when trying to read his notes about which company he meant to invest in. This demonstrates the risks of sloppy penmanship.

But this interest will also attract scoundrels and irrational behavior from otherwise sensible investors. One group attempted a sophisticated trick the last week of May, 1985, when they shorted 28,000 shares of Associated Follicle and Epidermis while also buying as many options on the same stock. Had the share price dropped they would earn money on the shorts; had the price risen they would earn on the options. Unfortunately when the contracts matured on 18 July, the share price was nowhere to be seen, and by the time anyone found it (it had fallen behind the tall dresser in the guest room used to store the winter clothing, and it took three people to move the furniture around to where the price could be retrieved) the value of the Luxembourg franc had risen nearly fifteen percent against the Dutch guilder. Nobody seems to know why. It may not even be related to the moustache thing.

Indeed, if Hope-Johnson had any idea what he was starting odds are he'd never have started at all. But you could say that about most people who start things, which is why so few of them get done starting.

Trivia: Boston exported about 18,700 tons of ice in 1837. Source: The Frozen-Water Trade, Gavin Weightman.

Currently Reading: The World and Thorin, Damon Knight.