We’re forever blowing bubbles ….
Lots of economists more prominent than myself, such as Wynne Godley, and Stephen Roach, are most terribly worried about the following state of affairs:
The American consumer is pretty much all that’s holding up the entire world economy at the moment. This is because final demand has to come from investment or consumption, and nobody appears to be in the mood to invest. Meanwhile, the Japanese don’t care to (deflation and recession), the Europeans don’t dare to (an ECB more worried about credibility than sensible anticyclical monetary policy), so mad dogs and Americans have to go down to the shopping mall.
Which wouldn’t be a problem, except that, as far as we can tell, the American consumer is basically only still spending because he thinks that magic beans grown on the Internet will pay for everything. The strong suspicion is that when the Yanks look under the bed and discover that all of their magic Internet stock market money has turned back into rotting leaves, they’re going to feel a little bit embarrased (and broke), and stop buying goods from Asia with money borrowed from Europe, a process which doesn’t look like it would be enough to keep the world going but in fact is. And given that the stock market’s been performing pretty badly these days, and is beginning to appear on the cover of USA today, lots of people are beginning to worry that the day of reckoning might be at hand. Which would obviously, leave us in the shit.
This is the doctrine of the “wealth effect”, and if you can dig up a few factoids and linear regressions to illustrate it and avoid using the word “shit”, you can make a quite decent living as a pundit by repeating the paragraph above. On the other hand, if you had been placing bets on a US double-dip recession so far, you’d have lost them, because Alan Greenspan and his merry gang at the Fed have a solution to this problem. Basically, the solution’s pretty simple and it involves screwing interest rates down to the floor until mortgage rates follow them down to Low Low Prices levels, and pointing out to the Great American Consumer that it’s “Bye-Bye, Magic Stock Market Bubble Money!” but “Hello, Magic Housing Market Bubble Money!”. Marvellous.
Cleverer readers at this point will be formulating an objection. The objection goes along the lines of:
“Yeah, yeah, laughing boy, but what happens when the housing bubble bursts then?”
Which is a damn good question to ask, particularly since the official policy of the Federal Reserve appears to be “hmmm yeh, never thought of that, I suppose we’d be kind of fucked”. Looks like it falls to me to come to their aid, with a solution that smacks of genius.
The problem with those curmudgeons who rant on about the “unsustainability” of asset market bubbles is that they’re just not imaginative enough in thinking about what might count as an asset. So house prices might crash? So what, if 1977 Chevvy Blazers start selling for $25,000 a wheel, half of middle America will suddenly feel rich rich rich. It wouldn’t even be that difficult to trigger a “classic” second hand car bubble with the right mix of tax breaks to the auto loan industry (I’m even thinking about political feasibility here!). When that one runs out of steam, we can have a bubble in baseball memorabilia! Or parking spaces! Basically anything that Americans have lots of and might be prepared to pay over the odds for. Guns, probably (particularly as in this case, intervention in the market would redistribute wealth to urban blacks and rural whites, while leaving the Fed with an armoury that it’s probably going to need unless the economy gets better).
The whole fucking Beanie Baby thing proved beyond doubt that Americans have no real qualms about being manipulated into ludicrously undignified speculative bubbles if they think they might be able to get out at the top. We ought to harness this tendency for good. I’m not saying that this is a solution for the long term, but if we reckon on five years per bubble, then cars, guns, baseball and Beanies ought to last long enough for me personally to be either retired to the sunshine with a stack of gold and canned goods, or converted to pure energy and living forever on the Internet. Depending on my market timing, of course.