America’s financial future is mirrored in our own family.
Cousins who live in the old manufacturing centers of America – Dayton, Detroit…Donora, Pennsylvania – have made no financial progress in the last 30 years. Worse than that, they’ve been held in a state of virtual serfdom to the unions and their employers. That is, even in a declining economy, with fewer opportunities available, with many periodic layoffs and slowdowns, they still get enough in salary, health benefits and pensions to keep them hanging around. They should have moved out years ago. As it has turned out, they’ve gotten no wage gains. And their houses haven’t even gone up in price like they have in other parts of the country.
We remember, when we would visit these cousins in the 1950s and ’60s… they seemed so well off in comparison to us. That was not hard to do since we were the poorest white people we knew. Our uncles worked in mills and factories, with high wages. They drove new cars and lived well. They were positive… forward-looking… interested in new technology… and, apparently, becoming wealthier every year.
But now, the whole situation has changed. Driving through the same towns is depressing. The houses are empty… the shops are boarded up… the cars abandoned… the factories rusty. And our cousins often seem to be discouraged… or even depressed.
Meanwhile, we have other family members who live on the coasts. One even works for Goldman Sachs. These are the people who are doing well, enjoying good job opportunities… and living in houses that have soared in price. They take vacations to the Caribbean and Europe and think the economy is just getting better and better. America believes it is a leader in financial and technological innovation… and that it will stay that way. Naturally, financial assets will keep going up in price.
Taken as a whole, we don’t know what to make of it. The U.S. stock market is still going up. The news is still positive. Investors are still comatose. Today, we wonder, once more, how long the good times can keep rolling on the top; while at the bottom of things the alpha question still remains the same:
Are people really getting as wealthy as they seem to be?
And the answer to that still comes back: No.
What is really happening is that amidst modest real economic growth, a massive amount of wealth is moving around. It is leaving the old economy (much of it in America)… and moving. Where is it going? It is headed to the financial intermediaries… to the people who own financial assets (including art… and high-end property)… to the new areas of economic growth (China, India…etc.)… to areas that attract rich people and financial industries (London…Manhattan)… and to people lucky enough to find themselves in one of these growth areas.
“My family owned a publishing business too,” explained a man we met this weekend. “But that was back in the ’60s when that kind of business didn’t have much value. My stepmother decided she’d rather have the cash… so she sold it for $6 million. We all thought that was a lot of money. She thought she had made a good deal. But, that same business was sold in the late ’90s, to the big Dutch publisher, Elsevier. Guess how much it sold for? One billion dollars. Almost all financial assets have gone up. ”
There are times when people put a lot of faith in financial assets. And times when they don’t. In 1949, people were so negative on the value of General Motors (NYSE: GM) that they sold the stock down to the point where it would produce a dividend yield of 11%. They must have thought that, with World War II over, GM wouldn’t be able to turn a profit. How wrong they were. The U.S. boomed. All those new families wanted cars. And the economy of the ’50s – ’70s made it possible for them to buy cars… houses… washing machines, everything. Ordinary people were making more and more money. The economy was expanding. People made money by making things for people with money to spend.
But now… how the picture has changed. Ordinary working people do not have money to spend. For the last ten years at least, they have only been able to expand spending by going further and further into debt. This is the picture we’ve been watching here at Markets and Money with such keen interest. We want to see how it will turn out. Obviously, people can’t continue to go into debt forever. Then again, we won’t live forever. The question is which of these two will give out first – the borrowing/spending binge… or us?
While the average working man is not making financial progress, some people are doing better than any people have ever done. The top five Wall Street firms gave away $36 billion in bonuses last year. The aforementioned Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS) provided its employees with average bonuses of about $400,000. In London, one employee got a bonus of almost $100 million.
Our entire salary could fit into one tiny part of that Goldman bonus… but it’s what we get, and we have to earn it.
Markets and Money