This week’s news told us that good times are over. “For the time being, at least,” said the Governor of the Bank of England, “the ‘nice’ decade is behind us.”
Of course, just because an economist or a central banker says something, it doesn’t make it so. And when a central banker who is also an economist says something, it should be treated with the skepticism of an airline schedule.
“I am obviously biased, but I find it sad to conclude that the role of serious economists in financial institutions is very limited today,” said Han de Jong, Chief Economist at ABN Amro Bank to the Financial Times on February 21, 2008. “We are little more than clowns, whose purpose is to entertain clients….”
Mr. de Jong is too modest. Economists are essential to the financial industry. They distract the customers while the boys on the sales desks pick their pockets.
We say that not in contempt but admiration; the role of the financial industry – like the contemporary art market or like Las Vegas – is to separate the punters from their money. Economists help them get the job done.
This they did in the last two decades with a variety of gaudy theories. It didn’t seem to matter that the theories were contradictory and absurd. On the one hand, prices were said to move randomly – permitting them to ‘model’ risk and sell extravagant securities. On the other hand, private equity experts and fund managers pretended to know which way the ‘random’ movements would go; they claimed to be able to produce “alpha” – above market returns – on a such a regular basis they could charge “2 and 20” for it.
But while economists are usually wrong about things, the burden of the present essay is that Mr. King is right this time.
Last week, we argued that ‘alpha’ was a mountebank. The financial industry doesn’t often add much value, we pointed out. Instead, fair winds and convenient tides are what usually get investors’ little barks where they want them to go. Most of the results investors get depend upon setting sail at the right hour, from the right place, in other words, not in having a Wall Street hotshot at the tiller. Put an alpha-seeking whiz-kid out in a storm and he’ll sink along with everyone else.
In the 20-year period ’83 to ’03, for example, the price of oil barely moved. Sheep could graze peacefully in the Mideast, confident of being undisturbed. Now, everywhere they go, someone’s setting up an oil rig. The latest figures show oil exploration up 400% since 2000.
Almost a whole generation of investors got nothing from that greasy sector. Then, all of a sudden, in the following 5 years the roughnecks suddenly had money in their pockets and the wind at their backs.
Likewise, in America, you could have held residential housing for 100 years – from 1896 to 1996. You would have gotten nothing for your trouble but leaky roofs and cracked paint; prices rose only as much as consumer prices. Then, the next ten years, a tide of easy credit rushed into the residential real estate market; prices rose 70% in real terms.
Behind both these booms is a story too long to tell here. But the moral of it is simple enough. The average investor makes far more by accident than by fund manager. And here we venture a guess: of all the times and places in which a U.S. investor might hope to get a decent return on his money, this is not one of them.
But the beauty of capitalism is that people get what they’ve got coming – not matter what they think. NICE is an acronym for “non-inflationary consistent expansion,” according to Mr. King. It is his way of describing what other economists called the “great moderation,” a period so agreeable that they gave themselves credit for it. Macro economists believed they had finally mastered the art of central banking – so perfectly manipulating the credit cycle as to produce growth without causing the consumer price inflation that typically accompanies it.
If economic wizards were really responsible for the Great Moderation, it would be reasonable to think they could keep it going. Alas, they can no more sustain it than they can claim credit for it. What really happened, over the last 25 years, was a unique series of events and trends that now seem to have run their course. Labor rates fell as millions of new workers entered the modern economy. Now, even in China and India, salaries are rising fast. Logistical expenses declined as computers and just-in-time inventory systems were put in place; now inventories (and associated costs) are rising again. Outsourcing, globalization, deregulation, capitalization, securitization – all these trends helped keep prices down; now, all seem to have played themselves out, gone into reverse, or backfired.
Finally, the cost of money has fallen for the last 27 years. Sometimes it fell naturally. Sometimes it fell unnaturally, even grotesquely – such as when Alan Greenspan lent the Fed’s money at below the inflation rate for more than a year. Normally, cheaper money creates boom-like conditions. But normally, it comes at a cost: consumer prices soon begin to rise. As the economy “heats up,” the domino of labor costs falls over; workers are in demand so they ask for more money. Then, that domino knocks over consumer price stability; prices rise. Then, a whole line of dominos topples over. Bond investors run for cover, for example, forcing up interest rates. Then, the economy “cools down,” as the cost of money increases.
That was what was so nice about the ‘nice’ years. The dominos wouldn’t budge. Thanks to so many things working so hard to keep prices down, the normal process of self-correction broke down. As demand for labor increased, new, cheaper workers were found overseas. And even though the supply of dollars increased twice as fast as GDP, the domino with the CPI on it stayed right where it was.
Alas, those happy days are over. The Great Moderation is finished. This week, oil rose over $130 a barrel. T. Boone Pickens said it would hit $150 this year. And America’s core producer price index registered its biggest increase in 17 years.
Of course, the real level of consumer price inflation is probably far higher than the official numbers. The raw data suggest price increases closer to 10% per year than the 4% the US Department of Labor confesses. But the economists have their ways of making the numbers say whatever they want. In March, for example, the consumer price index was “seasonally adjusted” from 0.9% down to 0.3%. In April, wouldn’t you know it, another seasonal adjustment took the number from 0.6% down to 0.2%. We don’t know what the real number should be; no one does. But Mervyn King is right; the season has changed.
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