Friday, October 30, 2009

Investing in America's Future

The Problem is Waste

A frequent theme on this site is that today's financial crisis lie is the direct result of a longstanding misallocation of resources into unproductive ends. Current consumption, larger houses, etc. were preferred to savings and investment in the future, even if families and governments buried themselves in debt.

What the President Said

In "American Blew It, Will Obama?", we quoted the President's realistic State of the Union Speech about the incredibly short-sighted policies that led us into this mess:
In other words, we have lived through an era where too often, short-term gains were prized over long-term prosperity; where we failed to look beyond the next payment, the next quarter, or the next election.
Despite years of waste, maybe we could have muddled through if it hadn't been for the kleptocratic policies promoted by the preceding administration. As the President said:
A surplus became an excuse to transfer wealth to the wealthy instead of an opportunity to invest in our future. Regulations were gutted for the sake of a quick profit at the expense of a healthy market. People bought homes they knew they couldn’t afford from banks and lenders who pushed those bad loans anyway.

What We Said

Not only did these policies weaken the American middle class, but the diversion of precious resources away from more fundamental investments left the nation less competitive economically. As we pointed out in "Mis-Allocated Resources":

One of the issues brought to the fore by the present financial crisis is the extent to which America's productive capacity has been hollowed out. . . . Houses, shopping malls, internet concept stocks -- all were bubbles that wasted billions of dollars that could have funded productive, forward-looking activities.
In other words, we borrowed against our futures through leveraged speculation rather than investing in basics like R&D, training the workforce, etc.

New Support from the Financial Mainline

It seems that the mainline financial community is coming to agree with this point of view. In his latest monthly commentary, "Midnight Candles", PIMCO's Bill Gross cited some statistics compiled by his organization:

The U.S. and most other G-7 economies have been significantly and artificially influenced by asset price appreciation for decades.

Growth, in other words, was influenced on the upside by leverage, securitization, and the belief that wealth creation was a function of asset appreciation as opposed to the production of goods and services.

A long history marred only by negative givebacks during recessions in the early 1990s, 2001–2002, and 2008–2009, produced a persistent increase in asset prices vs. nominal GDP that led to an average overall 50-year appreciation advantage of 1.3% annually.

We, in effect, were hollowing out our productive future at the expense of worthless paper such as subprimes, dotcoms, or in part, blue chip stocks and investment grade/government bonds.

Putting a compounding computer to this 1.3% annual outperformance for 50 years, produces a double, and leads to the conclusion that the return from all assets was 100% (or 15 trillion – one year’s GDP) higher than what it theoretically should have been.

In other words, by leveraging up in stocks and other paper assets, we deleveraged our GDP, and by a huge amount.

The Only Solution

To repair America's decline, we must get at the root cause -- misdirection of resources. We can't continue to emphasize the financial sector of the economy. We must invest in the things that will make us productive, which are human potential, intellectual property, and productive capacity. This is the only path to a future that will benefit all the American people.