The markets continue to stagger around like drunks after last call and with every bit as much connection to reality. As I write this, a half hour before the final bell, the Dow is up 11%, nearly 900 points for the day. The NASDAQ and S&P 500 are both up around 10%. All this despite reports of consumer confidence and home prices dropping faster than President Bush’s approval ratings.
Before the fiddlers have fled
Before they ask us to pay the bill
And while we still
Have the chance
Let’s face the music and dance
Last March, the BBC ran a story about shanty towns springing up in the US.
At the time BoingBoing and those few others who saw it asked why we were learning about this from the UK media and not from the US media. Now, a scant six months later, the US press has paused from parsing porcine lipstick and noticed.
Today the early headlines say Stocks soar at opening after gov’t rescue plan. Forgive me for thinking the markets are indulging in some irrational exuberance. We’ve seen this sort of response before. This is from the Wall Street Journal on March 19:
At some point we are going to see a huge impact from the Fed’s determination to once again deal with another issue by printing more money. Some commentators say this will simply mean an explosion in the size of the national debt. I wish that was all. The current crisis was created by pumping increasing amounts of money and credit into the economy, it is beyond me to understand why doing more of this will help fix it. You know what they call it when you keep repeating the same behavior and expect different results, right?
I am not smart enough to determine if we are about to hit a period of inflation or deflation but I know something is going to happen and will keep happening until all the difference between the amount loaned and the actual value of assets comes into balance. (If you’re a debtor start rooting for deflation — it means any money you do use to pay off a debt will be worth less than the money you originally borrowed. A net gain, if not a happy one.)
As the year has gone along, I’ve tagged a number of items under Recession? What Recession? I can’t say they make for happy reading:
No matter how many times it bounces, the cat isn’t getting any less dead March 20, 2008 · 2 CommentsHas anyone else noted that we are no longer trying to avert a recession? Now the news stories all say that various actions are being taken in order to avert either a “deep” or “prolonged” recession. Expect to soon read about the steps being taken to end the recession without any formal announcement of its actually having begun. Of course, as M Horn likes to point out, the word recession has been redefined to a point of uselessness. Where it once meant “a decline in GDP for two or more consecutive quarters,” it now is a synonym for “the current mess.”
In March, when the BBC ran that shanty town story, it still seemed possible to have a reasonable disagreement over whether or not we were in a recession. Now the D word is in play. Soon we will be hearing that we are not in a depression and that we are trying to avert one. That is becoming the economic equivalent of promising to have the troops home by Christmas. As soon as you hear it, you know it’s a lot worse than anyone is willing to say.
Someone once asked Tom Lehrer why he stopped writing those wonderful, witty songs about the news. Having turned out anthems on topics from pollution to nuclear proliferation, Lehrer said he had begun to feel like a citizen of Pompeii being asked to say funny things about lava. Without having matched Mr. Lehrer’s accomplishments, I can certainly empathize. I have been saying for the last seven years that the real problem with the Bush administration is that it took all the fun out of being able to say “I told you so.” Unlike Mr. L, I refuse to leave the scene — especially when we are in such a target rich environment.
There may be trouble ahead
But while there’s moonlight and music
And love and romance
Let’s face the music and dance
While many people have recorded this song — but not Roxxy Music, for some reason — I still prefer the original by Fred Astaire. It’s on the soundtrack to Follow The Fleet. A happy little musical by Irving Berlin that was made into a movie in 1936.
Has anyone else noted that we are no longer trying to avert a recession? Now the news stories all say that various actions are being taken in order to avert either a “deep” or “prolonged” recession. Expect to soon read about the steps being taken to end the recession without any formal announcement of its actually having begun. Of course, as M Horn likes to point out, the word recession has been redefined to a point of uselessness. Where it once meant “a decline in GDP for two or more consecutive quarters,” it now is a synonym for “the current mess.”
Whatever you choose to call it, the current mess is large and has quite a bit of room and reason to get worse. Mere economic facts are not enough to prevent the markets from spiking as it did yesterday. During these bounces facts are replaced by faith. Thus the believers know a cut in an interest rate, a not-so-terrible earnings report or the news that oil DECREASED to $104 is the leading indicator that all prayers will soon be answered. At times like these the thinking gets so magical that the Fed, or whomever, gets endowed with the power to make anything impossible come to pass. Thus for a few hours Mr. Bernanke was deemed capable of getting the Cubs to the World Series.
I have always been amused by the idea that the stock markets in some way reflect reality. The markets, like the monetary system itself, are a form of collective wishful thinking. Investors as a group convince themselves that a thing has a value and thus it does. Sometimes these values are connected to the actual needs and demands of the society: oil allows things to function, as does the Windows OS. However a high price is no guarantee of a thing’s pragmatic worth. Frequently a high price indicates only the desire to people to posses them. This explains why people have at different times in history paid exorbitantly for pieces of gold, tulip bulbs, the US dollar, and shares of Bear Stearns. These items’ only actual worth is if A) you want a metal that is both malleable and highly conductive; B) you are a horticulturalist; C) you have a fetish for wallet-sized rectangles of green paper; and D) … well, let me get back to you on that one.
It would be cynical to insist that a connection between a thing’s price and its usefulness is the exception and not the rule. But many people do act this way. Thus the “bigger fool” theory of investing, where the idea is to hope that you will be able to sell your investment to someone who is an even bigger fool than you yourself are. This point-of-view equates the markets with nothing more than a legalized Ponzi scheme. It is a POV that will sadly be gaining many adherents in the near term. There are some contrarians — I believe Mr. Buffet has made some slight amount by not following this course. I have no idea which is right. If I did I would have the funds to not be concerned about a current lack of employment.