Oct 092008

As I write, the stock market is flatlining, credit has seized up, no one seems to know what to do, and bad times seem in store. What caused it? Not what you think. Not, basically, greedy Wall Streeters, ordinary consumers taking on loans they could not pay off, bad accounting requirements, faulty credit ratings, failures of regulators to regulate, nor a formerly too rosy outlook from the Fed. These were all surface phenomena.

What lay beneath then? One way to put it: too high a worldwide savings rate. Consumption too low. And, partly causing both of those, the rise of the Attention Economy (as I define it,  not as it has been defined by others).

We have been told for years that the savings rates of Americans are too low, that we are over-spending on consumption, and  that there is too much reliance on credit. That’s not impossible, but worldwide, the savings rate in fact has been too high, and I suspect it may have been unrealistically high in this country as well. And certainly, to have such a high worldwide savings rate, consumption has been too low. I am embarking on several posts to explain.

Swimming in a Pool of Money

Let’s talk about “savings” first. What most Americans understand about saving today is that it it really means investing one’s money or one’s retirement account (or paying into a pension plan that will invest for one, of relying on one’s employer to do the latter) in such a way that the total nest egg will grow to a tidy sum by retirement. Not everyone is fortunate enough to have such savings, and I don’t have the figures right now, but certainly a sizable proportion of people near retirement do have substantial savings — or did.

To that domestic pool of savings must be added similar things from Europe, plus, from the “developing world,”  the so-called “recycled petrodollars” and the savings of capitalists and to some extent even workers. Also we should add in the growing pies of savings held by non-profits, such as universities and foundations.

Take one example: the country of Singapore, which has experienced a very high rate of growth has a large investment fund to spend abroad. Why? Why not invest at home, or use the extra money to buy goods and services now? First of all there is no crying need or desire for more goods and services now, and second, Singapore seeks a nest egg for its own “retirement” or to take care of its own aging population.

Saudi Arabia’s population isn’t aging, but it also parks a considerable portion of petro dollars in the accounts of small group of ultra-rich princes and commoners, and also invests money abroad for its own post-oil future. (As if.)

All these investment pools seek more or less reliable “growth stocks” to invest in. It’s too much money chasing too few stocks. Even under ideal capitalism, we can’t all be capitalists; we can’t all get even moderately rich on the basis of investments in productive industries of any kind.  (Of course, the average financial planning advisor will be happy, even now to claim the opposite. It can happen for some, or at least it could, so the FA is only necessarily misleading in the aggregate. )

The more we save, the less we consume of course. Also, the more money is distributed unequally to the few rich and the many too ill paid, the less net consumption there is . The rich have money to burn, but most of them don’t want to. They want to get still richer, and of course their extra funds are part of the same investment pool.


Meanwhile, however, firms keep improving efficiency. Labor productivity keeps going up. But overall consumption does not increase that fast. (I’ll explain what I term “consumptivity” and how it connects to attention in my next post. ) Capital productivity keeps rising too. That means that in terms of industrial-era investments, there is not enough to invest in with any realistic hope of substantial profits. And not enough industrial type jobs either.

Hence, what the NPR program “This American Life” in a special broadcast last May about the sub-prime mortgage mess calls the “Giant Pool of Money” — to wit, about 60 trillion dollars cruising the world in search of ways to become much more. That money, feeding into the collateralized debt obligations along with credit default swaps, hedge fund shares and so on, helped propel the overheated financial sector and the overheated housing market, and much else besides.

You know the rest in that regard: the silly assumption that housing prices would rise forever, the super-easy, turn a-blind-eye mortgage offerings with huge built-in rate hikes; the speculators seeing a killing buying extra homes for nearly nothing. Many Americans, some having already developed a nest egg in investments they didn’t want to touch, and others with no money to their name at all, taking on new credit based on home -price appreciation.

Many had to do this because they simply were not paid enough to support families or send kids to college. Why so little cash? One reason: no executive “worth her or his salt” wants to overpay workers or keep more on the books than necessary. That is out of fashion throughout  the profit- and non-profit sectors alike. It was partly by paying workers as little as possible that executives and investors could grow rich, after all. That led to more money in the investment pool that could find no sensible target.

Arrrrgggh! Who Stepped on the Brakes?

The old realities had given out, and the spiral might have kept on going if all those involved had forgotten all about those old truths. Instead, rates did reset; borrowers suddenly could not pay. Foreclosures began; housing prices stopped rising and began to fall, and more foreclosures ensued. Then the entire overheated banking edifice came crashing down, to be explained more carefully in my third forthcoming installment.

Such Golden Years

As to hopes for pensions and retirement status: Republicans shed crocodile tears over the supposed “underfunding” of Social Security based on the fact that retiring baby-boomers will not leave enough younger workers in the system to pay the taxes to fund the program. Democrats defend Social Security but also believe pensions and 401k’s, etc., are good bets. Of course younger workers have to do the work that will lead these investments to be profitable. If the investments are in other countries, those countries’ finances have to stay good and accessible. More fundamentally, what retirees really will need is actual attention paid to them. No national policy on pensions can guarantee that in advance, which neither party ever thinks about. Savings and pension funds and perhaps Social Security too were if not lies based on a false notion that the system as it was could keep going on on forever.

Still to come:

2. The Limits of Consumptitivty;
3. How the Attention Economy is (Semi) Incompatible with Money;
4. One Result: Banking Has to Go Bonkers
5. Any Chance of a Soft Landing? Possible humane policies for the new era

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