Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Bubble, Bubble, Toil and Trouble

While I am rather bearish on the economy right now, I feel the need to explore a couple issues that could affect how this whole economic meltdown plays out.

Bubble Bubble – With the advent of technology, transactions costs related to access and information have been substantially reduced in the last 2 decades. This has made it much easier for arm chair investors to jump onto every market bandwagon. One minute its tech stocks, the next its real estate, the next its gold, oil and commodities. Some of these markets can build and deflate quickly, and some will build and deflate slowly, depending on production lead times and the stickiness of the market. In any case, I think bubble psychology is here to stay. There is just too much money looking for a home (the next big thing). This would make a great PhD thesis: take a historical look at how long bubbles took to play out, compared to transparency (information) transaction costs, and asset production lead times.

Toil – Typically in recessions, unemployment rises. But lets not forget, just last month marks the first of the baby boomer retirements. This exodus from the workforce will mitigate some of the employment related issues we would otherwise see. Of course, if the stock and bond markets are performing poorly, this may delay the retirements.

Trouble? –How much trouble ahead is anyone’s guess. But if the markets can get a better handle on recognizing bubbles before they get too advanced, then it should bring some stability to investments. If investments are perceived as fairly stable, it will mean that the Boomers will feel relatively comfortable retiring. This in turn will keep unemployment at a more reasonable level than it would be otherwise in times of economic turmoil.

How do I see this playing out? Markets won't be able to get a handle on the bubble psychology. Just not enough contrarian investors out there. This will continue to create and destroy wealth at an increasingly rapid pace as well as prevent stabilization of the financial markets and banking system (hopefully some additional government regulation will either curb the risks, or require more disclosure, so that the financial system is not constantly teetering on the brink with every new asset bubble). I think Boomer retirements will be what eventually pulls us out of this mess since companies will be able to downsize in a less costly manner.

Of course there are a gazzillion other things in play (such as the dollar's loss of status, I am hoping our thirst for foreign goods subsides a bit which would spur domestic growth. This situation would be helped considerably if China would begin to devalue its currency.)....But I haven't seen much coverage by the MSM on these two issues which will play a big role in the aftermath of the housing bubble.


Cmyst said...

I have come to the investment game late. While I understand the basics,there are others here that are very advanced in their understanding.
I know that feelings mean very little and that facts are key. However, I'm a "feeling" kind of person and this has always worked well for me. That being said:
I feel that the next year or two will be increasingly difficult for the middle and working classes. Fundamental changes seem imminent, on all social,political and financial fronts. China and India are FAR from being the powerhouses that the US is, but between a revitalized Europe and an ascendant Asia, I think that the mentality of the average US citizen is changing.
I am an absolute believer in Peak Oil, and I think we hit that peak a year or so ago. There is a reason that OPEC is not increasing production despite increased demand. There is an old guard that is going down desperately grasping for that last drop of oil, but the new generation is quickly taking up the call to fund alternative energy research. In 20 years, McMansions and Hummers will be looked back on with absolute horror as the wasteful excesses of a decadent and decaying empire. (Please note: I love America, and there is absolutely nothing intrinsically American about excess, greed, and Empire. That we have become such a lazy, ignorant and greedy people in the eyes of the world hurts me to the core of my being.)
Many people have developed a low-level anxiety about rising commodity prices, falling home values, climate change, and energy demand. A woman and a black man are conducting serious, well-funded and largely socially encouraged campaigns for President. Let me tell you, this is amazing and somewhat unsettling for the older generation that I work with, and I also see it reflected in the demographic breakdown of the supporters of both candidates. But it DOES cause anxiety to many people. And this constant social anxiety, I believe, is contributing to an increase in crime and unrest -- even if the people involved are not suffering directly from the economy.
I grew up in the sixties, and accepted social and political unrest and an unpopular war as being the status quo. I see many parallels in this time. My "feeling" is that the economic problems are going to be much worse this time around than they were in the 70's/early 80's. This, in turn, is going to propel the government towards more social programs ala FDR, in order for our society to muddle through the mess, whether we like it or not. (It's one thing when poor and socially disenfranchised people suffer; that, after all is their lot. It's quite another when the middle-class and even the lower upper class begin to suffer -- that will not be tolerated politically, believe me.)
I've felt for quite some time that my concern is no longer when to buy a house. I still want one, don't get me wrong! But it just seems so shallow now....

Buying Time said...

I dunno Cymst, the tech bubble, housing bubble etc, were way out of line with economic fundamentals. People were betting on mob mentality. They have the "feeling" that there will always be another sucker to purchase what they bought, but at a higher price.

As for the social programs, not sure we will be able to afford these programs. With the boomers retiring, us working slobs will already have to support a lot of retirees....and the AARP vote is often much stronger and more organized than the younger vote.

G Spot1 said...

Have you seen anything on how the decline in homeowner equity is going to play into boomer retirements? I have to think some people who were counting on that cash are watching it evaporate....

Buying Time said...

"Have you seen anything on how the decline in homeowner equity is going to play into boomer retirements?"

If these Boomers were counting on their RE equity which primarily grew from 2000-2005, then they were not planning well for retirement in the first place. They should have had a retirement game plan in place WAY before the RE boom (like in their 30s and 40s).

Of course there are some who used what they had saved over their lifetime and put it into RE investment property. Ouch. Never put all your eggs in one basket, especially that close to retirement!

alba said...

I'm thinking along the same lines as cmyst. While I somewhat understand the need for social programs, not only to lift the fallen, but to stimulate the economy, where does the money come from? I suppose its just printed. I also agree we will eventually have social programs for the poor and old, but not for the young, sick, and under-educated...or so says the aarp.

Think of housing for the last 30 years. It was the largest, most prosperous, investment one could make. Why wouldn't have the boomers planned for this to be the largest part of their retirement portfolio?

Buying Time said...

I'm a lot more risk adverse than your average person...but I am a very strong believer in diversification. Its hard to diversify RE holdings unless you have a ton of $$, in which case you aren't as worried about retirement savings.

I also think a person's home should be where they sleep, eat and spend holidays with their family...not their retirement savings. Although reverse mortgages are starting to change all that.

alba said...

Diversifying home equity, as part of one's holdings, is exactly what just happened - didn't work. If you just buy a home you can afford, and live in it, your home will likely become your largest holding. Maybe people shouldn't buy homes? At least it was for the last 30 years; even though, until this decade, it was just a home; and homeowners were just people, not investors.

Cmyst said...

Since when has not having any money stopped the government from anything?
The way I look at it, when conservatives are in power we borrow and spend, pushing the debt onto our kids and grandkids. When liberals are in power we tax and spend. Personally, I'd prefer taxing and spending, just like I prefer paying as I go and not using credit cards in my personal life.
There are a lot of infrastructure problems to work on, as well as new "green" energy programs and technologies. I think there will be a WPA style program to put America back to work, while improving our infrastructure and technology at the same time. Obama talks about young people earning educational grants by working, and that sounds pretty darn good to me. The only government training and jobs program we've had for working class young people has been the military. The military should be a chosen career, and not the only place you can go to guarantee your college education or a job.
As far as investment and speculation, Warren Buffet himself said this week that double-digit profits are a thing of the past now, even for Berkshire-Hathaway. I do see that technology has made bubbles faster and higher, but that mentality is part of human nature and there will always be unreasonable speculation. I do believe that regulations will be reinstated, but sooner or later someone will once again loosen them and this will all happen again.

Gwynster said...

^^^^^ what Cmyst just said... every word >; )

Ed said...

"As far as investment and speculation, Warren Buffet himself said this week that double-digit profits are a thing of the past now, even for Berkshire-Hathaway."

I am a big Warren Buffett fan, and I've watched him for years. I'm also a BRKb shareholder.

Funny thing about Warren: He under promises and over delivers. In this case, he has been promising that oversized profits would not continue at Berkshire Hathaway since 1981, yet he's managed to do it almost like clockwork.

He's an interesting link with a history of his statements, contrasted with his performance:


ps: I agree with the general premise he is discussing. Just be cautious of using his words too literally.