Necessary bubbles

[14 January 2008]

By Rob Horning

Last year, Slate business columnist Daniel Gross wrote a book called Pop!: Why Bubbles Are Great for the Economy. Needless to say, this doesn’t seem such a great title given our current economic climate and the growing sense even among people who aren’t business-news junkies that the burst real estate bubble will cause a lot of economic misery for all of us. You don’t have to read WSJ to notice the alarming depreciation of your retirement savings, as stocks have lost a huge chunk of their value in recent weeks. And you don’t have to be on a Bloomberg terminal to notice how expensive food and gas are becoming, or to notice how certain neighbors are failing to keep up on their home maintenance, or are even around anymore. No wonder consumer confidence is battered. Though Gross is a bit tongue-in-cheek in celebrating bubbles (as if this was a job he had taken on assignment) his assessment of the impact of the then-not-fully-popped housing bubble seems a touch short-sighted: “So far its salutary effects include the creation of a huge number of jobs and the inflow of investment into long-neglected urban areas.” That was true at the time, but now those jobs are vanishing, and blight is returning to those areas in the form of foreclosures.

Obviously, bubbles cause inflated asset prices, which eventually come back to earth, painfully, leaving a giant crater that causes all sorts of collateral damage. But some of Gross’s points about the origin of bubbles (government subsidies and favorable legislation) and their upside can’t be dismissed: Some of the paper assets created during the frenzy do spur real infrastructure investment, as with the build out of fiber-optic networks that are only now paying dividends with the advent of “cloud computing.” And past bubbles promoted widespread shifts in the way ordinary people work, travel, or communicate. In short, bubbles built the railroad and the information superhighway. Gross also argues bubbles build a “mental infrastructure” for comprehending new technological possibilities, new ways of doing business. The “creative destruction” enacted by the inflation and subsequent undoing of bubbles is presumably a small price to pay for progress. Indeed, by highlighting alternative energy as the next big investment boom, Gross suggests that bubbles will save us all from global warming.

In the most recent Harper’s former VC honcho Eric Janszen puts an apocalyptic spin on this thesis, claiming that the American economy has replaced the business cycle, the bugaboo of economies past, with a hyperaccelerated bubble cycle. Along with this shift, what are sometimes called the FIRE industries (finance, insurance and real estate) have supplanted traditional manufacturing as America’s economic base. Now that the housing bubble has popped, these industries are in grave trouble, and the usual remedies—rate cutting, currency deflation, tax cuts, an influx of foreign investment (think, sovereign wealth funds buying into U.S. banks)—are not so easily implemented when interest and tax rates are already low and inflation is rising and foreigners are filled to the brim with dollar-denominated assets. Hence we need a new bubble to bail us out, and Janszen too points to alternative energy. But rather than highlight the infrastructure and paradigm-shifting legacy such a bubble would supply, he directs our attention to the “$20 trillion in speculative wealth, money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver ‘energy security.’ When the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry. FIRE, meanwhile, will already be engineering its next opportunity.” In other words, the middlemen create fictitious value while extracting real profits for themselves, and then let government step in and clean up the mess when the fictions are revealed.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/post/necessary-bubbles/