Caught in a Boom Market

By George P. Brockway, originally published September 6, 1996

1996-9-6 Caught in a Boom Market Title

ON OCTOBER 15, 1929, less than two weeks before the worst crash in the history of any stock market anywhere, one of America’s most renowned economists, Professor Irving Fisher of Yale, announced that stock prices would be “a good deal higher … within a few months.”

Fisher’s prophecy is as good today as it was on the eve of the Depression. All it took to make the market go up then was an influx of money, and that is all it takes now. Per contra, without an influx of money nobody, not even the wisest professors in the land, can induce the market to levitate.

The stock exchanges are, after all, among the few remaining places where the law of supply and demand still runs according to script. Brokers, bankers and publicists who operate in the shadow of the exchanges come to feel the law obtains always and everywhere, imposing market discipline as it goes. But as anyone who has noticed the programmed gyrations of prices in malls and supermarkets knows, this is not the case.

For the law to work, supply must be limited. It no longer is limited in most transactions of daily life. When a bookstore runs out of a bestseller today, it can have fresh stock tomorrow. If you want a new automobile, there are, as my Vermont father-in-law once remarked, plenty of people ready to sell you one.

Supply used to be limited in isolated provincial markets of the sort familiar to Adam Smith, and it is still limited in the narrow confines of Wall Street. Only the issues of a certain number of companies, and only a certain number of shares of each, are admitted for trading on the exchanges. When millions of people with money in their fists start demanding to purchase some of the finite supply, the old law comes into play and prices go up. We have a bull market.

The 1920s upsurge was generated by what may be called exuberant greed. The Great War had liberated and greatly enlarged the middle class. Wall Street promised more liberation. Today greed is certainly just as crucial, but the mood is noticeably different, more desperate than exuberant. For a moment, it seemed like morning in America, but the Baby Boomer generation has grown up and begun to worry about its retirement years, because suddenly they bode to be less golden than those of its parents.

The problem is, at least initially, demographic. Generation X (or whatever it may ultimately be named) is substantially less numerous than its parents’ generation. It is said, therefore, that the Social Security and Medicare trust funds will be depleted, and that the burgeoning costs of these “entitlements” will fall on a smaller number of taxpayers. Much as they love their folks, the young are expected to revolt. Boomers are advised to start looking out for themselves.

Where to look is the question. Many financial advisers answer that, over the years, the stock market has out-performed all other kinds of investment – Treasury bonds, foreign currencies, real estate, collectibles, gold, pork bellies, the lot. The difficulty that few citizens are qualified to play the market seems solved by the existence of 7,000 or more mutual funds whose comparative performances are widely rated. It is unlikely there are 7,000 fund managers more qualified today than Irving Fisher was in his day, but let that pass: The 7,000 funds now manage close to $3 trillion.

Unfortunately, this astronomical sum must be multiplied many times if it is to do the job expected of it. The Boomer objective, after all, is a decent retirement income. Not to be too ambitious, let us say something around $35,000 a year, which is somewhat more than the present median family income. This will certainly not be enough if Medicare is privatized any further, or if the Social Security COLA is eliminated. Nor will it be enough if inflation continues at its current “optimal” rate of 2.5 per cent, since over 10 years this will raise the price level 31 per cent. We can’t, however, allow for every contingency, or we would give up at once.

So let’s assume $35,000 a year, and let’s assume further that Social Security will somehow be good for $10,000, leaving our typical Boomer with $25,000 a year to coax from Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs), 401(k) schemes and other available fliers. Right now the average stock’s dividend is running at not much more than 2 per cent. At this rate, to rake in $25,000 a year in dividends, our Boomer’s portfolio would have to be worth roughly a million and a quarter.

Although I am no Irving Fisher, nor was meant to be, I think I shall not go far wrong in prophesying that the market will continue climbing, because the desperate Boomers are going to have to put their retirement money somewhere; and regardless of what Bob Dole’s new supply-side friends say, the country isn’t full of enterprises crying for new capital. As long as the Boomers’ annual contributions to IRAs and 40 1(k)s go into the market faster than other people take their money out, the weary bull is bound to keep scrabbling upward, at least for a while.

BUT ALL good things come to an end, and we have already received intimations of the mortality of this one. There are, to begin with, the worries about our corporations’ abilities to compete in the new global village, plus the uneasy suspicion that the information superhighway may turn out to be a curiosity, like the English Chunnel[1]. The principal sign of danger, however, is the 2 per cent dividend rate previously mentioned. Stocks paying only 2 per cent are an acceptable gamble as long as capital gains keep piling up. When they start falling (or turn negative), the stodgy 6 or 7 per cent yield of the Treasury long bond looks like an increasingly desirable port in what could develop into an unpleasant storm.

In 1983, when the present bull market began, the dividend yield of the Standard & Poor’s 500 was more than 6 per cent. When (post hoc and probably propter hoc) the dividend rate fell below 3 per cent, we had the “corrective crash” of 1987. Four years later, the rate had worked its way back to 4 per cent. Now, ominously, it is the lowest it has ever been.

It is by no means certain that even a 2 per cent dividend rate can last. The economy is strong enough to frighten the Federal Reserve Board, and all that, but the rate of profit has been maintained to a considerable extent by downsizing, and the thing about that is it frequently means exactly what it says. For when a company cuts staff, it cuts output, too-unless it has previously been unlucky or unbelievably inefficient or surprised by overwhelming technological change.

The trick is to cut jobs and wages faster than output. If a firm can manage that, its “productivity” will rise, though its production will probably fall. The lower cost per item produced may delight its economist and please its cost accountant; nonetheless, its total profits are likely to fall with its total output. Indeed, a company can be the most “productive” outfit in an industry (as Nissan’s and Toyota’s American automobile plants were rated last year), yet operate at a loss (as the Nissan and Toyota factories did).

For the nation all the time, and for the stock market in the medium and long run, what counts is production, not productivity. Production-goods and services created-can be used and enjoyed, and if so, can yield profits. Productivity which is merely an index number, a ratio of output to hours worked, nothing tangible – is not good to eat and pays no dividends.

The way things stand, if dividends fall much lower, capital gains will dry up as cautious money leaves stocks for bonds; the bull market will 1996-9-6 Caught in a Boom Market Nissanapproach its end. At some point before the end, or soon after, fall. Ever mounting capital gains would be a thing of the past, and to the extent that market and economic troubles are due to vanishing profits in relation to stock prices, an interest rate hike would have the wrong effect. The case for lowering the rate is not much happier, given the present temper of the Reserve Board. The initial consequence would naturally be to raise the price of bonds and, almost simultaneously, of stocks. The price/earnings ratio would stabilize, but again without encouraging capital gains. On the other hand, costs, sales and the profits of ordinary businesses would gradually improve. Up with this the Board could not put, so back up would go the interest rate.  Therefore, for the Boomer generation to enjoy a reasonably comfortable retire there will no doubt be calls for the Federal Reserve Board to intervene, and the Board will be tempted to comply. Besides wringing its hands, it will have two choices: to raise the interest rate, or to lower it. It will be leery of raising it, because someone on its staff may remember that in 1929 and 1930 the Reserve’s tight money policy was blamed for triggering the Crash and then turning it into the Depression.

In any event, raising the interest rate would lower the price of bonds; and almost immediately the price of every income-earning asset, including common shares, would follow. In other words, the stock market would fall, or at the minimum be impeded in its climb. In addition, the costs, and hence the prices, of ordinary businesses would sooner or later increase, and their sales and profits would fall. Ever mounting capital gains would be a thing of the past, and to the extent that market and economic troubles are due to vanishing profits in relation to stock prices, an interest rate hike would have the wrong effect.

The case for lowering the rate is not much happier, given the present temper of the Reserve Board. The initial consequence would naturally be to raise the price of bonds and, almost simultaneously, of stocks. The price/earnings ratio would stabilize, but again without encouraging capital gains. On the other hand, costs, sales and the profits of ordinary businesses would gradually improve. Up with this the Board could not put, so back up would go the interest rate.

Therefore, for the Boomer generation to enjoy a reasonably comfortable retirement, as every generation should, it can no longer consult its narrow self-interest. Instead, it must look forward to, and participate in, and help organize, a great surge in the gross domestic product. This can be accomplished in only one way in a free society. It is not enough for goods to be manufactured and services to be made available. To contribute to private profits and common wealth, commodities must be sold, and someone must be both willing and able to buy them. Otherwise, sensible producers will cut output and make up for the resulting drop in profits by laying off employees.

Mass industry requires mass consumption. But that will require a more generous and hopeful and responsible attitude toward the distribution of income than has been seen, in this country for many long years.

The New Leader

[1] Ed – so much for prognostication, neither turned out to be “merely a curiosity.”

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