The Next Boom Will Come
Given the dour outlook of economic experts and pervasive pessimism of the investing public, it's hard to be optimistic--but I am. I'm confident that better times and a stronger economy lie ahead of us. Really, a brighter future is all but inevitable. Yes, I repeat, just as day follows night, we will see better times. Let me explain the root of my optimism.
Generally speaking, two basic schools of economic thought have been most influential over the past 75 years--Keynesians (including neo-Keynesians), who advocate fiscal measures such as an increase in government spending to stimulate a sluggish economy, and higher taxes to cool an overheated inflationary economy; and monetarists (led by Friedman's Chicago school), who believe that what's more important is controlling the money supply, primarily through buying and selling government bonds in the open market and raising and lowering the discount rate. Both schools of economic thought unabashedly lay claim to real-world successes of their models--Keynesians take credit for lifting the economy back onto its feet through FDR's New Deal spending following the Great Depression in the 1930s, and monetarists boast of steady and prolonged economic growth in the 1980s (Reagan years) and 1990s--despite the many recessions we have seen, including those in recent decades: 1980 (7 months), 1981-1982 (17 months), 1991-1992 (8 months), 2001-2002 (12 months), and presumably 2008-2009.
While these two mainstream schools of economic thought certainly have their differences, they also share an important commonality--both rely heavily on government intervention to control or at least influence economic growth. President Bush's consumer-targeted economic stimulus package during the early days of the current financial crisis and the new stimulus package that President-elect Obama stressed as a high-priority item in his first press conference a week ago are examples of Keynesian policy in action. The Fed's continual "busy-body" adjustment of the discount rate--Greenspan's lowering of the rate to 1% in 2003 during the last recession precipitated by the dot-com bubble, and raising it back up to the 5% range by the time of his retirement in 2006, and Bernanke's pushing the discount rate all the way back down again to 1% last month, while hinting at more rate cuts to follow--are examples of attempts to steer the economy using monetary policy.
In sharp contrast to these two mainstream schools are those who argue that both the Keynesians and monetarists are wrong-headed. For example, the Austrian school, based on the thinking of Mises and Hayek, explain how government intervention is not the solution. Stating that fiscal and monetary policy fail to produce their intended impact, these economists insist that, instead of smoothing the vagaries of the business cycle, government intervention actually causes the booms and busts, through over-extension and over-contraction of credit at artificial prices via the highly government-regulated fractional-reserve banking system. Quite contrary to active intervention, the Austrian school recommends following a laissez-faire "do nothing" approach, theorizing that this is the only way to cure permanently our economic woes. For a coherent exposition of the Austrian school's position, see Murray Rothbard's 1969 essay, "Economic Depressions: Their Cause and Cure," here.
Which economic school is right? Well, first off, practically speaking, it would be grossly out of character and, in fact, outright political suicide for any president--whether lame-duck Bush, or our country's new icon of hope, "renegade" Obama--to tell us American citizens that, after serious dialog and lengthy reflection, the elected officials and their appointed experts have decided that a "do nothing" policy is best. With home foreclosures at historical highs and rising, and growing worries over burdensome credit card balances, auto loans and other consumer debt, the popular approval ratings of even the most charismatic of political leaders would undoubtedly suffer greatly if all their economic advisory team could come up with is to a "do nothing" strategy for tackling the current economic crisis. No, simply put, Americans are by nature more active doers than thinkers, and doing nothing never has been and probably never will be an acceptable alternative for managing our economy.
So, much to the chagrin of Austrian school economists, we must conclude that government intervention, whether effective or not, will continue when Obama and later presidents take office. Given this inevitability that politicians and their mainstream economic advisers will always be inclined to fiddle with the economy, here's the logic of what to expect:
- If the sketchy long-run track record (performing like a "B" student, with 13 out of the 115 quarters beginning in 1980 showing negative real GDP growth, according to BEA data) of the Keynesians and monetarists is any indication, we should see at least some degree of over-shooting in the future, perhaps this time manifested by a delayed but sudden response of our economy to excessive fiscal stimulus or overly loose monetary policy, resulting in either consumer price inflation or yet another asset bubble. (On the other hand, if by chance (or fluke?) policymakers have learned from the last boom-bust cycle and this time around manage to get the economic fine-tuning exactly right, they will have realized the heroic feat of taming the recalcitrant business cycle, macroeconomic volatility will cease, and we will all live, at least economically, happily ever after. . . . but I would tend to believe other fairy tales before placing undue faith in this one, wouldn't you?)
- If the Austrian school is correct in their critical analysis of the shortcomings of Keynesian and monetary policy, the current credit-driven bust will inevitably be followed by a boom, and the more our government intervenes to try to fix the problem, the higher the crest and deeper the trough we will see during the next boom-bust cycle.
Suffice it to say, for anyone distraught by the current bust, please have patience: the next boom will come--maybe even sooner than you or anyone now thinks.