Political Erosion: First Confidence Fades, Then Faith

Confidence has now faded in the Dow/S&P 500, but faith is not yet gone. There is a difference. Confidence encourages buying. Faith retards selling. Confidence is based on this belief: “I can get rich with my money invested here.” Faith is based on this belief: “I won’t get poor with my money invested here.” In contrast, faith in the NASDAQ has departed. The NASDAQ is a dead armadillo, a Texas speed bump.

There is a parallel phenomenon in politics. Confidence in politics is the belief that, as a nation, we will be able to solve life’s most pressing problems through political action, mainly legislation at the level of national government. Faith is different. Faith in politics means that by seeking political solutions, we will not destroy ourselves. Confidence in politics is the belief that things can get better through politics. Faith in politics is that things will not be made worse through politics.

Because of the legacy of the twentieth century, voters in the industrial West have become convinced that politics is superior to economics in providing their basic protection. They believe that politics can fix the economy when things don’t work out the way they had hoped. If things go wrong, Congress need only pass new laws, and the Executive branch need only create new layers of bureaucracy to enforce these new laws. When bad news hits, there are cries of outrage from voters, who insist that “something must be done to prevent this from happening again.” This is an implicit admission that all of the previous laws have failed to keep this terrible thing from happening. Voters insist that “we need more of the same” to make things work right. Congress goes along with this, or at least it does after enough of the incumbents lose at the next election, which changes the allocation of political power.

When a national electorate’s initial response to a turndown of the economy is that “government must do something,” faith in government is still alive. But when this faith is limited to fixing the market’s temporary failures rather than substituting political power for it, then confidence in government is gone.

The public’s faith in Social Security is the test of faith in our era. Nobody expects to get rich through Social Security, but almost everyone expects to be kept in comfort. When that faith smashes into the statistical reality of $25 trillion in unfunded liabilities (including Medicare), faith in government will depart.

LOSS OF CONFIDENCE

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 shook the faith of the left-leaning intellectuals in the West. Nothing that the Communists did for 75 years had shaken their faith that the State is a means of social salvation. But, overnight, the loss of power of the USSR broke that faith. The USSR had visibly gone bankrupt. The reality of Soviet poverty could no longer be concealed. Gorbachev came begging to the West for money. Then he was tossed out. This was all too much for the West’s intellectuals, who had worshipped at the shrine of State power for three generations.

Free market economists had taught from the beginning that the State must not be trusted with sufficient power to shape the economy. Socialism is, as Hayek called it in 1944, the road to serfdom. If the State can help you by taking away the other guy’s money, then it can also hurt you by taking away your money. Power-seeking politicians are more likely to hurt the masses than help them, Hayek argued. The most ruthless men will get on top.

Over the past decade, leftist intellectuals have lost political influence. Those who have preached free market economics have gained political influence. Clinton was unable to get his original economic agenda passed. His socialized medicine plan crashed in 1993. This helped get a Republican Congress elected. He really did reduce the federal government’s power over local welfare programs. Today, a free market economist and former college professor of economics, Dick Armey, is the House Majority Leader.

But not for long. We are seeing the end of the 1994—2002 Republican hegemony in Congress. The Senate is now in the Democrats’. Armey will not run again. J. C. Watts won’t, either. The sagging stock market is opening up opportunities for the Democrats.

We are now entering a kind of ideological no-man’s land. Confidence in the State’s ability to heal society’s pains has faded. The left has lost this confidence, and the right never had it. But confidence in the stock market as a means of achieving wealth for the middle class has also faded. The cheerleaders who thought the NASDAQ was the road to wealth have had their portfolios smashed and their mouths silenced. The public has begun to suspect that the Dow is not going to perform the miracle of comfortable retirement living, either. The stock market’s volatility is evidence that there is substantial skepticism out there which will prevent any bull market move above 12,000, or perhaps even 10,000. None of this was foreseen by the experts in early 2000, any more than they had foreseen the collapse of the Soviet economy in 1986 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1990.

FAITH REMAINS

Faith in both politics and the stock market remains. There are few voters who believe that the stock market can fall to such an extent that those who keep their money invested in it will become impoverished. Most voters and investors are convinced that the State can and will do something to keep this from happening. They still believe that political intervention into the operations of the free market can keep the economy from turning negative. They still have faith that the free market will not fail them, just so long as Washington keeps passing laws. They still believe that Congress is wiser than they are. After all, their money is on the line. Their money is invested in the stock market. They are responsible as investors. But they still believe that Congress can give wise direction to the bureaucrats who enforce the law, and the result will be a stock market and economy that do not fall. There can never be another major depression, voters believe, because Congress can pass laws and the Federal Reserve System can create money. They still believe that responsibility for the preservation of their wealth can be transferred to the government.

The Federal Reserve System can indeed create money. It buys government debt, which serves as the nation’s monetary base. Take a look at the expansion of M-3, beginning in 1995. The NASDAQ bubble began about then.

http://www.economagic.com/em-cgi/pdf.exe/fedstl/m3sl

M-3 stabilized briefly earlier this year, but has now resumed its upward trend. Last week, it rose by $44 billion. The week before that, by $33 billion. This cannot go on if a new wave of price inflation is to be avoided. Greenspan admitted this in his July 17 testimony before the House Banking Committee.

In considering policy actions this year, the Federal Open Market Committee has recognized that the accommodative stance of policy adopted last year in response to the substantial forces restraining the economy likely will not prove compatible over time with maximum sustainable growth and price stability. But, with inflation currently contained and with few signs that upward pressures are likely to develop any time soon, we have chosen to maintain that stance pending evidence that the forces inhibiting economic growth are dissipating enough to allow the strong fundamentals to show through more fully.

http://www.federalreserve.gov/boarddocs/hh/2002/july/testimony.htm

This was his way of saying that the economy is still mired in slow-growth mode. Yet the rest of his testimony predicted real economic growth above 3%. Then why is the FED unwilling to allow short-term rates to rise? Why is it still inflating? Isn’t it time to slow the growth in the money supply? One reason why it is time to stop inflating is this: the median consumer price index is rising at more than 3% per annum. This statistic is not widely reported by the financial press. It measures the core rate of price change. What we hear is that consumer prices are barely rising. The median CPI says otherwise.

http://www.clev.frb.org/research/mcpi.txt

In one area, Greenspan’s testimony was as pessimistic as anything I recall in his 14 years as Chairman. This had to do with corporate fraud. The entire monitoring system broke down, he said. He blamed “infectious greed” — this, from a former follower of Ayn Rand, greed’s greatest apostle in history. He called for unspecified alterations in the legal order. In short, he sounded like a Democrat running for office. He put the blame for the breakdown of the monitors on the stock market’s bubble, which the FED’s monetary policies had created — a cause-and-effect relationship he did not mention. No one except Ron Paul blows the whistle on the FED, and no one blew the whistle on Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom. Greenspan said:

In recent years, shareholders and potential investors would have been protected from widespread misinformation if any one of the many bulwarks safeguarding appropriate corporate evaluation had held. In too many cases, none did. Lawyers, internal and external auditors, corporate boards, Wall Street security analysts, rating agencies, and large institutional holders of stock all failed for one reason or another to detect and blow the whistle on those who breached the level of trust essential to well-functioning markets.

Why did corporate governance checks and balances that served us reasonably well in the past break down? At root was the rapid enlargement of stock market capitalizations in the latter part of the 1990s that arguably engendered an outsized increase in opportunities for avarice. An infectious greed seemed to grip much of our business community. Our historical guardians of financial information were overwhelmed. Too many corporate executives sought ways to “harvest” some of those stock market gains. As a result, the highly desirable spread of shareholding and options among business managers perversely created incentives to artificially inflate reported earnings in order to keep stock prices high and rising. This outcome suggests that the options were poorly structured, and, consequently, they failed to properly align the long-term interests of shareholders and managers, the paradigm so essential for effective corporate governance. The incentives they created overcame the good judgment of too many corporate managers. It is not that humans have become any more greedy than in generations past. It is that the avenues to express greed had grown so enormously.

Perhaps the recent breakdown of protective barriers resulted from a once-in-a-generation frenzy of speculation that is now over. With profitable opportunities for malfeasance markedly diminished, far fewer questionable practices are likely to be initiated in the immediate future. To be sure, previously undiscovered misdeeds will no doubt continue to surface in the weeks ahead as chastened CEOs restate earnings. But even if the worst is over, history cautions us that memories fade. Thus, it is incumbent upon us to apply the lessons of this recent period to inhibit any recurrence in the future.

Notice the last sentence: “Thus, it is incumbent upon us to apply the lessons of this recent period to inhibit any recurrence in the future.” What, exactly, did he have in mind? As usual, he refused to get specific in his testimony. But what is obvious is that he senses the fact that the investing public has lost confidence in the market’s ability to protect their interests. He therefore called for “us” — he was testifying before Congress — to “apply the lessons.”

As to the future of the stock market, “Perhaps the recent breakdown of protective barriers resulted from a once-in-a-generation frenzy of speculation that is now over.” Greenspan’s words reflect the perception by the public that the days of wine and roses are over for the stock market. The goal now, he seemed to imply, was for the government to intervene and for the FED to keep interest rates low. This will not bring back the stock market’s boom. It will merely keep the system from crashing.

Public confidence in the stock market as the road to universal personal wealth has faded. Confidence in the government has also faded. Greenspan admitted that the institution of government had failed, along with the accounting profession. “Our historical guardians of financial information were overwhelmed.” Furthermore, he warned of the possibility of permanent U.S. government deficits.

Unfortunately, there are also signs that the underlying disciplinary mechanisms that formed the framework for federal budget decisions over most of the past fifteen years have eroded. The Administration and the Congress can make a valuable contribution to the prospects for the growth of the economy by taking measures to restore this discipline and return the federal budget over time to a posture that is supportive of long-term economic growth.

“Can” is not the same as “will.” The Administration is determined to launch a war with Iraq, probably without Congressional approval. When was the last time any nation fought a war with a balanced budget? The next time will be the first.

Public faith in both the stock market and the government remain. People still believe that disaster is unlikely. That’s why Greenspan can continue to present testimony about slow, steady progress as being likely. He understands the new psychological conditions. He is not appealing to public confidence; he appeals to public faith. He offers hope in slow, steady economic progress, but not the high rapid returns that would be necessary to make middle-class dreams about retirement come true.

CONCLUSION

Greenspan’s rhetoric is never too far ahead of the general public’s expectations. When the FED-induced stock market boom was on, 1997—2000, he blew. He has now made it clear that it is not rational to expect anything except slow, steady economic growth, at best. A return to the stock market experience of the late 1990’s is unlikely and undesirable, he said.

Confidence is gone. Faith remains. Confidence created the stock market boom. Faith is what keeps people in this market when they could sell.

Without confidence, capital investment disappears. Businessmen are still refusing to invest. Look at “Real Nonresidential Fixed Investment.” Look at “Nondefense Capital Goods Orders.” They are still negative.

http://research.stlouisfed.org/publications/net/page15.pdf

This is why all talk about a booming economy is whistling past the graveyard.

The S&P 500 has not collapsed in the way that the NASDAQ did. There is still sufficient resistance to selling to keep the market from a meltdown. People are holding on and hoping for the best. They still have faith in the stock market. They don’t think it can make them poor. But they no longer believe that it can make them rich. The same shift has taken place in the public’s assessment of the government.

As an investor, you must decide: What will provide your security in your retirement years? The stock market? The government? Or your own personal productivity?

The public no longer believes that there will be great wealth ahead. That confidence was part of what Greenspan described as “a once-in-a-generation frenzy of speculation that is now over.” But the wave of panic-driven selling has not arrived. Faith is still alive.

When the sell-off hits, men will be thrown back on their faith in government. Only when that faith at last expires in a wave of broken promises will men decide to trust in their own productivity.

I suggest that you make that mental transition now. Avoid the rush.

August 13, 2002

Gary North is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.freebooks.com. For a free subscription to Gary North’s twice-weekly economics newsletter, click here.

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