Friday, April 8, 2011

Why Bubbles are Bad: The Long Term

Thinking about the word "bubble", describing bouts of speculative mass hysteria by investors creating a self-fulfilling prophesy of rising asset prices out of line with an asset's fundamental value, I've realized that the analogy of "bubble" is not perfect. In one very important way a speculative bubble is more like a sponge. Like sponges, speculative frenzies soak up investment, taking it away from what is truly value-creating. But never mind the metaphors, the point is that when investment gets pumped into one sector that, as it turns out in retrospect, was downright bubblicious, other actually valuable sectors get ignored, and this has significant consequences for the economy in both the short and long term.

I theorize that the amount of long-term havok a bubble unleashes on an economy is directly related to how long that bubble survives. Let me explain. If a bubble is around briefly, it's impact will mostly be limited to those who directly traded in the bubbly asset. But when a bubble thrives for years at a time, as was the case with the housing market in the 2000s, people not directly involved with the buying and selling of the asset have time to react and make fateful long-term investment decisions based on skewed bubble-induced perceptions. When I say the word "investment" I am not just talking about Wall Street. Every person in the world makes investments whenever they sacrifice something in the short term in anticipation of greater value in the future. Going to the gym is an investment. Planting seeds in the ground is an investment. And importantly for our discussion of bubbles, getting an education or putting years of labor into a certain professional field, is an investment. Unfortunately these long term investment decisions are often at the mercy of bubbles.

A bubble with staying power is a huge collective distraction. People gravitate toward numerous bubble-spawned careers, investing their precious years and dollars in them. During the housing and financial bubble of the 2000s, a great number of our best and brightest were whisked away from careers in engineering and medicine, and into the bubbly financial sector. According to The Harvard Crimson, in 2007, 47% of jobs taken by new Harvard grads were with consulting and financial firms. The bubbly influx of cash into these sectors allowed firms to hire extensively, and from the college graduates' perspective, seeing successful financial professionals popping up around them, finance was where the money was. One study of the financial sector by economist Thomas Phillipon at the Stern School of Business, using a statistical model, estimated that on average, bankers in 2006 were overpaid by 40% over what fundamental variables would precict. And wouldn't you like to be overpaid by 40% too? But the carnage occurs once the perceived value of the bubbly asset realigns with its actual value. At this point many of those who had found careers in the bubbly industry get sacked, and having spent years of their lives chasing an economic mirage, it becomes harder for them to contribute to the economy with real value-creating activity. Post bubble, huge sections of the labor force are stuck with skills that are no longer needed. And then what does the economy get? Higher structural unemployment, (the worst kind), and an economy unable to deal with the real challenges of its age.

To give another historical example, the most absurd Monty Pythonesque asset bubble I can think of occurred from 1634 to 1637, when Holland was struck with a collective frenzy for tulip bulbs. This speculative rush elevated the price of some rare types of tulip bulbs to monumental sums of money. The price of the coveted "Admiral Van Eyck" bulb increased from 1,500 guineas in 1634 to 7,500 guineas in 1637, which at the time was the price of a house. Of course a crash in prices followed shortly after. But for those three years, i'm sure it was very lucrative to be in the tulip industry. If such a bubble were to happen today we'd probably see commercials for money-grubbing trade schools on TV saying "Get in on the fastest growing career: Tulip Merchant." It sounds absurd in hindsight. Bubbles always do. But it always seems like a good idea at the time.

I guess the moral of the story is, in all economic behavior, from choosing a stock to buy to choosing a house, to choosing a career: Don't Believe The Hype.


Olivier Blanchard, Macroeconomics, Fourth Edition, 2006, Pearson/Prentice Hall , Pg. 328

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