One facet of understanding markets, and economies, is to understand how much cash is sloshing around “out there.”
During the low interest rate Greenspan era after the 2000 recession, corporation profits and cash holdings built up to historic levels. So did the cash holdings of the wealthiest cohort of Americans.
Cash has to go somewhere, particularly if interest rates are low. As we know now, a good portion of the cash went into housing and into financial innovation securities like credit default swaps. And into the stock market.
The bubble built and burst far beyond the housing market itself because the housing bubble was mirrored on Wall Street by the swap market bubble. The second bubble was the one that cratered the financial industry throughout Europe and the US primarily.
The underlying problem is that investors can’t find enough productive investments. In an ideal world there would be industries and innovations sufficient to handle the money created from corporate profits. In an ideal world these types of investment opportunities would create new jobs and income growth. But the private markets haven’t been able to create, net, any new jobs for the past 10 years.
And so the cash horde is building up again. Right now the cash sitting on corporate balance sheets is about 12% of total assets. That’s more than double the historic average. Outside of corporations, the amount of cash sitting in money market funds is also at historic highs.
Yet this is happening while unemployment rises to 10% (16% in the US if you count the people who quit looking for jobs or are otherwise underemployed), more than 5$ trillion in US private wealth disappears and sovereign nations build up deficits as their revenues shrink.
So why is there a lack of productive investment opportunities–the kind of opportunities where money goes into new jobs, new machines and life enhancing innovations?
Because right now all the real opportunities, the really big ones, need government help. And in the Democratic, developed countries governments haven’t done a very good job of identifying the right policies and the right government funding to get things kick started.
So what might these really big opportunities be?
- Energy. Everyone knows that, inevitably, fossil fuel energy is going to become more and more expensive. It won’t go straight up, of course. Nothing does that. But the fundamentals, and the trends in pricing, are as clear as the nose on your face. Governments should adopt a multi-faceted set of policies that together would spur innovation and development in alternative energy. Natural gas and nuclear might be good energy sources to “bridge” into the era of truly clean and sustainable energy. They would buy private markets time and security for risk taking–particularly if the government put subsidy floors under the new industries allowing them to attract private investment. The so-called “green revolution” would take off with the right policies and subsidies. And the promise of job and income growth would take off at the same time.
- Transportation. You now hear that the automobile industry is going to eventually disappear. Possibly. But more likely it will evolve into an industry where more and more efficient cars are designed and built. In 10 years I wouldn’t be surprised if there are very few gas stations. There may be stations where you can “charge” your car. But the days of selling gas may be the real industry that won’t survive. On the flip side are trains. That industry is likely to grow because it will have to–particularly in the area of commodity transportation. Governments who adopt policies encouraging expansion of rail infrastructure will not only create private jobs and income growth, but will make other industries more competitive by controlling transportation costs.
- Agriculture. This is another broad area where growth may come because it has to. And it’s an excellent example of displaying the power of government subsidies. Unfortunately, the subsidies were to the wrong companies. The US subsidizes corn to the tune of $4 billion annually. It’s been a stunning success in some regards. We’ve basically become a corn dependent nation. The corn is artificially cheap which means our beef and chicken, even farm raised fish, are cheaper than they would otherwise be. Unfortunately, the food that’s cheaply produced isn’t very healthy. And non corn food prices have gone up sharply. So we’ve lost our food diversity too. What if we changed our policy and started subsidizing the production of healthy foods? What if we subsidized an increase in food diversity instead of one that concentrates fewer and fewer jobs into fewer and fewer corporations that make money on corn and corn derivative production? Such policies would not only make us more healthy (thus reducing obesity and diabetes for starters) but would save the nation billions of dollars in medical costs. Plus, there would be more farms and thus more farm employees and farm equipment.
These are just three major areas where productive investment opportunities will arise with the right government policies and subsidies. They are huge areas offering the potential to create millions of jobs and billions in profit and income.
Repairing poor policies comes along with this package. For every new subsidy aimed at the right target, there are other subsidies that should be stopped. The corn subsidy is one striking example of what should be eliminated.
Financial regulation reform is another example. Under the current regulatory regime, the policy is that we will always bail out “too big to fail” bank holding companies. This is a huge subsidy, without question. And it cost the nation dearly. In the trillions of dollars. If these banks can’t compete without this subsidy, then we need a new banking system from the ground up. Done properly, financial reform will greatly improve the stability of our financial system, and that, all by itself, will give the overall economy a boost.
Health care reform is much like financial reform. The policy has been to subsidize health insurance companies, to support medical professional wages overall, and to protect drug and medical device innovation. The health reform package just passed is a step in the right direction. But it has deep flaws that won’t do much to withdraw the subsidies of the previous policies. To the degree that it is improved and thus reins in out-of-control price hikes all along the health care chain, the new policies will ”save” tax dollars that could be re-directed towards more growth oriented industries.
Better international trade policies are needed, as well. Our laissez faire approach to international trade, similar to our laissez faire approach to financial regulation, has kept a lid on domestic job and income growth. If our policies are able to protect domestic industry and labor’s income, they will also support domestic demand for product. And robust demand is a good force for job and income growth.
The health care reform effort and the financial regulation reform effort represent only one kind of policy change: The one trying to repair damage caused by poor policies.
What we also need is the development of policies aimed at spurring private investment directly into specific areas such as those mentioned before. Targeted, coordinated government efforts at creating sustainable improvement in our economy. If we can manage to implement these types of aggressive, forward looking, policies the nation will prosper.