The Divergent Paths of Growth and Human Progress
Oil down to $91 a barrel. Stocks down again yesterday…with a loss of 65 points on the Dow. The 10-year note yield dropped to 2.90…
…and gold? The yellow metal lost $32.
What to make of it?
We don’t know any better than anyone else. But we have a feeling that the ‘stocks are cheap’ crowd have yet to discover how cheap stocks can become. And the ‘inflation is around the corner’ crowd is going to look around the corner and not see much coming. And the ‘bonds will crash when the Fed stops buying’ crowd will be surprised too. QE2 ends in about a week. If bonds were going to crash you’d think bond investors would have begun to sell by now. What are they, stupid?
Instead, bonds are becoming more expensive. It’s gold, stocks and real estate that are becoming cheaper.
So far, these are not even trends. It’s too early for that. They’re just guesses. But they could turn out to be good guesses.
Because the one thing this market has not fully reckoned with is the Great Correction. All this ‘recovery’ talk has masked the real, underlying trend. That is this: we’re correcting 60 years’ worth of credit expansion. How far? How much? How fast? We don’t know…but households are not spending like they used to. So, it doesn’t make sense that businesses should be worth what they used to be worth…or that people should have the jobs they used to have…or that economic policy should work the way it used to work.
That much is obvious.
But we’ve been making the point, this week, that the Great Correction might be part of something much bigger. Real GDP growth slowed to medieval levels in Japan after 1989 and in the US 10 years later. Japan has not added a single new job in 20 years; America has not added a single new full time job in over 10.
Well, no one really knows. The explanation might be a simple one. After a big bull market came a big bear market. In both Japan and the US, the authorities decided to fight the downside of the financial cycle…wasting trillions of dollars and preventing the economy from healing itself. This resulted in a long period of stagnation.
In the last century, the political authorities in Russian and China caused real GDP to go backward for 70 and 30 years respectively. Couldn’t central financial planning achieve the same perverse effects in the US and Japan today? Maybe.
Or, maybe it is something more profound. Yesterday, we looked at what an economic flop the Internet Age turned out to be. Since the introduction of the worldwide web growth rates have gone down, not up. While the web has certainly made a lot of things more efficient, and made a lot of people rich, it has not led to growth.
Which is not necessarily a bad thing. Maybe we’ve had enough of growth. Maybe we’re now more concerned with efficiency…time saving…and leisure. But that doesn’t do much for the 25 million people who lack decent, full-time jobs in America. And it doesn’t do much for the millions who struggle to pay their mortgages, while house prices go down every month.
The Internet may be a great thing, but it is not like the discovery of fire. When ancient man discovered fire it gave him an opportunity for above-trend growth. All of a sudden, he was able to use calories that did not come from his own digestive system. He moved into colder areas. His numbers increased (we imagine.)
Every major advance for mankind has been made possible by using more energy. First, he used the energy from wild plants and animals – eating them; converting them to useful calories. Then, he found that he could grow the plants that he wanted…and domesticate the animals that were most useful. This further increased the number of calories available to him. Human populations grew again.
Then, in the 18th and 19th centuries, he got his biggest break ever. He discovered that he could use coal and oil – thereby drawing on energy that had been condensed and stocked up by the earth itself. This gave him a huge advantage over other animals. It allowed his numbers to soar. It increased GDP growth rates from almost negligible to over 5%. Finally, he went forth and multiplied so much that it looked like even these new advances could not keep up with him.
But there are limits to everything. After two centuries it may be that the easy, accessible and cheap sources of fossil fuel – at least of oil – have been exploited. It may be too that the human population has expanded to the point where further increases will be costly and difficult. It could be that the advanced economies – those that got onto oil first – have already squeezed most of the growth juice out of it. That is, perhaps they have reached the point where further growth will be slow, incremental, and expensive…just as it was through most of human history?
As we noted yesterday, all the great technological advances happened at least a half a century ago. They all involved new and better ways to use fossil fuel. Since then, the only big advance has been the Internet…and it looks like a dud from a growth point of view.
If this is so…perhaps we are not doomed to a “lost decade,” as the papers warn. Perhaps the whole century will be lost. We have lost one decade already.