Date registered: Dec 2005
Location: United States
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The Big FixIn the early 1980s, an economist named Mancur Olson developed a theory that could fairly be called the academic version of Rahm’s Doctrine... His seminal work, “The Rise and Decline of Nations,” published in 1982, helped explain how stable, affluent societies tend to get in trouble. The book turns out to be a surprisingly useful guide to the current crisis.
In Olson’s telling, successful countries give rise to interest groups that accumulate more and more influence over time. Eventually, the groups become powerful enough to win government favors, in the form of new laws or friendly regulators. These favors allow the groups to benefit at the expense of everyone else; not only do they end up with a larger piece of the economy’s pie, but they do so in a way that keeps the pie from growing as much as it otherwise would. Trade barriers and tariffs are the classic example. They help the domestic manufacturer of a product at the expense of millions of consumers, who must pay high prices and choose from a limited selection of goods.
Olson’s book was short but sprawling, touching on everything from the Great Depression to the caste system in India. His primary case study was Great Britain in the decades after World War II. As an economic and military giant for more than two centuries, it had accumulated one of history’s great collections of interest groups — miners, financial traders and farmers, among others. These interest groups had so shackled Great Britain’s economy by the 1970s that its high unemployment and slow growth came to be known as “British disease.”
Germany and Japan, on the other hand, were forced to rebuild their economies and political systems after the war. Their interest groups were wiped away by the defeat. “In a crisis, there is an opportunity to rearrange things, because the status quo is blown up,” Frank Levy, an M.I.T. economist and an Olson admirer, told me recently. If a country slowly glides down toward irrelevance, he said, the constituency for reform won’t take shape. Olson’s insight was that the defeated countries of World War II didn’t rise in spite of crisis. They rose because of it.
The parallels to the modern-day United States, though not exact, are plain enough. This country’s long period of economic pre-eminence has produced a set of interest groups that, in Olson’s words, “reduce efficiency and aggregate income.” Home builders and real estate agents pushed for housing subsidies, which made many of them rich but made the real estate bubble possible. Doctors, drug makers and other medical companies persuaded the federal government to pay for expensive treatments that have scant evidence of being effective. Those treatments are the primary reason this country spends so much more than any other on medicine. In these cases, and in others, interest groups successfully lobbied for actions that benefited them and hurt the larger economy.
Surely no interest group fits Olson’s thesis as well as Wall Street. It used an enormous amount of leverage — debt — to grow to unprecedented size. At times Wall Street seemed ubiquitous. Eight Major League ballparks are named for financial-services companies, as are the theater for the Alvin Ailey dance company, a top children’s hospital in New York and even a planned entrance of the St. Louis Zoo. At Princeton, the financial-engineering program, meant to educate future titans of finance, enrolled more undergraduates than any of the traditional engineering programs. Before the stock market crashed last year, finance companies earned 27 percent of the nation’s corporate profits, up from about 15 percent in the 1970s and ’80s. These profits bought political influence. Congress taxed the income of hedge-fund managers at a lower rate than most everyone else’s. Regulators didn’t ask too many hard questions and then often moved on to a Wall Street job of their own.
In good times — or good-enough times — the political will to beat back such policies simply doesn’t exist. Their costs are too diffuse, and their benefits too concentrated. A crisis changes the dynamic. It’s an opportunity to do things you could not do before.
England’s crisis was the Winter of Discontent, in 1978-79, when strikes paralyzed the country and many public services shut down. The resulting furor helped elect Margaret Thatcher as prime minister and allowed her to sweep away some of the old economic order. Her laissez-faire reforms were flawed in some important ways — taken to an extreme, they helped create the current financial crisis — and they weren’t the only reason for England’s turnaround. But they made a difference. In the 30 years since her election, England has grown faster than Germany or Japan.
Now we're down about 50%, and we're still going down. That money isn't coming back. It would take over 50 years according to this metric. Or perhaps someone's anticipating a miracle?As Robert Powell reported last week, the standard, 60% stock/40% bonds portfolio takes a little more than 10 years on average to recoup a 10% drop in value, 15.2 years to recoup a 20% decline and nearly 20 years to recover from a 30% decline.
With the S&P 500 down approximately -24% Year to Date and more than -40% from its October high, many investors are going to have to have to find 30 more years of working life *just to break even*.
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