Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Macroeconomics, QE, and Other Things Not Preached

It was one of those Sundays when I'd got two competing sermons, both of which are vying for attention from my spirit.  Both played off of the same passage.  Both talked about justice, and both were grounded in Jeremiah.  But come Sunday morning, er, there can be only one.

So it seemed to make sense to bail on the one that involved macroeconomics.  Fascinating as it is to me, it was feeling like a bit of a bludgeon.  And I know that sermon time is nap time, but I try not to go there too often.

Still and all, I didn't want to lose those thoughts.

Because when it comes to the relationship between the powerful and the struggling, macroeconomics matters.

Every market index has been flying high lately, setting all time records.  DJIA, S&P, you name it, stocks are soaring.  But what does that mean, and why is it happening?

It means, as I have blogged before, nothing more and nothing less than this:  that the price of stocks in US dollars is rising.  Period.  If the price of milk was rising, or the price of gas was rising, or the price for a young family to buy a home was rising, well, that'd be bad news.  But when stocks go up, for some reason, this is a good thing.

Oh, it would be good, if a stock was rising because its subsector of the economy was booming.  It would be good if people were being hired in record numbers, and it was a time of plenty, and the value of corporate endeavor was the rising tide that was raising all boats.  Sometimes, that's what the market measures.  But not always.  It can also measure irrational exuberance, as Alan Greenspan once put it.  Human beings can go nutso over things, and get so caught up in crowd-assumptions of value that they'll pay ten years wages for a tulip bulb. 

Or sink their life's savings into the IPO of eCheeseoftheMonth.com.

Thing is, most folks aren't exuberant right now.  The real economy is not soaring.  It's stagnant.  Production is meh.  Employment is meh.  Nothing is happening, and certainly not enough to justify the riotous expansion of market value we've seen over the last five years.

Well, actually, that's not true.  Something is happening.  Quantitative Easing is happening. 

Eighty billion new dollars are being printed into the American economy every month.  It's part of the Federal Reserve's strategy to "jump start" the economy, and I've honestly always viewed it with a little skepticism.  Money is money, meaning it is not the real economy.  It is neither harvest nor product, but rather a part of the meta-economy, the game we play as we manage our culture.

And in that game, all that money being printed up every month, has to go somewhere.  It's not going into salaries, that's for sure.  The Fed's intrabank cap on interest rates means it is also not significantly driving up prices of commodities, and neither is it boosting the impact of savings.  It's like a balloon being inflated, while you constrict all but one portion of it.

And so where it's going is the market, driving market valuations to one record after another.  Remember, just a few short years ago, the DJIA was in the six-thousands.  It just cleared sixteen thousand.

What that is doing, though, is the challenge.  It is creating and deepening imbalance.  For those who have bought in to the market, to the investor class, it's a time of boom and plenty. The C-suite folks, already flush from the recent and explosive growth in their compensation packages, will benefit the most.  Meaning, this is a hell of a time to be rich.  It always is, of course.  It's good ta be da king.

I benefit also, as my mutual fund and investment reports tell me every quarter.  But my wellbeing is not the only thing I see.

For those who cannot buy in, those who are wage and salary only, those who are just getting by, it means that the great class divide grows all the wider.  The few profit, while the many fall further and further behind.

It is a remarkably anti-progressive turn of events, and the deep irony of it being continued by a putatively progressive administration should not be lost on anyone.

It will be, of course.  We're too distracted to notice how wildly things are falling out of balance.  It does not exist on our scale, on the scale of the day to day.

But though I cannot speak with Jeremiah's confidence, I am reasonably certain that God notices.