Wednesday, December 16, 2009

2001 Jim Grant Article: Sometimes the Economy Needs a Setback

This 2001 article was written in regards to the Internet bubble, but it has some timeless insights about booms and busts.

The weak economy and the multi-trillion-dollar drop in the value of stocks have raised a rash of recrimination. Never a people to suffer the loss of money in silence, Americans are demanding to know what happened to them. The truth is simple: There was a boom.

A boom is a phase of accelerated prosperity. For ignition, it requires easy money. For inspiration, it draws on new technology. A decade ago, farsighted investors saw a glorious future for the personal computer in the context of the more peaceful world after the cold war. Stock prices began to rise -- and rose and rose. The cost of financing new investment fell correspondingly, until by about the middle of the decade the money became too cheap to pass up. Business investment soared, employment rose, reported profits climbed.

Booms begin in reality and rise to fantasy. Stock investors seemed to forget that more capital spending means more competition, not less; that more competition implies lower profit margins, not higher ones; and that lower profit margins do not point to rising stock prices. It seemed to slip their minds that high-technology companies work ceaselessly to make their own products obsolete, not just those of their competitors -- that they are inherently self-destructive.

Booms not only precede busts; they also cause them. When capital is so cheap that it might as well be free, entrepreneurs make marginal investments. They build and hire expecting the good times to continue to roll. Optimistic bankers and steadily rising stock prices shield new businesses from having to show profits any sooner than ''eventually.'' Then, when the stars change alignment and investors decide to withhold new financing, many companies are cash-poor and must retrench or shut down. It is the work of a bear market to reduce the prices of the white elephants until they are cheap enough to interest a new class of buyers.