Financial bubbles are not accidents but rather inevitable outcomes of our asset-backed banking system. To illustrate: imagine a homeowner who owns a $1 million house free and clear. He goes to a bank and borrows $800,000 against the house. This credit money springs into existence as an accounting entry of a private bank—it is the creation of credit out of nothing. The borrower goes out into the market with these newly created funds and starts purchasing other assets: stocks, perhaps, or a weekend house. The new money drives prices higher, including those of the assets that form the collateral of the banking system. Since its collateral value has increased, the banking system is happy to increase its loans to borrowers, which pushes prices yet higher, and so on in a positive feedback loop. Price signals then prompt over-development, which
eventually lowers rents, which causes borrowers to default, the fractional reserve
process goes into reverse, and the banking system collapses.
Irving Fisher, whom Milton Freidman anointed “the greatest economist the
United States has ever produced,” described it thus:
In boom times, the expansion of circulating medium accelerates the pace by raising prices, and creating speculative profits. Thus, with new
money raising prices and rising prices conjuring up new money, the
inflation proceeds in an upward spiral till a collapse occurs, after which
the contraction of our supply of money and credit, with falling prices
and losses in place of profits, produces a downward spiral generating
bankruptcy, unemployment, and all the other evils of depression.
It’s fascinating how investors come to forget that markets move in cycles and not perpetual diagonal lines. As value investor Howard Marks wrote in The Most Important Thing, “Rule number one: most things will prove to be cyclical. Rule number two: some of the greatest opportunities for gain and loss come when other people forget rule number one.” A normal, run-of-the mill cyclical bear market wipes out more than half of the preceding bull market advance.
All of the above doesn’t mean an imminent reversal of trend only that investors are acting as if risk is low. Remember Buffett’s line, “Be fearful when people are greedy and greedy when people are fearful.”
The governments and central banks of the world are engaged in a futile effort to stimulate economic recovery through an expansion of fiat money credit. They will fail due to their ignorance or purposeful blindness to Say’s Law that tells us that money is the agent for exchanging goods that must already exist. New fiat money cannot conjure goods out of thin air, the way central banks conjure money out of thin air. This violation of Say’s Law is reflected in loan losses, which cannot be prevented by any array of regulation or higher capital requirements. In fact rather than stimulate the economy to greater output, bank credit expansion causes capital destruction and a lower standard of living in the future than would have been the case otherwise. Governments and central bankers should concentrate on restoring economic freedom and sound money respectively.