The stock market has not gone crazy. It is desperately trying to go uncrazy.
In a healthy, free, and flourishing economy, prices act as unbiased bearers of information, driven by the impersonal forces of supply and demand, validated by millions of independent transactions. In a word, market prices act like a giant adding machine that no one controls. At any time, in every place, prices carry most of what we need to know to make the decisions we need to pursue our individual conceptions of happiness — regarding production and consumption choices, risks and rewards, and spending and saving tradeoffs.
Prices enable us to make independently informed choices. But when politicians, central bankers, and the crony financial institutions that serve them collude to construct politically profitable illusions, they do so by corrupting the price of money. By manipulating interest rates, they can induce massive misallocation of resources, warping consumption, production, spending, and saving choices, and biasing risk decisions across the entire economy. They are given cover by court economists, who work to convince the public that “fine-tuning” the economy and addressing the excesses of the “business cycle” are the proper role of government.
While these distortions can produce powerful short-term illusions, pumping up the value of assets in a simulacrum of prosperity, they can rarely be sustained. Sure, some well-connected cronies will line their pockets and spread their wealth around for a while, but sooner or later the ability to fake reality becomes too expensive, too complex, or too volatile to maintain, and the illusion comes crashing down. At that point, no one knows the real price of anything. Panic ensues, trade is disrupted, stock markets swoon, and economies shrink. The responsible parties then shift the blame, a credulous media amplifies their story, and the process starts all over again.
This game has been going on for all my adult life, from the 1970s’ stagflation to the 1980s’ savings and loan crisis to the 1987 crash to the 1990s’ dot.com bubble to the 2001 stock market crash to the early oughts’ real estate bubble to the 2007/2008 financial crisis to today’s stock market bubble and crash. Through it all, we seem to have learned absolutely nothing.
Instead, we listen to the Krugmans of the world as they remind us that all this turmoil was caused by greed or unfettered capitalism or inequality or insufficient aggregate demand or too few regulations or Japan or China — that is, anything other than the real culprit: government induced manipulation of the price of money. The result? Frightened voters cede ever more economic power to the government, begging to be saved from mysterious forces they don’t understand by the very politicians and bureaucrats that are fleecing them.
How long this can go on is anyone’s guess. Perhaps technological innovations like bitcoin will pave the way to substantive change. But unless and until enough of us come to understand the true source of these periodic disasters, it’s hard to imagine why anything would change. It took millennia of carnage to achieve the separation of church and state. Will we live to see the separation of money and state?