With financial meltdown seemingly averted, eyes are now turning to the ‘real’ economy, and the question of how deep will be the global recession precipitated by the abrupt ending of cheap credit. (We should have no doubt that cheap credit is over. Banks and hedge funds are now desperately trying to ‘de-leverage’, which means holding onto all the cash they can, while unwinding their ‘positions’ funded through borrowing. Cash is king, queen, and the whole royal family.)
What exactly is the ‘real’ economy? Can we say it is the economy where we work, the economy of production, the economy of fundamentals? As discussed previously, the global financial markets are largely divorced from the real economy insofar as 80% of trades are purely ‘technical’ (e.g. arbitrage, currency speculation) while only 20% are concerned with actual ‘investment’. This is one of the reasons why Susan Strange said that money has gone “mad”.
The world’s richest and most famous fundamental investor, Warren Buffett, has also warned against the madness of a market obsessed with prices and technicalities. Following his friend Ben Graham, Buffett characterizes the market as a fellow named Mr. Market:
Without fail, Mr. Market appears daily and names a price at which he will either buy your interest or sell you his. Even though the business that the two of you own may have economic characteristics that are stable, Mr. Market’s quotations will be anything but. For, sad to say, the poor fellow has incurable emotional problems. At times he feels euphoric and can see only the favorable factors affecting the business. When in that mood he names a very high buy-sell price because he fears that you will snap up his interest and rob him of imminent gains. At other times he is depressed and can see nothing but trouble ahead for both the business and the world. On these occasions he will name a very low price, since he is terrified that you will unload your interest on him. Mr. Market has another endearing characteristic: he doesn’t mind being ignored. If his quotation is uninteresting to you today he will be back with a new one tomorrow. Transactions are strictly at your option. Under these conditions, the more manic-depressive his behavior, the better for you. (The Essays of Warren Buffett, p64)
Rather than focus on the ‘technical’ factors of market behavior, Buffett prefers to focus on the fundamental characteristics of the businesses in which he owns a stake. He wants to intimately understand their products, accounts, business models, and management. In this he follows the example of John Maynard Keynes, whom Buffett praises, quoting a letter that Keynes wrote in 1934:
As time goes on, I get more and more convinced that the right method in investment is to put fairly large sums into enterprises which one thinks one knows something about and in the management of which one thoroughly believes. It is a mistake to think that one limits one’s risk by spreading too much between enterprises about which one knows little and has no reason for special confidence . . . . One’s knowledge and experience are limited and there are seldom more than two or three enterprises at any given time in which I personally feel myself entitled to put full confidence. (Essays of Warren Buffett, p82)
Although the investment philosophy of Warren Buffett compares favorably with the madness prevalent in the market, there are nevertheless many important ‘fundamentals’ which he overlooks. For example, Buffett describes Coca-Cola as a “wonderful” business (ibid. p30). This remark is very revealing about the ‘real’ economy, because the ‘real’ economy makes no distinction between those companies whose products and practices are harmful and those whose are helpful. Instead the focus is purely on the bottom line, profit and loss.
I would like to propose that we divide the ‘real’ economy into two broad categories: the productive and destructive economies. The job of investors, consumers, workers and governments should be to look beyond mere profit and loss at the actual effects which companies and their activities have on the world. We should support those which are productive, and boycott those which are destructive.
There are some companies which fall clearly into one or other of these categories, and some which are more ambiguous. Clearly we should all boycott weapons and tobacco companies, although unfortunately the British and American governments provide enormous public subsidies to weapons companies.
One ‘industry’ which is clearly destructive is gambling, yet its revenues — a frightening £55bn in the UK last year — are included in Britain’s GDP. Surely this figure should be subtracted, not added! However, the Department of Culture has gone so far as to say that it “sponsors” the gambling industry.
Government sponsorship indeed seems to be the effect of the Gambling Act 2005, which loosened the regulations applied to gambling, despite the fact that there were already 300,000 gambling addicts in this country (of whom 40% have suicidal tendencies). The act was passed in the face of a report by Professor Griffiths, professor of gambling studies at Nottingham Trent University that the effect of the bill would be to increase the number of addicts by between two and four times. As we move into recession we are likely to see gambling become more of a problem: a recent survey shows a link between gambling and urban deprivation.
The point is that notions of the ‘real’ economy are meaningless if considered in isolation from physical and mental well-being. No matter how profitable a company, if its effect is to damage well-being then its revenues and profits should not be counted as part of our national ‘product’. Instead, attempts should be made to warn people away through taxation, advertising bans, publicity compaigns, clear labelling, denial of premises and so on. This is the strategy which is now, belatedly, being pursued in the UK with regard to cigarettes. Better late than never.