As all savvy investors are supposed to know, the Dow Jones Industrial Average breaking through the 17,000 mark – as it still could today – means bupkis. That is, it’s one of those round-number psychological levels that only suckers take seriously. Not that that will stop the financial news networks from continuing to obsess about this milestone, or the headlines from trumpeting it, if and when the moment comes.
Still, Dow 17,000 (like the somewhat more distant S&P 500) is a useful occasion for again contemplating the yawning disconnect between record asset prices pretty much all over the world and historically humdrum levels of growth and job creation in the real economy that of course have been artificially juiced by central bank stimulus.
I buy the standard explanation – that the very stimulus that has dramatically depressed interest rates in practically all major countries has spurred investors to seek the higher returns offered so far by equities and by tangible assets like real estate (but not necessarily like gold). I also buy the slightly-less-standard explanation that American businesses in particular have gotten so good at doing more with less that they can keep racking up record profits despite laying off many of their best customers (their workers), and driving down the wages of many others.
And I buy the widespread worry that none of this is sustainable, even with brazen enabling by the Federal Reserve, which artificially props up purchasing power throughout the U.S. economy (although I remain stunned at central bankers’ abilities to keep this high-wire act going as long as they have). But my main concerns are slightly different from the usual, because my analysis of the situation adds one element that’s typically neglected.
As I see it, the U.S. multinational companies that dominate stock trading in America have sold investors on a theme they can’t advertise in public but that’s been consistently and broadly suggested in analysts’ conference calls for two decades. They’ve made clear that they view the U.S. consumers that they’ve employed as being ultimately expendable because literally billions of new consumers in developing countries will steadily take their place.
There’s no doubt that a great deal of wealth has been created since the 1980s in countries like India and Mexico and especially China – along with a new generation of avid shoppers at many income levels.
But here’s the problem: As I showed in this article earlier this year, the best data available show that only 30 percent of third world workers earn the equivalent of $4 per day or more. And that figure is based on a way of measuring incomes across borders that greatly exaggerates their ability to buy products made in high-price/high-cost countries like the United States.
So to me, anyway, the U.S. consumer looks irreplaceable, even for the most efficient multinational company. We’re still a ways from the point where American consumers will have to be entirely or even largely replaced. But we keep moving closer to it thanks to the trade policies that Washington has pushed for roughly two decades – which keep needlessly sending overseas so much of America’s most valuable production, and so many of its family-wage jobs.
Think of it this way: Offshoring-friendly and other shortsighted U.S. trade policies keep sending consumption power to populations that for decades will remain far too poor to consume and import anywhere near what their prodigious numbers would suggest. And they keep stripping the world’s leading consumers – Americans – of much of the income-earning opportunities they need to pay for their consumption responsibly.
The unheard of global trade and investment and credit imbalances created by these trade policies have already blown up in the nation’s face – and indeed, the world’s face – in the form of the 2008 financial crisis whose stage they helped set. With the U.S. trade deficit now rebounding steadily from its recession lows, a repeat seems inevitable without a major policy course correction.
My forecast? (And please – do not take this as investment advice!) There’s no reason to expect that the troubles of the real economy will catch up with roaring financial markets. That is, this biggest bubble of them all will keep inflating. Until it bursts.