Debt for Dividends

In another episode where the comics page eerily mirrors real life, a recent “Garfield” cartoon has Garfield confronting a resident rat who has been taking cheese, but leaving IOUs, from the “cheese drawer” of the refrigerator. Garfield threateningly says to the rat “Stop with the IOUs” and the rat calmly holds up his hand in protest and says, with a look of utter sincerity on his face, “No, no…I’m good for it”!

Perhaps it is my Refined Mogambo Sense Of Humor (RMSOH), or perhaps it is my equally-refined Mogambo Sense Of Scorn (MSOS), but either way, using a diseased, lying, filthy, corrupt, thieving rat as a metaphor for Congress is the funny-because-it’s-true part! Hahaha!

I remember it because I was reading the comic strip before I fell asleep on the couch, snoring and snorting and having a wonderful time while taking a well-deserved nap after spending the busy morning writing hate mail to the Federal Reserve (“Dear Morons, I hate your guts because you are the weenies who have so little intelligence that you let the foul Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve 1987-2006, create So Damned Much Money (SDMM) and with So Damned Little Oversight (SDLO) that it allowed massive, MASSIVE bubbles in debt that produced bubbles in stocks, bubbles in bonds, bubbles in houses, bubbles in consumer spending, bubbles in derivatives, and huge, backbreaking bubbles in size and cost of government, and now we’re freaking doomed! Sincerely, Anonymous in Florida and fed up with you clowns!”).

I was just in that delicious part of my nap where I usually begin dreaming of wonderful things that might have been, had I only been prescient enough to say, “Marry you? What? Are you freaking crazy or something?” or “Have some kids? What? Are you freaking crazy or something?” but still buying lots of gold, silver and oil with which to get Fabulously, Fabulously Rich (FFR) so that I could tell lots and lots of other beautiful women, “Marry you? What? Are you freaking crazy or something?”

Let’s just say that fantastical things were getting dreamed up pretty good, if you catch my drift, when the kids come running in with a copy of Barron’s in their hands, yelling, “Wake up, daddy! Wake up! You can raise our allowances even if your income is down! There’s a way to do it! Wake up!”

I was lazily rubbing the sleep from my eyes and carefully watching to see if any of them came close enough that I could reach out and smack them for so rudely waking me up, which I feel empowered to do because that is what my wife did to me for doing the same thing just the other day.

I mean, there I was, early in the morning before the sun was even up, nervously looking at our finances and coming to the only conclusion I could; “The kids have got to go!” Before I knew what I was doing, I went running into their rooms, honking an air horn and anxiously yelling, “Get up! Fire! Get up and get out of the house! Emergency! Get out! Get out of the house!” whereupon they all went rushing outside in their pajamas and I locked all the doors so they couldn’t get back in.

It was, I admit, probably my most pathetic, desperate attempt to clutch at the only straw I had left, a move that led to the aforesaid incident of my wife hitting me, and the police watching her do it, yet doing nothing about it, and the kids wailing, “We’re so traumatized! He’s a horrible person who doesn’t give us enough money in our allowances! Boo hoo hoo!”

But they were right about the S&P 500 “paying more while making less”! The companies in the S&P 500 have been paying out $21.45 in dividends, which is whole multiples of the $7.90 that they have been actually earning, probably explaining why the index sells at a price so high (over $1,000), that the price-to-earnings ratio is 128! Hahaha! Unbelievable! Hahaha!

So, as the kids rightfully pointed out, the companies in the S&P 500 are paying more than they are making, and so there must be a way for me to pay them more than I make, too, and the only reason that I don’t give them more money to offset their rising costs is that I am stingy and hateful, which is true but not breaking any new ground, just as it is also true that buying these stocks at the price of the index would take an investor 128 years of getting everything the companies earn just to break even! Hahahaha!

It gets weirder when you realize that the companies would go broke long before that, because they are always paying out more than they make!

So I look at them and say, “And what kind of Stupid Moron Crap (SMC) is that?”

It was heartbreaking to see the disappointment in their eyes and hear it in their tender, young voices as they were telling me how monstrously cruel I am and how much they hate me, but I am still buying gold, silver and oil with every dime I can manage to keep out of the greedy, grubby hands of the kids, wife, family members and bill collectors, and soon they will understand why, and, if they are good, like not ever again waking me up from a nap, grow fabulously wealthy, insanely wealthy, preposterously wealthy along with me and all the other people who are buying gold, silver and oil as a defense against unbelievable government deficit-spending and monstrous amounts of money creation by the Federal Reserve, which is so ridiculously easy that you hear yourself saying, “Whee!”

The Remarkable Century and the Future

I recently came to a rather obvious, yet remarkable insight. The 20th century was a truly unique and remarkable moment in human history. There is not a single aspect of human civilization that changed less during the 20th than in any of the centuries that came before. Population, economic output, life expectancies, oil consumption, meat consumption and international travel are just a few of the countless factors that changed more between 1900 and 2000 than in any other prior hundred years.

Expectations for the future are with few exceptions rooted in this period of explosive change. Some scholars have traced a variety of trends back into the more distant past, but these works are largely viewed as curiosities on the fringe of economic and social thought. For better or worse most of us are happy to assume the order of things that emerged after the Second World War will hold steady throughout ours and our children’s lives.

Economic growth has been both the great cause and great consequence of the recent pasts explosive change. By rapidly expanding the total available wealth, this expansion has allowed the general population to enjoy unheard of prosperity, without threatening the comfort of the elites.

Growth can be broken into two pieces; basically more people consuming more stuff. Population growth has obviously been the major driver of the first component of growth. From 1900 to 2000 the number of people on the planet rose nearly 4- fold to approximately 6 billion. Just as dramatic was the increase in the number people actively engaged in the globalized economy.

For all the wonders of the Pax-Britannica, world trade really only impacted a small percentage of humanity, in Europe North America and a handful of aristocrats scattered around the rest of the world. Today, only a small number of subsistence farmers are cut off from globalization.

If population growth were the primary driver of economic expansion, we would be living in Malthus’s world. The miracle of the 20th century was the dramatic rise in living standards that accompanied population growth. I don’t have time to recount all the ways in which living standards have improved since 1900. Look around you, the growth is obvious.

Is the 20th century repeatable? In 2100 will our heirs see 2000 through the same eyes that we see 1900? Our entire understanding of the future depends on the answer to this question. It is clear, that attempts to preserve the rate of growth for the next hundred years will smash into the physical limitations of the planet.

Technology is frequently cited as the magical solution to square this circle. Yet, there has never been a major innovation that has shrunk humanities lust for resources.

Adapting to a world of limited growth will be the profound challenge of the next hundred years. The impacts will be both positive and negative, but will shake the very core beliefs of society. This post is the first in a series that I will publish laying out the implications of a limited growth world on our expectations.