Bubbles: Housing and the next bubble

“In the future, scientists will learn how to convert stupidity into clean fuel.”

Prediction 16, “The Dilbert Future: Thriving on Business Stupidity in the 21st Century,” by Scott Adams (1998).

A financial bubble is a market aberration manufactured by government, finance, and industry, a shared speculative hallucination and then a crash, followed by depression.
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Because all asset hyperinflations revert to the mean, we can expect housing prices to decline roughly 38 percent from their peak as they return to something closer to the historical rate of monetary inflation. If the rate of decline stabilizes at between 6 and 7 percent each year, the correction has about six years to go before things stabilize, leaving the FIRE economy in need of $12 trillion.
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There are a number of plausible candidates for the next bubble, but only a few meet all the criteria. Health care must expand to meet the needs of the aging baby boomers, but there is as yet no enabling government legislation to make way for a health-care bubble; the same holds true of the pharmaceutical industry, which could hyperinflate only if the Food and Drug Administration was gutted of its power. A second technology boom–under the rubric “Web 2.0”–is based on improvements to existing technology rather than any new discovery. The capital-intensive biotechnology industry will not inflate, as it requires too much specialized intelligence.
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The next bubble must be large enough to recover the losses from the housing bubble collapse. How bad will it be? Some rough calculations: the gross market value of all enterprises needed to develop hydroelectric power, geothermal energy, nuclear energy, wind farms, solar power, and hydrogen-powered fuel-cell technology–and the infrastructure to support it–is somewhere between $2 trillion and $4 trillion; assuming the bubble can get started, the hyperinflated fictitious value could add another $12 trillion. In a hyperinflation, infrastructure upgrades will accelerate, with plenty of opportunity for big government contractors fleeing the declining market in Iraq. Thus, we can expect to see the creation of another $8 trillion in fictitious value, which gives us an estimate of $20 trillion in speculative wealth, money that inevitably will be employed to increase share prices rather than to deliver “energy security.” When the bubble finally bursts, we will be left to mop up after yet another devastated industry. FIRE, meanwhile, will already be engineering its next opportunity. Given the current state of our economy, the only thing worse than a new bubble would be its absence.

There is one industry that fits the bill: alternative energy, the development of more energy-efficient products, along with viable alternatives to oil, including wind, solar, and geothermal power, along with the use of nuclear energy to produce sustainable oil substitutes, such as liquefied hydrogen from water. Indeed, the next bubble is already being branded. Wired magazine, returning to its roots in boosterism, put ethanol on the cover of its October 2007 issue, advising its readers to forget oil; NBC had a “Green Week” in November 2007, with themed shows beating away at an ecological message and Al Gore making a guest appearance on the sitcom 30 Rock. Improbably, Gore threatens to become the poster boy for the new new new economy: he has joined the legendary venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, which assisted at the births of Amazon.com and Google, to oversee the “climate change solutions group,” thus providing a massive dose of Nobel Prize–winning credibility that will be most useful when its first alternative-energy investments are taken public before a credulous mob. Other ventures–Lazard Capital Markets, Generation Investment Management, Nth Power, EnerTech Capital, and Battery Ventures–are funding an array of startups working on improvements to solar cells, to biofuels production, to batteries, to “energy management” software, and so on.

The next bubble: Priming the markets for tomorrow’s big crash,” by Eric Janszen, Harper’s, February 2008 (footnotes omitted)


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