Our real wealth comes from our resources, not from stocks, bonds, or financial derivatives. It's no wonder investors "flee" to gold at times like these. As the economy re-balances, other valuable and scarce commodities (oil, phosphate, copper, even food) also have nowhere to go but up in price. If clean rivers, songbirds, and polar bears had the economic value they deserve, I'm sure investors would be buying up these rarities as well. Behind the volatility on Wall Street is a very real sense in many peoples' minds that our economic system (not just our economy) has gotten off track. For example, a recent survey showed that the vast majority of Americans (including Republicans) are very concerned about our lack of a manufacturing base and feel that we need to re-build it. Having outsourced manufacturing and pumped all of the affordable oil, we now face a world where it costs a great deal more to import everything we need.
What we see happening is the beginning of a painful transition back toward a slow-growth (or zero growth) economy where people are learning to value what is real. Gone are the days when people could upgrade their SUVs and big screen TVs every six months, financing both on credit cards. Gone are the days when investors could expect dependable 5% growth in developed economies. It was all based on the exploitation of cheap, easily available resources, which fed rampant consumption and a spiraling pool of debt. Since the 2008 downturn, the only U.S. growth has come in the financial sector and is directly attributable to the additional money (more zeroes on computer screens) that the government has printed for the banks so they'll lend it to finance people' debts. But now we are realizing that debt is NOT a resource and the economy is contracting as the most egregious examples of this debt are devalued and squeezed out of the system.
There will be financial ups and downs as this economy transitions away from the meaningless wealth of stocks and bonds, and towards an economy where value is measured by resources. I am not naive enough to believe polar bears will become valuable commodities; this new economy still will be based on exploiting valuable hard assets. People still want to make money; it's capitalism. But the dollar itself is meaning less, and if it's measured against the Yen and the Euro, those will be even worse off at times. In coming years, we will see serious inflation, tempered by periods of deflation, where these pieces of paper and computer zeroes no longer hold their value. If you want to protect your money, convert as much as possible to useful equipment that will last for many years, hard assets, and anything you can use, sell, or barter now and into the future. If that means going on a buying spree, then maybe you can single-handedly help boost the pro-growth economy for one more precious spurt before oil prices rise and hit us over the head again!
Today, we harvested chicken eggs, zucchini squash, green beans, chard, potatoes, and plums. That's real. I saw the smiles on my kids' faces at dinner. There were more smiles as we used the hand grain mill to grind some grains for tomorrow morning's cereal. Those smiles are real, too. I enjoy my pro-growth living standard, financed by a day job. But even for the most fortunate among us, it's going to be a rough ride ahead. We all need to become better at living poor in an economy where chard grows faster than dollars. For me, that downsizing transition started at home, in the garden and in the kitchen. It continues, sometimes joyfully and sometimes painfully, into other parts of life. I hope you'll begin your transition as well. While I've always hated this expression…keep it real.