Across the country, it is finally sinking in. There really was a bubble in the stock market, and it has now burst. This is not like Tiger Woods having a bad day at the British Open. He may rebound to his past glory, but the stock market will not.
The accounting scandals and other corporate abuses are not the cause of the crash, but merely a trigger for a long-overdue return to more realistic stock prices.
This crash was both predictable and predicted. Economist Dean Baker was the first to work out the arithmetic of the problem. At the height of the bubble, he pointed out that stocks would have to lose more than half of their value in order to restore a sustainable relationship between stock prices and potential profits. The broad market is now down about 50 percent from its peak.
This is the beginning of a new chapter of American economic history: call it the post-bubble era. We will be returning, at a pace that is difficult to predict, to an economy in which the stock market plays a more modest role.
This is a change for the better. Contrary to popular misconception – reinforced daily in the business press – the health of the stock market is not the same as the health of the economy. And stocks have even less to do with the living standards of the vast majority of Americans.
One way to see this is to look at our history. The Dow took more than 30 years to reach its 1929 (pre-crash) level, and it took even longer for people to regain confidence in the market. In the 1970s, less than 20 percent of all households owned any stock. Relatively little investment capital was raised in the stock market. Nonetheless, the economy grew quite rapidly from 1946-73 – the first half of the post-World War II era – and, most importantly, it was a broadly shared prosperity. The real (inflation-adjusted) median wage grew by about 80 percent.
From 1973 to 2000 – the second half of the post-World War II era – stock ownership spread to almost half of all households, with most of the increase occurring during the 1980s and 1990s. During this time, the real median wage increased by about zero.
The run-up in stock prices contributed to the most massive re-distribution of income in American history, from the poor, working, and middle classes to the rich. That’s because half of all households still don’t own stock – even counting retirement accounts – and most of the other half own relatively little (less than $25,000).
All this is not to dismiss the personal tragedies of millions of Americans who have lost retirement savings in the crash. They have a right to be angry at the corporations who deceived them, and the politicians who aided and abetted the fraud while they cheered the growing bubble as a sign of economic progress.
And in the short run, the evaporation of more than $7 trillion of wealth will slow the economy, since the people who lost that wealth will consume less. Many corporations may also retrench, cutting investment and employment.
The government can address these problems by replacing private spending with public spending, as much as this is necessary to keep the economy growing and unemployment from rising. We could modernize our railroad system, as Senator Hollings has proposed. The Federal government could also help the state governments avoid spending cutbacks – California alone is facing a $24 billion shortfall – which could drive the national economy back into recession.
But we should never be so foolish as to confuse the recovery of the stock market with economic recovery, or with the public interest. The end of this and other illusions is the silver lining of the stock market’s demise. Privatization of Social Security is now dead. Millions of people who had formed new identities as “owners” of corporations – or even day traders – will now see that their economic future depends on wages, salaries, and benefits. Americans may begin to be outraged that the majority of the labor force has failed to share in the gains from economic growth for nearly three decades.
They may even see themselves as citizens entitled to universal health care, as in other developed countries. In the post-bubble era economic and social progress will finally be back on the political agenda.
Mark Weisbrot is co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (www.cepr.net). The above article is distributed by Knight-Ridder/Tribune Information Services.