As we prepare to turn over our calendars from 2015 to 2016, I thought that instead of the annual "what happened this year and what's gonna happen next year" montages that every financial website puts out this time of year, I'd look back over the last decade and point to some of the events and larger trends that got us to this point.
Now that we're coming to the end of the first year of President Obama's administration, for the first time in a number of years, there is a fair amount of hopefulness regarding the economy. Certainly, some pundits will try to place all of the credit on Obama, while others will say that the fiscal decisions made during the previous administration, including retaining the lower capital gains tax at 15% and finally making some overdue fiscal restraint, are the source. The answer, as always, is a little bit of both and a whole lot of neither.
What has ultimately happened is that the economy has at last regained its footing from the financial meltdown of 2007-2010. It's taken a long time, in no small part because government's tendency to try to help people avoid pain actually elongated and exacerbated the natural cleansing process of the destruction of underperforming capital.
Think back to 2007. Do you remember the neighborhood upon neighborhood of unsold newly built homes on the far reaches of many of America's growth cities? Remember the jokes that one of the purposes the Pacific Ocean serves is as a boundary so that Atlanta and Washington would have to stop growing west?
Maybe it was funny then, but getting out and seeing the sprawling, ghost town, post-Apocalyptic waste that is the exurbs, and considering the collapse of the housing companies, several banks that held large amounts of ARM mortgages, and the ripples throughout the economy, made it more terrifying than comic. This is brought home by the fact that bankruptcy rates skyrocketed among both individuals and businesses at the end of the last decade.
Of course, many who saw it coming saw it coming way too soon. How dumb did people who insisted that the housing market would collapse in 2002 look back then? At the time, it should have been no small wonder that executives at housing manufacturers like NVR
It ought to be obvious that an economy powered by turning capital into fuel for consumption (cash out refinancing to support spending habits, which happened in the hundreds of billions of dollars in 2003-2007) cannot stay afloat. Nobody at any level of government or banking had interest in slowing down consumption or the housing market, so no one said a word. Most economists believed at the time that the chance of a recession was very slight. However, debt followers like management of then-small-cap EPIQ Systems
Even though the American economy has struggled over the last decade, one component of great hope is the continued confluence of international markets. The decision in 2011 between 10 major exchanges in the U.S., France, China, India, Germany, Japan, Brazil, the U.K., and Canada to make it simpler for brokerages to buy and sell securities from any exchange party to the agreement has given investors access to thousands of companies they would otherwise have had great difficulty in buying. Whether or not this agreement was the driving force in pressuring the central banks in China and India to lower their restrictions on movement of capital has been debated for years, but the rapid inflows (and outflows) into these markets has helped the diversified investing class in the U.S. to limit the pain of our own moribund economy over here.
It's a situation that would never have been countenanced a decade ago. At the time, the massive amounts of U.S. government debt held in China and the dependence of the Chinese economy on the American consumer portended that when the consumer stopped consuming, the Chinese economy would cool, and how. But what happened along the way is a story that would warm the heart of Friedrich Hayek -- the Chinese economy, along with those of India and Russia, developed enough critical mass that it was able to withstand being removed from the natural resource/labor incubator without collapsing.
As a point in fact, this year, PetroChinaExxon, the giant Chinese/American oil conglomerate, became the first trillion-dollar company by market cap (769 million gold ounces). The second-largest company by market cap is now telecommunications/Internet/software giant Microsoft, at $800 billion plus. This past year, Google completed its spinoff of eBay, a move widely seen as an attempt to capture full value for its eBay subsidiary as the parent company continues to struggle under the weight of competition. Those who bought at the $600 level in 2006 are still underwater, even taking into account the levels of devaluation of the U.S. dollar.
In fact, we've seen the stock market, broadly speaking, do amazing things. While folks in Washington used the floatation of IraqOil shares on the New York Stock Exchange in 2012 as a sign of the final, final symbol of Iraq as a fully functioning democracy, what they missed in their bloviating was not the symbol but the access. American investors poured into IraqOil shares, and the company used the opportunity to raise $2.8 billion on the secondary market for capital improvements. Four additional Iraqi companies have listed shares on the NYSE, as well as two Syrian ones.
All of this has taken place even as nuclear power Iran has continually rattled sabers at its western neighbor, accusing it of being a destabilizing influence in the region. Following Iran's most recent nuclear missile test, the European Union brought out its most feared weapon: the strongly worded letter of condemnation.
This has been a tumultuous decade, but I believe that we're looking toward better times. Following the enormous level of bankruptcies, our debt at the individual and corporate levels is the lowest it's been in 20 years, although the path we took to get here has been extremely rocky. Now, if we could just fix the Social Security system .
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16 out of 11 economists believe that Bill Mann's powers of prognostication should be used for good, not for evil. In 2006, he was the co-advisor of the Motley Fool Hidden Gems investing newsletter service.