The biggest disasters always build up slowly. Here is what history indicates is looming around the corner for us.
Since this is campaign season, we argue about lots of things. We imagine lots of little problems and argue over the right way to solve them. But we would be better served looking down the road at the Very Big Problem that—and here we launch into uncertainty, but uncertainty with some very strong evidence surrounding it—might be not so far away.
In the Wall Street Journal, economist Greg Ip notes that our current moment bears some very important resemblances to dangerous times in the recent past. Not just a “bubble” in one sector of the economy, but a central bank-driven rise in the price of both stocks and real estate that is now at a worrying level:
[Net] wealth in the U.S. now tops 500% of national income. Ominously, net wealth has reached that level only twice before: from 1999 to 2000 during the Nasdaq bubble, and 2004 to 2008 during the housing boom...
But the arithmetic reality is that when valuations are so high, even justifiably so, it takes only a small shift in the appetite for risk, expectations of profits, or interest rates to trigger a major downdraft. The U.S. Treasury’s Office of Financial Research noted this week that stocks have reached today’s valuations “only ahead of the three largest equity market declines in the last century.”
This is not fearmongering. This is year after year of low interest rates doing what they do. This is some real shit.
What could get someone like Donald Trump elected? A massive terrorist event before election day? Sure, maybe. A huge stock market drop leading to a new economic slowdown before election day? Even more likely, actually. This could take years to be realized, or months, or weeks. Impossible to say. Oddly enough, the same asset price inflation that has been driving economic inequality will crush the poor when it deflates. And with a collapse in these prices will come a cascade of devastation throughout the real economy that will stop at your doorstep, one way or another.
Nobody knows when these things will happen but there sure are some flashing lights.