By John Reizner |
Sometimes it takes a full generation to pass before the memories of important historical events are purged from the collective mindset of a society. For example, soon the living memories of World War II will fade into history, and will be available only through our media.
The last time in our country’s history when taxes, unemployment, and inflation were extraordinarily high: the late 1970’s during the Carter presidency. Inflation was raging and interest rates were in double digits. Many consumers in our economy today do not have vivid memories of that time.
Yet after the 1970’s inflationary spiral was broken, at the expense of a severe recession with extremely high unemployment – we have since enjoyed over twenty years of a fundamentally good stock market and economy.
But what if today’s relatively good stock market and jobs creating economy were to change? I must admit, I am of the opinion that the winds of inflation may be building a momentum again after all these years of disinflation. I agree with Alan Greenspan’s opinion in a CNBC interview that we no longer have the luxury of implementing easy monetary policy, as we did after the technology and stock price bubble deflated after 2000, when deflation was actually a threat.
We have an important election in 2008 that may determine the course of the stock market and the economy in a manner not seen since the late 1970’s. Hillary Clinton is the current favorite to win the Democratic nomination – and she is running a liberal, progressive campaign. The Democratic nominee, whoever he or she may be, may win the White House.
There are three areas to consider with respect to why the stock market could decline into a bear market should the economically liberal platform be enacted.
The first proposal of the Clinton campaign that would be anathema to the stock market is the planned redistribution of wealth. Giuliani, in a CNBC interview, actually called this plan an entitlement program for the middle class. This would be in the form of a tax-the-rich-and-give-the-funds-to-the-middle-class policy. This sounds good in theory, but this action would not create a penny of additional wealth or a single new job in our country. The policy simply takes away from one group to give to another more favored group of people. Such a policy could even lower the amount of wealth in our country, as those businesses that are creating jobs might make less money – especially small businesses that may have to lay off workers because their taxes are higher. The economy, and consequently the stock market, could suffer.
To give an example in industry of a possible redistribution policy, an obvious target of the Clinton campaign has been the almost universally hated oil and gas industry, which the Senator believes makes too much money. In fact, I saw an excerpt of a Clinton speech on TV that the senator wanted to “take that money” and I suppose give it to a more favored group of people or industry. This action would amount to an expropriation of assets and would reduce employment in the oil industry. The stock market could react badly to that.
I would like to point out that there have been times in the history of the oil and gas industry during which these companies have been in a depression – but they were not bailed out. But even such a hated industry as the oil and gas industry is capable of creative movement. Fortune magazine reports that Royal Dutch Petroleum has been investing heavily for years in scientific research to produce oil from shale in America. Fortune reports that there is a potential production of 300,000 barrels a day – and it would be profitable at $30 per barrel. They further report that Royal Dutch’s technology is supposed to be way ahead of their competitors, with the company holding some 200 patents.
Royal Dutch seems to think those years of heavy investment in research and development will pay off in the near-term horizon. They would also plan to build the first new refinery in the U.S. in decades. Heavy taxes on this industry could discourage new investments such as the Royal Dutch project. The end result would be more energy dependence.
The second idea of the Clinton campaign that would hurt the stock market and the economy is the regulation for the first time of major industries in our economy. If an unfettered industry is seen as making too much money, then it might be a target for being regulated, which inherently makes the industry less creative, vibrant, profitable and flexible (with concurrent less ability to withstand economic shocks and adapt to changing economic conditions).
Alan Greenspan, in a speech reported on CNBC, attributed the flexibility of our economy as one reason why we have not had such deep recessions in recent years. While one sector of the economy is under water, other sectors can pick up the slack and prevent a recession from becoming damaging. But, if employees are tied by regulation to industries that are no longer competitive, then the overall economy would be hurt – those workers would not be retrained for the emerging new industries of the future. The economy would be more rigid by definition and we might experience a declining standard of living as older regulated industries would not make it in the global economy and become obsolete. Like it or not, our capitalist economy works best as a self-correcting mechanism, with new industries supplanting the old.
An industry which could suffer a decline in employment and innovation because of regulation is also a target for criticism: the drug and medical devices companies. We all remember Senator Clinton’s early 1990’s health care plan, crafted behind the scenes, which really would have been “government run healthcare.” The Senator never apologized for that failed attempt at healthcare nationalization, but even now blames her former opposition. The healthcare sector in the stock market at that time fell out of bed while the Clinton plan was being propagated. If nationalized medicine were to become a threat again, that poor action in the stock market could be repeated. So far, the Senator’s “American Health Choices Plan,” as smoothly explained on the Clinton campaign website, seems on the surface pretty innocuous. But it also would be extremely expensive, perhaps tempting Clinton (if she were elected) to revive her previous ill-considered plan.
I believe that there must be a way to insure the uninsured for hospital stays, doctor visits, pharmaceuticals, etc. without uprooting the entire system. I think one question that is not being discussed is whether a Clinton administration would propose to control drug prices. We have had experience with price controls under President Nixon, and it just produced shortages of goods. There could be shortages of essential medicines if price controls on drugs make it less profitable to invest in the research it takes to develop and produce them. A less profitable atmosphere for the drug industry means fewer drug companies and fewer drugs being invented. Why should entrepreneurs launch new drug companies pioneering new science when their prices are to be controlled and profits regulated?
The fact is that the pharmaceutical industry is not the problem – they are the solution. A pharmaceutical company might spend one billion dollars and two decades developing an important drug that can save lives and keep people from costly stays in the hospital. If artificial controls are placed on the drug’s price, then it actually may not be profitable for the company to develop new drugs in the future. They could fire researchers and other employees to cut costs. Since over 90% of all new pharmaceuticals are developed in the US, health care costs would likely go up as new cost saving cures would not be developed.
Drug companies have invented life saving medicines that have kept tens of millions of people out of costly hospital stays, and saved and extended many lives. I believe these drugs are an extremely cost-effective solution to illness and disease – and I do believe all private insurance should cover prescription drugs liberally.
The third area of a possible Clinton presidency about which one must be concerned if you are a stock market investor or simply a taxpayer, is free trade. An open trade system has allowed our country to prosper in the last two decades. Granted, currency manipulation on the part of a trading partner (such as China) is not free trade – but most of our trading partners and the newly emerging eastern European economies are adopting lower taxes and free market policies. It is a shame that the liberal wing of the Democratic Party has not received that message and is indicating a path for this country that may bring our economy and our stock market back to the past economic policies of the 1970’s.
The outcome of the 2008 presidential election will do much to determine the outlook for the economy and the stock market in the next several years. Regardless of who wins, the second year of the presidential term is usually poor for the stock market, as the policy makers make the economy take its medicine early on in the term.
The Federal Reserve, in its current easing mode, should encourage the stock market until the months before the election, when it will be clearer who the victor will be. At that time, the stock market’s future direction will be determined by the degree of wisdom of the victor’s economic policies, and, of course, Federal Reserve policy.