An Enemy Hath Done This

Economics on Trial – Ideas on Liberty – SEPTEMBER 2000

by Mark Skousen

“Government measures . . . give individuals an incentive to misuse and misdirect resources and distort the investment of new savings.”

Several months ago, I had the opportunity of speaking before a Miami chapter of Legatus, a group of Catholic business leaders organized originally by Tom Monaghan, founder of Domino’s Pizza. The topic was the outlook for the stock market, which had reached sky-high levels and by any traditional measurement appeared extremely overvalued. Even many experienced Wall Street analysts recognized that a bear-market correction or crash was inevitable and necessary. As the old Wall Street saying goes, “Trees don’t grow to the sky.” Indeed, in the spring the stock market took a well-deserved tumble. What is the cause of this boom-bust cycle in the stock market? Does capitalism inherently create unsustainable growth? Is the bull market on Wall Street real or a bubble?

The Parable of the Wheat and the Tares

To answer these questions, I applied Jesus’ parable of the wheat and the tares (Matthew 13:24-30) to today’s financial situation.

Jesus tells the story of a wheat farmer whose crop comes under attack by an unknown assailant. In the middle of the night this enemy sows tares (weeds) in his wheat fields. Soon the farmer’s servants discover that the farmer’s crop appears to be twice the normal size. Yet the master realizes that half the crop is fake-weeds instead of wheat. But he warns his servants not to tear out the weeds for fear of uprooting the good shoots; they must wait and let the wheat and the tares grow up together until harvest time. Months later, the wheat produces good grain, while the tares are merely weeds and provide no fruit. The servants pull out the weeds and burn them, and store the grain in the barn.

The parable is imminently applicable to the recent wild ride on Wall Street. In today’s robust global economy, the wheat represents genuine prosperity-the new products, technologies, and productivity generated by capitalists and entrepreneurs. It represents real economic growth and when harvested, reflects a true higher standard of living for everyone. Under such conditions, stock prices are likely to rise.

On the other hand, the tares represent artificial prosperity that bears no fruit in the end and must be burned at harvest time. Where does this artificial growth come from? The central bank’s “easy money” policies! The Fed artificially lowers interest rates and creates new money out of thin air (through openmarket operations). This new money, like regular savings, is invested in the economy and stimulates more growth and higher stock prices-higher than sustainable over the long run.

Who is the enemy who sows artificial prosperity? Alan Greenspan! (Or, to be more accurate, central bankers.) The money supply-which is controlled by the Fed-has been growing by leaps and bounds, especially since the 1997 Asian crisis.

But there is no free lunch, as sound economists have warned repeatedly. At some point, the harvest time comes and the wheat must be separated from the tares. This is the crisis stage, where the boom turns into the bust. Harvest time in wheat is fairly easy to predict, but not so in the economy. Clearly economic conditions are heating up, as measured by asset inflation, real estate prices, the art mar ket, and recently the Consumer Price Index. At some point, a “burning” of excessive asset values in the financial markets must occur. As Ludwig von Mises stated long ago, “if a brake is thus put on the boom, it will quickly be seen that the false impression of `profitability’ created by the credit expansion has led to unjustified investments..”2

Lesson: Globalization and supply-side freemarket policies have justified genuine economic growth and higher stock prices over the past two decades, but “easy money” policies have at the same time created an artificial boom and “irrational exuberance” on Wall Street. Ignore this lesson at your own peril. Remember the parable of the wheat and the tares!

1. Milton Friedman, Capitalism and Freedom (University of Chicago, 1962), p. 38.
2. Ludwig von Mises, “The `Austrian’ Theory of the Trade Cycle,” in The Austrian Theory of the Trade Cycle and Other Essays, compiled by Richard M. Ebeling (Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1996), p. 30.

What It Takes to Be an Objective Scholar

Economics on Trial
April 2000

What It Takes to Be an Objective Scholar
by Mark Skousen

“It was the facts that changed my mind.” -Julian Simon (1)

During the 1990s we watched the Dow Jones Industrial Average increase fourfold and Nasdaq stocks tenfold. Yet there were well-known investment advisers-some of them my friends-who were bearish during the entire period, missing out on the greatest bull market in history. (2)

How is this possible? What kind of prejudices would keep an intelligent analyst from missing an overwhelming trend? In the financial business the key to success is a willingness to change your mind when you’re wrong. Stubbornness can be financially ruinous. When a market goes against you, you should always ask, “What am I missing?”

Over the years, I’ve encountered three kinds of investment analysts: those who are always bullish; those who are always bearish; and those whose outlook depends on market conditions. I’ve found that the third type, the most flexible, are the most successful on Wall Street.

Confessions of a Gold-Bug Technician

A good friend of mine is a technical analyst who searches the movement of prices, volume, and other technical indicators to determine the direction of stocks and commodities. Most financial technicians are free of prejudices and will invest their money wherever they see a positive upward trend, and avoid (or sell short) markets that are seen in a downward trend. But my friend is a gold bug and no matter what the charts show, he somehow interprets them to suggest that gold is ready to reverse its downward trend and head back up. Equally, he always seems to think the stock market has peaked and is headed south. As a result, throughout the entire 1990s he missed out on the great bull market on Wall Street and lost his shirt chasing gold stocks.

I also see this type of prejudice in the academic world. Some analysts are anti-market no matter what. Take, for example, Lester Brown, president of the Worldwatch Institute in Washington, D.C., who puts out the annual State of the World and other alarmist surveys and data. He gathers together all kinds of statistics and graphs showing a decline in our standard of living and the growing threat of population growth, environmental degradation, the spread of the AIDS virus, and so on. For example, despite clear evidence of sharply lower fertility rates in most nations, Brown concludes, “stabilizing population may be the most difficult challenge of all.” (3)

Too bad Julian Simon, the late professor of economics at the University of Maryland, is no longer around to dispute Brown and the environmental doomsdayers. Simon was as optimistic about the world as Brown is pessimistic. Simon’s last survey of world economic conditions, The State of Humanity, was published in 1995. That book, along with his The Ultimate Resource (and its second edition), came to the exact opposite of Brown’s conclusions. “Our species is better off in just about every measurable material way.” (4)

Yet Julian Simon was not simply a Pollyanna optimist. He let the facts affect his thinking. In the 1960s, Simon was deeply worried about population and nuclear war, just like Lester Brown, Paul Ehrlich, and their colleagues. But Simon changed his mind after investigating and discovering that “the available empirical data did not support that theory.” (5)

Scholars Who See the Light

The best scholars are those willing to change their minds after looking at the data or discovering a new principle. They admit their mistakes when they have been proven wrong. You don’t see it happen often, though. Once a scholar has built a reputation around a certain point of view and has published books and articles on his pet theory, it’s almost impossible to recant. This propensity applies to scholars across the political spectrum.

We admire those rare intellectuals who are honest enough to admit that their past views were wrong. For example, when New York historian Richard Gid Powers began his history of the anticommunist movement, his attitude was pejorative. He had previously written a highly negative book on J. Edgar Hoover, Secrecy and Power. Yet after several years of painstaking research, he changed his mind: “Writing this book radically altered my view of American anticommunism. I began with the idea that anticommunism displayed America at its worst, but I came to see in anticommunism America at its best.” (6) That’s my kind of scholar.

1. Julian L. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996), preface.
2. See the revealing article, “Down and Out on Wall Street,” New York Times, Money & Business Section, Sunday, December 26, 1999.
3. Lester R. Brown, Gary Gardner, and Brian Halweil, Beyond Malthus (New York: Norton, 1999), p. 30.
4. Julian L. Simon, The State of Humanity (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995), p. 1.
5. Simon, The Ultimate Resource 2, preface.
6. Richard Gid Powers, Not Without Honor: The History of American Anticommunism (Free Press, 1996), p. 503.