Someone recently forwarded me Bill Gross’s monthly investment outlook for October, which was surprisingly funny this time around. For whatever reason, he spends the first five paragraphs talking about how grossed out (no pun intended) he is with his own body, and how the bloated and misshapen body of an aging man is an apt metaphor for the present state of the world’s developed economies. It is not every day that I laugh out loud at work while reading an investing newletter.
I don’t always agree with Gross — there’ stuff in this particular newsletter itself which caused me to cringe, including his matter-of-fact assertion that “China and ‘cloud space’ have favored cheaper consumption, but have been decidedly job unfriendly in developed economies if observers were to be honest about it.” In another place, he basically blatantly endorses protectionism as a way to create jobs.
But he makes a point in this month’s letter which is remarkably rare among investment managers, specifically on the very tenuous equilibrium of strong US corporate profits but poor economic outcomes for the American worker. Gross’s ominous conclusion is that ultimately, this will come back to bite capital as well as labor. He writes:
Ultimately, however, both labor and capital suffer as a deleveraging household sector in the throes of a jobless recovery refuses – if only through fear and consumptive exhaustion – to play their historic role in the capitalistic system. This “labor trap” phenomenon – in which consumers stop spending out of fear of unemployment or perhaps negative real wages, shrinking home prices or an overall loss of faith in the American Dream – is what markets or “capital” should now begin to recognize. Long-term profits cannot ultimately grow unless they are partnered with near equal benefits for labor. Washington, London, Berlin and yes, even Beijing must accept this commonsensical reality alongside several other structural initiatives that seek to rebalance the global economy.
And, later, my favorite line to finish it off:
Karl Marx might have put it this way… “Investors/policymakers of the world wake up – you’re killing the proletariat goose that lays your golden eggs.”
Some people ask what the problem with growing income inequality is if the bottom of the income distribution is improving over time, even though not as quickly as the top. After all, shouldn’t we be looking at the rate of progress in absolute terms, not in comparison with others? As for the answer to this question, let’s put aside for a moment the fact that real wages in the US have been stagnant for the past generation for a large segment of the American labor force. Even if the bottom and middle had been moving upwards while the gap between them and the rich were expanding, what’s the problem? The problem is not just one of fairness and ethical norms, which not everyone agrees on. It’s that eventually, society gets so warped that its basic functionality is impaired, and no one including the rich is able to prosper in that environment. It’s like a body on steroids, where the liver and kidneys fail to keep up with the massive growth of the muscles, eventually killing the body itself.
This is a central Baha’i theme — the welfare of each individual is tied to the collective welfare of the entire human race — and is beautifully summarized in Baha’u’llah’s letter to Queen Victoria, one of his many letters written to the prominent heads of state of that era.
Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before. (Summons from the Lord of Hosts, p. 90-91)
Let’s treat the whole body, and wake up to the reality that rising inequality is ultimately disastrous for everybody.