I have a rule of thumb when it comes to conspiracy theories. If the theory involves aliens or government competence – such as keeping a secret for years – I don’t believe the story. But if the conspiracy involves money, I generally believe it.
Here I’m using the term “conspiracy” loosely. For example, I don’t think phone companies had meetings with their competitors in which they all agreed to be part of a confusopoly to avoid competing on price. I think everyone simply understands that price wars are bad for business, and they act rationally to avoid them. It’s a conspiracy in effect, without the secret meetings.
This brings me to the question of banks. When I was a kid, we could put our money in savings accounts and earn 5% a year. That’s how average citizens saved. Today, with interest rates so low, your bank doesn’t really pay you anything. You simply give them your money and they use it to make more money for themselves. Arguably, they aren’t even keeping your money especially safe, given the risk of bank default.
And so the average citizen has looked around in recent years for a better deal. Thanks to falling real estate values, discount stock brokers, and company 401K plans, the average person waded into the stock market. That allowed the titans of the investment world to grab the little investor by his ankles and shake until his pockets were half empty. How did they do that?
The conspiracy theory is that most of the market-wide gyrations we’ve seen in recent years are engineered by powerful investors. Stocks run up 10%, and the little investors pile in, buying stocks at high prices from the market movers who are getting out at the top. At that point, the titans of the finance world engineer a 10-20% drop in the market, thus giving the rich another buying opportunity. Repeat.
Here again, the conspiracy doesn’t require anyone to hold secret meetings and decide who will do what. All you need for this system to work is for the big guys to be able to execute their trades faster than small investors, which we know is the case, and for the big investors to have faster communication with each other than small investors have with any other investors, which I assume is also the case. In other words, JPMorgan Chase knows what Goldman Sachs is doing, and vice versa, before CNBC reports it to you.
Some big investors also have the advantage of illegal insider information, and better/faster information about the business world in general, but that’s not what I’m talking about here. That sort of information helps forecast legitimate moves in stock prices. I’m talking about the totally artificial gyrations we have seen all summer. I believe those are mostly the result of a system rigged against small investors.
And don’t forget the financial advisors and brokers who take commissions from the small investors and benefit from the churn. And don’t forget the media that needs to fan small fires into bigger ones to attract eyeballs. The entire system is designed to create small and continuous scares along with the occasional fear of missing out on big moves to the upside.
Let me put this to you another way: If the giants of finance thought they were personally better off with a stock market that didn’t gyrate wildly, they would figure out a way to calm it down. Do you doubt that?
Notice also that small investors have moved away from investing in individual companies and toward ETFs and index funds. That means big investors need to manipulate entire markets to scare investors as opposed to manipulating individual companies. That’s consistent with what we’re seeing.
I think the rich were safe when the average citizen had a clear path to upward mobility. He could get a nice job with a pension, buy a home that appreciated, put some cash in a savings account and wait for compound interest to do its thing. The little guy didn’t hate the rich so much when he thought he had a chance of joining the club, or at least moving in that direction. That all changed. Today, there’s even a debate about whether it makes financial sense to go to college.
Notice that the rich have cleverly shifted the blame to Congress. The problem, they hope you believe, is all of the danged government spending and taxing! Focus on that hand, not the one that’s holding you by the ankle and shaking.
If you want to screw the rich, buy stocks in the broad market indexes and just hold them forever. They hate that.
[Warning: It’s a good idea to ignore financial, medical, and legal advice from cartoonists.]