Grinding Times, Turbulence and the Death of Stocks

The problem with our times is that it doesn’t give us any clear clues about what will happen or what will need to happen so that all of us can finally relax and go to the beach. But when was the last time it did? Most probably never. I asked a friend of mine who has worked for the same company for over twenty-three years what he thinks about changes in his organisation and industry in general and after a thoughtful pause he said “I prefer the old times”. Always for people who lived long enough to be able to claim they reached the controversial middle age, the old times have an irresistible appeal.

If things don’t look good now, some of us may suspect this is just plain winging. If you really dig into the issues, the good ol’ times, aren’t that good and actually the present is as bright as it can be. It is in our nature, some would say, that we like the old times because we were young then and the experiences as we remember them are thrilling, surprising and full-on. And yet, our history hasn’t been a linear script. It is easy to look in the past and say “oh, those times were terrible because so and so” and even feel a bit baffled thinking why those people could not figure out the issues from the beginning, but when you are in the middle of that time, it is difficult to recognise the type of period you are in. However, the history it giving us clues and some of them are telling us that the present may be one of those grinding, nerve-racking, and turbulent periods.

Bill Gross, the PIMCO investment manager who oversees the world largest bond fund, describes the economic outlook as the “new normal” when growth is sluggish and spectacular returns are a thing of the past. Last week he went even further and declared that stocks are dead. People will have to work much longer to maintain their standard of living.

When times are tougher the contrast between the left and right sides of the political spectrum becomes sharper. This is could be an indicator that we are entering into turbulence. Deresiewicz wrote in his column at The American Scholar (“In League”) about a similar period preceding the New Deal marred by vicious confrontation between political sides supported by bankers, industrialists and businessmen promoting a Darwinian system and liberal politics represented by Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson Woodrow. The bad news is that great ideas and daring reforms do not come quickly and they are not designed by the mind of one hero. It takes time and public impetus to drive the change. Progressive steps are taken under the socio-economic pressures and they may look random and imperfect, but then over many years of public exhausting debates, loss of hope, arguments and confusion, a moment will come when everybody throws the towel into the ring and declare ready for a big change. Thus, the New Deal came at the right time only after many years of preparation.

Deresiewicz concludes that we are only beginning the grinding progressive period. We are comparatively in the year of 1882 which was the start of a process that culminated with the New Deal.

Will it take the same time to arrive at a new beginning for prosperous times? The chilling detail in the grinding period that gave birth to the New Deal is that we had to go through two worldwide wars before we settled.

Today, the political landscape is different. US political culture and socio-economic institutions are only a part of the global scene which all of us are part of now. Europe needs time to settle, Asian countries have to come to terms with new trading conditions that dampen their traditional export enthusiasm. The demographic forces are in full swing worldwide. Will migration patterns remain the same? This is a key question because when migration stops, a new order needs to be installed, and when that happens everything is on the table for negotiation.

We are in for a long soul-searching period. As Deresiewicz put it “for now, there is only blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

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