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The Economic Costs of Fear

BERKELEY – The S&P stock index now yields a 7% real (inflation-adjusted) return. By contrast, the annual real interest rate on the five-year United States Treasury Inflation-Protected Security (TIPS) is -1.02%. Yes, there is a “minus” sign in front of that: if you buy the five-year TIPS, each year over the next five years the US Treasury will pay you in interest the past year’s consumer inflation rate minus 1.02%. Even the annual real interest rate on the 30-year TIPS is only 0.63% – and you run a large risk that its value will decline at some point over the next generation, implying a big loss if you need to sell it before maturity.

So, imagine that you invest $10,000 in the S&P index. This year, your share of the profits made by those companies will be $700. Now, imagine that, of that total, the companies pay out $250 in dividends (which you reinvest to buy more stock) and retain $450 in earnings to reinvest in their businesses. If the companies’ managers do their job, that reinvestment will boost the value of your shares to $10,450. Add to that the $250 of newly-bought shares, and next year the portfolio will be worth $10,700 – more if stock-market valuations rise, and less if they fall.

In fact, over any past period long enough for waves of optimism and pessimism to cancel each other out, the average earnings yield on the S&P index has been a good guide to the return on the portfolio. So, if you invest $10,000 in the S&P for the next five years, you can reasonably expect (with enormous upside and downside risks) to make about 7% per year, leaving you with a compounded profit in inflation-adjusted dollars of $4,191. If you invest $10,000 in the five-year TIPS, you can confidently expect a five-year loss of $510.

That is an extraordinary gap in the returns that you can reasonably expect. It naturally raises the question: why aren’t people moving their money from TIPS (and US Treasury bonds and other safe assets) to stocks (and other relatively risky assets)? People have different reasons. And many people’s thinking is not terribly coherent. But there appear to be two main explanations.

First, many people are uncertain that current conditions will continue. Most economists forecast the world a year from now to look a lot like the world today, with unemployment and profit margins about the same, wages and prices on average about 1.5% higher, total production up roughly 2%, and risks on both the upside and the downside. But many investors see a substantial chance of 2008 and 2009 redux, whether triggered by a full-fledged euro crisis or by some black swan that we do not yet see, and fear that, unlike in 2008 and 2009, governments would lack the power and will to cushion the economic impact.

These investors do not view the 7% annual return on stocks as an average expectation, with downside risks counterbalanced by upside opportunities. Rather, they see a good-scenario outcome that only the foolhardy would trust.

Second, many people do see the 7% return on stocks as a reasonable expectation, and would jump at the chance to grab it – plus the opportunity of surprises on the upside – but they do not think that they can afford to run the downside risks. Indeed, the world seems a much more risky place than it seemed five or ten years ago. The burden of existing debts is high, and investors’ key goal is loss-avoidance, not profit-seeking.

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Both reasons reflect a massive failure of our economic institutions. The first reason betrays a lack of trust that governments can and will do the job that they learned how to do in the Great Depression: keep the flow of spending stable so that big depressions with long-lasting, double-digit unemployment do not recur. The second reveals the financial industry’s failure adequately to mobilize society’s risk-bearing capacity for the service of enterprise.

As individuals, we appear to view a gamble that has a roughly 50% chance of doubling our wealth and a roughly 50% chance of halving it as worthy of consideration – not a no-brainer, but not out of the question, either. Well-functioning financial markets would mobilize that risk-bearing capacity and put it to use for the benefit of all, so that people who did not think that they could run the risks of stock ownership could lay that risk off onto others for a reasonable fee.

As an economist, I find this state of affairs frustrating. We know, or at least we ought to know, how to build political institutions that accept the mission of macroeconomic stabilization, and how to build financial institutions to mobilize risk-bearing capacity and spread risk. Yet, to a remarkable degree, we have failed to do so.

J. Bradford DeLong, a former deputy assistant secretary of the US Treasury, is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau for Economic Research.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2012.

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