Futurology blog: what’s the next trend that’ll disrupt our world, financially, socially or just pointlessly?

Monday, 15 September 2008

The boom-bust boom: where's it taking us?

The boom-bust cycle has become embedded in the USA and UK: the derivatives bubbles of the 90s, the brief millennial dot-com bubble, and the ten-year housing bubble that resulted in the disastrous sub-prime boom and bust.

And on the very day of Lehman Brothers losing its battle with reality, the art boom has reached new levels of silliness, with Damien Hirst’s novelties being auctioned for ridiculous sums. The art world's bust must surely be just around the corner.

In the background, there’s a long-running resources boom, a worldwide frenzy to strip anything of value out of the ground before restrictions can be legislated or enforced – much of the activity is illegal anyway. The utterly cynical move to biofuels is part of this: nobody involved in the industry can pretend that it hasn’t resulted in massive food inflation and food shortages, but they’ll persist with the madness until the biofuels market blows up in their faces. The inevitable bust will be in the form of climate change, making this the most dangerous boom of all.

So far, there was no way that the boom-bust cycle could be legislated away. Every investor, large or small, always believes that they’ll be able to recognise the perfect moment to sell, at the very tip of any boom (no matter how often they get it wrong). The ultra-rich love the ensuing crashes because of the extraordinary value they can then enjoy, picking up assets, companies, and property willy-nilly. And the public tend to forget about the busts as they get swept along by the next boom (look, our pension’s going up again, look, our house is making us richer each month than our salaries ever can).

So there has been no real pressure on governments to create change. Until now. Because now, too much public money has been spent in the attempts to prevent a total financial meltdown, and too many culpable bank directors have been retired with pay-offs beyond the dreams of the people they have effectively mugged. 

The man in the street will want revenge. And they’ll want protection. The problem is that this great desire for revenge and protection will be strongest just when the super-rich move in to pick up their bargains. And this time around, the richest of the super-rich will be outsiders: Russians and Chinese and Arabs looking to diversify their assets.

Expect the politicians to divert the public’s emotion towards these targets – while protecting their own backers. In the process, they may take the opportunity to make our democracies and financial privileges a little less free and open, with the full support of their public. (Just remember how easily the Patriot Act slithered into being after 9/11.)

With an election imminent in America and an extremely vulnerable leader in the UK, the timing couldn’t be worse. Whether necessary reforms are distorted into the forms of nationalism or mild fascism all depends on how bad things get in the next few weeks.

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