No one would blame you for thinking the market is a textbook delusional-paranoid-schizophrenic, not knowing the difference between the real and unreal. And you’d be right. But you’d miss a valuable lesson. Misallocation of capital is everywhere and anywhere a fallout of bad government policy. The South Sea Company, a government sponsored entity with a monopoly on trade, caused the South Sea Bubble in 1720.
The late ’90s Internet love fest was crazy enough, driven by former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt’s misguided telecom reform that had the effect of keeping data rates artificially high. This created a gold rush to install fiber and build applications that didn’t make economic sense (though electronic commerce, online banking, as well as wireless and broadband deployment would eventually prove productive over the next decade). Bad policy meant capital got overallocated and too quickly, as momentum mutual funds (momos) and day traders furiously drove up stock prices of every company with dot-com in its name for no fundamental reasons. Wall Street trading was broken.
Then, adding insult to injury, Alan Greenspan and the Federal Reserve flooded the system with money, fearing that banks would face a run brought on by the Y2K problem. The problem and the run never happened. The money ended up in the market. Mopping up that money burst the bubble. The market bottomed out on Oct. 9, 2002, when the Nasdaq hit 1114.
And the world after 9/11? Unfortunately, the accounting scandals at Enron, WorldCom and elsewhere brought us the costly Sarbanes-Oxley law, adding a complex regulatory burden so that many companies fear going public. We also got a decoupling of research from investment banking because of an alleged conflict of interest, and a Federal Reserve whose nightmare fears of deflation ushered in a long era of cheap credit.
Today, we are still left with almost no initial public offerings. While private equity fund-raising was down 68% in 2009 to $96 billion, venture capital barely raised $13 billion.
Capital gains taxes are set to return to 20% on Jan. 1, 2011. And worse, investing is as uncertain as ever. No one wants to fund health care, medical devices or even much biotech if they can’t figure out how they are going to be paid via reimbursements from ObamaCare. Energy investing is also a mess. And while “green” investing is booming, with few exceptions that is about efficiency rather than productivity. There’s a big difference: You can make the Post Office more efficient while email makes us more productive and wealthier.
Big regulated oligopolists control our communications infrastructure. Startups are nowhere to be found. Few are willing to take the risk of true venture investing.