An Economy on Steroids

Hurray! At long last, April is here, and baseball season has begun anew. In my office near Atlanta, each morning from now until September we'll ask one another: "Did you see the Braves last night?"

Even so, the atmosphere surrounding baseball is unfortunately not as light and joyous as it's been in years past. When Jason Giambi or Barry Bonds hits one over the fence this season, fans will wonder: Would he do that more often if he were still on steroids?

The recent spate of trials of corporate malfeasance begs a similar question: When a company you've invested in reports great quarterly and year-end numbers, will you ask if they're real or on steroids?

Steroids. It's a fitting metaphor for the new millennium – baseball players on performance-enhancing steroids, the U.S. economy on credit-enhancing steroids, and corporations like Worldcom, Enron and Fannie Mae on bottom-line-enhancing steroids. Look around and notice how just about everything is "juiced," as baseball players like to say.

Corporate balance sheets have been juiced. Worldcom's chief executive officer, Bernie Ebbers, was found guilty of telling his chief financial officer to "make the numbers work," and Enron's CEO, Kenneth Lay, will soon be answering similar charges on the stand.

Money supply has been juiced. The numbers show that the Federal Reserve has increased M3, the largest measure of the money supply, by 5.4 percent in the year from March 2004 to March 2005.

Consumer credit and debt have been juiced. The aggregate amount of outstanding credit per household has grown steadily over the past five years from less than $7.5 trillion to more than $10 trillion. Household debt service payment as a percentage of disposable income has grown from about 12.3 percent to 13.3 percent in that same five years. Not counting mortgages, Americans currently owe 110 percent more than they did a decade ago, says the Federal Reserve Board, according to an article in the Wall Street Journal (April 6, 2005).

CEO pay has been juiced. It's too early to have the statistics for 2004 CEO pay, but a March 21 article in the Christian Science Monitor sites a survey of 233 sample companies by the Investor Responsibility Research Center in Washington, D.C. It shows that bonuses for CEOs increased a fat 28 percent in the past fiscal year, up to a median of $640,000, and the median total compensation package was up to nearly $2.4 million.

The stock markets are juiced. Longtime market observers say they haven't seen such overpriced stocks since the tech bubble inflated in the 1990s.

Housing markets are juiced. New York City denizens, Floridians and Californians have gotten so used to putting their houses on the market for one price -- say $850,000 -- and watching them sell in a few months for $1.25 million that they're almost blasé about it. Worse, they’ve come to expect that housing always appreciates.

We've created a financial, economic and corporate culture where we're so used performing on juice that we've forgotten how to perform normally. When Congress brought baseball players to Capitol Hill last month to talk about how bad steroids are for kids, players, and the game itself, the politicians managed to take the spotlight off of the Social Security debate for a while. (Aha, another example of juice. Think about all those investment bankers and stock brokers wanting juice of their own from the fees they would collect for handling personal accounts for Social Security.) But what Congress should have been focusing on instead is how everything that governs our lives nowadays is pumped up beyond the norm.

About the only thing that's not juiced is our personal savings. After spiking to 3.7 percent last December, the personal savings rate in this country has resumed its downward trend to 0 percent, with a rate of 0.6 percent in February. This low figure is the opposite of juiced. What would that be called: zapped? zilched? zeroed out?

The main culprit supplying the juice is the Federal Reserve, which for three years pumped up the economy with incredibly low interest rates. Bankers and mortgage companies were more than happy to re-package the juice and sell it to consumers who gladly "stick" themselves. Stories abound of people who paid too much for a house, only to turn around and sell it to someone who paid "too much" more. Market forecaster Richard Russell points out that PBS should have preserved the time slot for Wall Street Week, which it recently took off the air, and re-named it the House-Flipping Hour.

Meanwhile, people whose poor credit histories made them too risky to touch a few years ago can now easily take out interest-only loans to help them to buy houses they can barely afford.

When the economy and the markets got pumped up in the past, we called them bubbles. But that word is oh-so-passé now, compared with the chemically enhanced version of pumping it up.

Here's the truth that we all will be forced to face soon enough: Taking steroids for too long takes its toll. Eventually, you've got to get off of them. Watch what happens to a baseball player's homerun statistics, to corporate financial results, or to the economy's components--not to mention householders' finances. We may wish we could all go back to the days of the homerun derby in 1998 when Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa slugged it out to bring baseball back from the brink of extinction.

Susan C. Walker writes for Elliott Wave International, a financial analysis company. She has been an associate editor with Inc. magazine, a newspaper writer and editor, an investor relations executive and a speechwriter for the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. She received her B.A. in Classics from Stanford University.