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The Biggest Lesson of GameStop

Much has been written about whether the GameStop trading fiasco is the result of illegal flash mobs or righteous retail investors storming a rigged financial system. Robinhood’s decision to block its retail customers from purchasing the stock while hedge funds continued trading elsewhere has turned the event into a David and Goliath story.

But that story is predicated on a false idea, which is that markets that have been “democratised” and that people trading on their phones somehow represent a more inclusive capitalism.

They do not. Markets and democracy are not the same thing, although most politicians — Democrats and Republicans — have acted since the 1980s as if they were. That period was marked by market deregulation, greater central bank intervention to smooth out the business cycle via monetary policy following the end of the Bretton Woods exchange rate system, and the rise of shareholder capitalism. This combined to begin moving the American economy from one in which prosperity was based on secure employment and income growth, to one in which companies and many consumers focused increasingly on ever-rising asset prices as the most important measure of economic health.

Right now, short-term fiscal stimulus aimed at easing the economic pain from Covid-19 is distorting the picture. But putting that aside, the US economy is at a point where capital gains and distributions from individual retirement accounts make up such a large proportion of personal consumption expenditure that it would be difficult for growth to continue if there were a major correction in asset prices.

That is one reason why the GameStop story has so unnerved people. It reminds Americans how incredibly dependent we all are on markets that can be very, very volatile. The 40-year shift towards what President George W Bush referred to as an “ownership society” came at a time when the nature of the corporation and the compact between business and society was changing, too. The two phenomenon are of course not unrelated.

The transformation of markets put more short-term pressure on companies, which cut costs by outsourcing, automating, using less union labour and dumping defined benefit pensions for 401k plans, which put responsibility for choosing investments, and the risks of bad outcomes, on individual workers. In 1989, 31 per cent of American families held stock. Today it is nearly half. Now, it seems, we are all day traders. My 14-year-old recently told me I should “buy the dip,” which did nothing to quell my fears that we are in the midst of an epic bubble.

Read entire article at Financial Times