This is a good analogy anyone can follow. Our misguided economic policies have only guaranteed catastrophic consequences.
Central banks are creating a tinderbox by keeping alive many very bad investments.
The ubiquitous greenery of the season has me thinking conifers and stock market crashes. There is much to be learned from the coned evergreen trees that form vast forests across the Northern Hemisphere. As the oldest trees on the planet, the mighty conifers have survived threats of catastrophic extinction since the time of the hungry herbivorous dinosaurs.
The conifer’s secret to longevity lies in a paradox: Their conquest has been largely the result of episodes of massive forest destruction. When virtually all else is gone, conifers show their strength and prowess as nature’s opportunists. How? They have adapted to evade competitors by out-surviving them and then occupying their real estate after catastrophic fires.
First, the conifer takes root where no one else will go (think cold, short growing seasons and rocky, nutrient-poor soil). Here, they find the time, space and much-needed sunlight to thrive early on and build their defenses (such as height, canopy and thick bark). When fire hits, those hardy few conifers that survive can throw their seeds onto newly cleared, sunlit and nutrient-released space. For them, fire is not foe but friend. In fact, the seed-loaded cones of many conifers open only in extreme heat.
This is nature’s model: overgrowth, followed by destruction of the overgrowth, and then the subsequent new growth of the healthiest and most robust, which ultimately leaves the forest and the entire ecosystem better off than they were before.
Pondering these trees, it is not too much of a stretch to consider the financial forests of our own making, where excess credit and malinvestment thrive for a time, only to be destroyed—and then the releasing of capital into markets where competition has been wiped out. The Austrian school economists understood this well, basing a whole theory around this investment cycle.
After the purge, great investment opportunities are created, from which prolific periods of growth emanate—provided that sufficient capital remains to reinvest into the fertile and now-open landscape.
Suppressing fire, creating the illusion of fire protection, leads to the wrong kind of growth, which then invites greater destruction. About 100 years ago, the U.S. Forest Service took a zero-tolerance approach to forest fires, stamping them out at the first blaze. Fast forward to 1988 when a massive wildfire at Yellowstone National Park wiped out more than 30 times the acreage of any previously recorded fire.
What obviously occurred was that the most fire-susceptible plants had been given repeated reprieves (bailouts, in a sense), and they naturally accumulated, along with the old, deadwood of the forests. This made for a highly flammable fuel load because when fires are suppressed the density of foliage is raised, particularly the most fire-prone foliage. The way this foliage connects the grid of the forest, as it were, has come to be known as the “Yellowstone Effect.”
A far better way to prevent massively destructive fires is by letting the fires burn. Human intervention in nature’s cycles by suppressing fires destroys the system’s natural homeostatic forces.
Strangely parallel to the Yellowstone catastrophe was the start of the federal government’s other fire-suppression policy with the 1984 Continental Illinois “too big to fail” bank bailout. This was followed by Alan Greenspan’s pronouncement immediately after the 1987 stock market crash that the Federal Reserve stood by with “readiness to serve as a source of liquidity to support the economy and financial system,” which heralded the birth of the “Greenspan put.” The Fed would no longer tolerate fires of any size.
From a forestry point of view, the lessons were learned. In 1995, the Federal Wildland Fire Management Policy stated, “Science has changed the way we think about wildland fire and the way we manage it. Wildland fire, as a critical natural process, must be reintroduced into the ecosystem.”
Herein are pearls of great wisdom for central bankers today. Central banks are creating a tinderbox by keeping alive many very bad investments, fertilizing them with everything from artificially low interest rates to preferential liquidity to outright securities purchases. As these institutions and instruments overrun the financial landscape, they hamper the economic ecosystem and perpetuate the environment of low growth and high unemployment in which we currently find ourselves.
Seeing periodic, naturally occurring catastrophes as part of the growth cycle requires thinking more than one step ahead, not only longer term but, more specifically, intertemporally. This is perhaps an insurmountable cognitive challenge, both to investors and central bankers in today’s news-flash world. When contemplating the forest, we may intuitively understand nature’s logic of growth. Yet when we look at the seeds of destruction we have sown through current monetary policy, it is clear we are lost in the trees.
Mr. Spitznagel is the founder and chief investment officer of the hedge fund Universa Investments L.P., based in Santa Monica, Calif.