The story about the very first recorded investment “bubble” is about tulips in The Netherlands in the 17th century. At the time new varieties of tulips were traded at prices 20 times higher than the annual income of a skilled craftsman. There is even a story that someone bought a special tulip bulb for 12 acres of land. The bubble burst. As they have done so many times since.
We tend to think that bubbles are wrong. But they serve an important objective. They finance new creativity, new opportunities, and new economic growth. The tulip mania in the Dutch Golden Age brought many extraordinary beautiful flowers. In the 19th century many people first made and subsequently lost a lot of money in building the railways that provided the necessary infrastructure for the following industrial revolution. Without the railway bubble there wouldn’t have been an industrial revolution. More recently we experienced the Internet bubble that imploded in 2000. Again many people lost a lot of money after others had made large fortunes. Yet the bubble laid the foundations for the digital infrastructure that is driving today’s world economy.
Since a few months we are seeing a new bubble bursting. It looks like the same story all over again. Yet it is not. First of all the losses are much bigger than for instance during the preceding Internet burst. The housing crisis threatens the very roots of the international financial system. But there is something else: It is not so clear what upside this bubble has served. Granted, more Americans than ever own their own homes. But the rise in home ownership over the past decade has not been so big, a few percentage points. That rise does not explain the huge amounts of money that are now being lost.
The housing bubble really is a consumption bubble. Americans have borrowed $1 trillion more than they earned in the past 10 years. And that money they have spent. Not on railways, digital infrastructure or, for that matter, on renewal energy projects. No, they spent that money on consumer goods, most of which have gone to waste by now. So the tragedy of the current bubble is that, after the dust is settled and the balances have been restored in the market, there is not much to celebrate. The party is simply over.
It is interesting and scary how much creativity of the brightest minds has gone in making money with money instead of in making money with new meaningful goods and services. Maybe history will record the present bubble as the ultimate example of what greed may ruin. Making money with money has proven to be a recipe for disaster. There is a clear and great need for a different approach. A new book by Woody Tasch, a former money manager and chairman of the Investors’ Circle, a non-profit network of angel investors, venture capitalists, foundations and family offices that, since 1992, has facilitated the flow of $130 million to 200 early-stage companies and venture funds dedicated to sustainability, points in an interesting direction. In Inquiries into the Nature of Slow Money Tasch makes the case for slow money. Tasch wants to “bind” money again. Not so much to the gold standard of the past, but to the soil. Investments should benefit the Earth on which we live. In his perspective that is the missing connection between the individual and the objective of a sustainable planet.
It is a fresh message that comes at the right time. And it brings us full circle: Tasch would certainly favor investing in tulips.