Remember the 1990s? One of the central tenets of the new, hi-tech capitalism we embraced so jubilantly after our heady victory over the forces of communism was the democratization of the stock market. Prior to the mid-1990s, buying stock was a laborious affair hamstrung by limited information (no internet meant getting daily prices from the newspaper) and formidable barriers to entry. Much like early internet users were considered to be technologically advanced people with strange, mysterious skills, pre-1990s stock owners were regarded with no small amount of awe. Few people bought and almost no one "traded."
The exclusivity of the market ended in two waves. First, the country went Mutual Fund loco in the late 1980s, allowing a wider audience to buy stocks while someone else did the work. Second, the transition of the internet from a rare technology to an omnipresent part of life gave everyone a chance to play Gordon Gekko. Along came NASDAQ, AMEX, E*Trade, Scottrade, Ameritrade, and dozens of others. We were all liberated from reliance on outmoded Second Wave institutions like Social Security or pension plans from our employers (that our employers were simultaneously liberated from the cost of providing one was just a happy coincidence). Instead we'd plot our own financial destinies in just a few minutes per day, everyone sharing equally in the munificence of The Market and becoming a fast tradin', self-made millionaire in his or her spare time.
It turns out, of course, that giving a bunch of people who know not their assholes from a hole in the ground didn't create a society of millionaires. It created millions of new investors who didn't know what the fuck they were doing. The only beneficiaries were the institutional investors who made billions off amateurs buying and selling idiotically based on the recommendations of TV and magazine "analysts." Uninformed demand was a terrific way to drive up prices; the pros enjoyed the ride, sold high, and got the hell out before John Q. Public's investment came crashing to Earth. In short, democratizing stock ownership has not and was not intended to spread wealth. That was merely a canard. The only thing it has accomplished is to make the people who were already wealthy even moreso. Massive herds of people buying what a loud guy on TV tells them to buy is a godsend for people who know better.
If you fancy yourself an investor – and I do, albeit a long term buy-and-hold one – you can probably anticipate where I'm headed here. Anyone seen the price of gold lately?
Although gold predates the stock market as a mode of investment by several centuries, it is only recently that Americans have been swept with the paranoid, frenzied, Galt-goin', Paul-votin' urge to physically hoard gold (and silver). With the general public egged on by shameless shills who stand to make a fortune from herds of new buyers, precious metals are no longer the exclusive province of survivalists. Every patriot worth his salt is burying some gold in the yard ahead of the inevitable collapse of the worthless fiat dollar. That Glenn Beck is paid by retail gold outlet Goldline International to hawk gold on the air is no cause for suspicion. That prices have quadrupled in a decade matters not a bit. That anyone buying at these prices stands to lose a fantastic amount of money is irrelevant. When money ceases to exist and gold is the only currency with any value, Uncle Larry and his buried treasure will have the last laugh!
Someone once gave me a useful piece of financial advice: if your cabdriver is talking about the wisdom of a particular investment opportunity, it's time to short it. Fads become bubbles and bubbles become crashes. The only people who win are the ones who got in before the hysteria and are sharp enough to sell high. It may be inconceivable that anyone would be stupid enough to buy at $1,200/ounce, but something tells me the average teabagger rally has more than enough candidates who qualify. The guise of democratization – "Finally, a chance for the Everyman to own gold!" – is as cynical as it is effective.