May 282011

It was one of the games I only got to play when I visited my grandparents, but I always enjoyed Boom or Bust. Like in Monopoly, players circled the board, landing on properties to either buy or pay rent on if they were already owned. What made it different from Monopoly, however, is that the relative prices were variable — not because of how much they’d been developed, but because of the prevailing economic climate. The square board contained a removable and reversible centerpiece. Without it, the prices were normal. But as soon as someone landed on the operative corner space, the centerpiece was placed on the middle of the board to raise all the prices to “boom” levels. And just as soon as that happened, it seemed, someone would land on the operative space causing the centerpiece to be flipped over to “bust” prices. Eventually the prices would of course return to normal, and the cycle would continue.

The game was won or lost based on when and how people spent their money. Buy high and hope to collect quick, high rents? Or try to wait for bargains and hope all the good properties haven’t been snatched up?

It was a fun game, and an educational one. Not only because it necessarily taught how to spend money effectively, but because it taught that everything was cyclical. This was the most important lesson, that one should never presume the good times would last forever and, just as importantly, that one could be sure that after the bad times, better days would be ahead.

It’s an important lesson, and one more people should heed. It would restrain the irrational exuberance that can have devastating economic consequences for both individuals and society, and it would restore needed faith that even in the darkest economic hour, someday the sun will shine again.

With this thought in mind I read with some appalled bemusement Dan Harris’s post marveling about all the people denying there is a China real estate “bubble.” I put it in quotes, because according to his post, a considerable number of people seem to think we’re not currently seeing one, despite the unflagging stream of construction in China’s urban centers. Sure there’s a lot of vacant apartments right now, the thinking of many apparently goes, but China is sure to have massive urban migration who will need it. Whether that assumption is true, and whether the cost of the massive investment in building housing is rationally proportional to the population’s ability to afford it are fair questions, but they’re ones which many seem not to be asking. Everything is fine, they say. It will all work out. There is no bubble; things really are supposed to be this good.

To which I posted something that I think applies to any situation where people seem equally oblivious to economic reality, beyond just the China real estate one:

I think it’s axiomatic that the more people deny there’s a bubble, the more there is one. Everything is cyclical, even in China, and it’s the denial of this reality that causes the biggest and most painful pops. This doesn’t mean that arguments can’t be made that China is in a good position to absorb the ebbs and flows of supply and demand, but, as with anything else, the more people protest that it is IMMUNE to these ebbs and flows the more likely it will be devastated by them, as nothing will have been done to try to minimize their inevitable consequences.

Those who don’t remember history are doomed to repeat it, they say. History tells us that the game always changes. And as a result there can be an awful lot of losers.

 Posted by at 6:19 pm

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