#105: Buckets of Rain

I first heard the phrase “money sloshing around” several years ago, and it stuck with me as a good description of a pervasive vibe I’ve been encountering everywhere lately (not just in the financial domain). Money sloshes around because there’s too much of it in the economy and there aren’t enough good places to invest it, but there’s also an unspoken agreement that the excess money won’t be meaningfully directed toward the many people and institutions who urgently need it. I hate to reference a Ray Dalio LinkedIn post but he explained this well: Investors “have an enormous amount of money to invest that has been, and continues to be, pushed on them by central banks that are buying financial assets in their futile attempts to push economic activity and inflation up.” These conditions have produced a strange, unpleasant combination of outcomes: Assets become more expensive, distancing those who have money to invest from those who don’t, while the returns on most investments are paltry and stoke an appetite for riskier opportunities. Dalio points out that the central banks’ goal in injecting money into the economy is increased spending, but people don’t really spend the money, they just keep investing it.

When money sloshes around, a lot of other stuff sloshes around too. Information, obviously: The online experience in 2019 is that of content desperately searching for eyeballs, like hermit crabs looking for a vacant shell (to paraphrase Rem Koolhaas). Any sustained expansion of some input to a process, without a corresponding expansion of outlets for the process, seems to create similar tension. The increasingly locust-like quality of tourism, which has transformed it into overtourism, produces the image of people themselves sloshing around, often somewhat literally (as in the photo of the crowded line waiting to summit Everest). The common vibe that all of these phenomena share is a kind of thirst, a frantic hedonism. Hordes chasing after prizes that look surprisingly mediocre on closer inspection. Beating down the door for the chance to invest in WeWork.

What I’ve just described would all be fairly harmless if it were just confined to affluent consumers waiting in longer queues for more expensive dopamine fixes, but the real problem—that even Dalio noted—is that the same process that thins out opportunities at the top also bifurcates the increasingly well-off and everyone else: “At the same time as money is essentially free for those who have money and creditworthiness, it is essentially unavailable to those who don’t have money and creditworthiness, which contributes to the rising wealth, opportunity, and political gaps.” That, too, is a dynamic that reaches beyond the financial sphere, although money fuels many of the secondary effects. Alex Danco wrote a great post about the problem of housing affordability in large cities, in which he questions the conventional wisdom that it’s just a supply and demand problem. Instead, he suggests, urban labor markets and the thorough financialization of housing have combined to make cities engines of increasing inequality, a condition that increased housing supply might just exacerbate. “Density used to be a stepstool; now it’s a wedge.” That wedge is showing up everywhere. Nicolas Chamfort once said that society consisted of two groups, those who have more appetite than meals and those who have more meals than appetite. The more money sloshes around, the more the latter group overeats, whether it wants to or not.