Tuesday, October 16, 2007


The hubble-bubble, or hookah

The American astronomer Edwin Hubble found the evidence for an expanding universe, in the phenomenon of "red shift". Objects moving at high speed change colour, because their velocity stretches the light waves. Looking at galaxies, he saw that the further away the object, the more its spectrum shifted, so the faster it was going.

Why? Imagine you put a line of ink dots at intervals of an inch on a toy balloon, and then inflate it so that the space between each dot doubles. Dot A is now 2 inches from Dot B, and the latter is two inches from Dot C. So from A's perspective, B has receded by one inch, but C by two inches.

The implication is that as the universe continues to expand steadily, the objects furthest from us will eventually accelerate beyond the speed of light, and in Einsteinian terms will not be part of our universe any longer - we will never see anything from them again.

The financial universe is, as everyone who takes an interest knows, expanding. And everything is fine as long as the expansion continues, and while people are still prepared to use the inflating money.

One way the money supply expands is through loans. Banks only have to keep a fraction of their deposits ready for return to savers - the rest they can lend out. Some of that loaned money gets deposited into a different account - where again, part is kept and the rest loaned out. So the amount of money in the economy is multiplied by this "fractional reserve banking".

But unlike the cosmos, money can also contract. If more people than expected want their money back, loans get called in prematurely. It becomes a game of musical chairs. If there's growing concern that the system can't return all the cash demanded, two or three chairs are removed at a time and a panic starts. Rick Ackerman in GoldSeek (26 September) underscores this point.

"Captain Hook" in yesterday's Financial Sense suggests that we may be approaching such a time in the near future. The bubble may burst.

The problem for the rest of us is that if we believe the money supply will continue to expand, we want to get out of money and into anything that is more likely to hold its value; but if we anticipate deflation, then cash is king.

So, is it endless expansion, or inflation followed by a bust? Hubble, or bubble?

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