“A growing economy consists of prices falling, not rising.”
The stock market does not work the way most people think. A commonly held belief — on Main Street as well as on Wall Street — is that a stock-market boom is the reflection of a progressing economy: as the economy improves, companies make more money, and their stock value rises in accordance with the increase in their intrinsic value. A major assumption underlying this belief is that consumer confidence and consequent consumer spending are drivers of economic growth.
A stock-market bust, on the other hand, is held to result from a drop in consumer and business confidence and spending — due to inflation, rising oil prices, high interest rates, etc., or for no reason at all — that leads to declining business profits and rising unemployment. Whatever the supposed cause, in the common view a weakening economy results in falling company revenues and lower-than-expected future earnings, resulting in falling intrinsic values and falling stock prices.
This understanding of bull and bear markets, while held by academics, investment professionals, and individual investors alike, is technically correct if viewed superficially but is substantially misconceived because it is based on faulty finance and economic theory.
In fact, the only real force that ultimately makes the stock market or any market rise (and, to a large extent, fall) over the longer term is simply changes in the quantity of money and the volume of spending in the economy. Stocks rise when there is inflation of the money supply (i.e., more money in the economy and in the markets). This truth has many consequences that should be considered.
Since stock markets can fall — and fall often — to various degrees for numerous reasons (including a decline in the quantity of money and spending), our focus here will be only on why they are able to rise in a sustained fashion over the longer term.
The Fundamental Source of All Rising Prices
For perspective, let’s put stock prices aside for a moment and make sure first to understand how aggregate consumer prices rise. In short, overall prices can rise only if the quantity of money in the economy increases faster than the quantity of goods and services. (In economically retrogressing countries, prices can rise when the supply of goods diminishes while the supply of money remains the same, or even rises.)
When the supply of goods and services rises faster than the supply of money — as happened during most of the 1800s — the unit price of each good or service falls, since a given supply of money has to buy, or “cover,” an increasing supply of goods or services. George Reisman offers us the critical formula for the derivation of economy-wide prices:1
In this formula, price (P) is determined by demand (D) divided by supply (S). The formula shows us that it is mathematically impossible for aggregate prices to rise by any means other than (1) increasing demand, or (2) decreasing supply; i.e., by either more money being spent to buy goods, or fewer goods being sold in the economy.
In our developed economy, the supply of goods is not decreasing, or at least not at enough of a pace to raise prices at the usual rate of 3–4 percent per year; prices are rising due to more money entering the marketplace.
The same price formula noted above can equally be applied to asset prices — stocks, bonds, commodities, houses, oil, fine art, etc. It also pertains to corporate revenues and profits. As Fritz Machlup states:
It is impossible for the profits of all or of the majority of enterprises to rise without an increase in the effective monetary circulation (through the creation of new credit or dishoarding).2
To return to our focus on the stock market in particular, it should be seen now that the market cannot continually rise on a sustained basis without more money — specifically bank credit — flowing into it.
There are other ways the market could go higher, but their effects are temporary. For example, an increase in net savings involving less money spent on consumer goods and more invested in the stock market (resulting in lower prices of consumer goods) could send stock prices higher, but only by the specific extent of the new savings, assuming all of it is redirected to the stock market.
The same applies to reduced tax rates. These would be temporary effects resulting in a finite and terminal increase in stock prices. Money coming off the “sidelines” could also lift the market, but once all sideline money was inserted into the market, there would be no more funds with which to bid prices higher. The only source of ongoing fuel that could propel the market — any asset market — higher is new and additional bank credit. As Machlup writes,
If it were not for the elasticity of bank credit … a boom in security values could not last for any length of time. In the absence of inflationary credit the funds available for lending to the public for security purchases would soon be exhausted, since even a large supply is ultimately limited. The supply of funds derived solely from current new savings and current amortization allowances is fairly inelastic.… Only if the credit organization of the banks (by means of inflationary credit) or large-scale dishoarding by the public make the supply of loanable funds highly elastic, can a lasting boom develop.… A rise on the securities market cannot last any length of time unless the public is both willing and able to make increased purchases.3 (Emphasis added.)
The last line in the quote helps to reveal that neither population growth nor consumer sentiment alone can drive stock prices higher. Whatever the population, it is using a finite quantity of money; whatever the sentiment, it must be accompanied by the public’s ability to add additional funds to the market in order to drive it higher.4
Understanding that the flow of recently created money is the driving force of rising asset markets has numerous implications. The rest of this article addresses some of these implications.