The Economics of ExpectationsEconomies revolve around and are determined by "anchors": stores of value that assume pivotal roles and lend character to transactions and economic players alike. Well into the 19 century, tangible assets such as real estate and commodities constituted the bulk of the exchanges that occurred in marketplaces, both national and global. People bought and sold land, buildings, minerals, edibles, and capital goods. These were regarded not merely as means of production but also as forms of wealth.
Inevitably, human society organized itself to facilitate such exchanges. The legal and political systems sought to support, encourage, and catalyze transactions by enhancing and enforcing property rights, by providing public goods, and by rectifying market failures.
Later on and well into the 1980s, symbolic representations of ownership of real goods and property (e.g, shares, commercial paper, collateralized bonds, forward contracts) were all the rage. By the end of this period, these surpassed the size of markets in underlying assets. Thus, the daily turnover in stocks, bonds, and currencies dwarfed the annual value added in all industries combined.
Again, Mankind adapted to this new environment. Technology catered to the needs of traders and speculators, businessmen and middlemen. Advances in telecommunications and transportation followed inexorably. The concept of intellectual property rights was introduced. A financial infrastructure emerged, replete with highly specialized institutions (e.g., central banks) and businesses (for instance, investment banks, jobbers, and private equity funds).
We are in the throes of a third wave. Instead of buying and selling assets one way (as tangibles) or the other (as symbols) - we increasingly trade in expectations (in other words, we transfer risks). The markets in derivatives (options, futures, indices, swaps, collateralized instruments, and so on) are flourishing.
Society is never far behind. Even the most conservative economic structures and institutions now strive to manage expectations. Thus, for example, rather than tackle inflation directly, central banks currently seek to subdue it by issuing inflation targets (in other words, they aim to influence public expectations regarding future inflation).
The more abstract the item traded, the less cumbersome it is and the more frictionless the exchanges in which it is swapped. The smooth transmission of information gives rise to both positive and negative outcomes: more efficient markets, on the one hand - and contagion on the other hand; less volatility on the one hand - and swifter reactions to bad news on the other hand (hence the need for market breakers); the immediate incorporation of new data in prices on the one hand - and asset bubbles on the other hand.
Hitherto, even the most arcane and abstract contract traded was somehow attached to and derived from an underlying tangible asset, no matter how remotely. But this linkage may soon be dispensed with. The future may witness the bartering of agreements that have nothing to do with real world objects or values.
In days to come, traders and speculators will be able to generate on the fly their own, custom-made, one-time, investment vehicles for each and every specific transaction. They will do so by combining "off-the-shelf", publicly traded components. Gains and losses will be determined by arbitrary rules or by reference to extraneous events. Real estate, commodities, and capital goods will revert to their original forms and functions: bare necessities to be utilized and consumed, not speculated on.