Not long ago, you may recall, the airwaves and newspapers and books and magazines promoted the idea of leverage, of borrowing to the limit, of using other people's money - OPM - to succeed.
Leverage was the way to wealth, you were told, and if you had doubts, the promoter of the notion could parade before you names of some mighty successful people such as Michael Milken and a half-dozen local developers.The concept had plenty of "can't lose" relatives, such as, "You can only lose pennies if you buy penny stocks," and, "Anyone with common sense can make it big in commodities," and, "Yes, you can outwit the stock market."
All such ideas have been slain by the realities. As popular economist Howard Ruff says, among the most vicious of all crimes is the slaughter of popular theories by brutal gangs of facts.
Ruff, who made a name years ago by forecasting bad times, takes a look back at the carnage wrought by some of those flighty ideas generated by the free-loose-and-easy (floosy) 1980s. He identifies these among the victims:
-Stock prices will rise and rise and rise.
Well, for a time they did. And as time passed, people became more convinced than ever that it was true. Those too young to recall earlier bloodbaths thought they had identified new truths when they were succumbing to old lies.
The phrasing of those "truths" was very familiar. The old rules don't apply, it was said. We're in a new era, it was explained. Those who stuck to the old rules were viewed as has-beens, unable to adjust to the new reality.
-You can borrow, borrow and borrow, without every worrying about debt. Pay back in cheaper dollars, take a tax deduction and eventually sell your investment for a killing. Don't you know that prices always go up?
One of the popular self-help books of the early 1980s managed to squeeze the entire mood of the times into its title, "How to Borrow Your Way to a Great Fortune Starting From Scratch."
It might have been possible for a time. In the early 1980s, you could profit from real estate investments but take a paper loss for tax purposes. You could raise your rents. You could repay your loans in cheaper dollars.
Uncle Sam rescinded the tax benefits, and that put real estate in the category of just another business.
Reviewing the '80s, one of the more remarkable observations you can make is that these and similar errors weren't made only by the informed or by those convinced that they had discovered a quick way to riches.
Some of the allegedly wisest financial brains in the universe fell for such notions - bankers, brokers, builders, insurance executives, financial advisers, corporate officials, corporate raiders and not-for-profit institutions.
And, oh yes, that profligate old rake Uncle Sam had the best time of all. He squandered, borrowed, refinanced and borrowed more and, for a time, had the "experts" convinced it was true, that you needn't ever face the consequences.