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Financial bubbles also lead to golden ages of productive growth

Sir Alastair Morton had a volcanic temper. I know this because a story I wrote in the early 1990s questioning whether Eurotunnel’s shares were worth anything triggered an eruption from the company’s then boss. Calls were made, voices raised, resignations demanded. 

Thankfully, I kept my job. Eurotunnel’s equity was also soon crushed under a mountain of debt. Nevertheless, the company was refinanced and the project completed. I raised a glass to Morton’s ferocious determination on a Eurostar train to Paris a decade later.

With hindsight, Eurotunnel was a classic example of a productive bubble in miniature. Amid great euphoria about the wonders of sub-Channel travel, capital was sucked into financing a great enterprise of unknown worth.

Sadly, Eurotunnel’s earliest backers were not among its financial beneficiaries. But the infrastructure was built and, pandemics aside, it provides a wonderful service and makes a return. It was a lesson on how markets habitually guess the right direction of travel, even if they misjudge the speed and scale of value creation.

That is worth thinking about as we worry whether our overinflated markets are about to burst. Will something productive emerge from this bubble? Or will it just be a question of apportioning losses? “All productive bubbles generate a lot of waste. The question is what they leave behind,” says Bill Janeway, the veteran investor.

Fuelled by cheap money and fevered imaginations, funds have been pouring into exotic investments typical of a late-stage bull market. Many commentators have drawn comparisons between the tech bubble of 2000 and the environmental, social and governance frenzy of today. Some $347bn flowed into ESG investment funds last year and a record $490bn of ESG bonds were issued. 

Last month, Nicolai Tangen, the head of Norway’s $1.3tn sovereign wealth fund, said that investors had been right to back tech companies in the late 1990s — even if valuations went too high — just as they were right to back ESG stocks today. “What is happening in the green shift is extremely important and real,” Tangen said. “But to what extent stock prices reflect it correctly is another question.”

If the past is any guide to the future, we can hope that this proves to be a productive bubble, whatever short-term financial carnage may ensue.

In her book Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital, the economist Carlota Perez argues that financial excesses and productivity explosions are “interrelated and interdependent”. In fact, past market bubbles were often the mechanisms by which unproven technologies were funded and diffused — even if “brilliant successes and innovations” shared the stage with “great manias and outrageous swindles”.

In Perez’s reckoning, this cycle has occurred five times in the past 250 years: during the Industrial Revolution beginning in the 1770s, the steam and railway revolution in the 1820s, the electricity revolution in the 1870s, the oil, car and mass production revolution in the 1900s and the information technology revolution in the 1970s. 

Each of these revolutions was accompanied by bursts of wild financial speculation and followed by a golden age of productivity increases: the Victorian boom in Britain, the Roaring Twenties in the US, les trente glorieuses in postwar France, for example.

When I spoke with Perez, she guessed we were about halfway through our latest technological revolution, moving from a phase of narrow installation of new technologies such as artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, 3D printing and vertical farms to one of mass deployment.

Whether we will subsequently enter a golden age of productivity, however, will depend on creating new institutions to manage this technological transformation and green transition, and pursuing the right economic policies.

To achieve “smart, green, fair and global” economic growth, Perez argues the top priority should be to transform our taxation system, cutting the burden on labour and long-term investment returns, and further shifting it on to materials, transport and dirty energy.

“We need economic growth but we need to change the nature of economic growth,” she says. “We have to radically change relative cost structures to make it more expensive to do the wrong thing and cheaper to do the right thing.”

Albeit with excessive enthusiasm, financial markets have bet on a greener future and begun funding the technologies needed to bring it to life. But, just as in previous technological revolutions, politicians must now play their part in shaping a productive result.

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