The increasingly trustworthy Wikipedia defines a bubble as “a globule of one substance in another, usually gas in a liquid.” Thanks to something called the “Marangoni effect – the mass transfer along an interface between two fluids due to surface tension gradient – bubbles may remain intact when they reach the surface of the immersive substance.”
Ultimately, however, the laws of the universe will not be denied. All bubbles burst. It’s just a matter of when.
One need not hold an advanced degree in fluid dynamics to recognize that we infuse society with bubbles every day. We create them from the fabric of our fads, which soon become crazes and, finally, business as usual. That’s why when they pop – as, inevitably, they must – we are left owning little to fill our empty pockets.
In this fine, early summertime, bubbles dance about our ears.
An interesting commentary from Keith Helmuth, a member of the Woodstock Sustainable Energy Group (published by the Telegraph-Journal the other day), describes the coming “carbon bubble,” which now worries economists and environmentalists, alike.
“If the nations of the world act to constrain carbon emissions, as they are pledged to do,” he writes, “the asset base of the hydrocarbon industry will suddenly contract by an enormous amount, leaving oil and gas companies with ‘stranded assets.’ Unfortunately, the industry debt load of $1.5 trillion will remain on the books.”
Why is that “unfortunate?” As Gwynne Dyer explains in one of his recent columns, “If you liked the sub-prime mortgage fiasco in 2008, you’ll positively love this one. . .It’s a grim choice: either financial meltdown if we act decisively to halt climate change, or physical meltdown if we don’t.”
Meanwhile, the venerable Economist outlines the dimension of a more familiar bubble. “Housing markets are notoriously prone to boom and bust,” it declares in a report published two months ago. “To judge whether prices are at sustainable levels we use two yardsticks. One is the ratio of prices to disposable income per person, a measure of affordability. The other is the price-to-rent ratio.
“On this basis, Canada’s market is especially vulnerable. A large bubble now looks set to burst. Home sales in March were 15 per cent down on a year earlier. Buyers are in short supply. A recent poll showed that only 15 per cent of Canadians are likely to buy a home in the next two years, down from 27 per cent last year – the steepest decline in the 20-year history of the survey. After a big boom, the housing bust will be a wrenching affair.”
That’s indisputably good news if you’re in the market to buy, not sell. But to buy, you’ll need a good, steady job. And to get one of those, you’ll need a graduate degree in something other than applied basket weaving. Or, do you? An item by Jordan Weissmann, entitled “The Grad-School Bubble is Set to Burst,” in the July issue of The Atlantic begs to differ.
“The economic benefits of a graduate degree are dwindling,” the magazine contends. “While unemployment is still low among graduate- and professional-degree holders, underemployment seems to be rising in some fields. Nine months after graduation, for instance, barely more than half of 2012 law-school grads had found full-time, long-term jobs that required their typically six-figure J.D. And even graduates who do find decent jobs face stagnating wages and skyrocketing student loan debt.”
All of which leads him to conclude that “the grad-school bubble is one that may actually pop.”
As Jeff Jeff Kosnett is a senior editor at Kiplinger’s Personal Finance writes in his blog, “The original bubble, the blowup of the South Sea Company, lured Englishmen in 1720 to bet their spare pounds in a failed scheme to get rich trading with South America. South Sea shares soared some 800 per cent in months and collapsed even more quickly. The affair led to hostilities between Britain and Spain as well as an economic meltdown.”
Of course, the world has come a long way since then. Today’s bubbles are far more sophisticated, if no less fragile.