In my last blog post I mused about my career in prospect research and the enjoyment I continue to find in learning about a broad variety of topics that shed light on how our prospects earn and spend their money.
A year ago, I was looking at the cost of hiring domestic staff.
Fast forward to today and researching the salary of a nanny seems downright quaint compared to what I’ve been reading lately. I’ve been focusing a lot on the economy and some of the changes we’ve seen over the past year. It seems that the pandemic has not only upended many parts of our personal lives, it’s also scrambled and rearranged how people are spending their money. It’s grabbed my interest and I’m trying to make sense of it all. What I’m offering here isn’t an explanation (I don’t have one), but a few observations and thoughts about what’s going on.
A recent cover of New York Magazine captured the spirit of our current times with the title “Can I SPAC My Stonks With NFTs?” The article inside, “There’s Nothing to Do Except Gamble”, referred to the “new money weirdness” and I can’t think of a better way to describe our current economy and our increasingly strange relationship to money. I believe that we are living through a transformation of our economy that is both exciting and a little bit scary, at least to me.
The SPACs and NFTs mentioned in the magazine were covered well by Helen in these pages already, so I won’t travel that road again. Not only did she explain them better than I can, but I have to admit that, try as I might, I still can’t wrap my head around NFTs well enough to offer a cogent explanation of them. I’m also not going to dive into the world of Reddit-driven “stonks,” though that’s also intriguing and entertaining. These are relatively new phenomena and indicative of how fast our economic world (and the language used to describe it) is changing.
My personal and professional interest in today’s economy is two-fold: First, I want to understand how we’ve reached the point where a person can spend $69 million for a piece of digital art (the buyer, a cryptocurrency billionaire who goes by the name MetaKovan, said he was prepared to pay even more and thinks it was a steal since it should be worth $1 billion).
Second, I can’t help but think the indicators are flashing red that we are somewhere near the peak of a bubble economy and wonder when that bubble is going to burst.
The first interest is almost voyeuristic – I can’t tell if we’re watching the prelude to a car crash or a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis – but the second is more serious and existential.
There are scores of brilliant people who understand the economy far better than I ever will and they don’t all agree on what we’re seeing. Some are warning that we’re cruising for a bruising and others are claiming there’s little to be concerned about.
The traditional indicators – things like the U.S. Treasury bond curve or the P/E ratio of stocks – either don’t apply any longer or aren’t as reliable as they once were. Unemployment is decreasing and GDP is rising, but there are still millions of people struggling with the economic effects of the pandemic. And in the midst of all of the good news/bad news, we’re seeing the creation of new ways for people to spend astronomical amounts on things that barely existed just a year or two ago.
The easiest explanation is that the economy is awash in money and it all has to go somewhere. Billions of dollars have been injected into the system over the past year. We are still living under varying forms of COVID restrictions, but that isn’t stopping us from spending what we’ve got.
The New York Times reported that Deutsche Bank analysts have estimated as much as $170 billion from the most recent round of federal stimulus will go into the stock market. Mortgage rates are at historic lows and house prices are rising. Redfin reports that 42% of homes have been selling for more than their list price – 16% higher than the same period last year – while at the same time Google reported that the search “When is the housing market going to crash?” had spiked 2,450% in the past month.
Bitcoin was trading at $6,853 a year ago. As of writing, it is at $53,545 and by the time this posts it could be thousands of dollars higher or lower. I assume that a good bit of what is driving the NFT market is that people are sitting on mounds of crypto that has appreciated wildly since they bought in. As a personal example, a few months ago I realized that I’d forgotten about a crypto wallet I’d left a small amount of money in a number of years ago. When I looked at it, I literally laughed out loud at the value. It wasn’t enough to be life changing, but for people who invested earlier than I did and paid just a few bucks for some Bitcoin, I can easily imagine why they’d have no problem spending some highly appreciated digital currency on a piece of digital art.
I also discovered that people are breeding and selling digital horses on the NFT market – one sold for $125,000 – and they’re participating in digital races. I had to check the date on the article to make sure it wasn’t an April Fools’ joke. If this isn’t a sign that people have more money than they know what to do with, I don’t know what is.
Along with the sea of money sloshing around in the system, we’ve seen over the past year that life is short and it should come as no surprise that people are willing to make riskier financial bets than before. Might as well YOLO your stimmies into some stonk while you can.
What does any of this have to do with our work? I can think of at least several ways.
First, the top tier of earners has done extraordinarily well over this past year, so we need to keep tabs on what they’re doing – that’s what we do every day, so there’s no change there.
Second, the flow of money into SPACs, NFTs, and retail stocks shows that there are a number of new players who are spending freely. How are we finding, researching, and qualifying them? Are you developing new ways of looking at people with names like MetaKovan and Roaring Kitty? We know they have millions to spend, so how can we add them to our prospect pools?
Third – and this is what I was thinking the most about when I began writing – if we are indeed in a bubble economy, that bubble will burst at some time and quite possibly in a very dramatic fashion. Though we can’t really predict when the economy will take a downturn, it most certainly will.
When it does, it will affect charitable giving* and that affects each of us in our jobs as researchers. When development budgets shrink, prospect researchers may seem to some as an extravagant expense to some managers. It behooves us all to be proactive in researching or at least giving some thought to those in our donor pools who work in sectors that fare better than others in a down economy. Helen wrote about this in blog posts in April and December of last year, as well as in a white paper. They merit re-reading as you ponder economic trends.
* The Lilly School of Philanthropy and Vanguard Charitable wrote a 2019 report, “Changes to the Giving Landscape” [PDF], that shows a decline in charitable giving that began in 2000, but the drop accelerated at the time of the 2008-2009 recession. From 2000 to 2008, roughly 65% of households reported giving to charity. Total giving dropped by 7.2% in 2008, then by another 8% in 2009.