This review was accepted for publication by the Vancouver Sun in January 2000, and then rejected by editors who found it "too one-sided and unfair to the bank." This is the first financial book review to be published in Geist, and is offered here in plenty of time for RRSP season.
It pays to advertise. The good folks who make business decisions for the mutual fund industry in Canada understand that simple maxim. Now, in the dark and weary mid-winter months, when investors are making their RRSP decisions for last tax year, the airwaves are crowded with ads featuring gimlet-eyed mutual fund executives making on-site investigative visits to potential investments, or radiantly happy retirees on the decks of their sailboats, enjoying the lush pleasures of freedom at fifty-five.
The ads instruct us that safe retirement depends on private investment, and that the mutual funds stand ready to pave the way there for any Canadian smart enough to salt away some RRSP money every year. It's a pretty picture—a Canadian future in which we all relax into golden years of financial security and high-end recreation, thanks to the acumen of our mutual fund advisors and our foresight in not depending on the increasingly fragile prospects of the "inefficient" Canada Pension Plan.
We are, in this well-lit video vision, a nation of well-advised and self-sufficient micro-capitalists, riding our investment surfboards over the waves of an endlessly swelling stock market into a happy future, grateful to have been rescued from geriatric poverty by the brokers and traders.
There's only one problem with this rosy picture, according to Jim Stanford's challenging new book, Paper Boom: Why Real Prosperity Requires a New Approach to the Canadian Economy (Lorimer). It's an expensive miragea—a set of glossy visions that mask more than they reveal about the Canadian economy and our shared future as we grow old in this in this age of big business triumphalism. And on the question of comparative efficiency, Stanford notes that the mutual fund industry merely to advertise its pension products spends more than half what CPP spends to administer its entire national system. Factor in the heavy taxpayer subsidy for the RRSP system—a system that delivers significant benefits to a privileged minority of us, the top 10 percent of the Canadian well-to-do who soak up two-thirds of the $30 billion in public subsidy we all paid to underwrite the RRSP tax loophole last year—and the hefty fees and charges associated with most "full service" mutual funds, and you are tempted to reassess the comparative virtues of the two approaches to pension security. The highly touted benefits of guided investment under hind advisors look a little less tempting when we learn that, over years, mutual fund investments are hard pressed to match the growth of no-fee index funds that simply reflect stock market averages. So much for the whiz kids.
Stanford has written a closely reasoned, well-researched book on the current state of the Canadian economy, in which he challenges almost everything we've been encouraged to take for granted over the last two decades. He invites us to re-think talk show and pundit orthodoxy on debt and deficit, inflation, investment, unemployment and the global economy. He suggests a bold set of new public policies that, he argues, will get more Canadians working at real, productive jobs, while reining in a runaway speculative economy (the "paper boom" of the title) that generates excessive wealth for speculators while discouraging real production and productivity.
In Stanford's view, the real decay of the Canadian economy came not from over-funded social programs or reckless borrowing—the trouble started in the early 1980s, when banks, bond holders and other finance capital interests managed to reverse long-standing national policies that had made job creation and economic growth their prime targets, and replace them with high-interest monetary policies and a near-hysterical attempt to wipe out inflation. And make no mistake, these policies have succeeded in what they were designed to do: profit margins for bond holders, stockbrokers and the select few families that control much of Canadian wealth have gone up precipitously since the policy reversal (what Stanford calls the "great U turn"). The paper economy, churning stocks, clipping coupons and inventing ever-more-arcane financial instruments (a secular Cabala of abstract, ghostly entities like the derivatives that brought down a major British bank and required a multi-billion-dollar bail-out for a reckless US hedge fund in the past few years) is booming. But real investment, money for the actual purchase of new factories and machines, homes and offices, is lagging.
The much-touted productivity crisis in the Canadian economy is not, Stanford argues, the result of high taxes or lazy, greedy workers. It is rather the direct result of government policies that reward speculation, mergers, takeovers, privatization and other unproductive paper shuffling. These same policies (elaborate subsidies and tax loopholes for capital gains and dividend income, for example, and high real interest rates that make it more lucrative to leave investment in the paper economy than to risk it in real production) have discouraged the growth of Canada's real economy, the one that makes things rather than financial abstractions. The government, Stanford suggests, has been effectively lobbied by a small but powerful class of money changers on Bay Street, and everyone in Canada has paid the price for their "subsidized casino."
Most Canadians, as Stanford points out, don't have enough disposable income to take significant advantage of RRSP tax loopholes, despite the images of people's capitalism that flood our TV screens. If you are one of the lucky few, Stanford's book may help you rethink where you want to stash your surplus. You'll want to read this book before you see your broker or banker. If, on the other hand, you're limping along from paycheque to paycheque like most Canadians, you'll want to consider the array of proposals for economic and political reform that conclude this hook before you next go to the polls. Stanford offers challenge and vision, original thought and detailed, hard-data research to back it up. This important book is recommended reading for all of us during this grim and confusing season.