” Ayn Rand wrote an influential book, Atlas Shrugged, in the ’50s that seems to resurface in popularity with each new wave of government intrusion on the lives of our overregulated, overtaxed citizens. The book describes a world that was on a slow but steady path toward ever more central planning by meddling bureaucrats interfering with the entrepreneurial class who relied on one another for their production of output. As the pages of the book are turned, this “road to serfdom” (a phrase I borrow from Friedrich Hayek) reaches a peak with the last of a small subset of productive entrepreneurs dropping out of their respective professions and sealing themselves off in a secret location created by John Galt. Their isolation from government interference in Galt’s secret hideaway was designed to allow this subset of creative, hard-working individuals to pursue their dreams and live in a rational way, trading value for value with one another. The vision of Galt in his hidden refuge is consistent with the Ayn Rand objectivist philosophy that she advocated her entire life as an immigrant to America from the Soviet Union.
Rand never wrote a sequel to Atlas Shrugged, but I wonder where she would pick up after the first novel ends. We’re left with John Galt and his band of entrepreneurial cohorts waiting to eventually reenter the failed utopia created by central planners. Taking a peek out of his libertarian lair, I wonder what Galt would think of America today. Some of the current dismal economic statistics seem consistent with the world Ayn Rand created in her fictional novel. The latest Census Bureau figures show a larger percentage of people receive some form of means-tested public assistance than work full-time. Would this be a rock-bottom entry point where Galt and his band of entrepreneurial cohorts can once again return to the world and begin rebuilding America based on principles of limited government and free markets? Not quite yet. One last worn-out shoe has yet to drop: the U.S. stock market.
Unlike the beaten-down real economy, activity on Wall Street continues to flourish. Large banks and their institutional clients have benefited from the artificial stimulation promulgated by the Federal Reserve. By keeping interest rates near zero percent for the last five years, middle-income families receive next to nothing off their life savings, while institutional clients can borrow money at bargain rates from large banks. In a classic example of crony capitalism, banks have rewarded their institutional clients with cheap loans, enabling them to use borrowed money and speculate on stocks, driving valuations to levels not seen since before the bank bailout in 2008. The governor of the Bank of England recently commented that “banks operated in a privileged heads-I-win-tails-you-lose bubble.“[i] I believe Galt would be disgusted at this unintended consequence of government intervention that is driving a wedge between the elite on Wall Street and the average American struggling to make ends meet on a beleaguered Main Street. If Galt were a stock investor, would he trade in some of his gold for fiat currency, cozying up to this collection of institutions buying large-cap stocks on margin? At these nosebleed valuation levels, Galt would probably “flip the bird” at Mr. Market before sliding back into his hidden sanctuary until greener pastures emerged in the equity investment arena. Galt strikes me as the kind of independent investor that would keep his libertarian powder dry until the current statist experiment ran its complete course, waiting patiently to scoop up the right kind of stocks at a great price. Assuming the skeleton infrastructure of an organized stock exchange still remained on the day of Galt’s return to the investment arena, what stocks would he select from the rubble left on the corner of Broad and Wall? A review of the character’s profile might give us a few clues. Let’s go through a few stock categories I believe John Galt would avoid. Buying large company stocks would probably be out of the question for Galt. In the recent past, these stocks were the economic football the large institutions speculated on with borrowed money. As already mentioned, savers deposited hard-earned money in their bank accounts and received close to a zero percent interest rate, while money was loaned out in a speculative frenzy to the bank’s institutional buddies. Adding insult to injury, not only do retirees earn about the same interest rate as preppers get off of canned goods stored in their bomb shelters, their principal is being debased from continuous quantitative easing by the Federal Reserve. The stench coming off this large-cap football used by highly leveraged institutions in stock speculation would be too much for Galt to muster a bid order. “