LET ME PROPOSE a toast in honor of Paul Volcker. He celebrated his second annivarsary as Federal Reserve Board chairman last week. Volcker is to interest rates what Edmund Hillary was to Mount Everest. Since Volcker has become fed chairman, words like loan shark and usury have lost their meaning.
In August 1979, when Volcker succeeded G. William Miller as Fed chairman, the prime rate was about 11.5 percent and you could get a conventional 30-year mortgage stands at 20.5 percent and last week, for the first time in history, the average mortgage came with a pricetag of 17 percent.
I think it's wonderful, i love high interest rates.
Remarks like that can cause a hush to fall over an entire room. It's like announcing that you're back from a great two-week vacation on the shores of the Love Canel. Or that Energy Secretary James Edwards did your root canal work without anesthesia.
I know that everyone is supposed to hate high interest rates. Some, like the Fed and the Reagan administration, justify them as unfortunate medicine needed to break the back of spiraling inflation -- or some such equally mixed metaphor.
Liberal politicans are fond of reciting the litany of the victims of high interest rates.
Earnest young couples are unable to buy their first home.
Mature families are unable to reap windfall profits by selling their houses.
Small businessmen can't finance their inventories.
Savory tax attorneys get wiped out in the bond market.
The beleaguered savings and loan industry can't find any more suckers willing to take 5.5 percent on their passbook accounts.
It may be the stuff of poignant human drama, but it leaves me cold.
Did you look at the economic news last week? The U.S. dollar, until recently the debased currency of a decaying empire, soared to its highest level in 11 years. England, the pound is at $1.80 and in Italy it's 1250 lire to the dollar.
Remember that supercilious little frenchman in that bank in Paris who laughed at you when you tried to exchange your dollar-denominated traveler's check a few years ago? Or the German innkeeper dressed in lederhosen who pushed you out of the way to greet those three Japanese tourist?
Try going back these days. Suddenly, Europe again remembers who won the war. Watch the French bank teller and the German innkeeper grovel before the Yankee dollar. I hear that all it takes to get a good table at a three-star restaurant in the French countryside is a couple of Hershey bars and a pair of nylon stockings.
It's like the 1950s all over again. And the strength of the dollar is mostly due to high U.S. interest rates serving as a magnet for investment from the rest of the world.
Consider also the price of gold, which fell last week to an 18-month low of $388 an ounce.
Nothing -- save perhaps gasoline lines and the baseball strike -- did more to destroy civility in this country than the speculative frenzy that surrounded last year's run-up in the piece of gold. It was a national orgy of greed reminiscent of "The Teasure of Sierra Madre."
Family heirlooms and antique tableware melted down for their gold and silver content. Gold chains snatched on the streets of mid-town Manhattan. Virtually every store but Brooks Brothers had little hand-lettered signs in their windows, "Top prices for gold class rings." Television talk shows featuring self-anointed economic gurus who proclaimed that the only answer was to put everything in krugerrands and heard for the hills.
It would have been comic were it not for the vast numbers of otherwise sensible people who got caught up in the fight from the dollar into something of lasting value like gold or old comic books. True, a lot of them tended to be dentists. You could see them, with the fixed stares of true believers, shivering in the January cold as they waited patiently outside of Deak-Perera waiting for their chance to buy gold at $875 in ounce.
High interest rates proved to be the only effective antidote against the great American yellow-fever epidemic of 1980. Gold may glitter, but money earns interested.
Last week, my money market fund paid a return of 17.2 percent. After taxes, that comes close to to matching the rate of inflation. For those of us stuck at the $2 widow of personal investing, breaking even is a cause for celebration.
Back in the old days before Paul Volcker, my parents took me down to the local savings bank and opened up a $100 account in my name. Every quarter I would dutifuly make a return trip to watch them calculate my interest. Evan at 8, I realized that there was something humiliating in an investment with a quarterly return of $1.37. Do you have any idea how long it takes to earn something resembling real money at 5.5 percent interest?
But in the modern world, armed with my very own high-yeild money market fund complete with check-writing privileges, I feel like a man of substance and probity. For an incorrigible spendthrift, it is akin to a blinding light on the road to Damascus.
What about the housing market? What about mortgage rates? Do you know that at 17 percent a $100,000 mortgage costs more than $1,400 a month? Who has that kind of money?
Calm down. Look at a high interest rates from my perspective for a moment. I read. I rent. It has a lot of blessings. I do not spent my Saturdays at Hechinger's; a man comes to my apartment door evey morning to pick up the garbage; and when the shower leaks I do not have have to take out a personal loan to pay the plumber.
For years I have endured the critical glances of people who feel that my decision to rent is a congenital deformity like a clubfoot. I remember countless dinner parties where the host broke the first silence by turning to me and asking, "Do you want to know how little I paid for this house back in 1974?"
Quite frankly, I don't give a damn. I am tired of people in Washington acting as if purchasing a roof over their heads in the mid-'70s was an act of personal genius equivalent to curing cancer. If they were so smart why didn't they sell out last summer when interest rates dropped to 11 percent? They could have put their windfall profits into a money market fund and moved into my apartment building.
Even I understand that owning your own home is part of the American dream, like wasting gasoline or eating junk food. But somewhere along the way greed has contaminated the vision of growing old in your own ivy-thatched cottage with its mortgage completely paid off. Instead, people were buying and selling houses in this town as if the whole real estate business were part of an elaborated Glenn Tucker pyramid scheme.
Folks don't talk much about making a killing in real estate anymore. But I've found a number of new topics to fill the conversational gap: trips to Europe, great buys on gold jewelry, money market funds and the joys of renting.
Thank you, Paul Volcker, wherever you are.