Unholy Partnerships and Bubbles — Another on the Way?

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You don’t have to be an economist (which I’m not) to recognize that extreme boom and bust cycles harm the economy. A market bubble such as the housing mortgage debacle has at its core some unhealthy relationships between the economic partners involved. I think those poor business relationships reflect on a larger scale what can happen to market relationships in specific industries. Unfortunately, I believe another economic bubble may be on the way.

Business/channel partner relationships that are healthy produce a “win/win/win” — across the supply chain for original sellers, partners and end-customers. Delivering and receiving value at each chain link should be the metric for healthy partnering. Inadequate value will break the chain. Without good enough incentives or training offered by the original seller, for example, partners can’t perform as well for the seller or the end customer. Or if a channel partner fails to support customers post sale, then the lousy experience for customers pings back to hurt the reputation and share for partner and original seller alike. Nobody wins.

On a larger scale, I think the housing mortgage bubble had unhealthy partnership relationships, between banks and mortgage brokers, realtors, regulators and home buyers. Housing prices became inflated because borrowing too much was made too available to too many. Fingers are still being pointed for blame. Suffice it to say that in the end, all those groups and more — arguably all of us affected by the bad economy — suffered as a result.

While less documented, another economic bubble disaster may be brewing, related to college lending and borrowing. I agree with analysts who say that higher education prices are inflated because too many are borrowing too much, in terms of lacking ability to pay back and/or lacking quality jobs. The enablers? Here include the usual suspects — banks/financial aid brokers and regulators. But include as well the colleges and trade schools encouraging over-borrowing, and students and their parents who borrow more than they can pay back, and those studying for careers that can’t pay enough earnings to warrant the cost.

Parenting four, college-educated children gave me a birds-eye view of seeing some of these dynamics first hand. But the broader evidence has come from analysis such as here and here (scroll down to chart comparing housing and college inflation rates with the CPI).

Unholy partnering, or a lack of true value for throughout the chain, never ends well. And as we’ve seen, large bubbles make big messes. I hope some behavior changes and we don’t see this next one burst as some fear.

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