Too True to be Good — American Corporate Debt Casts an Illusion

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From nitroglycerine to the Nobel. In 1862, Alfred Nobel built a small factory to experiment with a recently discovered liquid compound that was exponentially more powerful than gunpowder. Despite its potential, it was so dangerously unstable that it could not be handled with any degree of safety. Indeed, Nobel’s first factory blew up in 1864, killing his younger brother Emil. Rather than resign himself to failure and mourning, Nobel went on to discover that Kieselguhr (Diatomaceous earth), a porous silica could be used to absorb nitroglycerin to the point of dryness giving it stability without inhibiting its explosive quality. With this innovation, dynamite, derived from the Greek dynamos, meaning power, was born and with it, Nobel revolutionized an industry. By the time of his death in 1896, Nobel’s empire consisted of 90 factories manufacturing explosives and ammunition. As for his legacy, continuing the tradition of a lifetime of giving that championed the sciences and humanities, he bequeathed his vast fortune to establish the Nobel Prizes.

But Nobel’s noble act has not been universally lauded over the ages. Consider this reaction from renowned playwright George Bernard Shaw upon being honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature: “‘I can forgive Nobel for inventing dynamite, but only a fiend in human form could have invented the Nobel Prize.” Let’s be clear. Shaw kept the prize. But he refused the prize-fund that would be the equivalent of $500,000 in today’s dollars. “My readers and my audiences provide me with more than sufficient money for my needs,” Shaw scoffed. Funny thing, he also took as an “insult” his Academy Award which followed, but somehow kept the slim golden statuette on his mantle.

What’s not so golden? Perhaps the U.S. corporate bond market. In pondering the bond market
as being too good to be true, I borrowed Shaw’s twist of the term in his play Too True to be Good. As for the plot, don’t go there. This was no Pygmalion. But the play’s preface (who knew?), that’s well worth your time. Shaw penned a lengthy testament to the pains exacted from an abundance of riches leaving, “nothing but a multitude of worries and a maddening dissatisfaction.” I sense bond fund managers are in this hell today.

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Danielle DiMartino Booth is CEO and Director of Intelligence at Quill Intelligence

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