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“There is an unresolved self-contradiction in China’s current policies: restarting the furnaces also reignites exponential debt growth, which cannot be sustained for much longer than a couple of years.”
The “eerie resemblances” – as Soros previously noted – to the US in 2008 have profound consequences for China and the world – nowhere is that more dangerously exposed (just as in the US) than in the Chinese shadow banking sector as explained below…
Submitted by Minxin Pei via The National Interest,
The spectacle of a game of financial chicken in the world’s second-largest economy is both entertaining and terrifying. Twice in 2013, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC), the country’s central bank, tried to demonstrate its resolve to rein in runaway credit growth. In June, it engineered a sudden credit squeeze that sent the interbank lending rates to more than 20 percent and caused a short-lived panic in the Chinese financial markets. Apparently, the financial turmoil was too much for the Chinese government, which quickly ordered the Chinese central bank to reverse course. As a result, the PBOC lost both face and credibility.
However, as credit growth continued unabated and activities in the most risky segment of China’s financial sector – the so-called shadow banking system – displayed alarming recklessness, the PBOC was left with no choice but try one more time to send a strong message that it could not be counted on to provide unlimited liquidity to the banking system.
It did so in December 2013 with a modified approach that provided liquidity only to the selected large banks but pressured smaller banks (which are the most active participants in the shadow banking system). Although interbank lending rates did not spike to nose-bleeding levels, as they did in June, they doubled quickly. Most Chinese banks held on to their cash and refused to lend to each other. Chinese equity markets fell nearly 10 percent, giving back nearly all the gains since mid-November, when the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) reform plan bolstered market sentiments.
Unfortunately for the PBOC, the renewed turbulences in the Chinese banking sector were again viewed as too dangerous by the top leadership of the CCP even though it seemed that the PBOC initially received its support. Consequently, the PBOC had to beat another hasty retreat and inject enough liquidity to force down interbank lending rates. Thus, in the first two rounds of a stand-off between the PBOC and China’s shadow banking system, the latter is widely seen as the winner. The PBOC blinked first each time.
For the moment, the conventional wisdom is that, as long as the PBOC maintains sufficient liquidity (translation: permitting credit growth at roughly the same pace as in previous years), China’s financial sector will remain more or less stable. This observation may be reassuring for the short-term, but overlooks the dangerous underlying dynamics in China’s banking system that prompted the PBOC to act in first place.
Of these dynamics, two deserve special attention.
The first one is the rapid rise in indebtedness (or financial leverage) in the Chinese economy since 2008. In five years, the country’s total debt-to-GDP ratio (including both public and private debt) rose from 130 percent to 210 percent, an unprecedented increase for a major economy. Historically, such expansion of credit hasrarely failed to inflate a credit bubble and cause a financial crisis. In the Chinese case, what makes the credit explosion even more risky is the low creditworthiness of the major borrowers. Only a quarter of the debt is owed by those with relatively high creditworthiness (consumers and the central government). The remaining 75 percent has gone to state-owned enterprises, private real-estate developers, and local governments, all of which are known to have weak loan repayment capacity (most state-owned enterprises generate low cash profits, private real-estate developers are overleveraged, and local governments have a narrow tax base). Staggering under an unsustainable debt burden of roughly 160 percent of GDP (equivalent to $14 trillion), these borrowers are expected to default on a significant portion of their bank debt in the coming years.
The second dynamic, closely related to the first one, is the growth of the shadow-banking sector. Two drivers shape activities in this sector, which operates outside the banking system. To minimize their exposure to risky borrowers, Chinese banks have curtailed their lending. But at the same time, these banks have embraced the shadow banking activities to increase their revenue. Specifically, Chinese banks peddle new “wealth management products” – short-term securities promising high interest rates – to their depositors. The issuers of such securities, which are not protected or insured by the government – are typically high-risk borrowers, such as local governments (and their financing vehicles) and real estate developers.
In the meantime, these borrowers are facing rising pressures for loan repayments in an environment of overcapacity and unprofitable investments. Unable to generate cash to service their loans, they have to turn to the shadow-banking sector for credit and avoid default. The result is an explosive growth of the size of the shadow-banking sector (now conservatively estimated to account for 20-30 percent of GDP).
Understandably, the PBOC does not look upon the shadow banking sector favorably. Since shadow-banking sector gets its short-term liquidity mainly through interbanking loans, the PBOC thought that it could put a painful squeeze on this sector through reducing liquidity. Apparently, the PBOC underestimated the effects of its measure. Largely because Chinese borrowers tend to cross-guarantee each other’s debt, squeezing even a relatively small number of borrowers could produce a cascade of default. The reaction in the credit market was thus almost instant and frightening. Borrowers facing imminent default are willing to borrow at any rate while banks with money are unwilling to loan it out no matter how attractive the terms are.
Should this situation continue, China’s real economy would suffer a nasty shock. Chain default would produce a paralyzing effect on economic activities even though there is no run on the banks. Clearly, this is not a prospect the CCP’s top leadership relishes.
So the task for the PBOC in the coming year will remain as difficult as ever. It will have to navigate between gently disciplining the banks and avoiding a financial panic. Its ability to do so is anything but assured. It has already lost the first two rounds of this game of financial chicken. We can only hope that it can do better in the next round.
JP Morgan Pays $2 Billion to Avoid Prosecution for Its Involvement In Madoff Ponzi Scheme Washington’s Blog
JP Morgan: Ponzi Schemer
Bernie Madoff has said all along that JP Morgan knew about – and knowingly profited from – his Ponzi schemes.
So JP Morgan has agreed to pay the government $2 billion to avoid investigation and prosecution.
While this may sound like a lot of money, it is spare sofa change for a big bank like JP Morgan.
It’s not just the Madoff scheme.
Here are just some of the recent improprieties by big banks:
- Laundering money for terrorists (the HSBC employee who blew the whistle on the banks’ money laundering for terrorists and drug cartels says that the giant bank is still laundering money, saying: “The public needs to know that money is still being funneled through HSBC to directly buy guns and bullets to kill our soldiers …. Banks financing … terrorists affects every single American.” He also said: “It is disgusting that our banks are STILL financing terror on 9/11 2013“. And see this)
- Financing illegal arms deals, and funding the manufacture of cluster bombs (and see this and this) and other arms which are banned in most of the world
- Handling money for rogue military operations
- Laundering money for drug cartels. See this, this, this, this and this (indeed, drug dealers kept the banking system afloat during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis). A whistleblower said: “America is losing the drug war because our banks are [still] financing the cartels“, and “Banks financing drug cartels … affects every single American“. And see this.)
- Shaving money off of virtually every pension transaction they handled over the course of decades, stealing collectively billions of dollars from pensions worldwide. Details here, here, here, here, here,here, here, here, here, here, here and here
- Manipulating aluminum and copper prices
- Charging “storage fees” to store gold bullion … without even buying or storing any gold . And raiding allocated gold accounts
- Committing massive and pervasive fraud both when they initiated mortgage loans and when they foreclosed on them (and see this)
- Pledging the same mortgage multiple times to different buyers. See this, this, this, this and this. This would be like selling your car, and collecting money from 10 different buyers for the same car
- Cheating homeowners by gaming laws meant to protect people from unfair foreclosure
- Committing massive fraud in an $800 trillion dollar market which effects everything from mortgages, student loans, small business loans and city financing
- Manipulating the hundred trillion dollar derivatives market
- Engaging in insider trading of the most important financial information
- Pushing investments which they knew were terrible, and then betting against the same investments to make money for themselves. See this, this, this, this and this
- Engaging in unlawful “frontrunning” to manipulate markets. See this, this, this, this, this and this
- Manipulating corporate bonds through derivatives schemes
- Charging veterans unlawful mortgage fees
- Helping the richest to illegally hide assets
The executives of the big banks invariably pretend that the hanky-panky was only committed by a couple of low-level rogue employees. But studies show that most of the fraud is committed by management.
Indeed, one of the world’s top fraud experts – professor of law and economics, and former senior S&L regulator Bill Black – says that most financial fraud is “control fraud”, where the people who own the banks are the ones who implement systemic fraud. See this, this and this.
The failure to go after Wall Street executives for criminal fraud is the core cause of our sick economy.
And experts say that all of the government’s excuses for failure to prosecute the individuals at the big Wall Street banks who committed fraud are totally bogus.
The big picture is simple:
- The big banks manipulate every market they touch
- Too much interconnectedness leads to financial instability
- The government has given the banks huge subsidies … which they are using for speculation and other things which don’t help the economy. In other words, propping up the big banks by throwing money at them doesn’t help the economy
- Top economists, financial experts and bankers say that the big banks are too large … and their very size is threatening the economy. They say we need to break up the big banks to stabilize the economy
- The big banks own the D.C. politicians … so Congress and the White House won’t do anything unless the people force change
Nothing lasts forever (as we’ve shown before) – except perhaps gold as a store of value it would appear.
Central banks around the world are increasingly diversifying their currency reserves away from the US Dollar. Even as overall holdings soar to a record $11.4 trillion, the US Dollar accounted for 61.44% (down from well over 65% at the peak of the crisis in 2008). With China outspokenly concerned at the US Dollar’s future status, we suspect this will only become more ‘diversified’.
Many of us in the Long Emergency crowd and like-minded brother-and-sisterhoods remain perplexed by the amazing stasis in our national life, despite the gathering tsunami of forces arrayed to rock our economy, our culture, and our politics. Nothing has yielded to these forces already in motion, so far. Nothing changes, nothing gives, yet. It’s like being buried alive in Jell-O. It’s embarrassing to appear so out-of-tune with the consensus, but we persevere like good soldiers in a just war.
Paper and digital markets levitate, central banks pull out all the stops of their magical reality-tweaking machine to manipulate everything, accounting fraud pervades public and private enterprise, everything is mis-priced, all official statistics are lies of one kind or another, the regulating authorities sit on their hands, lost in raptures of online pornography (or dreams of future employment at Goldman Sachs), the news media sprinkles wishful-thinking propaganda about a mythical “recovery” and the “shale gas miracle” on a credulous public desperate to believe, the routine swindles of medicine get more cruel and blatant each month, a tiny cohort of financial vampire squids suck in all the nominal wealth of society, and everybody else is left whirling down the drain of posterity in a vortex of diminishing returns and scuttled expectations.
Life in the USA is like living in a broken-down, cob-jobbed, vermin-infested house that needs to be gutted, disinfected, and rebuilt — with the hope that it might come out of the restoration process retaining the better qualities of our heritage. Some of us are anxious to get on with the job, to expel all the rats, bats, bedbugs, roaches, and lice, tear out the stinking shag carpet and the moldy sheet-rock, rip off the crappy plastic siding, and start rebuilding along lines that are consistent with the demands of the future — namely, the reality of capital and material resource scarcity. But it has been apparent for a while that the current owners of the house would prefer to let it fall down, or burn down rather than renovate.
Some of us now take that outcome for granted and are left to speculate on how it will play out. These issues were the subjects of my recent non-fiction books, The Long Emergency and Too Much Magic (as well as excellent similar books by Richard Heinberg, John Michael Greer, Dmitry Orlov, and others). They describe the conditions at the end of the cheap energy techno-industrial phase of history and they laid out a conjectural sequence of outcomes that might be stated in shorthand as collapse and re-set. I think the delay in the onset of epochal change can be explained pretty simply. As the peak oil story gained traction around 2005, and was followed (as predicted) by a financial crisis, the established order fought back for its survival, utilizing its remaining dwindling capital and the tremendous inertia of its own gigantic scale, to give the appearance of vitality at all costs.
At the heart of the matter was (and continues to be) the relationship between energy and economic growth. Without increasing supplies of cheap energy, economic growth — as we have known it for a couple of centuries — does not happen anymore. At the center of the economic growth question is credit. Without continued growth, credit can’t be repaid, and new credit cannot be issued honestly — that is, with reasonable assurance of repayment — making it worthless. So, old debt goes bad and the new debt is generated knowing that it is worthless. To complicate matters, the new worthless debt is issued to pay the interest on the old debt, to maintain the pretense that it is not going bad. And then all kinds of dishonest side rackets are run around this central credit racket — shadow banking, “innovative” securities (i.e. new kinds of frauds and swindles, CDOs CDSs, etc.), flash trading, insider flimflams, pump-and-dumps, naked shorts, etc. These games give the impression of an economy that seems to work. But the reported “growth” is phony, a concoction of overcooked statistics and wishful thinking. And the net effect moves the society as a whole in the direction of more destructive ultimate failure.
Now, a number of stories have been employed lately to keep all these rackets going — or, at least, keep up the morale of the swindled masses. They issue from the corporations, government agencies, and a lazy, wishful media. Their purpose is to prop up the lie that the dying economy of yesteryear is alive and well, and can continue “normal” operation indefinitely. Here are the favorites of the past year:
- Shale oil and gas amount to an “energy renaissance” that will keep supplies of affordable fossil fuels flowing indefinitely, will make us “energy independent,” and will make us “a bigger producer than Saudi Arabia.” This is all mendacious bullshit with a wishful thinking cherry on top. Here’s how shale oil is different from conventional oil:
- A “manufacturing renaissance” is underway in the US, especially in the “central corridor” running from Texas north to Minnesota. That hoopla is all about a few chemical plants and fertilizer factories that have reopened to take advantage of cheaper natural gas. Note, the shale gas story is much like the shale oil story in terms of drilling and production. The depletion rates are quick and epic. In a very few years, shale gas won’t be cheap anymore. Otherwise, current talk of new manufacturing for hard goods is all about robots. How many Americans will be employed in these factories? And what about the existing manufacturing over-capacity everywhere else in the world? Are we making enough sneakers and Justin Beiber dolls? File under complete fucking nonsense.
- The USA is “the cleanest shirt in the laundry basket,” “the best house in a bad neighborhood,” the safest harbor for international “liquidity,” making it a sure bet that both the equity and bond markets will continue to ratchet up as money seeking lower risk floods in to the Dow and S & P from other countries with dodgier economies and sicker banks. In a currency war, with all nations competitively depreciating their currencies, gaming interest rates, manipulating markets, falsely reporting numbers, hiding liabilities, backstopping bad banks, and failing to regulate banking crime, there are no safe harbors. The USA can pretend to be for a while and then that illusion will pop, along with the “asset” bubbles that inspire it.
- The USA is enjoying huge gains from fantastic new “efficiencies of technological innovation.” The truth is not so dazzling. Computer technology, produces diminishing returns and unanticipated consequences. The server farms are huge energy sinks. Online shopping corrodes the resilience of commercial networks when only a few giant companies remain standing; and so on. Problems like these recall the central collapse theory of Joseph Tainterwhich states that heaping additional complexity on dysfunctional hyper-complex societies tends to induce their collapse. Hence, my insistence that downscaling, simplifying, re-localizing and re-setting the systems we depend on are imperative to keep the project of civilization going. That is, if you prefer civilization to its known alternatives.
Notice that all of these stories want to put over the general impression that the status quo is alive and well. They’re based on the dumb idea that the stock markets are a proxy for the economy, so if the Standard & Poor’s 500 keeps on going up, it’s all good. The master wish running through the American zeitgeist these days is that we might be able to keep driving to Wal-Mart forever.
The truth is that we still have a huge, deadly energy problem. Shale oil is not cheap oil, and it will stop seeming abundant soon. If the price of oil goes much above $100 a barrel, which you’d think would be great for the oil companies, it will crash demand for oil. If it crashes demand, the price will go down, hurting the profitability of the shale oil companies. It’s quite a predicament. Right now, in the $90-100-a-barrel range, it’s just slowly bleeding the economy while barely allowing the shale oil producers to keep up all the drilling. Two-thirds of all the dollars invested (more than $120 billion a year) goes just to keep production levels flat. Blogger Mark Anthonysummarized it nicely:
…the shale oil and gas developers tend to use unreliable production models to project unrealistically high EURs (Estimated Ultimate Recovery) of their shale wells. They then use the over-estimated EURs to under-calculate the amortization costs of the capital spending, in order to report “profits”, despite of the fact that they have to keep borrowing more money to keep drilling new wells, and that capital spending routinely out paces revenue stream by several times… shale oil and gas producers tend to over-exaggerate productivity of their wells, under-estimate the well declines…in order to pitch their investment case to banks and investors, so they can keep borrowing more money to keep drilling shale wells.
As stated in the intro, these perversities reverberate in the investment sector. Non-cheap oil upsets the mechanisms of capital formation — financial growth is stymied — in a way that ultimately affects the financing of oil production itself. Old credit cannot be repaid, scaring off new credit (because it is even more unlikely to be repaid). At ZIRP interest, nobody saves. The capital pools dry up. So the Federal Reserve has to issue ersatz credit dollars on its computers. That credit will remain stillborn and mummified in depository institutions afraid of lending it to the likes of sharpies and hypesters in the shale gas industry.
But real, functioning capital (credit that can be paid back) is vanishing, and the coming scarcity of real capital makes it much more difficult to keep the stupendous number of rigs busy drilling and fracking new shale oil wells, which you have to do incessantly to keep production up, and as the investment in new drilling declines, and the “sweet spots” yield to the less-sweet spots or the not-sweet-at-all spots… then the Ponzis of shale oil and shale gas, too will be unmasked as the jive endeavors they are. And when people stop believing these cockamamie stories, the truth will dawn on them that we are in a predicament where further growth and wealth cannot be generated and the economy is actually in the early stages of a permanent contraction, and that will trigger an unholy host of nasty consequences proceeding from the loss of faith in these fairy tales, going so far as the meltdown of the banking system, social turmoil, and political upheaval.
The bottom line is that the “shale revolution” will be short-lived. 2014 may be the peak production year in the Bakken play of North Dakota. Eagle Ford in Texas is a little younger and may lag Bakken by a couple of years. If Federal Reserve policies create more disorder in the banking system this year, investment for shale will dry up, new drilling will nosedive, and shale oil production will go down substantially. Meanwhile. conventional oil production in the USA continues to decline remorselessly.
The End of Fed Cred
It must be scary to be a Federal Reserve governor. You have to pretend that you know what you’re doing when, in fact, Fed policy appears completely divorced from any sense of consequence, or cause-and-effect, or reality — and if it turns out you’re not so smart, and your policies and interventions undermine true economic resilience, then the scuttling of the most powerful civilization in the history of the world might be your fault — even if you went to Andover and wear tortoise-shell glasses that make you appear to be smart.
The Fed painted itself into a corner the last few years by making Quantitative Easing a permanent feature of the financial landscape. QE backstops everything now. Tragically, additional backdoor backstopping extends beyond the QE official figures (as of December 2013) of $85 billion a month. American money (or credit) is being shoveled into anything and everything, including foreign banks and probably foreign treasuries. It’s just another facet of the prevailing pervasive dishonesty infecting the system that we have no idea, really, how much money is being shoveled and sprinkled around. Anything goes and nothing matters. However, since there is an official consensus that you can’t keep QE money-pumping up forever, the Fed officially made a big show of seeking to begin ending it. So in the Spring of 2013 they announced their intention to “taper” their purchases of US Treasury paper and mortgage paper, possibly in the fall.
Well, it turned out they didn’t or couldn’t taper. As the fall equinox approached, with everyone keenly anticipating the first dose of taper, the equity markets wobbled and the interest rate on the 10-year treasury — the index for mortgage loans and car loans — climbed to 3.00 percent from its May low of 1.63 — well over 100 basis points — and the Fed chickened out. No September taper. Fake out. So, the markets relaxed, the interest rate on the 10-year went back down, and the equity markets resumed their grand ramp into the Christmas climax. However, the Fed’s credibility took a hit, especially after all their confabulating bullshit “forward guidance” in the spring and summer when they couldn’t get their taper story straight. And in the meantime, the Larry-Summers-for-Fed-Chair float unfloated, and Janet Yellen was officially picked to succeed Ben Bernanke, with her reputation as an extreme easy money softie (more QE, more ZIRP), and a bunch of hearings were staged to make the Bernanke-Yellen transition look more reassuring.
And then on December 18, outgoing chair Bernanke announced, with much fanfare, that the taper would happen after all, early in the first quarter of 2014 — after he is safely out of his office in the Eccles building and back in his bomb shelter on the Princeton campus. The Fed meant it this time, the public was given to understand.
The only catch here, as I write, after the latest taper announcement, is that interest on the 10-year treasury note has crept stealthily back up over 3 percent. Wuh-oh. Not a good sign, since it means more expensive mortgages and car loans, which happen to represent the two things that the current economy relies on to appear “normal.” (House sales and car sales = normal in a suburban sprawl economy.)
I think the truth is the Fed just did too darn much QE and ZIRP and they waited way too long to cut it out, and now they can’t end it without scuttling both the stock and bond markets. But they can’t really go forward with the taper, either. A rock and a hard place. So, my guess is that they’ll pretend to taper in March, and then they’ll just as quickly un-taper. Note the curious report out of the American Enterprise Institute ten days ago by John H. Makin saying that the Fed’s actual purchase of debt paper amounted to an average $94 billion a month through the year 2013, not $85 billion. Which would pretty much negate the proposed taper of $5 billion + $5 billion (Treasury paper + Mortgage paper).
And in so faking and so doing they may succeed in completely destroying the credibility of the Federal Reserve. When that happens, capital will be disappearing so efficiently that the USA will find itself in a compressive deflationary spiral — because that’s what happens when faith in the authority behind credit is destroyed, and new loans to cover the interest on old loans are no longer offered in the non-government banking system, and old loans can’t be serviced. At which point the Federal Reserve freaks out and announces new extra-special QE way above the former 2013 level of $85 billion a month, and the government chips in with currency controls. And that sets in motion the awful prospect of the dreaded “crack-up boom” into extraordinary inflation, when dollars turn into hot potatoes and people can’t get rid of them fast enough. Well, is that going to happen this year? It depends on how spooked the Fed gets. In any case, there is a difference between high inflation and hyper-inflation. High inflation is bad enough to provoke socio-political convulsion. I don’t really see how the Fed gets around this March taper bid without falling into the trap I’ve just outlined. It wouldn’t be a pretty situation for poor Ms. Janet Yellen, but nobody forced her to take the job, and she’s had the look all along of a chump, the perfect sucker to be left holding a big honking bag of flop.
We’re long overdue for a return to realistic pricing in all markets. The Government and its handmaiden, the Fed, have tweaked the machinery so strenuously for so long that these efforts have entered the wilderness of diminishing returns. Instead of propping up the markets, all they can accomplish now is further erosion of the credibility of the equity markets and the Fed itself — and that bodes darkly for a money system that is essentially run on faith. I think the indexes have topped. The “margin” (money borrowed to buy stock) in the system is at dangerous, historically unprecedented highs. There may be one final reach upward in the first quarter. Then the equities crater, if not sooner. I still think the Dow and S &P could oversell by 90 percent of their value if the falsehoods of the post-2008 interventions stopped working their hoodoo on the collective wishful consciousness.
The worldwide rise in interest rates holds every possibility for igniting a shitstorm in interest rate swaps and upsetting the whole apple-cart of shadow banking and derivatives. That would be a bullet in the head to the TBTF banks, and would therefore lead to a worldwide crisis. In that event, the eventual winners would be the largest holders of gold, who could claim to offer the world a trustworthy gold-backed currency, especially for transactions in vital resources like oil. That would, of course, be China. The process would be awfully disorderly and fraught with political animus. Given the fact that China’s own balance sheet is hopelessly non-transparent and part-and-parcel of a dishonest crony banking system, China would have to use some powerful smoke-and-mirrors to assume that kind of dominant authority. But in the end, it comes down to who has the real goods, and who screwed up (the USA, Europe, Japan) and China, for all its faults and perversities, has the gold.
The wholesale transfer of gold tonnage from the West to the East was one of the salient events of 2013. There were lots of conspiracy theories as to what drove the price of gold down by 28 percent. I do think the painful move was partly a cyclical correction following the decade-long run up to $1900 an ounce. Within that cyclical correction, there was a lot of room for the so-called “bullion banks” to pound the gold and silver prices down with their shorting orgy. Numerous times the past year, somebody had laid a fat finger on the “sell” key, like, at four o’clock in the morning New York time when no traders were in their offices, and the record of those weird transactions is plain to see in the daily charts. My own theory is that an effort was made — in effect, a policy — to suppress the gold price via collusion between the Fed, the US Treasury, the bullion banks, and China, as a way to allow China to accumulate gold to offset the anticipated loss of value in the US Treasury paper held by them, throwing China a big golden bone, so to speak — in other words, to keep China from getting hugely pissed off. The gold crash had the happy effect for the US Treasury of making the dollar appear strong at a time when many other nations were getting sick of US dollar domination, especially in the oil markets, and were threatening to instigate a new currency regime by hook or by crook. Throwing China the golden bone is also consistent with the USA’s official position that gold is a meaningless barbaric relic where national currencies are concerned, and therefore nobody but the barbaric yellow hordes of Asia would care about it.
Other nations don’t feel that way. Russia and Switzerland have been accumulating gold like crazy at bargain prices this year. Lat year, Germany requested its sovereign gold cache (300 tons) to be returned from the vaults in America, where it was stored through all the decades of the cold war, safe from the reach of the Soviets. But American officials told the Germans it would take seven years to accomplish the return. Seven years ! ! ! WTF? Is there a shortage of banana boats? The sentiment in goldville is that the USA long ago “leased” or sold off or rehypothecated or lost that gold. Anyway, Germany’s 300 tons was a small fraction of the 6,700 tons supposedly held in the Fed’s vaults. Who knows? No auditors have been allowed into the Fed vaults to actually see what’s up with the collateral. This in and of itself ought to make the prudent nervous.
I think we’re near the end of these reindeer games with gold, largely because so many vaults in the West have been emptied. That places constraints on further shenanigans in the paper gold (and silver) markets. In an environment where both the destructive forces of deflation and inflation can be unleashed in sequence, uncertainty is the greatest motivator, trumping the usual greed and fear seen in markets that can be fairly measured against stable currencies. In 2014, the public has become aware of the bank “bail-in” phenomenon which, along with rehypothication schemes, just amounts to the seizure of customer and client accounts — a really new wrinkle in contemporary banking relations. Nobody knows if it’s safe to park cash money anywhere except inside the mattress. The precedent set in Cyprus, and the MF Global affair, and other confiscation events, would tend to support an interest in precious metals held outside the institutional framework. Uncertainty rules.
I get a lot of email on the subject of Bitcoin. Here’s how I feel about it.
It’s an even more abstract form of “money” than fiat currencies or securities based on fiat currencies. Do we need more abstraction in our economic lives? I don’t think so. I believe the trend will be toward what is real. For the moment, Bitcoin seems to be enjoying some success as it beats back successive crashes. I’m not very comfortable with the idea of investing in an algorithm. I don’t see how it is impervious to government hacking. In fact, I’d bet that somewhere in the DOD or the NSA or the CIA right now some nerd is working on that. Bitcoin is provoking imitators, other new computer “currencies.” Why would Bitcoin necessarily enjoy dominance? And how many competing algorithmic currencies can the world stand? Wouldn’t that defeat the whole purpose of an alternative “go to” currency? All I can say is that I’m not buying Bitcoins.
Will ObamaCare crash and burn. It’s not doing very well so far. In fact, it’s a poster-child for Murphy’s Law (Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong). I suppose the primary question is whether they can enroll enough healthy young people to correct the actuarial nightmare that health insurance has become. That’s not looking so good either now. But really, how can anyone trust a law that was written by the insurance companies and the pharmaceutical industry? And how can it be repealed when so many individuals, groups, companies, have already lost their pre-ObamaCare policies? What is there to go back to? Therefore, I’d have to predict turmoil in the health care system for 2014. The failure to resolve the inadequacies of ObamaCare also may be a prime symptom of the increasing impotence of the federal government to accomplish anything. That failure would prompt an even faster downscaling of governance as states, counties, communities, and individuals realize that they are on their own.
Sorry to skip around, but a few stray words about the state of American culture. Outside the capitals of the “one percent” — Manhattan, San Francisco, Boston, Washington, etc. — American material culture is in spectacular disrepair. Car culture and chain store tyranny have destroyed the physical fabric of our communities and wrecked social relations. These days, a successful Main Street is one that has a wig shop and a check-cashing office. It is sickening to see what we have become. Our popular entertainments are just what you would design to produce a programmed population of criminals and sex offenders. The spectacle of the way our people look —overfed, tattooed, pierced, clothed in the raiment of clowns — suggests an end-of-empire zeitgeist more disturbing than a Fellini movie. The fact is, it simply mirrors the way we act, our gross, barbaric collective demeanor. A walk down any airport concourse makes the Barnum & Bailey freak shows of yore look quaint. In short, the rot throughout our national life is so conspicuous that a fair assessment would be that we are a wicked people who deserve to be punished.
Elsewhere in the World
Globalism, in the Tom Friedman euphoric sense, is unwinding. Currency wars are wearing down the players, conflicts and tensions are breaking out where before there were only Wal-Mart share price triumphs and Foxconn profits. Both American and European middle-classes are too exhausted financially to continue the consumer orgy of the early millennium. The trade imbalances are horrific. Unpayable debt saturates everything. Sick economies will weigh down commodity prices except for food-related things. The planet Earth has probably reached peak food production, including peak fertilizer. Supplies of grain will be inadequate in 2014 to feed the still-expanding masses of the poor places in the world.
The nervous calm in finance and economies since 2008 has its mirror in the relative calm of the political scene. Uprisings and skirmishes have broken out, but nothing that so far threatens the peace between great powers. There have been the now-historic revolts in Egypt, Libya, Syria, and other Middle East and North African (MENA) states. Iraq is once again disintegrating after a decade of American “nation-building.” Greece is falling apart. Spain and Italy should be falling apart but haven’t yet. France is sinking into bankruptcy. The UK is in on the grift with the USA and insulated from the Euro, but the British Isles are way over-populated with a volatile multi-ethnic mix and not much of an economy outside the financial district of London. There were riots in — of all places — Sweden this year. Turkey entered crisis just a few weeks ago along with Ukraine.
I predict more colorful political strife in Europe this year, boots in the street, barricades, gunfire, and bombs. The populations of these countries will want relief measures from their national governments, but the sad news is that these governments are broke, so austerity seems to be the order of the day no matter what. I think this will prod incipient revolts in a rightward nationalist direction. If it was up to Marine LePen’s rising National Front party, they would solve the employment problem by expelling all the recent immigrants — though the mere attempt would probably provoke widespread race war in France.
The quarrel between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands is a diversion from the real action in the South China Sea, said to hold large underwater petroleum reserves. China is the world’s second greatest oil importer. Their economy and the credibility of its non-elected government depends on keeping the oil supply up. They are a long way from other places in the world where oil comes from, hence their eagerness to secure and dominate the South China Sea. The idea is that China would make a fuss over the Senkaku group, get Japan and the US to the negotiating table, and cede the dispute over them to Japan in exchange for Japan and the US supporting China’s claims in the South China Sea against the other neighbors there: Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.
The catch is that Japan may be going politically insane just now between the rigors of (Shinzo) Abenomics and the mystical horrors of Fukushima. Japan’s distress appears to be provoking a new mood of nationalist militarism of a kind not seen there since the 1940s. They’re talking about arming up, rewriting the pacifist articles in their constitution. Scary, if you have a memory of the mid-20th century. China should know something about national psychotic breaks, having not so long ago endured the insanity of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution (1966-71). So they might want to handle Japan with care. On the other hand, China surely nurtures a deep, deadly grudge over the crimes perpetrated by Japan in the Second World War, and now has a disciplined, world-class military, and so maybe they would like to kick Japan’s ass. It’s a hard one to call. I suspect that in 2014, the ball is in Japan’s court. What will they do? If the US doesn’t stay out of the way of that action, then we are insane, too.
That said, I stick by my story from last year’s forecast: Japan’s ultimate destination is to “go medieval.” They’re never going to recover from Fukushima, their economy is unraveling, they have no fossil fuels of their own and have to import everything, and their balance of payments is completely out of whack. The best course for them will be to just throw in the towel on modernity. Everybody else is headed that way, too, eventually, so Japan might as well get there first and set a good example.
By “go medieval” I mean re-set to a pre-industrial World Made By Hand level of operation. I’m sure that outcome seems laughably implausible to most readers, but I maintain that both the human race and the planet Earth need a “time out” from the ravages of “progress,” and circumstances are going to force the issue anyway, so we might as well kick back and get with the program: go local, downscale, learn useful skills, cultivate our gardens, get to know our neighbors, learn how to play a musical instrument, work, dine, and dance with our friends.
As it happens, the third in the series of my World Made By Hand novels, set in upstate New York in the post-collapse economy, will be published in September by the Atlantic Monthly Press. It’s a ripping yarn. Whether anyone will have enough money to buy a copy, I can’t predict. Happy 2014, Everybody!
New Features this week at kunstler.com:
Jim’s Garden Report, 2013
Jim’s New Paintings, 2011-2013
Published as an E-book for the first time!
The 20th Anniversary edition
With an entertaining new introduction by the author
Federal Reserve Bank ofNew York President William C. Dudley said the Fed needs to better understand how its bond buying provides stimulus to the economy.
“We don’t understand fully how large-scale asset purchase programs work to ease financial marketconditions,” Dudley said today in a speech in Philadelphia. “Is it the effect of the purchases on the portfolios of private investors, or alternatively is the major channel one of signaling?”
Dudley also said central bank economists confront a “riddle” on whether the decline in U.S. unemployment to 7 percent in November will reverse as more workers return to the labor force.
“The U.S. unemployment rate has declined more sharply than one might expect given the economy’s growth rate over the past few years,” Dudley said. “Is this permanent or will it reverse if the economy continues to grow and the pressure on labor market resources increases in the coming years?”
The Fed last month trimmed its monthly bond purchases to $75 billion from $85 billion, taking the first step toward unwinding the unprecedented stimulus that Chairman Ben S. Bernanke put in place to help the economy recover from the worst recession since the 1930s.
Dudley used his remarks to discuss how research at the regional bank helps the Fed understand the economy and address policy questions.
To contact the reporter on this story: Steve Matthews in Atlanta email@example.com
To contact the editor responsible for this story: Chris Wellisz firstname.lastname@example.org
While the mainstream media continue to push the meme that the economy is in (slow) recovery, some important facts point out that things are not as rosy as you are being told. In fact, most Americans feel the recessionnever ended.
An analysis of retail sales post-Christmas indicates that in-store retail sales decreased more than 3 percent over the same week last year. Retail brick-and-mortar shopper traffic decreased by 21.2 percent over thesame period in 2012. The lack of in-store sales didn’t translate to an increase in Web sales.
In September, homes sales dropped more than at any time in the last 40 months. New mortgage applications dropped 66 percent from an October 2012 peak, reaching a lownot seen in 13 years.
We are now seeing business and personal debt reaching levels not seen since 2007, right before the last crash. Household incomes have not improved at all and, in fact, have dropped. The unemployment numbers are completely cooked. The unemployment rate will drop again due to the ending of benefits to 1.3 million workers who will no longer be counted.
There are 107 million Americans on government assistance. About 50 million Americans get food stamps. The U.S. population has increased by 16 million people since 2006, but there are 1.5 million fewer Americans employed today. Workforce participation rates are the lowest in decades.
According to the consumer price index, the economy is growing at about 2.5 percent. But official inflation is also 2.5 percent. Real inflation is closer to 8 percent.
Yes, the stock market is hitting record highs. But that’s because the Federal Reserve is dumping $85 billion a month into the economy through QE to infinity to prop up the banksters and the market.
The Fed has inflated your dollar away to nothing. One dollar is now equal to 5 cents.
All so-called “growth” in the economy can be directly attributed to inflation. Inflation is not increasing prices, which is a symptom of inflation, but an increase in the money supply.
Inflation is a hidden tax on the wealth of the people.
Helicopter Ben Bernanke has succeeded in creating the illusion of a recovery. The illusion is about to end.
If being wealthy was the same as pretending to be wealthy then people who care about reality would have a little less to complain about. But pretending is a poor way for a society to negotiate its way through history. It makes for accumulating distortions which eventually undermine the society’s ability to function, especially when the pretending is about money, which is society’s operating system.
The distortion that even simple people care about is that the gap between the rich and the poor is as plain, vast, and grotesque as at any time in our history — except perhaps during slavery times in Dixieland, when many of the poor did not even own their existence. We’ve had plenty of reminders of that in pop culture the last couple of years, including Quentin Tarantino’s fiercely stupid movie Django Unchained and the more recent melodrama 12 Years a Slave. But you have to wonder what young adults weighed down by unpayable college debt think when they go to see them, because without a rebellion that millennial generation will not own their own lives either. They must know it, but they must not know what to do about it.
The pretense and distortions start at the top of American life with a President who broadcasts the message that some kind of “recovery” has occurred in the economic affairs of the country. Either he just wants the public feel better, or he is misled by the people and agencies in his own government, or perhaps he just lies to keep the lid on. To truly recover from the dislocations of 2008, we would have to make a consensual decision to start behaving differently in the process of adapting to the new circumstances that the arc of history is presenting to us. We’d have to decide to leave behind the economy of financialization, suburban sprawl, car dependency, Wal-Mart consumerism, and prepare for a different way of inhabiting North America.
The dislocations of 2008 when the banking system nearly imploded were Nature’s way of telling us that dishonesty has consequences. The immediate dishonesty of that day was the racket in securitizing worthless mortgages — promises to pay large sums of money over long periods of time. The promises were false and the collateral was janky. It got so bad and ran so far and deep that it essentially destroyed the mechanism of credit creation as it had been known until then, and it has not been repaired.
Since then, we have pretended to repair the operations of credit by falsely substituting bank bailouts and Federal Reserve “quantitative easing” (QE) or digital money-printing for plain dealing in borrowed money between honest brokers at the local level. The unfortunate consequence is that in the process we have distorted — and possibly destroyed — the value of our money and the various things denominated in it, especially securities, bonds, stocks and other money-like paper.
The crash of the mortgage racket occurred not just because of swindling and fraud among bankers; in fact, that was only a nasty symptom of something larger: peak oil. I know that many people have come to disbelieve in the idea of peak oil, but that is only another mode of playing pretend. Peak oil, which essentially arrived in 2006, undermined the basic conditions of credit creation in an advanced techno-industrial society dependent on increasing supplies of fossil fuels. Most people, including practically all credentialed economists, fail to understand this. There is a fundamental relationship between ever-increasing energy supplies > economic growth > and credit-based money (or “money,” if you will). When the energy inputs flatten out or decrease, growth stops, wealth is no longer generated, old loans can’t be repaid, and new loans can’t be generated honestly, i.e. with the expectation of repayment. That has been our predicament since 2008 and nothing has changed. We are pretending to compensate by issuing new unpayable debt to pay the interest on our old accumulated debt. This pretense can only go on so long before our economic relations reflect the basic dishonesty of it. Reality is a harsh mistress.
In the meantime, we amuse ourselves with fairy tales about “the shale oil revolution” and “the manufacturing renaissance.” 2014 could be the year that the forces of Nature compel our attention and give us a reason to stop all this pretending. I’ll address this question in next week’s annual yearly forecast.
When it comes to setting the prevailing economist groupthink, nobody does it better than the economists at JPMorgan and Goldman Sachs. Which is why the following chart of projected 2014 GDP growth by quarter in the Developed and Emerging World from JPM, explains succinctly just where the groupthink now expects marginal global growth will come from (Mexico, South Africa, Korea, UK, Italy?). We show it just because the economist consensus is always wrong when it comes to the important inflection points (see ECB rate cut decision, Taper off decision, Taper on, the great financial crisis, “subprime is contained”, etc).
So for those curious to know what most likely will not happen in the new year, this chart’s for you.
Preface by Washington’s Blog: We documented in 2009 that fascism and our current crony capitalist economy are indistinguishable.
We noted in 2011 that America’s public resources are being raped and pillaged … just like those of small debt-saddled countries like Greece.
The following short – but important – piece by Eric Zuesse shows that looting and privatization of public resources was a hallmark of fascist Germany and Italy … and America today.
Washington’s Blog is non-partisan. We believe that the war between liberals and conservatives is a false divide-and-conquer dog-and-pony show created by the powers that be to keep the American people divided and distracted. See this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this, this and this.
We can argue it either way, because we are ideologically neutral: allowing the private sector to own and manage resources is good … or allowing the public sector to do so is healthy.
Here’s the key: If these resources had always been in the private sector, that would be fine … that would be free market capitalism.
But if they were purchased on the people’s dime with our blood, tears, sweat and taxpayer funds – and then sold to the big boys for pennies on the dollar – that’s not capitalism … that’s looting. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what the Nazis, Italian fascists, and modern American “leaders” are doing.
-By Eric Zuesse
Conservatives support privatizing schools, prisons, hospitals, and other social services. The privatization-mania is also increasingly occurring in higher education, as conservatives in Congress push measures to raise the percentage of colleges that are owned by for-profit corporations, and to decrease the percentage that are either public or nonprofit.
The argument given for such privatization is that corporations are more efficient because they are “the free market” way of serving people’s needs. However, progressives argue to the contrary, that in these parts of the economy, where “profits” for the public are hard if not impossible to measure, government does a better and less-inefficient job than corporations do. And, now, even a conservative state’s governor seems to have switched to the latter conclusion.
On 3 January 2014, the AP reported an instance in which the Republican Governor of one of the three most-Republican states in the U.S., Idaho, is doing a 180-degree turn, and he announced that “the corrections department will take over operation of the largest privately-run prison in the state,” from Corrections Corporation of America. The AP’s Rebecca Boone, in Boise, reported, that, whereas “In 2008, he floated legislation to change state laws to allow private companies to build and operate prisons in Idaho,” he now is taking over operation of this CCA prison, because of “mismanagement and other problems at the facility.” Only a few months before, on September 16th, that same reporter had headlined “CCA in contempt for prison understaffing,” and she quoted the federal judge’s order, which said that, “For CCA staff to lie on so basic a point — whether an officer is actually at a post — leaves the Court with serious concerns about compliance in other respects, such as whether every violent incident is reported.” The judge found that CCA was lying because they wanted more of their income from the state to go toward boosting their bottom line for stockholders, and less of it to go toward feeding the prisoners and protecting them from each other. The judge’s order said, “If a prospective fine leads to $2.4 million in penalties, CCA has no one to blame but itself.” CCA had been caught by the judge in persistently lying to the state while shortchanging prisoners on the prison’s obligation to provide basic services to inmates. The tension between private profits versus public services was clear in this case. CCA had incentive to cheat inmates in order to raise profits, and now a federal judge was fining CCA for doing precisely that.
Similarly, countries such as France, Sweden, UK, and the OECD generally, where health care is entirely or largely provided by the government, have better health-care outcomes and far lower healthcare costs, on a per-person basis, than does the U.S., where the profit motive in medical care is far more encouraged.
However, many Americans prefer the privatization of government services, because they believe that such a movement toward “shrinking big government” is in the direction of greater freedom, and is the only ethical direction, a direction in favor of greater democracy, in accord with the U.S. Constitution. Though the U.S. Constitution is by no means a free-market document, and concerns political issues instead of economic ones, there is a strong belief, especially among conservatives, that it is primarily about economics. There is consequently a myth about privatization.
The Myth About Privatization: Privatization was introduced by two democracies, the USA and UK, in the 1980s, not by prior fascist regimes.
The Truth About Privatization: Privatization was, in fact, a big aim of the elite fascists, right from the very start of fascism.
Explanation of the Reality: Aristocrats control the private wealth. Privatization means that they get to control also what was previously public. Privatization moreover provides corrupt politicians (their politicians) an opportunity to pay off their contributors (themselves) by offering them an inside track on public-asset sales. So, it’s not surprising that privatization is the way of fascist countries.
Documentation of the Reality: In September 2009, the European University Institute issued their RSCAS_2009_46.pdf, titled “From Public to Private: Privatization in 1920’s Fascist Italy,” (subsequently retitled “The First Privatization: Selling SOEs” in the 2011 Cambridge Journal of Economics) by Germa Bel, who said in her summary: “Privatization was an important policy in Italy in 1922-1925. The Fascist government was alone in transferring State ownership and services to private firms in the 1920s; no other country in the world would engage in such a policy until Nazi Germany did so between 1934 and 1937.” Then, in the February 2010 Economic History Review, she headlined a study specifically about the German case, “Against the Mainstream: Nazi Privatization in 1930s Germany.” Here, she reported that, though “privatizations in [fascist] Chile [under Pinochet] and the UK, which began to be implemented in the 1970s and 1980s, are usually considered the first privatization policies in modern history, … none of the contemporary economic analyses of privatization takes into account an important, earlier case: the privatization policy implemented by the National Socialist (Nazi) Party in Germany. … Although modern economic literature usually fails to notice it, the Nazi government in 1930s Germany implemented a large-scale privatization policy.” Furthermore, “Germany was alone in developing a policy of privatization in the mid-1930s,” since Italy had finished its privatizations by then.
The purposes of these privatizations, in both cases, were chiefly “receipts from selling” the assets to finance rearmament, and also “the desire to increase support from” the major aristocrats (such as, in Germany, the armaments-making firms of the Thyssens, the Krupps, and the Flicks), who received sweet deals on these assets.
Much later, of course, Russia under Boris Yeltsin also privatized, while that nation switched from being communist, to becoming fascist. (Yeltsin was no fascist himself; he wasn’t intelligent enough to be anything, ideologically. He was just confused, mistaken.) China later did the same thing, when it, too, switched from being communist to being fascist.
Connection to Privatization in the U.S: To continue with prisons as the case: Huffington Post, on 22 October 2013, headlined a major investigative news report “Private Prison Empire Rises Despite Startling Record of Juvenile Abuse,” and reporter Chris Kirkham found rampant political paybacks in the privatizations of juvenile prisons. As a typical example of the consequences: Florida’s “sweeping privatization of its juvenile incarceration system has produced some of the worst re-offending rates in the nation. More than 40 percent of youth offenders sent to one of Florida’s juvenile prisons wind up arrested and convicted of another crime within a year of their release, according to state data. In New York state, where historically no youth offenders have been held in private institutions, 25 percent are convicted again within that timeframe.” Those children in Florida are experiencing the brunt of fascism. But so are taxpayers.
Investigative historian Eric Zuesse is the author, most recently, of They’re Not Even Close: The Democratic vs. Republican Economic Records, 1910-2010, and of CHRIST’S VENTRILOQUISTS: The Event that Created Christianity.