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Reaching Debt Limits: With or without China’s problems, we have a problem | Our Finite World

Reaching Debt Limits: With or without China’s problems, we have a problem | Our Finite World.

Credit Problems are a Very Current Issue

In the past several years, the engine of world’s growth has been China. China’s growth has been fueled by debt. China now seems to be running into difficulties with its industrial growth, and its difficulty with industrial growth indirectly leads to debt problems. A Platt’s video talks about China’s demand for oil increasing by only 2.5% in 2013, but this increase being driven by rising gasoline demand. Diesel use, which tracks with industrial use, seems to be approximately flat.

The UK Telegraph reports, “Markets hold breath as China’s shadow banking grinds to a halt.” According to that article,

A slew of shockingly weak data from China and Japan has led to a sharp sell-off in Asian stock markets and the biggest one-day crash in iron ore prices since the Lehman crisis, calling into question the strength of the global recovery.

The Shanghai Composite index of stocks fell below the key level of 2,000 after investors reacted with shock to an 18pc slump in Chinese exports in February and to signs that credit is wilting again. Iron ore fell 8.3pc.

Fresh loans in China’s shadow banking system evaporated to almost nothing from $160bn in January, suggesting the clampdown on the $8 trillion sector is biting hard.

Many recent reports have talked about the huge growth in China’s debt in recent years, much of it outside usual banking channels. One such report is this video called How China Fooled the World with Robert Peston.

Why Promises (and Debt) are Critical to the Economy

Without promises, it is hard to get anyone to do anything that they really don’t want to do. Think about training your dog. The way you usually do this training is with “doggie treats” to reward good behavior. Rewards for desired behavior are equally critical to the economy. An employer pays wages to an employee (a promise of pay for work performed).

It is possible to build a house or a store, stick by stick, as a person accumulates enough funds from other endeavors, but the process is very slow. Usually, if this approach is used, those building homes or stores will provide all of the labor themselves, to try to match outgo with income. If debt were used, it might be possible to use skilled craftsmen. It might even be possible to take advantage of economies of scale and build several homes together in the same neighborhood, and sell them to individuals who could buy the homes using debt.

Adding debt has many advantages to an economy. With debt, a person can buy a new car or house without needing to save up funds. These purchases lead to additional workers being employed in building these new cars and homes, adding jobs. The value of existing homes tends to rise, if other people are available to afford them, thanks to cheap debt availability. Rising home prices allow citizens to take out home equity loans and buy something else, adding further possibility of more jobs. Availability of cheap debt also tends to make business activity that would otherwise be barely profitable, more profitable, encouraging more investment. GDP measures business activity, not whether the activity is paid for with debt, so rising debt levels tend to lead to more GDP.

Webs of Promises and Debt

As economies expand, they add more and more promises, and more and more formal debt. In high tech industries, supply lines using materials from around the world are needed. The promise made, formally or informally, is that if more of a supply is needed, it will be available, at the same or a similar price, in the quantity needed and in the timeframe needed. In order for this to happen, each supplier needs to have made many promises to many employees and many suppliers, so as to meet its commitments.

Governments are part of this web of promises and debt. Some of the promises made by governments constitute formal debt; some of the promises are guarantees relating to debt of other parties (such as nuclear power plants), or of the finances of banks or pensions plans. Some of a government’s promises are only implied promises, yet people depend on these implied promises. For example, there is an expectation that the government will continue to provide paved roads, and that it will continue to provide programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Because of the latter programs, citizens assume that they don’t need to save very much or have many children–the government will provide funding sufficient for their basic needs in later years, without additional action on their part.

What is the Limit to Debt?

While our system of debt has gone on for a very long time, we can’t expect it to continue in its current form forever. One thing that we don’t often think about is that our system or promises isn’t really backed by the way natural system we live in works. Our system of promises has a hidden agenda of growth. Nature doesn’t  have a similar agenda of growth. In the natural order, the amount of fresh water stays pretty much the same. In fact, aquifers may deplete if we over-use them. The amount of topsoil stays pretty much the same, unless we damage it or make it subject to erosion. The amount of wood available stays pretty constant, unless we over-use it.

Nature, instead of having an agenda of growth, operates with an agenda of diminishing returns with respect to many types of resources. As we attempt to produce more of a resource, the cost tends to rise. For example, we can extract more fresh water, if we will go to the expense of drilling deeper wells or using desalination, either of which is more expensive. We can extract more metals, if we use as our source lower grade ores, perhaps with more surface material covering the ore. We can get extract more oil, if we will go to the expense of digging deeper wells is less hospitable parts of the world. We can even use substitution, but that will likely be more expensive yet.

A major issue that most economists have missed is the fact that wages don’t rise in response to this higher cost of resource extraction. (I have shown a chart illustrating that this is true for oil prices.) If the higher cost simply arises from the fact that nature is putting more obstacles in our way, we end up spending more for, say, desalinated water than water from a local well, or more for gasoline than previously. Much of the cost goes into fuel that is burned, or building special purpose equipment (such as a desalination plant or offshore drilling rigs) that will degrade over time. Our system is, in effect, becoming less and less efficient, as it takes more resources and more of people’s time, to produce the same end product, measured in terms of barrels of oil or gallons of water. Even if there are additional salaries, they are often in a different country, around the globe.

At some point, the amount of products we can actually produce starts shrinking, because workers cannot afford the ever-more-expensive products or because some essential “ingredient” (such as fresh water, or oil, or an imported metal) is not available. Since we live in a finite world, we know that at some point such a situation must occur, even if  the shrinkage isn’t as soon as I show it in Figure 2 below.

Figure 1. Author's image of an expanding economy.

Figure 1. Author’s image of an expanding economy.

Figure 2. Author's image of declining economy.

Figure 2. Author’s image of declining economy.

The “catch” with debt is that we are in effect borrowing from the future. It is much easier to pay back debt with interest when the economy is growing than when the economy is shrinking.  When the economy is shrinking, there is less in the future to begin with. Repaying debt from this shrinking amount becomes a problem. Even promises that aren’t formally debt, such as most Social Security payments, Medicare, and future road maintenance become a problem. With fewer goods available in total, citizens on average become poorer.

Governments depend on tax revenue from citizens, so they become poorer as well–perhaps even more quickly than the individual citizens who live in their country. It is in situations like this that richer parts of countries decide to secede, leading to country break-ups. Or the central government may fail, as in the Former Soviet Union.

Which Promises are Least Affected?

Some promises are very close in time; others involve many years of delay. For example, if I bring food I grew to a farmers’ market, and the operator of the market gives me credit that allows me to take home some other goods that someone else has brought, there are some aspects of credit involved, but it is very short term credit. I am being allowed to “run a tab” with credit for things I brought, and this payment is being used to purchase other goods, or perhaps even services. Perhaps someone else would offer some of their labor in putting together the farmers’ market, or in working in a garden, in return for getting some of the produce.

As I see it, such short term promises are not really a problem. Such credit arrangements have been used for thousands of years (Graeber, 2012). They don’t depend on long supply lines, around the world, that are subject to disruption. They also don’t depend on future events–for example, they don’t depend on buyers being available to purchase goods from a factory five or ten years from now. Thus, local supply chains among people in close proximity seem likely to be available for the long term.

Long-Term Debt is Harder to Maintain

Debt which is long-term in nature, or provides promises extending into the future (even if they aren’t formally debt) are much harder to maintain. For example, if governments are poorer, they may need to cut back on programs citizens expect, such as paving roads, and funding for Social Security and Medicare.

Governments and economies are already being affected by the difficulty in maintaining long term debt. This is a big reasons why Quantitative Easing (QE) is being used to keep interest rates artificially low in the United States, Europe (including the UK and Switzerland), and Japan. If interest rates should rise, it seems likely that there would be far more defaults on bonds, and far more programs would need to be cut. Even with these measures, some borrowers near the bottom are already being adversely affected–for example, subprime loans were problems during the Great Recession. Also, many of the poorer countries, for example, Greece, Egypt, and the Ukraine, are already having debt problems.

Indirect Casualties of the Long-Term Debt Implosion

The problem with debt defaults is that they tend to spread. If one major country has difficulty, banks of  many other countries are likely be to affected, because many banks will hold the debt of the defaulting country. (This may not be as true with China, but there are no doubt indirect links to other economies.) Banks are thinly capitalized. If a government tries to prop up the banks in its country, it is likely to be drawn into the debt default mess. Insurance companies and pension plans may also be affected by the debt defaults.

In such a situation of debt defaults spreading from country to country, interest rates can be expected to shift suddenly, causing financial difficulty for those issuing derivatives. There may also be liquidity problems in dealing with these sudden changes. As a result, banks issuing derivatives may need to be bailed out.

There may also be a sudden loss of credit availability, or much higher interest rates, as banks issuing loans become more cautious. In fact, if problems are severe enough, some banks may be closed altogether.

With less credit available, prices of commodities can be expected to drop dramatically. For example, during the credit crisis in the second half of 2008, oil prices dropped to the low $30s per barrel. It was not until after  QE was started in November 2008 that oil prices started to rise again. This time, central banks are already using QE to try to fix the situation. It is not clear that they can do much more, so the situation would seem to have the potential to spiral out of control.

Without credit availability, the prices of most stocks are likely to drop dramatically. In part, this is because without credit availability, it is not clear that the companies listed in the stock market can actually produce very much. Even if the particular company does not need credit, it is likely that some of the businesses on which it depends for supplies will have credit problems, and not be able to provide needed supplies. Also, with less credit availability, potential buyers of shares of stock may not be about to get the credit they need to purchase shares of stock. As a result of the credit problems in 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped to $6,547 on March 9, 2009.

Furthermore, lack of credit availability tends to lead to low selling prices for commodities, making production of these commodities unprofitable. Production of these commodities may not drop off immediately, but will in time unless the credit situation is quickly turned around.

Can’t governments simply declare a debt jubilee for all debt, and start over again?

Not that I can see. Declaring a debt jubilee is, in effect, saying, “We have decided to renege on our past promises. In fact, we are letting others renege on their promises as well.” This means that insurance companies, pension plans, and banks will all be in very poor financial situation. Many who depend on pensions will find their monthly checks cut off as well. In fact, businesses without credit availability are likely to lay off workers.

If it is possible to start over, it will need to be on a much more restricted basis. Everyone will be poorer, so there won’t be much of a market for expensive new cars and homes. Instead, most demand will be for will be the basics–food, water, clothing, and fuel for heat. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that prices will be high enough, or the chains of supply robust enough, to again produce fossil fuels in quantity. Without fossil fuels, what we think of as renewables will disappear from availability quickly as well. For example, hydroelectric, wind and solar PV all work as parts of a system. If the billing system is unavailable because banks are closed, or if the transmission system is in need of repair because lines are down and the diesel fuel needed to make repairs is unavailable, electricity may not be available.

As indicated above, demand will be primarily for basics such as food, water, clothing, and fuel for cooking and heating. It will still be possible to use local supply chains, even if long distance supply chains don’t really work well. The challenge will be trying to shift modes of production to new approaches in which goods can be made locally. A major challenge will be training potential farmers, getting needed equipment for them, and transferring land ownership in ways that will allow food to be produced in ways that do not depend on fossil fuels.

Belief in credit will be severely damaged by a debt jubilee. The place where credit will be easy to reestablish will be in places where everyone knows everyone else, and supply lines are short. Debt will mostly be of the nature of “running a tab” when one type of good is exchanged for another. Over time, there may be some long-term trade re-established, but it is likely to be much more limited in scope than what we know today.

Conclusion

Long-term debt tends to work much better in a period of economic growth, than in a period of contraction. Reinhart and Rogoff unexpectedly discovered this point in their 2008 paper “This Time is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises.” They remark “It is notable that the non-defaulters, by and large, are all hugely successful growth stories.”

Slowing growth in China is likely to mean that world economic growth is slowing. This will add to stresses, making failure of the system more likely than it otherwise would be. We can cross our fingers and hope that Janet Yellen and other central bankers can figure out yet other ways to keep the system together for a while longer.

Reaching Debt Limits: With or without China’s problems, we have a problem | Our Finite World

Reaching Debt Limits: With or without China’s problems, we have a problem | Our Finite World.

Credit Problems are a Very Current Issue

In the past several years, the engine of world’s growth has been China. China’s growth has been fueled by debt. China now seems to be running into difficulties with its industrial growth, and its difficulty with industrial growth indirectly leads to debt problems. A Platt’s video talks about China’s demand for oil increasing by only 2.5% in 2013, but this increase being driven by rising gasoline demand. Diesel use, which tracks with industrial use, seems to be approximately flat.

The UK Telegraph reports, “Markets hold breath as China’s shadow banking grinds to a halt.” According to that article,

A slew of shockingly weak data from China and Japan has led to a sharp sell-off in Asian stock markets and the biggest one-day crash in iron ore prices since the Lehman crisis, calling into question the strength of the global recovery.

The Shanghai Composite index of stocks fell below the key level of 2,000 after investors reacted with shock to an 18pc slump in Chinese exports in February and to signs that credit is wilting again. Iron ore fell 8.3pc.

Fresh loans in China’s shadow banking system evaporated to almost nothing from $160bn in January, suggesting the clampdown on the $8 trillion sector is biting hard.

Many recent reports have talked about the huge growth in China’s debt in recent years, much of it outside usual banking channels. One such report is this video called How China Fooled the World with Robert Peston.

Why Promises (and Debt) are Critical to the Economy

Without promises, it is hard to get anyone to do anything that they really don’t want to do. Think about training your dog. The way you usually do this training is with “doggie treats” to reward good behavior. Rewards for desired behavior are equally critical to the economy. An employer pays wages to an employee (a promise of pay for work performed).

It is possible to build a house or a store, stick by stick, as a person accumulates enough funds from other endeavors, but the process is very slow. Usually, if this approach is used, those building homes or stores will provide all of the labor themselves, to try to match outgo with income. If debt were used, it might be possible to use skilled craftsmen. It might even be possible to take advantage of economies of scale and build several homes together in the same neighborhood, and sell them to individuals who could buy the homes using debt.

Adding debt has many advantages to an economy. With debt, a person can buy a new car or house without needing to save up funds. These purchases lead to additional workers being employed in building these new cars and homes, adding jobs. The value of existing homes tends to rise, if other people are available to afford them, thanks to cheap debt availability. Rising home prices allow citizens to take out home equity loans and buy something else, adding further possibility of more jobs. Availability of cheap debt also tends to make business activity that would otherwise be barely profitable, more profitable, encouraging more investment. GDP measures business activity, not whether the activity is paid for with debt, so rising debt levels tend to lead to more GDP.

Webs of Promises and Debt

As economies expand, they add more and more promises, and more and more formal debt. In high tech industries, supply lines using materials from around the world are needed. The promise made, formally or informally, is that if more of a supply is needed, it will be available, at the same or a similar price, in the quantity needed and in the timeframe needed. In order for this to happen, each supplier needs to have made many promises to many employees and many suppliers, so as to meet its commitments.

Governments are part of this web of promises and debt. Some of the promises made by governments constitute formal debt; some of the promises are guarantees relating to debt of other parties (such as nuclear power plants), or of the finances of banks or pensions plans. Some of a government’s promises are only implied promises, yet people depend on these implied promises. For example, there is an expectation that the government will continue to provide paved roads, and that it will continue to provide programs such as Social Security and Medicare. Because of the latter programs, citizens assume that they don’t need to save very much or have many children–the government will provide funding sufficient for their basic needs in later years, without additional action on their part.

What is the Limit to Debt?

While our system of debt has gone on for a very long time, we can’t expect it to continue in its current form forever. One thing that we don’t often think about is that our system or promises isn’t really backed by the way natural system we live in works. Our system of promises has a hidden agenda of growth. Nature doesn’t  have a similar agenda of growth. In the natural order, the amount of fresh water stays pretty much the same. In fact, aquifers may deplete if we over-use them. The amount of topsoil stays pretty much the same, unless we damage it or make it subject to erosion. The amount of wood available stays pretty constant, unless we over-use it.

Nature, instead of having an agenda of growth, operates with an agenda of diminishing returns with respect to many types of resources. As we attempt to produce more of a resource, the cost tends to rise. For example, we can extract more fresh water, if we will go to the expense of drilling deeper wells or using desalination, either of which is more expensive. We can extract more metals, if we use as our source lower grade ores, perhaps with more surface material covering the ore. We can get extract more oil, if we will go to the expense of digging deeper wells is less hospitable parts of the world. We can even use substitution, but that will likely be more expensive yet.

A major issue that most economists have missed is the fact that wages don’t rise in response to this higher cost of resource extraction. (I have shown a chart illustrating that this is true for oil prices.) If the higher cost simply arises from the fact that nature is putting more obstacles in our way, we end up spending more for, say, desalinated water than water from a local well, or more for gasoline than previously. Much of the cost goes into fuel that is burned, or building special purpose equipment (such as a desalination plant or offshore drilling rigs) that will degrade over time. Our system is, in effect, becoming less and less efficient, as it takes more resources and more of people’s time, to produce the same end product, measured in terms of barrels of oil or gallons of water. Even if there are additional salaries, they are often in a different country, around the globe.

At some point, the amount of products we can actually produce starts shrinking, because workers cannot afford the ever-more-expensive products or because some essential “ingredient” (such as fresh water, or oil, or an imported metal) is not available. Since we live in a finite world, we know that at some point such a situation must occur, even if  the shrinkage isn’t as soon as I show it in Figure 2 below.

Figure 1. Author's image of an expanding economy.

Figure 1. Author’s image of an expanding economy.

Figure 2. Author's image of declining economy.

Figure 2. Author’s image of declining economy.

The “catch” with debt is that we are in effect borrowing from the future. It is much easier to pay back debt with interest when the economy is growing than when the economy is shrinking.  When the economy is shrinking, there is less in the future to begin with. Repaying debt from this shrinking amount becomes a problem. Even promises that aren’t formally debt, such as most Social Security payments, Medicare, and future road maintenance become a problem. With fewer goods available in total, citizens on average become poorer.

Governments depend on tax revenue from citizens, so they become poorer as well–perhaps even more quickly than the individual citizens who live in their country. It is in situations like this that richer parts of countries decide to secede, leading to country break-ups. Or the central government may fail, as in the Former Soviet Union.

Which Promises are Least Affected?

Some promises are very close in time; others involve many years of delay. For example, if I bring food I grew to a farmers’ market, and the operator of the market gives me credit that allows me to take home some other goods that someone else has brought, there are some aspects of credit involved, but it is very short term credit. I am being allowed to “run a tab” with credit for things I brought, and this payment is being used to purchase other goods, or perhaps even services. Perhaps someone else would offer some of their labor in putting together the farmers’ market, or in working in a garden, in return for getting some of the produce.

As I see it, such short term promises are not really a problem. Such credit arrangements have been used for thousands of years (Graeber, 2012). They don’t depend on long supply lines, around the world, that are subject to disruption. They also don’t depend on future events–for example, they don’t depend on buyers being available to purchase goods from a factory five or ten years from now. Thus, local supply chains among people in close proximity seem likely to be available for the long term.

Long-Term Debt is Harder to Maintain

Debt which is long-term in nature, or provides promises extending into the future (even if they aren’t formally debt) are much harder to maintain. For example, if governments are poorer, they may need to cut back on programs citizens expect, such as paving roads, and funding for Social Security and Medicare.

Governments and economies are already being affected by the difficulty in maintaining long term debt. This is a big reasons why Quantitative Easing (QE) is being used to keep interest rates artificially low in the United States, Europe (including the UK and Switzerland), and Japan. If interest rates should rise, it seems likely that there would be far more defaults on bonds, and far more programs would need to be cut. Even with these measures, some borrowers near the bottom are already being adversely affected–for example, subprime loans were problems during the Great Recession. Also, many of the poorer countries, for example, Greece, Egypt, and the Ukraine, are already having debt problems.

Indirect Casualties of the Long-Term Debt Implosion

The problem with debt defaults is that they tend to spread. If one major country has difficulty, banks of  many other countries are likely be to affected, because many banks will hold the debt of the defaulting country. (This may not be as true with China, but there are no doubt indirect links to other economies.) Banks are thinly capitalized. If a government tries to prop up the banks in its country, it is likely to be drawn into the debt default mess. Insurance companies and pension plans may also be affected by the debt defaults.

In such a situation of debt defaults spreading from country to country, interest rates can be expected to shift suddenly, causing financial difficulty for those issuing derivatives. There may also be liquidity problems in dealing with these sudden changes. As a result, banks issuing derivatives may need to be bailed out.

There may also be a sudden loss of credit availability, or much higher interest rates, as banks issuing loans become more cautious. In fact, if problems are severe enough, some banks may be closed altogether.

With less credit available, prices of commodities can be expected to drop dramatically. For example, during the credit crisis in the second half of 2008, oil prices dropped to the low $30s per barrel. It was not until after  QE was started in November 2008 that oil prices started to rise again. This time, central banks are already using QE to try to fix the situation. It is not clear that they can do much more, so the situation would seem to have the potential to spiral out of control.

Without credit availability, the prices of most stocks are likely to drop dramatically. In part, this is because without credit availability, it is not clear that the companies listed in the stock market can actually produce very much. Even if the particular company does not need credit, it is likely that some of the businesses on which it depends for supplies will have credit problems, and not be able to provide needed supplies. Also, with less credit availability, potential buyers of shares of stock may not be about to get the credit they need to purchase shares of stock. As a result of the credit problems in 2008, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped to $6,547 on March 9, 2009.

Furthermore, lack of credit availability tends to lead to low selling prices for commodities, making production of these commodities unprofitable. Production of these commodities may not drop off immediately, but will in time unless the credit situation is quickly turned around.

Can’t governments simply declare a debt jubilee for all debt, and start over again?

Not that I can see. Declaring a debt jubilee is, in effect, saying, “We have decided to renege on our past promises. In fact, we are letting others renege on their promises as well.” This means that insurance companies, pension plans, and banks will all be in very poor financial situation. Many who depend on pensions will find their monthly checks cut off as well. In fact, businesses without credit availability are likely to lay off workers.

If it is possible to start over, it will need to be on a much more restricted basis. Everyone will be poorer, so there won’t be much of a market for expensive new cars and homes. Instead, most demand will be for will be the basics–food, water, clothing, and fuel for heat. Unfortunately, it is doubtful that prices will be high enough, or the chains of supply robust enough, to again produce fossil fuels in quantity. Without fossil fuels, what we think of as renewables will disappear from availability quickly as well. For example, hydroelectric, wind and solar PV all work as parts of a system. If the billing system is unavailable because banks are closed, or if the transmission system is in need of repair because lines are down and the diesel fuel needed to make repairs is unavailable, electricity may not be available.

As indicated above, demand will be primarily for basics such as food, water, clothing, and fuel for cooking and heating. It will still be possible to use local supply chains, even if long distance supply chains don’t really work well. The challenge will be trying to shift modes of production to new approaches in which goods can be made locally. A major challenge will be training potential farmers, getting needed equipment for them, and transferring land ownership in ways that will allow food to be produced in ways that do not depend on fossil fuels.

Belief in credit will be severely damaged by a debt jubilee. The place where credit will be easy to reestablish will be in places where everyone knows everyone else, and supply lines are short. Debt will mostly be of the nature of “running a tab” when one type of good is exchanged for another. Over time, there may be some long-term trade re-established, but it is likely to be much more limited in scope than what we know today.

Conclusion

Long-term debt tends to work much better in a period of economic growth, than in a period of contraction. Reinhart and Rogoff unexpectedly discovered this point in their 2008 paper “This Time is Different: A Panoramic View of Eight Centuries of Financial Crises.” They remark “It is notable that the non-defaulters, by and large, are all hugely successful growth stories.”

Slowing growth in China is likely to mean that world economic growth is slowing. This will add to stresses, making failure of the system more likely than it otherwise would be. We can cross our fingers and hope that Janet Yellen and other central bankers can figure out yet other ways to keep the system together for a while longer.

Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse?: James Howards Kunstler | Peak Prosperity

Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse?: James Howards Kunstler | Peak Prosperity.

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Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse?

That it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean you’re wrong
by James H. Kunstler
Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 4:16 AM

It’s nerve-wracking to live in the historical moment of an epic turning point, especially when the great groaning garbage barge of late industrial civilization doesn’t turn quickly where you know it must, and you are left feeling naked and ashamed with your dark worldview, your careful preparations for a difficult future, and your scornful or tittering relatives reminding you each day what a ninny you are to worry about the tendings of events.

Persevere. There are worse things in this life than not being right exactly on schedule.

Two simple words explain why more robust signs of an economic collapse have hung fire since the tremors of 2008: inertia and fraud. Never in human history has there been such a matrix of complex systems so vast, dense, weighty, and powerful for running everyday life (nor a larger population engaged in it). That much stuff in motion takes a while to slow down. The embodied energy has kept enough of it running to give the appearance of continuity. For instance, agri-biz still sends its amber waves of grain and tankers of corn-syrup to the Pepsico snack-food factories, and the WalMart trucks still faithfully convey the pallets of Cheetos, Fritos, Funyons, and Tostitos from the Pepsico loading dock to the big box aisles of glory. The freeways still hum with traffic even though oil is pricey at $100 a barrel. The lights stay on. The gabble and blabber of Cable TV continues remorselessly in the background of life. All of that is due to inertia. It gives the superficial impression of the old normal carrying on. Things go on until they can’t, in the immortal words of Herb Stein

The fraud is present in the abuse and misrepresentation of official statistics used as metrics in government policy, in the pervasive accounting chicanery of that same government in its fiscal dealings, as well as in our leading financial institutions and corporations, including control fraud in banking, interest rate rigging, mortgage and title fraud, front-running, naked shorting, re-hypothecation, money laundering, pumping-and-dumping, channel stuffing, the endless innovation of swindles, and, most importantly, the fundamental mispricing of the cost of money, which reverberates through everything else, most particularly real estate, stocks, and bonds. Beyond that, in the shadows of the shadowland known as shadow banking, a liminal realm of secrets and intrigues, only a few are privileged to know what is going on, and you can be sure they only know their end of the trade — while immense sums of ever more abstract “money” slosh through the derivative sewers on their way to oblivion in the ocean of failed trust.

So, don’t feel bad if this colossal armature of folly still stands, and have faith that the blinding light of God’s judgment will eventually shine even unto the watery depths where failed trust has sunk. Sooner or later the relationship between reality and truth re-sets to the calculus of what is actually happening.

Meanwhile, the big questions worth reflecting upon are: What is the shape of the future? How might we conduct ourselves in it and on our way to it; and how will we think and feel about all that? It’s very likely that the journey to where we’re going will be rougher than the actual destination, once we get there. There is a hearty consensus outside the mainstream financial media and the thickets of academia that the models we have been using to understand the economy look more broken each month, and this surely adds to the difficulty of constructing our own mental models for how the everyday world of the years ahead will operate.

Some of the commentators in blogville and elsewhere like to blame capitalism. Capitalism is a phantom adversary. It isn’t an economic system. It isn’t an ideology, really, or a belief system. If the word means anything, it describes the behavior of accumulated surplus wealth in concert with the known laws of physics — the movement of energy through time and space — and the choices we make organizing society in relation to that.  The energy is embodied as capital, represented in money for convenience. Interest expresses the cost of money over time and the risks associated with lending it. By the way, interest rates work the same way under all political systems, despite attempts in some societies to criminalize it.

During the high tide of the industrial expansion, when fossil fuels were cheap and we accumulated the greatest wealth surplus ever in history, humanity made some very bad choices, squandering this possibly one-time bonanza. We fought two world wars, and lots of wasteful lesser ones. Russia and its imitators attempted to collectivize wealth under gangster government and only succeeded in impoverishing everyone but the gangsters. America built suburbia and Las Vegas. The one thing that no “modern” culture did was plan for a future when the fossil fuel orgy and the techno-industrial fiesta might wind down, which is exactly the case now. Instead, we opted for the Julian Simon folly of crossing our fingers and hoping that some unnamed band ofgenius wizard innovators would mitigate the problems of resource scarcity and population overshoot just in time.

The demonizers of capitalism propose to remedy our compound predicament by just getting rid of money. But the idea of a human society without money leaves you either up a baobab tree on the paleolithic savannah, or in some sort of Ray Kurzweil techno-narcissistic masturbation fantasy multiverse with no relation to the organic doings on planet earth. I suspect as long as there are human societies there will be things to exchange that have a quality we call “money,” and as long as that’s the case, some individuals will have more of it than others, and they will lend some of their surplus to others on terms. What most people call capitalism was a model of economy derived from a particular transitory moment in history. It seemed to describe reality, but after a while it didn’t because reality changed and it was, finally, just a model. Nothing lasts forever. Boo-hoo, Karl Marx, J.M Keynes, and Paul Krugman.

What’s cracking up first is the complexity and abstraction of our current money operations, sometimes loosely called the financialized economy. If we blame anything for our problems with money, blame our half-baked attempts to mitigate the wind-down of the techno-industrial cavalcade of progress by issuing ersatz surplus wealth in the form of debt — that is, promises to fork over hypothetical not- yet-accumulated wealth at some future date. There are too many promises now, and too few trustworthy promisors, and poor prospects for generating the volumes of wealth as we did in the recent past.

The hidden (or ignored) truth of this quandary expresses itself inevitably in the degenerate culture of the day, the freak show of pornified criminal avarice that the USA has become. It only shows how demoralizing our recent history has been that the collective national attention is focused on such vulgar stupidities as twerking, or the Kanye-Kardashian porno romance, the doings of the Duck Dynasty, and the partying wolves of Wall Street. By slow increments since about the time John F. Kennedy was shot in the head, we’ve become a land where anything goes and nothing matters. The political blame for that can be distributed equally between Boomer progressives (e.g., inventors of political correctness) and the knuckle-dragging “free-market” conservatives (e.g.,money is free speech). The catch is, some things do matter, for instance whether the human race can continue to be civilized in some fashion when the techno-industrial orgy draws to a close.

In Part 2: How Life Will Change, we sort out the new operating principles that will matter more in the future than the trash heap of current cultural norms. The society that emerges from the post-growth economy will surely require a new moral compass, a set of values based on qualities of behavior and things worth caring about — as opposed to coolness, snobbery, menace, or power, the current lodestars of human aspiration.

Click here to access Part 2 of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse?: James Howards Kunstler | Peak Prosperity

Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse?: James Howards Kunstler | Peak Prosperity.

BLOG

Sandra Cunningham/Shutterstock

Are You Crazy To Continue Believing In Collapse?

That it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean you’re wrong
by James H. Kunstler
Wednesday, March 5, 2014, 4:16 AM

It’s nerve-wracking to live in the historical moment of an epic turning point, especially when the great groaning garbage barge of late industrial civilization doesn’t turn quickly where you know it must, and you are left feeling naked and ashamed with your dark worldview, your careful preparations for a difficult future, and your scornful or tittering relatives reminding you each day what a ninny you are to worry about the tendings of events.

Persevere. There are worse things in this life than not being right exactly on schedule.

Two simple words explain why more robust signs of an economic collapse have hung fire since the tremors of 2008: inertia and fraud. Never in human history has there been such a matrix of complex systems so vast, dense, weighty, and powerful for running everyday life (nor a larger population engaged in it). That much stuff in motion takes a while to slow down. The embodied energy has kept enough of it running to give the appearance of continuity. For instance, agri-biz still sends its amber waves of grain and tankers of corn-syrup to the Pepsico snack-food factories, and the WalMart trucks still faithfully convey the pallets of Cheetos, Fritos, Funyons, and Tostitos from the Pepsico loading dock to the big box aisles of glory. The freeways still hum with traffic even though oil is pricey at $100 a barrel. The lights stay on. The gabble and blabber of Cable TV continues remorselessly in the background of life. All of that is due to inertia. It gives the superficial impression of the old normal carrying on. Things go on until they can’t, in the immortal words of Herb Stein

The fraud is present in the abuse and misrepresentation of official statistics used as metrics in government policy, in the pervasive accounting chicanery of that same government in its fiscal dealings, as well as in our leading financial institutions and corporations, including control fraud in banking, interest rate rigging, mortgage and title fraud, front-running, naked shorting, re-hypothecation, money laundering, pumping-and-dumping, channel stuffing, the endless innovation of swindles, and, most importantly, the fundamental mispricing of the cost of money, which reverberates through everything else, most particularly real estate, stocks, and bonds. Beyond that, in the shadows of the shadowland known as shadow banking, a liminal realm of secrets and intrigues, only a few are privileged to know what is going on, and you can be sure they only know their end of the trade — while immense sums of ever more abstract “money” slosh through the derivative sewers on their way to oblivion in the ocean of failed trust.

So, don’t feel bad if this colossal armature of folly still stands, and have faith that the blinding light of God’s judgment will eventually shine even unto the watery depths where failed trust has sunk. Sooner or later the relationship between reality and truth re-sets to the calculus of what is actually happening.

Meanwhile, the big questions worth reflecting upon are: What is the shape of the future? How might we conduct ourselves in it and on our way to it; and how will we think and feel about all that? It’s very likely that the journey to where we’re going will be rougher than the actual destination, once we get there. There is a hearty consensus outside the mainstream financial media and the thickets of academia that the models we have been using to understand the economy look more broken each month, and this surely adds to the difficulty of constructing our own mental models for how the everyday world of the years ahead will operate.

Some of the commentators in blogville and elsewhere like to blame capitalism. Capitalism is a phantom adversary. It isn’t an economic system. It isn’t an ideology, really, or a belief system. If the word means anything, it describes the behavior of accumulated surplus wealth in concert with the known laws of physics — the movement of energy through time and space — and the choices we make organizing society in relation to that.  The energy is embodied as capital, represented in money for convenience. Interest expresses the cost of money over time and the risks associated with lending it. By the way, interest rates work the same way under all political systems, despite attempts in some societies to criminalize it.

During the high tide of the industrial expansion, when fossil fuels were cheap and we accumulated the greatest wealth surplus ever in history, humanity made some very bad choices, squandering this possibly one-time bonanza. We fought two world wars, and lots of wasteful lesser ones. Russia and its imitators attempted to collectivize wealth under gangster government and only succeeded in impoverishing everyone but the gangsters. America built suburbia and Las Vegas. The one thing that no “modern” culture did was plan for a future when the fossil fuel orgy and the techno-industrial fiesta might wind down, which is exactly the case now. Instead, we opted for the Julian Simon folly of crossing our fingers and hoping that some unnamed band ofgenius wizard innovators would mitigate the problems of resource scarcity and population overshoot just in time.

The demonizers of capitalism propose to remedy our compound predicament by just getting rid of money. But the idea of a human society without money leaves you either up a baobab tree on the paleolithic savannah, or in some sort of Ray Kurzweil techno-narcissistic masturbation fantasy multiverse with no relation to the organic doings on planet earth. I suspect as long as there are human societies there will be things to exchange that have a quality we call “money,” and as long as that’s the case, some individuals will have more of it than others, and they will lend some of their surplus to others on terms. What most people call capitalism was a model of economy derived from a particular transitory moment in history. It seemed to describe reality, but after a while it didn’t because reality changed and it was, finally, just a model. Nothing lasts forever. Boo-hoo, Karl Marx, J.M Keynes, and Paul Krugman.

What’s cracking up first is the complexity and abstraction of our current money operations, sometimes loosely called the financialized economy. If we blame anything for our problems with money, blame our half-baked attempts to mitigate the wind-down of the techno-industrial cavalcade of progress by issuing ersatz surplus wealth in the form of debt — that is, promises to fork over hypothetical not- yet-accumulated wealth at some future date. There are too many promises now, and too few trustworthy promisors, and poor prospects for generating the volumes of wealth as we did in the recent past.

The hidden (or ignored) truth of this quandary expresses itself inevitably in the degenerate culture of the day, the freak show of pornified criminal avarice that the USA has become. It only shows how demoralizing our recent history has been that the collective national attention is focused on such vulgar stupidities as twerking, or the Kanye-Kardashian porno romance, the doings of the Duck Dynasty, and the partying wolves of Wall Street. By slow increments since about the time John F. Kennedy was shot in the head, we’ve become a land where anything goes and nothing matters. The political blame for that can be distributed equally between Boomer progressives (e.g., inventors of political correctness) and the knuckle-dragging “free-market” conservatives (e.g.,money is free speech). The catch is, some things do matter, for instance whether the human race can continue to be civilized in some fashion when the techno-industrial orgy draws to a close.

In Part 2: How Life Will Change, we sort out the new operating principles that will matter more in the future than the trash heap of current cultural norms. The society that emerges from the post-growth economy will surely require a new moral compass, a set of values based on qualities of behavior and things worth caring about — as opposed to coolness, snobbery, menace, or power, the current lodestars of human aspiration.

Click here to access Part 2 of this report (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

Long Term Charts 2: Western Markets Since The Middle Ages | Zero Hedge

Long Term Charts 2: Western Markets Since The Middle Ages | Zero Hedge.

inShare

 

We previously examined 240 years of US market history for a sense of ‘trend’ or sustainability but some were not satisfied. In order to get a truly long-term perspective, we reach back 1000 years to The Middle Ages and look at how stock prices, interest rates, commodity prices, and gold have changed in a millennia (and most notably how the key historical events have shaped those price changes).

 

Western Markets Since The Middle Ages

 

Stock Prices

 

Interest Rates

 

Commodity Prices

 

The Gold Price

 

@Macro_Tourist for these increble charts

 

And just for good measure, perhaps the most important chart going forward –  Nothing lasts forever… (especially in light of China’s earlier comments )

Long-Term Charts 1: American Markets Since Independence | Zero Hedge

Long-Term Charts 1: American Markets Since Independence | Zero Hedge.

Sometimes, perhaps all too often; investors, traders, economists, and mainstream media anchors miss the forest and see only the trees (growing to the sky or crashing to the floor). To provide some context on the markets, we present the first of three posts of long-term chart series (and by long-term we mean more than a few decades of well-chosen trends) – stock, bond, gold, commodity, and US Dollar prices for the last 240 years

American Markets Since Independence

 

Stock Prices

 

Interest Rates

 

Commodity Prices

 

The Gold Price

 

The Crude Oil Price

 

The US Dollar

 

 

H/t @Macro_Tourist for these increble charts

 

Of course, as we have noted in the past, Nothing lasts forever… (especially in light of China’s earlier comments )

Is This the Big One? The New Wave of Financial Instability | Global Research

Is This the Big One? The New Wave of Financial Instability | Global Research.

depression

Global stocks were hammered on Friday for a second straight day on news of a slowdown in China and turbulence in emerging markets. The Dow Jones Industrials suffered its worse drubbing in more than two years, tumbling 318 points on Friday to end a 490 point two-day rout. Emerging markets currencies were whipsawed by capital flight as foreign investors fled to the safety of U.S. Treasuries. Turkey’s lira and the Argentine peso were particularly hard hit setting record lows in the 48 hour period. The scaling back of the Fed’s $85 billion per month asset purchase program, called QE, has altered the dynamic that made emerging markets the “engines for global growth”. The policy reversal has triggered a selloff in risk assets and sent EM currencies plunging. Here’s a summary from Bloomberg:

“The worst selloff in emerging-market currencies in five years is beginning to reveal the extent of the fallout from the Federal Reserve’s tapering of monetary stimulus, compounded by political and financial instability.

Investors are losing confidence in some of the biggest developing nations, extending the currency-market rout triggered last year when the Fed first signaled it would scale back stimulus. While Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa were the engines of global growth following the financial crisis in 2008, emerging markets now pose a threat to world financial stability.” (“Contagion Spreads in Emerging Markets as Crises Grow,” Bloomberg)

Paradoxically, Bloomberg editors blame the victims of the Fed’s failed policy for the current ructions in the markets. In an article titled, “What’s Behind the Emerging-Market Meltdown” the editors say,”emerging-market governments … should recognize that this week’s financial-market turmoil was, to varying degrees, their own fault.” … “the best way for emerging-market governments to restore confidence would be to improve their policies.”

Logically, one would assume that the editors would throw their support behind capital controls or other means of stemming the destructive flow of speculative capital into domestic markets. But that’s not the case. What the editors really want, is policies that trim deficits, slash public spending, and allow foreign investors to continue to wreak havoc on vulnerable economies that follow their free market diktats. The article is a defense of the status quo, of maintaining the same ruinous policies so that profit-taking can continue apace.

The Fed was warned early on that its uber-accommodative monetary policy was spilling over into emerging markets and creating conditions for another financial crisis. Take a look at this excerpt from an article in Bloomberg back in 2010 where Nobel prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, explicitly warns the Fed of the dangers of QE.

Bloomberg:

“The U.S. Federal Reserve’s plan to boost purchases of bonds poses “considerable” risks by increasing capital inflows to emerging markets, Nobel Prize- winning economist Joseph Stiglitz said in Santiago today.

“All this liquidity that they’re creating is not going back to grow the American economy and is going to Asia and other emerging markets where it’s not wanted,” Stiglitz said…..Increased capital inflows could cause emerging market currencies to appreciate and could create asset bubbles, he said.” (“Stiglitz Says Fed Stimulus Poses `Considerable’ Risks for Emerging Markets,” Bloomberg, Dec 2010)

Events have unfolded exactly as Stiglitz predicted they would, which means the Fed is 100% responsible the carnage in the stock and currencies markets.

The policy has pumped nearly “$7 trillion of foreign funds” into EMs since QE was first launched in 2009. According to the Telegraph’s Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, “much of it “hot money” going into bonds, equities and liquid instruments that can be sold quickly….Officials are concerned that this footloose capital could leave fast in a crisis, setting off a cascade effect,” Pritchard adds ominously.

Whether last week’s bloodbath was just a prelude to a bigger crash is impossible to say, but it is worth noting that the Fed has only reduced its purchases by a mere $10 billion per month while still providing $75 billion every 30 days. That suggests that markets will probably face greater turmoil in the months ahead. Check out this clip from USA Today:

“Emerging markets need the hot money but capital is exiting now,” says (Blackrock’s Russ) Koesterich. “What you have is people saying, ‘I don’t want to own emerging markets.’…

The bigger fear is if the current crisis in currency markets morphs into a full-blown economic crisis and leads to financial contagion, says Matthias Kuhlmey, managing director of HighTower’s Global Investment Solutions.

“The currency story is fascinating and can be a slippery slope – be cautious,” says Kuhlmey, adding that the Asian crisis in the summer of 1997 that started with a sharp drop in the value of Thailand’s baht, turned into a broader economic crisis that engulfed Indonesian, South Korea and a handful of other countries. It also rocked financial markets.” (“Why emerging markets worry Wall Street,” USA Today)

So, is this the Big One, the beginning of the next financial crisis?

It’s too early to say, but investors and analysts are worried. Fed tightening (via “taper”) will be felt in markets around the world. The trouble in emerging markets will intensify deflationary pressures in the Eurozone and put a damper on China’s growth. Slower global growth, in turn, will create balance sheets problems for undercapitalized and over-leveraged banks and other financial institutions which will increase the probability of another Lehman Brothers-type default.

According to Reuters, a normalizing of interest rates in the US, (which most analysts expect) “could cut financial inflows to developing countries by as much as 80 percent for several months. In such a case, nearly a quarter of developing countries could experience sudden stops in their access to global capital, throwing some economies into a balance of payments or financial crisis, the Bank said.” (“Rout in emerging markets may only be in Phase One,” Reuters)

Clearly, the potential for another financial meltdown is quite real.

For more than four years, the Fed has buoyed stock prices and increased corporate margins through massive injections of free cash into the financial markets. Now the Central Bank wants to change the policy and ease its foot off the gas pedal. That’s causing investors to rethink their positions and take more money off the table. What started as a selloff in emerging markets could snowball into a broader panic that could wipe out the gains of the last four years.

The Federal Reserve is entirely responsible for this new wave of financial instability.

Mike Whitney lives in Washington state. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press). Hopeless is also available in a Kindle edition. He can be reached at fergiewhitney@msn.com.

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