The Bumpy Road Down, Part 3

17 01 2018

Irv Mills has now published the third episode in his “Bumpy Road Down” series. It’s gotten a lot of interest on Facebook, and I think his own blog is getting a lot of hits too, as the interest in collapse ramps up everywhere as more and more people are waking up to the fact most things are going awry in the world….

I’ve already told him I disagree with his collapse diagram. For starters, the carrying capacity line is neither straight nor flat. So much farm land, particularly in India and North America has been decimated by fossil fuled fertilisers, that re-instating them to their former organic glory will be a huge challenge that will require a long time during which a lot of people will unfortunately starve. On top of this, we have wrecked global fisheries, which were an important pre FF source of food…  My best take on this is Paul Chefruka’s diagram which I published with his article here…  It too shows a bumpy road down, and no carrying capacity limit. I think the post FF carrying capacity will be the same as the pre FF carrying capacity, only worse thanks to the ecological damage our insane use of FFs has caused. How one quatifies this, I don’t know, but I’m sure it would take a lot of research.

Anyhow, enjoy the read, and make sure you comment, I’m always interested in what you think. Leave comments at Irv’s site too….  I’m sure he’d like the feedback!

 

IrvMills

Irv Mills

In the last post in this series I talked about the next financial crash and how it may well be serious enough to spread into the non-financial sectors of the economy and effect supply chains and critical systems in ways that we did not see in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08. Systems that most of us depend on for the necessities of life may fail and many kollapsniks see this leading immediately and inevitably to a hard, fast and permanent crash of industrial civilization.

I disagree, seeing this as just one more bump on the road down, the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity.

To understand why I hold this opinion, I said we need to do a couple of things:

1) take a systems dynamic approach to the events we are talking about. Specifically, we need to look at what happens when overshoot occurs in nature, in systems like the one we inhabit. Which is, after all, a subset of the ecosphere. Overshoot is a common enough phenomenon and usually works in fairly predictable ways.

2) look at the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage of a financial crash and its spread to other critical systems.

Today we are going to do that.

(Note: all three of the graphs below are smoothed out, idealized and imprecise representations of the processes they illustrate. The point is to allow me to make some points visually. I hope not to get into much in the way of quibbling over minor details, of which no doubt a few are missing, inaccurate or outright wrong.)

So, first, let’s take a look at how overshoot works. Take moment or two with your favourite search engine and you will find a graph that looks something like this:

1) typical overshoot situation with constant carrying capacity

The green line shows the behaviour over time of the population of a species which finds itself initially at a level well below the carrying capacity of its environment (the dashed blue line). Because that environment provides lots of whatever the species need to grow, it does grow. This tendency to grow in response to favourable conditions seems to be an inhernet property of life. As is always the case, this is exponential growth—it starts out slowly but eventually reaches a point where it takes off and quickly exceeds the carrying capacity of the environment.

What happens then is interesting, especially since we currently find ourselves in just such a situation. You get some oscillation of the species population, above and below the carrying capacity, until it finally settles out somewhat below the carrying capacity.

First, let’s be clear that it is possible to exceed carrying capacity in the short run, at the cost of damaging the environment and reducing its capacity—overpopulation has a negative effect on that capacity. There is also some time delay built in to the effect of population growth, as newly born individuals add relatively little to the species impact on the environment compared to what they will add once they have grown up. The negative feedback and the time delay result in the oscillation shown in the graph.

Of course, the straight line representing carrying capacity would actually have some peaks and valleys, corresponding to how the environment responds to the stress of overpopulation and how it recovers when the population falls. If we idealized both the blue and green lines into something like a sine wave, we would see that the variation in the carrying capacity leads the variation in the population by about 90 degrees.

The red line, by the way, represents a fast and permanent collapse. In order for this to happen the carrying capacity has to fall all the way down to basically nothing. This can happen for a variety of reasons, but overshoot isn’t one of them, because as soon as the population falls off below the carrying capacity, the stress on the environment is relieved and it begins to recover.

There is, in fact, no such thing as a “balance of nature” and it is by no means inevitable that the oscillations damp out and the population settles down just below the carrying capacity. In many cases what we actually get is the situation in the next graph, where populations oscillate on an ongoing basis.

2) continual oscillation of predator and prey populations such as foxes and rabbits

You might think that the population of rabbits and foxes in an ecosystem would level out at steady values, but that is not in fact what is observed.

If we start at a moment when there are relatively few of each species, we see that the population of rabbits (the prey, dashed blue line) grows rapidly. It is well below the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits and there are relatively few foxes (the predators, green line). But the increasing number of rabbits make hunting easier for the foxes, and their population starts to increase too. Eventually there are enough foxes to overhunt the rabbits, resulting in a crash in the rabbit population. This is followed by a crash in the fox population, since there are no longer enough rabbits to support it. This brings us back to where we started and the cycle carries on.

The reason the cycle can carry on indefinitely is that the foxes limit the rabbit population so that it never exceeds the carrying capacity of the ecosystem for rabbits—the plants the rabbits are eating never get over grazed.

The situation for the human population of this planet is, as you might expect, more complex.

The impact (I) that the human population has on our environment is determined not just by the size of that population (P), but also by the level of affluence (A) we are living at and effectiveness of the technology (T) we are using to maintain that affluence.

This gives us the famous equation, I=PAT. Since I am going to be using the term “T” in another equation shortly, I’ll change this to I=PAD, where “D” stands for decoupling. Decoupling is the use of technology to produce affluence at a lower cost to thge environment and it is a number between 0 and 1, with 0 being the goal we would aim for, eliminating our impact altogether. In fact it is proving so difficult to get decoupling anywhere near zero that it is very unlikely to be the solution to our problems.

Carrying capacity (C) also works somewhat differently for human populations.

We can increase the size (S) of our environment by expanding into new areas of the world and habitats previously occupied by other species or by “indigenous” humans.

We can tap into forms of energy (E) beyond just food. For somewhere between two and three million years we’ve been using fire for landscaping, for cooking our food and for heating our shelters. In each case we were using the energy in burning biomass to increase the carrying capacity of our environment, increase the value of our food, and/or expand the range of environments that we can live in. For the last few hundred years we’ve been using the energy of fossil fuels to radically increase the carrying capacity of our environment in many seemingly clever ways.

Since whatever method we use to acquire energy consumes energy in the process, it’s actually the energy that is left over, available for use (the surplus energy) that’s important. This is best expressed as “Energy Returned on Energy Invested”, EROEI. This is a dimensionless number and the larger it is, the more surplus energy. When the EROEI is equal to one, the process is just breaking even and there is no point in doing it—we want a much higher EROEI.

Hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial agricultural societies managed average EROEI’s in the high single digits at best. Industrial societies based on fossil fuels in the twentieth century had EROEI’s many times that high, which made possible high levels of growth and the development and use of technologies which had previously been completely out of reach. Today the average global EROEI is around 11.

Which brings us to our use of tools and technology (T). With just Neolithic technology (fire, stone tools, weaving, tanning, pottery, boats, agriculture) we spread over the whole planet except for the Antarctic, occupying and thriving in environments very different from the ones where we evolved. Since the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution our use of technology has exploded. And not just material technology, but financial, organizational and information technologies as well. All of which has enabled both our population and affluence to grow at heretofore unprecedented rates.

So, the carrying capacity of this planet for the human race can be represented by the equation C=SET. Clearly, I (Impact) must be less than C (carrying capacity) or we are in overshoot. And since sometime in the late 1970s we have indeed been in overshoot. Currently the level of overshoot is around 60%. That is, our impact on the environment is 1.6 times what can be sustained on an ongoing basis.

3) oscillating overshoot with declining carrying capacity

From left side of this graph to point “a” we see the long and very slow growth of the human population before the discovery of the New World. After point “a” the carrying capacity began to increase significantly as the size of our environment effectively took a large jump with the European settlement of the New World, as the use of fossil fuels greatly increased the amount of surplus energy available and as we developed numerous new technologies to use that energy. Human impact increased with the carrying capacity, as our population grew and affluence increased.

The growth of carrying capacity continued until the last quarter of the twentieth century, point “b”, when depletion of fossil fuels and reduction of their EROEI, diminishing returns on technological innovation and stress on the environment from human activities started to reduce the carrying capacity.

Human impact has continued to grow since then, and is now so far above carrying capacity that one has to expect a crash in the near future, point “c”. As I said in my last post, this is likely to start with a financial crash. The financial sector of the economy, since it deals largely with non-material things that don’t have much inertia, can change very quickly. It is currently under a lot of strain from huge amounts of risky debt. I favour a scenario where a spike in the price of oil, brought about as the current surplus of oil bottoms out, sets off a currency crash in one of more countries, leading to a wave of bankruptcies and governments defaulting on their debts. After point “c” human impact will start to decrease rapidly, primarily due to the effect of the financial crash on affluence.

Note that I have again included a red line (and a light blue line), which represent a fast and permanent crash of both carrying capacity and population. This is possible and some would argue that climate change and ocean acidification (among other things) may be damaging the environment enough to make it the most likely outcome. I don’t think so. The ecosphere is amazingly resilient, once human impact is reduced. People have gotten the wrong impression about this because we have been playing the silly game of upping our impact and then wondering why the situation keeps getting worse, as if it wasn’t our fault.

To the right is a little chart that contains some shocking information. The top 20% of the human population (in terms of affluence) is responsible for 76.6% of our impact. A financial crash will be very hard on those top 20% and in the process will drastically reduce human impact. Sadly, myself and most of my readers are in that top 20%.

Referring back to diagram 3, I expect that at point “d”, where “I” is finally less than “C”, the carrying capacity will begin to recover, and a while later at point “e”, human impact will begin to increase once again as well.

Remember also that carrying capacity is defined by C=SET, and there is much that humanity can do to change the value of “T” in that equation. I am by no means saying that we will find a “solution” to our problems based on material technology. What I mean is that a major factor in the big decrease in carrying capacity during the upcoming crash will be the failure of our financial and organizational technology to cope with the situation. And there is a lot we can do to reorganize our financial, economic and political systems to work better under the new conditions. Once we are forced to do it. So I do expect there will be a recovery after this crash.

It is very likely that during the crash the financial chaos will spread to the rest of the economy and that there will be some reduction in the growth rate of our population as the support structures provide by industrial civilization fail completely in some parts of the world. But it seems likely that human population will continue to grow until it once again outstrips carrying capacity, at point “f”. And then at point “g” we will have another crash. I suspect depletion of fossil fuels, water for irrigation and phosphorous for fertilizer, and the effects of climate change will lead to a collapse of agriculture in many parts of the world. Famine and epidemics will at that point start to rapidly reduce our population and eventually reduce it back below a once more reduced carrying capacity (point “h”) and another recovery will begin (point “i”).

Beyond point “i” it is hard to say much about exact details or how many more crashes will take place. But the trend of continued oscillation with decreases in both carrying capacity and human impact will continue. The downward trend is because our current system relies on non-renewable resources that we are using up. That trend will continue until our impact can be sustained solely by renewable resources. Along the way we will go through some very hard times (point “i” and subsequent valleys in the green line) because of the damage done to the planet in the process. But eventually, with our impact drastically reduced, the ecosystems will recover. I expect that at this point we will have retained some of our technology and because of this the overall carrying capacity and our population/impact will settle out a bit above what it was in pre-industrial times.

One further thing I want to emphasize is how uneven this whole process will be. Yes it is likely that the impending financial crash, because it involves systems that are highly interconnected and global in scale, will be felt to some extent over the whole planet. But the degree to which the financial chaos spreads to the rest of the economy will vary greatly from place to place. And subsequent crashes, once the high degree of global interconnection has been broken, will most likely occur at different times in different places.

Wherever people are not completely dependent on global supply chains, the effects will be less severe. To the extent that they are not ravaged by climate change, some parts of the developing world where subsistence agriculture is practiced may continue on with little change. Unfortunately many areas will suffer the ravages of climate change—droughts, flooding and heat waves. Many countries (particularly in Africa and the Middle East) do not produce enough food for their own populations. With supply chains broken and agriculture struggling everywhere, these areas will find it difficult to continue importing the food they rely on. Supplies of energy and water will also prove problematical.

I am well aware that all these graphs and explanations do not constitute a proof of my assertions about the bumpy road down. But I hope I have succeeded in making what I’m trying to say much clearer. It’s up to you to decide if there is anything to it or not, now that you know what “it” is.

The other area I wanted to touch on today is the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage when a financial crash spreads to other critical systems.

As the financial crash starts to gain momentum, governments will (to whatever extent they can) use the same tools as they did in 2008 to get things under control— loans and bailouts for faltering businesses, and keeping interest rates very low. It also seems likely that, as the situation worsens, “bail-ins” will be used as well, where depositors are required to accept discounts on their deposits to reduce the pressure on failing banks. And “haircuts” where bond holders have to accept discounts on the value of those bonds in order to reduce the pressure on the governments that issued them.

These efforts will have mixed results and the crash will no doubt spread to the non-financial sectors of the economy. Many governments will try switching failing critical systems over to a direct command “martial law” economy. This will be done with varying degrees of skill (or ineptitude as the case may be) and varying degrees of co-operation from their citizens. Vital materials which are in short supply due to supply chain and production breakdowns will be placed under government control and rationed (food, energy—especially diesel fuel, water treatment and medical supplies), and attempts will be made to patch supply chains and production facilities back together with whatever comes to hand.

I have no doubt that this can be made to work, at least to some extent. It does require convincing the public that it is necessary and that it is being done fairly—applied equally to the rich and powerful as it is to the poor and weak. And inevitably there will be thriving black markets.

Governments that already operate some of these systems directly will be better prepared and experience greater success. System that have been contracted out to the lowest bidder—companies that are primarily responsible to their stock holders rather than their customers—may fail in a variety of ghastly ways.

On the other hand, I think there will also be quite a bit of quiet heroism on the part of companies and individuals in critical industries whose job it is to keep things working. These folks are for the most part competent and highly motivated, and their efforts will be more successful than you might think.

Some governments will be so successful that their citizens may hardly be aware that anything is going on. In other countries, people will be reduced to relying almost entirely on what can be done locally, with locally available resources. Right wing capitalist governments whose primary obligation is to the rich and power will begin to practice wholesale abandonment of the poor and unfortunate.

There are also things that can be done by local communities, families and individuals to be more self sufficient—to be able to carry on during those periods when industrial society fails to supply the necessities. Increasing local inventories in order to be more resilient in response to supply chain failures would be a good beginning. But just being clear about what the necessities are and not wasting resources try to maintain luxuries will be one of the biggest challenges. The first step is realizing that much of what we consider necessary is, in fact, not.

So, as I’ve already said, I’m expecting a recovery, or rather a series of recoveries after a series of crashes. These crises are going to cause some changes in the way things work, resulting in a very different world. We’ll have a look at the trends that will lead to that new world in my next post.

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Hopium at its best…..

16 01 2018

I have a lot of fun on Farcebook…… and you come across some really interesting people.  Because I wrote a long reply to a certain person who will remain nameless, I thought I’d turn it into a post for you guys to read. I know you’ll have a laugh too..

It all started with someone posting this article about what Australia will look like in 2049. Why 2049 you ask?  You tell me….  anyway, you can guess already, I was hardly going to agree with anything it said..!

Initially, someone wrote “The part of this alleged “futuristic” vision that infuriates me the most is the food aspect. They flippantly claim that households of the future will be fed nutrient-rich food from indoor greenhouses. Now take a close look at the artist’s impression of said greenhouse and tell me how much nutrient-rich food you can see growing in there. These people have never contemplated the land requirements of our nutrition.

It also completely neglects the plight of low-income people by painting a vision that only the richest few % might be able to afford. I guess everyone else will be working on degraded farmland growing food to make up for the nutritional deficiency left by the rich peoples’ indoor greenhouses…”

So far so good….  who could disagree? I replied “TOTALLY agree…… without fossil fuels, it is IMPOSSIBLE to feed the world as we do now. Most land is marginal and only capable of grazing animals. Those futuristic “visions” can only happen with fossil fuels. In fact, ‘this world’ we currently take for granted is 100% only here thanks to fossil fuels, and yet the masses are rising to abandon them, not realising their lives are literally at stake…

And yet they must go….. because our lives are at stake.

Talk about a rock and a hard place…….

Yes, civilisation’s conundrum again.

But then this guy came back with a link and…: “There is a group in the US called “Ecology Action” that has attempted to find the minimum possible land area to grow a nutritionally complete diet without fossil fuels (all hard yakka). Growing a fairly small set of ingredients for a simple (but balanced) vegan diet, coupled with their extremely labour-intensive (but very high-yielding) farming technique, they claim to deliver a full diet for one person on circa 400 square metres. This seems to assume a favourable climate and does not explicitly consider the sustainability of the irrigation applied.
http://www.growbiointensive.org/grow_main.html
Researchers (Schramski et al 2011) have further optimised the diet – coming up with an even shorter list of ingredients! – and got it down to about 100 square metres per person, with one full-time farmer working without fossil fuels theoretically able to grow enough food to feed 4-5 individuals.

This gives me a reason to hope that a post-industrial world could survive on some sort of subsistence basis, even with 10 billion people, and modest technology (either animal power or biofuel-powered rotary tillers) might improve the farmer-to-consumer ratio, but such a world would look a lot more like a present-day developing country and a lot less like the technotopia envisioned in the article.”

You can imagine what the 10 billion people remark did to my usual lack of humour…. I replied “”This gives me a reason to hope that a post-industrial world could survive on some sort of subsistence basis, even with 10 billion people”

Hahahahahah that made me laugh…… I have discussions over this all the time, and 99% of people cannot even conceive of moving to the land let alone getting dirt under their fingernails…

Half the population is obese and has no idea what a day’s work really is. They have neither the skills nor the knowledge.

And fossil fuel free? Right……… I’ve been doing this for over fifteen years now, and am currently working on my second project. I’m setting up a market garden 25m x 18m using permaculture principles, witht the long term vision of using mainly chickens and compost to fertilise it. And I couldn’t do it without the help of wwoofers either… or fossil fuels.

It’s ‘sort of half done’, I’m currently working on the second half, even before the first half is fully productive. The first half has cost me at least $3000 in fencing and amendments. And that’s not even counting the fact that most of the soil came from an excavation I did to build an eco house on, but if you add half that cost to it, add another $2000…… and who knows how much diesel fuel…. must be a couple of hundred litres by now.

Then there are the ten trips to the compost supplier….. I used to get compost 25km away, but there’s been some fuckup over the way that supplier worked, and now I have a 130km return trip to Hobart to get my 1300kg. Four so far. 520km and 60L of petrol and eight hours of travelling….. then there’s umpteen bags of sheep shit, and lime and dolomite, the seaweed fertiliser that came from godknowswhere…. oh did I mention you need a ute?  In the meantime, I put a couple of acres of improved pasture (that came with the farm) under a few sheep, and for $350, I have a year’s supply of meat. Beats the hell out of all that gardening for value and effort, let me tell you…….

I can tell you from experience that it takes YEARS to turn crap soil into good soil. My last project took me that long, but I’m running out of years, and this time I’m speeding the process up with money and fossil fuels before it’s too late….. because my dear Jimmy, we don’t have ten years left….. in fact, we may have only FIVE….. the oil industry is as good as bankrupt, and without the master resource we call oil, not a lot is going to happen…….

We will NEVER have 10 billion here on Earth (thank bloody goodness…), in fact, a big famine is coming, because we have dug ourselves into a great big hole called Fossil Fueled Civilisation.

I hope you know how to grow food. Or take one of their workshops, QUICK!





The Selfish Green

14 01 2018

Every now and again, a video pops up in my newsfeed that I really really look forward to watching. This was one of them…… but oh what a disappointment…..  Sometimes, and I know I am not, I start believing I am the only one who ‘gets it’ and sees the whole picture. Well 99% of it, I’m certain I’ve missed something.

While there’s no doubting the eminence of the panel of four, David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Jane Goodall, and Richard Leaky (of whom I hadn’t really heard of much before…), I thought they fell far short of understanding the issues – no, predicaments – we are facing.  None of them seem to know much about energy, or the monetary system, with the fat cat lookalike, that Leaky fellow I didn’t know much about, really displaying his ignorance of nuclear energy.

What’s plain to see after watching that lot is that we are truly stuffed, notwithstanding their collective optimism, which as you probably all know, I don’t share……  a pessimist is, after all, a well informed optimist…!

Leaky’s wish to monetise every aspect of the environment so it can be saved really takes the cake. Money is the problem after all, which thankfully Attenborough points out to him, even if it’s just as an aside.  I love Jane Goodall to bits (and her chimps – there’s a wonderful clip of a couple with a Jack in the Box), but she’s frankly a bit naïve.  Dawkins is interesting, as always, but has no grasp of the financial and energy problems at all, in fact says nothing whatever about it.  Attenborough is the best informed of all, he has after all seen how the planet has changed in the past 60 years more than anyone else, and at least he realises we are way overpopulated……..  at the end, they all roll around in hopium. I’d love to know what DTM followers think……

That this video has only had 187,634 views as I type says it all.  Does anybody care?

 





The Bumpy Road Down, Part 2

8 01 2018

Irv Mills has finally published Part 2 of the original article I posted a few weeks ago….. here it is for your enjoyment..!

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IrvMills

Irv Mills

In the last post in this series I started talking about the bumpy road down—the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity and make for a slow step by step collapse, rather than a single hard and fast crash. Because I expect this to take place differently in various parts of the world and for people of various social classes, I guess it should really be “The Bumpy Roads Down“.

At any rate, this led to looking at the next expected bump in the process—a financial crash of even greater magnitude than the global financial crisis in 2007-8. We looked at what’s leading up to this (a huge debt bubble), how it might start (with one or more currency crashes) and what might trigger the process (a spike in the price of oil).

From where I sit this crash seems essentially inevitable. We are living beyond our means—the available surplus energy is simply not enough to support the continued growth that our economy requires. Some degree of “degrowth” is going to happen, whether we like it or not. The only uncertainly is exactly when it will occur, how far it will take us down and by what route. I’d be surprised if it started sooner than the fall of 2018. I don’t really care to guess how much longer it might take to get started—years, easily.

Of course, as we learned in the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-08, these things tend to teach us new things about how they work as they are happening. While we learn more with each crisis, there are things about each one that we would never have guessed in advance. And I am certainly not claiming to be exempt from this.

Since I wrote that last post, I read David Korowicz’s “Financial system supply-chain cross contagion – a study in global systemic collapse”, and much of what I have to say in this post has been influenced by Korowicz’s ideas.

His essay directly addresses how things may proceed once a crash gets started, and how difficult it will be to do something about it. He focuses on the degree of interconnection in our modern world and how a financial crash can spread to other parts of the economy. He also looks closely at how fragile our globalized economy is, with many supply chains based on “just in time delivery” and minimal inventories of important supplies.

Before going on with the rest of this post, I’d like to share some thoughts that came to me as I was reading Korowicz’s essay. It seems to me that when talking about such subjects, one has to consider one’s audience and what one is trying to achieve.

Korowicz clearly feels he is speaking to a doubtful audience and he is eager to convince them. As he says, “The consensus view, even if backed by experts is not, in and of itself, a justification for the consensus view.” I sympathize with him in that—the majority of people today are functioning at a high level of complacency and denial. They will latch onto any morsel of hope and use it to convince themselves that everything is going to be fine and that no extraordinary action is required. If you give them that morsel, the rest of what you have to say may well be lost on them.

And so it is very tempting to spin (and Korowicz has spun) a rather one sided story, lacking the sorts of subtleties and nuances that are needed for a solid understanding of any subject and which I have tried to make an identifying characteristic of this blog. I am not going to change that goal, and so some of my readers will see what follows, in this and my next few posts, as unreasonably optimistic. If that is what is necessary to take a balanced approach to the subject, then so be it.

David Korowicz is an intelligent and well informed man and so even he makes some qualifying statements about the solidly gloomy picture he paints: “a collapse could have intermediate states, characterised by partial breakdown and semi-stable states.” And near the end of his essay he suggests that we should classify countries as red, amber and green, according to the likelihood of their suffering severely in the crash he is talking about. And he admits that there are indeed some green countries, and interestingly (to me) includes the U.S. in that group. But the essay was written in 2012 and things have changed in the U.S. since then.

For those looking for nothing but hope and reassurance, I’m sorry, but I must make it clear that the bump I am talking about here is likely to be a big one and solidly jarring, especially to those who aren’t expecting it. When I say that this shouldn’t be considered a fast collapse, I mean that a significant number of people will still be able to get food, shelter, clothing—that “just enough” will still be attainable for most of us. I meet people quite regularly who clearly consider that any change in their lifestyle, however minor, amounts to “the end of the world”, and who are simply unwilling to consider that such things may happen. I know they find most of what I have to say to be way too pessimistic. I think they are in for a rude awakening.

But enough of that, let’s take a closer look at how the coming crash is likely to proceed. Tim Morgan predicts that it will start with a “currency crash?” What does he mean by this? Simply that at some point currency traders will lose faith in the value of some particular currency. They will all start selling out of it pretty much at once—what is known as a “run”. This would cause the price of that currency to drop drastically compared to others, with negative effects on the economy of the effected country, perhaps leading it to default on its debts. But why this loss of trust? In the case of Britain, Morgan (a Brit himself) points to a lack of economic growth, high debt, Brexit and poor economic management by governments over the last couple of decades, including a laisser faire approach to regulating business and the financial industry.

It will probably only take one currency crash (or maybe not even that many, if the price of oil spikes high enough) to trigger a loss of faith in debt and start a wave of bankruptcies and government defaults. Banks and other financial institutions will be at the head of that wave. Modern banking is based on the idea of a fractional reserve—banks are allowed to create money out of thin air when they make a loan, rather than just loaning out money they already have. The loan itself then becomes an asset, a claim on the future productivity of the debtor, based on trust that the debtor will prosper and be able to pay back the money he has borrowed, with interest. Under this system banks’ real assets amount to only 2 to 9% of their total assets. The rest is debt, or from the viewpoint of the bank, credit they have extended as loans. It is normal to have a very small percentage of debtors default on their loans, but according to Korowicz, defaults of around 4% are enough to leave a bank in big trouble, and it may end up going out of business, as the financial community loses faith in the debts it holds.

Since the amount of risky debt is much larger than ever before, it seems likely that many of those “too big to fail” banks will indeed be in trouble this time around. In 2008 governments took steps to prevent this, but governments whose currency has crashed and/or who have defaulted on their debts, won’t be able to be of much help. Even governments which aren’t in financial trouble themselves will face a bigger challenge than they did in 2008, since interest rates are already pretty much as low as they can go. And also because more banks (and other businesses) will need help, in the form of loans on very favourable terms, or outright bailouts. Still, because the effect of a crash like this touch on pretty much everyone, there will be immense pressure on governments to do whatever they can.

As I understand it, what governments have done and will no doubt do in the next crash is to print money to offset the bad debts of failing financial institutions and other businesses. This has been done indirectly, by borrowing money from the central bank of the country. Because it ends up on the government’s balance sheet as debt, owed to the central bank, paying the interest is a big budgetary problem. Paying back the principle is a problem for future generations.

Conventional economic wisdom holds that printing too much money causes inflation—the price of goods goes up to match the excess money circulating in the market. This didn’t happen to any significant extent in the years following 2008, perhaps because that excess money, rather than going into circulation, was poured into the black holes of the banks’ balance sheets.

It seems likely to me that central banks will take a lot of blame for “letting” this next crash happen. There is actually no reason that governments have to borrow money for bailouts from independent central banks. Those banks could be eliminated and governments could take on their role themselves, creating money without incurring debt or interest charges. And as long as that money goes straight to paying off bad debts, the amount in circulation won’t increase, and it shouldn’t cause inflation.

If this disaster was limited to the financial industry alone it would be bad enough. It is important to realize that in our capitalist system if a business is not profitable, or if investors lose hope of it eventually becoming profitable, it’s not going to be running for long, especially in the middle of an economic crash. Even if it is the sole provider of goods and services that folks like you and I consider to be necessities. One would hope that governments would step in to preferentially bail out companies that really do have a vital role to play.

The financial sector also provides many critical services to businesses and in a crash such as we’re talking about, those services may not be readily available, thus hurting businesses that would otherwise still be viable.

Perhaps the most basic of those services is moving wealth from what we think of as “investments” (where the point is to earn a return) to ordinary money with which one can buy goods and services. We take this for granted in “normal” times and are largely unaware of what is going on in the background to make it happen so smoothly. During a crash and in its aftermath, this will no longer be the case and without that ready access, businesses and individuals will find it difficult to continue operating as usual.

To judge from what happened in 2008, those banks that are still in business will also get very conservative in their lending practices and much less trusting of the banks at the other end of transactions. The free flow of credit and funds that the commercial world counts on would grind to a halt, at least temporarily, and so the financial crash would spread to the commercial sector. From the viewpoint of ordinary people this is very bad news.

Mind you, in 2008 things were pretty serious. Many people lost their houses because they couldn’t pay their variable rate mortgages when the payments went up—indeed that was what started that crash. In the recession that followed, many businesses downsized or went bankrupt and laid people off. Some of the unemployed fell through the cracks in the social/community/family safety nets and ended up homeless and destitute. A lot of wealth and savings disappeared into thin air. But despite all this, the supply of consumer goods continued unabated. If you could afford to shop, the shelves were far from bare.

I think this is likely not to be the case in the upcoming crash. There will be some noticeable effects in the day to day lives of ordinary people, beyond the obvious increasing unemployment, tighter credit and a decrease in the value of whatever savings you may have left.

The basic issue is that today, more than at any time in our history or prehistory, we rely on a complex, internationally networked economy to provide us with the necessities of life. Supply chains have been optimized, with minimal inventories and “just in time” delivery so that they are very efficient, but also very fragile. One little thing can go wrong, a long way down the chain, and within days (sometimes within hours), the whole supply chain begins grinding to a halt.

The global economy relies of a few critical systems, which enable supply chains to function.

The first of those systems is banking itself. The sort of day to day transactions that all of us take part in really are necessary to keep the world working. Most individuals and businesses rely on chequing accounts, over draughts, lines of credit, debit cards, credit cards and so forth, all of which will stop working if your bank fails. At the international level, banks issue letters of credit that facilitate the shipping of goods from one country to another.

Shipping is itself a critical system, and is dependent not just on banking but also, among other things, on energy, mostly in the form of petroleum products: bunker fuel for ships, diesel fuel for trucks and jet fuel for air freight. I suspect that shipping will suffer a good deal of disruption during this crash, not just at the international level, but also among the trucking companies who move goods around within countries, and on which we are very dependent.

Even if mining, forestry, fishing, agriculture, the electric grid, manufacturing and retail remain untouched in a crash (which is by no means certain), problems with just banking and shipping can make for very unreliable supplies of things that we have come to take completely for granted.

When it comes to necessities, water seems straightforward, right? It comes out of the tap. But most municipal water treatment facilities keep only a very few day’s supply of treatment chemicals on hand. If deliveries of those chemicals stop, it won’t be long—a very few days—before you can no longer rely on the safety of your water supply.

And there is always food on the supermarket shelves, right? But that’s only because of daily deliveries that rely on many long and complex supply chains. If those deliveries stop, there is probably only about three days of food available in most communities, less than that of perishable items.

In the developed world, and even many areas in the developing world, access to medical care is taken for granted (the U.S. is an exception). But modern medicine relies on pharmaceuticals and other consumable supplies of which hospitals keep a very limited inventory, relying instead on regular deliveries.

I mention those three areas because they are necessities for everyone, and the supply chains that provide them to us are likely to be negatively affected during a financial crash. In fact, it will be hard to find any industry that isn’t affected to some degree.

Now the conventional thing for a collapse writer to do at this point is to suggest that once this starts, it will be impossible to stop and everything will grind to a halt, bringing industrial civilization to an abrupt end and likely enough the human race with it. When you’ve been studying collapse for a while and coping with disbelief from most of those around you, it is natural, I suppose, to be eager for something to finally happen that will prove you right beyond all doubt.

But I am not that sort of kollapsnik. I’m pretty sure that collapse has been going on for decades now and that it will take a few decades more before it is complete. And along the way, what is happening will be far from obvious to the many people.

To understand why I hold this opinion, we need to do a couple of things:

1) take a systems dynamic approach to the events we are talking about. First off, the model of a fast collapse with a catastrophic impact at the “bottom” is fundamentally flawed. It may portray fairly accurately what happens when you jump (or are pushed) off a cliff, but that is not exactly the situation our civilization faces. We need to look at what happens when overshoot occurs in nature, in systems more like the one we inhabit. Which is, after all, a subset of the ecosphere. Overshoot is a common enough phenomenon and usually works in fairly predictable ways.

2) look at the sort of things governments, communities and individuals can do to limit the damage when a financial crash spreads to other critical systems.

I set out recently to draw some graphs illustrating overshoot and pretty quickly gained some new insights into this process—insights that I think are worth sharing.

So I’ll wrap this post up now and carry on with points 1 and 2 above next time.





Extreme climate, here we come…..

5 01 2018

As this blog starts attracting climate deniers, climate change is causing havoc all over the planet.  Hardly surprising really, because adding more energy (heat in this case) to a dynamic system like the planet’s climate was always going to cause more and more energetic results and extremes…..

cold storm bombWhile North America is about to experience a cold weather bomb, with atmospheric pressure predicted to drop to 962hPa – which if it happened in the tropics would almost certainly cause an upgrade of cyclone/hurricane classifications – resulting in sea level surges, flooding, 100km/h winds and temperatures dropping as low as -40C….

From climate reality project dot org….

The US East Coast is experiencing an “old-fashioned” winter, with plenty of cold weather and some heavy snowfall in certain places. Listening to climate contrarians like President Donald Trump, you might think this constitutes the death knell for concern over human-caused climate change.

Yet, what we were witnessing play out is in fact very much consistent with our expectations of the response of weather dynamics to human-caused climate change.

Dr. Michael Mann on Extreme Weather: “We Predicted This Long Ago”

Let’s start with the record five-plus feet of snowfall accumulation in Erie, Pennsylvania, in late December. Does this disprove global warming? “Exactly the opposite,” explains my colleague, Dr. Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University. 

Global warming is leading to later freeze-up of the Great Lakes and warmer lake temperatures. It is the collision of cold Arctic air with relatively warm unfrozen lake water in early winter that causes lake effect snows in the first place. The warmer those lake temperatures, the more moisture in the air, and the greater potential for lake effect snows. Not surprisingly, we see a long-term increase in lake effect snowfalls as temperatures have warmed during the last century (see figure below).

iew image on Twitter

Moreover, while we’ve seen some cold weather in the eastern half of the North America (see the pattern for New Year’s Day below), the western half of North America has been unusually warm. Indeed, most of the Northern Hemisphere, and the globe overall, have been unusually warm. That’s why we call it global warming, folks.

ttps://img.huffingtonpost.com/asset/5a4ac2201c00003b0068e12d.png?ops=scalefit_720_noupscale

(Image obtained using Climate Reanalyzer, Climate Change Institute, University of Maine, USA)

Right now, it’s actually warmer in Alaska than Florida; and some people believe it’s caused by sunspots.

And where’s all that heat gone?  AUSTRALIA….!  we are expecting a heatwave, starting today in Tasmania in the mid 30’s but worsening to well over 40C in Sydney this weekend.

The Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) is urging Sydneysiders to “check up on their elderly neighbours” on Sunday, with the mercury expected to reach 45 degrees Celsius in some parts of the city.

Several areas in Sydney’s west are predicted to swelter through the weekend, with highs of 45C in Penrith, 44C in Richmond and 43C in Liverpool, Blacktown and Campbelltown.

The CBD and eastern suburbs will not be immune, with the bureau warning temperatures in those areas could top 40C.

“Heatwaves can particularly affect vulnerable people, so the sick, the elderly and children,” BOM duty forecaster Rob Taggart said.

And all this weather chaos is already affecting the price of veggies here in Australia. Here in Tasmania, we’ve had really unseasonal wind, the likes of which usually occur in Spring, not Summer.  In fact, our Summer has been more like Spring all along, with just a couple of hot days, and lots of rain to go with the wind. It’s hammering my snow peas which are definitely not producing as well as last year.

A northern New South Wales vegetable grower is warning that warm temperatures could see prices rise at the supermarket, as South-east Queensland and northern New South Wales are in for several sweltering days with temperatures in the high 30s as extreme heat from Queensland’s west makes its way across the state…..

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What will it take to avoid collapse…?

4 01 2018

climate timeline.jpg





AUSTRALIA’S ‘DUMB LUCK’ ABOUT TO RUN OUT WITH ECONOMY ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE

4 01 2018

I recently tried to republish this on DTM, but it gave me so much heartache, I gave up. Now I’ve found a new source that hopefully allows more friendly copy/paste……. I hasten to add I disagree with much of what he has to say at the end of this lengthy article, and I could have edited it out, but there you go…… you make up your own mind.

Written on the 15 November 2017 by Matt Barrie, CEO Freelancer.com

AUSTRALIA'S 'DUMB LUCK' ABOUT TO RUN OUT WITH ECONOMY ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE

I RECENTLY watched the federal treasurer, Scott Morrison, proudly proclaim that Australia was in “surprisingly good shape”.

Indeed, Australia has just snatched the world record from the Netherlands, achieving its 104th quarter of growth without a recession, making this achievement the longest streak for any OECD country since 1970.

I was pretty shocked at the complacency, because after twenty six years of economic expansion, the country has very little to show for it.

“For over a quarter of a century our economy mostly grew because of dumb luck. Luck because our country is relatively large and abundant in natural resources, resources that have been in huge demand from a close neighbour.”

That neighbour is China.

Out of all OECD nations, Australia is the most dependent on China by a huge margin, according to the IMF. Over one third of all merchandise exports from this country go to China – where ‘merchandise exports’ includes all physical products, including the things we dig out of the ground.

Outside of the OECD, Australia ranks just after the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Gambia and the Lao People’s Democratic Republic and just before the Central African Republic, Iran and Liberia. Does anything sound a bit funny about that?

“As a whole, the Australian economy has grown through a property bubble inflating on top of a mining bubble, built on top of a commodities bubble, driven by a China bubble.”

Unfortunately for Australia, that “lucky” free ride is just about to end.

Societe Generale’s China economist Wei Yao said recently, “Chinese banks are looking down the barrel of a staggering $1.7 trillion worth of losses”. Hyaman Capital’s Kyle Bass calls China a “$34 trillion experiment” which is “exploding”, where Chinese bank losses “could exceed 400 per cent of the US banking losses incurred during the subprime crisis”.

A hard landing for China is a catastrophic landing for Australia, with horrific consequences to this country’s delusions of economic grandeur.

Delusions which are all unfolding right now as this quadruple leveraged bubble unwinds. What makes this especially dangerous is that it is unwinding in what increasingly looks like a global recession- perhaps even depression, in an environment where the US Federal Reserve (1.25%), Bank of Canada (1.0%) and Bank of England (0.25%) interest rates are pretty much zero, and the European Central Bank (0.0%), Bank of Japan (-0.10%), and Central Banks of Sweden (-0.50%) and Switzerland (-0.75%) are at zero or negative interest rates.

As a quick refresher of how we got here, after the Global Financial Crisis, and consequent recession hit in 2007 thanks to delinquencies on subprime mortgages, the US Federal Reserve began cutting the short-term interest rate, known as the ‘Federal Funds Rate’ (or the rate at which depository institutions trade balances held at Federal Reserve Banks with each other overnight), from 5.25 per cent to 0 per cent, the lowest rate in history.

When that didn’t work to curb rising unemployment and stop growth stagnating, central banks across the globe started printing money which they used to buy up financial securities in an effort to drive up prices. This process was called “quantitative easing” (“QE”), to confuse the average person in the street into thinking it wasn’t anything more than conjuring trillions of dollars out of thin air and using that money to buy things in an effort to drive their prices up.

Systematic buying of treasuries and mortgage bonds by central banks caused the face value of on those bonds to increase, and since bond yields fall as their prices rise, this buying had the effect of also driving long-term interest rates down to near zero.

In theory making money cheap to borrow stimulates investment in the economy; it encourages households and companies to borrow, employ more people and spend more money.

“An alternative theory for QE is that it encourages buying hard assets by making people freak out that the value of the currency they are holding is being counterfeited into oblivion.”

In reality, the ability to borrow cheap money was mainly used by companies to buy back their own shares, and combined with QE being used to buy stock index funds (otherwise known as exchange traded funds or “ETFs”), this propelled stock markets to hit record high after record high even though this wasn’t justified the underlying corporate performance.

Europe and Asia were dragged into the crisis, as major European and Asian banks were found holding billions in toxic debt linked to US subprime mortgages (more than 1 million US homeowners faced foreclosure). One by one, nations began entering recession and repeated attempts to slash interest rates by central banks, along with bailouts of the banks and various stimulus packages could not stymie the unfolding crisis. After several failed attempts at instituting austerity measures across a number of European nations with mounting public debt, the European Central Bank began its own QE program that continues today and should remain in place well into 2018.

In China, QE was used to buy government bonds which were used to finance infrastructure projects such as overpriced apartment blocks, the construction of which has underpinned China’s “miracle” economy. Since nobody in China could actually afford these apartments, QE was lent to local government agencies to buy these empty flats.

“Of course this then led to a tsunami of Chinese hot money fleeing the country and blowing real estate bubbles from Vancouver to Auckland as it sought more affordable property in cities whose air, food and water didn’t kill you.”

QE was only intended as a temporary emergency measure, but now a decade into printing and the central banks of the United States, Europe, Japan and China have now collectively purchased over US$19 trillion of assets. Despite the the lowest interest rates in 5,000 years, the global economic growth in response to this money printing has continued to be anaemic. Instead, this stimulus has served to blow asset bubbles everywhere.

So if one naively were looking at markets, particularly the commodity and resource driven markets that traditionally drive the Australian economy, you might well have been tricked into thinking that the world was back in good times again as many have rallied over the last year or so.

The initial rally in commodities at the beginning of 2016 was caused by a bet that more economic stimulus and industrial reform in China would lead to a spike in demand for commodities used in construction. That bet rapidly turned into full blown mania as Chinese investors, starved of opportunity and restricted by government clamp downs in equities, piled into commodities markets.

This saw, in April of 2016, enough cotton trading in a single day to make a pair of jeans for everyone on the planet, and enough soybeans for 56 billion servings of tofu, according to Bloomberg in a report entitled “The World’s Most Extreme Speculative Mania Unravels in China”.

Market turnover on the three Chinese exchanges jumped from a daily average of about $78 billion in February to a peak of $261 billion on April 22, 2016 — exceeding the GDP of Ireland. By comparison, Nasdaq’s daily turnover peaked in early 2000 at $150 billion.

While volume exploded, open interest didn’t. New contracts were not being created, volume instead was churning as the hot potato passed between speculators, most commonly in the night session, as consumers traded after work. So much so that sometimes analysts wondered whether the price of iron ore is set by the market tensions between iron ore miners and steel producers, or by Chinese taxi drivers trading on apps.

Steel, of course, is made from iron ore, Australia’s biggest export, and frequently the country’s main driver of a trade surplus and GDP growth.

Australia is the largest exporter of iron ore in the world, with a 29 per cent global share in 2015-16 and 786Mt exported, and at $48 billion we’re responsible for over half of all global iron ore exports by value. Around 81 per cent of our iron ore exports go to China.

Unfortunately, in 2017, China isn’t as desperate anymore for iron ore, where close to 50 per cent of Chinese steel demand comes from property development, which is under stress as house prices temper and credit tightens.

In May 2017, stockpiles at Chinese ports were at an all time high, with enough to build 13,000 Eiffel Towers. Last January, China pledged “supply-side reforms” for its steel and coal sectors to reduce excessive production capacity. In 2016, capacity was cut by 6 per cent for steel and and 8 per cent for coal.

In the first half of 2017 alone, a further 120 million tonnes of low-grade steel capacity was ordered to close because of pollution. This represents 11 per cent of the country’s steel capacity and 15 pe rcent of annual output. While this will more heavily impact Chinese-mined ore than generally higher-grade Australian ore, Chinese demand for iron ore is nevertheless waning.

Over the last six years, the price of iron ore has fallen 60 per cent.

Australia’s second biggest export is coal, being the largest exporter in the world supplying about 38 per cent of the world’s demand. Production has been on a tear, with exports increasing from 261Mt in 2008 to 388Mt in 2016.

While exports increased by 49 per cent over that time period, the value of those exports has collapsed 38 per cent, from $54.7 billion to $34 billion.

Losing coal as an export will blow a $34 billion dollar per annum hole in the current account, and there’s been no foresight by successive governments to find or encourage modern industries to supplant it.

“What is more shocking is that despite the gargantuan amount of money that China has been pumping into the system since 2014, Australia’s entire mining industry – which is completely dependent on China – has struggled to make any money at all.”

Across the entire industry revenue has dropped significantly while costs have continued to rise.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2015-16 the entire Australian mining industry which includes coal, oil and gas, iron ore, the mining of metallic & non-metallic minerals and exploration and support services made a grand total of $179 billion in revenue with $171 billion of costs, generating an operating profit before tax of $7 billion which representing a wafer thin 3.9 per cent margin on an operating basis. In the year before it made a 8.4 per cent margin.

Collectively, the entire Australian mining industry (ex-services) would be loss making in 2016-17 if revenue continued to drop and costs stayed the same. Yes, the entire Australian mining industry.

Our “economic miracle” of 104 quarters of GDP growth without a recession today doesn’t come from digging rocks out of the ground, shipping the by-products of dead fossils and selling stuff we grow any more. Mining, which used to be 19 per cent of GDP, is now 6.8 per cent and falling. Mining has fallen to the sixth largest industry in the country. Even combined with agriculture the total is now only 10 per cent of GDP.

In the 1970s, Australia was ranked 10th in the world for motor vehicle manufacturing. No other industry has replaced it. Today, the entire output of manufacturing as a share of GDP in Australia is half of the levels where they called it “hollowed out” in the US and UK.

In Australia in 2017, manufacturing as a share of GDP is on par with a financial haven like Luxembourg. Australia doesn’t make anything anymore.

 

“With an economy that is 68 per cent services, as I believe John Hewson put it, the entire country is basically sitting around serving each other cups of coffee or, as the Chief Scientist of Australia would prefer, smashed avocado.”

The Reserve Bank of Australia has cut interest rates by 325 basis points since the end of 2011, in order to stimulate the economy, but I can’t for the life of me see how that will affect the fundamental problem of gyrating commodity prices where we are a price taker, not a price maker, into an oversupplied market in China.

This leads me to my next question: where has this growth come from?

“Successive Australian governments have achieved economic growth by blowing a property bubble on a scale like no other.”

A bubble that has lasted for 55 years and seen prices increase 6556 per cent since 1961, making this the longest running property bubble in the world (on average, “upswings” last 13 years).

In 2016, 67 per cent of Australia’s GDP growth came from the cities of Sydney and Melbourne where both State and Federal governments have done everything they can to fuel a runaway housing market. The small area from the Sydney CBD to Macquarie Park is in the middle of an apartment building frenzy, alone contributing 24 per cent of the country’s entire GDP growth for 2016, according to SGS Economics & Planning.

According to the Rider Levett Bucknall Crane Index, in Q4 2017 between Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane, there are now 586 cranes in operation, with a total of 685 across all capital cities, 80% of which are focused on building apartments. There are 350 cranes in Sydney alone.

By comparison, there are currently 28 cranes in New York, 24 in San Francisco and 40 in Los Angeles. There are more cranes in Sydney than Los Angeles (40), Washington DC (29), New York (28), Chicago (26), San Francisco (24), Portland (22), Denver (21), Boston (14) and Honolulu (13) combined. Rider Levett Bucknall counts less than 175 cranes working on residential buildings across the 14 major North American markets that it tracked in 3Q17, which is half of the number of cranes in Sydney alone.

According to UBS, around one third of these cranes in Australian cities are in postcodes with ‘restricted lending’, because the inhabitants have bad credit ratings.

This can only be described as completely “insane”.

That was the exact word used by Jonathan Tepper, one of the world’s top experts in housing bubbles, to describe “one of the biggest housing bubbles in history”. “Australia”, he added, “is the only country we know of where middle-class houses are auctioned like paintings”.

Our Federal government has worked really hard to get us to this point.

Many other parts of the world can thank the Global Financial Crisis for popping their real estate bubbles. From 2000 to 2008, driven in part by the First Home Buyer Grant, Australian house prices had already doubled. Rather than let the GFC take the heat out of the market, the Australian Government doubled the bonus. Treasury notes recorded at the time say that it wasn’t launched to make housing more affordable, but to prevent the collapse of the housing market.

Already at the time of the GFC, Australian households were at 190 percent debt to net disposable income, 50 per cent more indebted than American households, but then things really went crazy.

“The government decided to further fuel the fire by “streamlining” the administrative requirements for the Foreign Investment Review Board so that temporary residents could purchase real estate in Australia without having to report or gain approval. It may be a stretch, but one could possibly argue that this move was cunningly calculated, as what could possibly be wrong in selling overpriced Australian houses to the Chinese?”

I am not sure who is getting the last laugh here, because as we subsequently found out, many of those Chinese borrowed the money to buy these houses from Australian banks, using fake statements of foreign income. Indeed, according to the AFR, this was not sophisticated documentation – Australian banks were being tricked with photoshopped bank statements that can be bought online for as little as $20.

UBS estimates that $500 billion worth of “not completely factually accurate” mortgages now sit on major bank balance sheets. How much of that will go sour is anyone’s guess.

The astronomical rise in house prices certainly isn’t supported by employment data. Wage growth (see graph below) is at a record low of just 1.9 per cent year on year in 2Q17, the lowest figure since 1988. The average Australian weekly income has gone up $27 to $1,009 since 2008, that’s about $3 a year.

Foreign buying driving up housing prices has been a major factor in Australian housing affordability, or rather unaffordability.

Urban planners say that a median house price to household income ratio of 3.0 or under is “affordable”, 3.1 to 4.0 is “moderately unaffordable”, 4.1 to 5.0 is “seriously unaffordable” and 5.1 or over “severely unaffordable”.

At the end of July 2017, according to Domain Group, the median house price in Sydney was $1,178,417 and the Australian Bureau of Statistics has the latest average pre-tax wage at $80,277.60 and average household income of $91,000 for this city. This makes the median house price to household income ratio for Sydney 13x, or over 2.6 times the threshold of “severely unaffordable”. Melbourne is 9.6x.

This is before tax, and before any basic expenses. The average person takes home $61,034.60 per annum, and so to buy the average house they would have to save for 19.3 years but only if they decided to forgo the basics such as, eating. This is neglecting any interest costs if one were to borrow the money, which at current rates would approximately double the total purchase cost and blow out the time to repay to around 40 years.

If you borrowed the whole amount to buy a house in Sydney, with a Commonwealth Bank Standard Variable Rate Home Loan currently showing a 5.36% comparison rate (as of 7th October 2017), your repayments would be $6,486 a month, every month, for 30 years. The monthly post tax income for the average wage in Sydney ($80,277.60) is only $5,081.80 a month.

In fact, on this average Sydney salary of $80,277.60, the Commonwealth Bank’s “How much can I borrow?” calculator will only lend you $463,000, and this amount has been dropping in the last year I have been looking at it. So good luck to the average person buying anything anywhere near Sydney.

Federal MP Michael Sukkar, Assistant Minister to the Treasurer, says surprisingly that getting a “highly paid job” is the “first step” to owning a home. Perhaps Mr Sukkar is talking about his job, which pays a base salary of $199,040 a year. On this salary, the Commonwealth Bank would allow you to just borrow enough- $1,282,000 to be precise- to buy the average home, but only provided that you have no expenses on a regular basis, such as food. So the Assistant Minister to the Treasurer can’t really afford to buy the average house, unless he tells a porky on his loan application form.

The average Australian is much more likely to be employed as a tradesperson, school teacher, postman or policeman. According to the NSW Police Force’s recruitment website, the average starting salary for a Probationary Constable is $65,000 which rises to $73,651 over five years. On these salaries the Commonwealth Bank will lend you between $375,200 and $419,200 (again provided you don’t eat), which won’t let you buy a house really anywhere.

Unsurprisingly, the CEOs of the Big Four banks in Australia think that these prices are “justified by the fundamentals”. More likely because the Big Four, who issue over 80 per cent of residential mortgages in the country, are more exposed as a percentage of loans than any other banks in the world, over double that of the US and triple that of the UK, and remarkably quadruple that of Hong Kong, which is the least affordable place in the world for real estate. Today, over 60 per cent of the Australian banks’ loan books are residential mortgages. Houston, we have a problem.

It’s actually worse in regional areas where Bendigo Bank and the Bank of Queensland are holding huge portfolios of mortgages between 700 to 900 per cent of their market capitalisation, because there’s no other meaningful businesses to lend to.

“I’m not sure how the fundamentals can possibly be justified when the average person in Sydney can’t actually afford to buy the average house in Sydney, no matter how many decades they try to push the loan out.”

Indeed Digital Finance Analytics estimated in a October 2017 report that 910,000 households are now estimated to be in mortgage stress where net income does not covering ongoing costs. This has skyrocketed up 50 per cent in less than a year and now represents 29.2 per cent of all households in Australia. Things are about to get real.

It’s well known that high levels of household debt are negative for economic growth, in fact economists have found a strong link between high levels of household debt and economic crises.

This is not good debt, this is bad debt. It’s not debt being used by businesses to fund capital purchases and increase productivity. This is not debt that is being used to produce, it is debt being used to consume. If debt is being used to produce, there is a means to repay the loan.

If a business borrows money to buy some equipment that increases the productivity of their workers, then the increased productivity leads to increased profits, which can be used to service the debt, and the borrower is better off. The lender is also better off, because they also get interest on their loan. This is a smart use of debt. Consumer debt generates very little income for the consumer themselves. If consumers borrow to buy a new TV or go on a holiday, that doesn’t create any cash flow. To repay the debt, the consumer generally has to consume less in the future.

Further, it is well known that consumption is correlated to demographics, young people buy things to grow their families and old people consolidate, downsize and consume less over time. As the aging demographic wave unfolds across the next decade there will be significantly less consumers and significantly more savers. This is worsened as the new generations will carry the debt burden of student loans, further reducing consumption.

So why are governments so keen to inflate housing prices?

The government loves Australians buying up houses, particularly new apartments, because in the short term it stimulates growth – in fact it’s the only thing really stimulating GDP growth.

Australia has around $2 trillion in unconsolidated household debt relative to $1.6 trillion in GDP, making this country in recent quarters the most indebted on this ratio in the world. According to Treasurer Scott Morrison 80 per cent of all household debt is residential mortgage debt. This is up from 47 per cent in 1990.

Australia’s household debt servicing ratio (DSR) ties with Norway as the second worst in the world. Despite record low interest rates, Australians are forking out more of their income to pay off interest than when we had record mortgage rates back in 1989-90 which are over double what they are now.

“Everyone’s too busy watching Netflix and cash strapped paying off their mortgage to have much in the way of any discretionary spending. No wonder retail is collapsing in Australia.”

Governments fan the flame of this rising unsustainable debt fuelled growth as both a source of tax revenue and as false proof to voters of their policies resulting in economic success. Rather than modernising the economy, they have us on a debt fuelled housing binge, a binge we can’t afford.

We are well past overtime, we are into injury time. We’re about to have our Minsky moment: “a sudden major collapse of asset values which is part of the credit cycle.”

Such moments occur because long periods of prosperity and rising valuations of investments lead to increasing speculation using borrowed money. The spiraling debt incurred in financing speculative investments leads to cash flow problems for investors. The cash generated by their assets is no longer sufficient to pay off the debt they took on to acquire them. Losses on such speculative assets prompt lenders to call in their loans. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values.

Meanwhile, the over-indebted investors are forced to sell even their less-speculative positions to make good on their loans. However, at this point no counterparty can be found to bid at the high asking prices previously quoted. This starts a major sell-off, leading to a sudden and precipitous collapse in market-clearing asset prices, a sharp drop in market liquidity, and a severe demand for cash.

Today 42 per cent of all mortgages in Australia are interest only, because since the average person can’t afford to actually pay for the average house- they only pay off the interest. They’re hoping that value of their house will continue to rise and the only way they can profit is if they find some other mug to buy it at a higher price. In the case of Westpac, 50 per cent of their entire residential mortgage book is interest only loans.

And a staggering 64 per cent of all investor loans are interest only.

 

“This is rapidly approaching ponzi financing. This is the final stage of an asset bubble before it pops.”

Today residential property as an asset class is four times larger than the sharemarket. It’s illiquid, and the $1.5 trillion of leverage is roughly equivalent in size to the entire market capitalisation of the ASX 200. Any time there is illiquidity and leverage, there is a recipe for disaster – when prices move south, equity is rapidly wiped out precipitating panic selling into a freefall market with no bids to hit.

The risks of illiquidity and leverage in the residential property market flow through the entire financial system because they are directly linked; today in Australia the Big Four banks plus Macquarie are roughly 30 per cent of the ASX200 index weighting. Every month, 9.5 per cent of the entire Australian wage bill goes into superannuation, where 14 per cent directly goes into property and 23 per cent into Australian equities – of which 30 per cent of the main equity benchmark is the banks.

In 2015-16 there were 40,149 residential real estate applications from foreigners valued at over $72 billion in the latest data by FIRB. This is up 244 per cent by count and 320 per cent by value from just three years before.

Even more shocking, in the month of January 2017, the number of first home buyers in the whole of New South Wales was 1,029 – the lowest level since mortgage rates peaked in the 1990s. Half of those first home buyers rely upon their parents for equity.

This brings me onto Australia’s third largest export which is $22 billion in “education-related travel services”. Ask the average person in the street, and they would have no idea what that is and, at least in some part, it is an $18.8 billion dollar immigration industry dressed up as “education”. You now know what all these tinpot “english”, “IT” and “business colleges” that have popped up downtown are about. They’re not about providing quality education, they are about gaming the immigration system.

In 2014, 163,542 international students commenced English language programmes in Australia, almost doubling in the last 10 years. This is through the booming ELICOS (English Language Intensive Courses for Overseas Students) sector, the first step for further education and permanent residency.

This whole process doesn’t seem too hard when you take a look at what is on offer. While the federal government recently removed around 200 occupations from the Skilled Occupations List, including such gems as Amusement Centre Manager (149111), Betting Agency Manager (142113), Goat Farmer (121315), Dog or Horse Racing Official (452318), Pottery or Ceramic Artist (211412) and Parole Officer (411714) – you can still immigrate to Australia as a Naturopath (252213), Baker (351111), Cook (351411), Librarian (224611) or Dietician (251111).Believe it or not, up until recently we were also importing Migration Agents (224913).

You can’t make this up. I simply do not understand why we are importing people to work in relatively unskilled jobs such as kitchen hands in pubs or cooks in suburban curry houses.

At its peak in October 2016, before the summer holidays, there were 486,780 student visa holders in the country, or 1 in 50 people in the country held a student visa. The grant rate in 4Q16 for such student visa applications was 92.3 per cent. The number one country for student visa applications by far was, you guessed it, China.

While some of these students are studying technical degrees that are vitally needed to power the future of the economy, a cynic would say that the majority of this program is designed as a crutch to prop up housing prices and government revenue from taxation in a flagging economy. After all, it doesn’t look that hard to borrow 90 per cent of a property’s value from Australian lenders on a 457 visa. Quoting directly from one mortgage lender, “you’re likely to be approved if you have at least a year on your visa, most of your savings already in Australia and you have a stable job in sought after profession” – presumably as sought after as an Amusement Centre Manager. How much the banks will be left to carry when the market turns and these students flee the burden of negative equity is anyone’s guess.

In a submission to a senate economics committee by Lindsay David from LF Economics, “We found 21 Australian lending institutions where there is evidence of people’s loan application forms being fudged”.

The ultimate cost to the Australian taxpayer is yet to be known. However the situation got so bad that the RBA had to tell the Big Four banks to cease and desist from all foreign mortgage lending without identified Australian sources of income.

Ken Sayer, Chief Executive of non-bank Mortgage House said “It is much bigger than everyone is making it out to be. The numbers could be astronomical”.

“So we are building all these dwellings, but they are not for new Australian home owners. We are building these dwellings to be the new Swiss Bank account for foreign investors.”

Foreign investment can be great as long as it flows into the right sectors. Around $32 billion invested in real estate was from Chinese investors in 2015-16, making it the largest investment in an industry sector by a country by far. By comparison in the same year, China invested only $1.6 billion in our mining industry. Last year, 20 times more more money flowed into real estate from China than into our entire mineral exploration and development industry. Almost none of it flows into our technology sector.

“The total number of FIRB approvals from China was 30,611. By comparison. The United States had 481 approvals.”

Foreign investment across all countries into real estate as a whole was the largest sector for foreign investment approval at $112 billion, accounting for around 50% of all FIRB approvals by value and 97% by count across all sectors – agriculture, forestry, manufacturing, tourism – you name it in 2015-16.

In fact it doesn’t seem that hard to get FIRB approval in Australia, for really anything at all. Of the 41,450 applications by foreigners to buy something in 2015-16, five were rejected. In the year before, out of 37,953 applications zero were rejected. Out of the 116,234 applications from 2012 to 2016, a total of eight were rejected.

According to Credit Suisse, foreigners are acquiring 25 per cent of newly completed housing supply in NSW, worth a total of $39 billion.

In some circumstances, the numbers however could be much higher. Lend Lease, the Australian construction goliath with over $15 billion in revenue in 2016, stated in that year’s annual report that over 40% of Lend Lease’s apartment sales were to foreigners.

“I wouldn’t have a problem with this if it weren’t for the fact that this is all a byproduct of central bank madness, not true supply and demand, and people vital for running the economy can’t afford to live here any more.”

What is also remarkable about all of this is that technically, the Chinese are not allowed to send large sums of money overseas. Citizens of China can normally only convert US$50,000 a year in foreign currency and have long been barred from buying property overseas, but those rules have not been enforced. They’ve only started cracking down on this now.

Despite this, up until now, Australian property developers and the Australian Government have been more than happy to accommodate Chinese money laundering.

After the crackdown in capital controls, Lend Lease says there has been a big upswing with between 30 to 40% of foreign purchases now being cash settled. Other developers are reporting that some Chinese buyers are paying 100% cash. The laundering of Chinese cash into property isn’t unique to Australia, it’s just that Transparency International names Australia, in their March 2017 report as the worst money laundering property market in the world.

Australia is not alone, Chinese “hot money” is blowing gigantic property bubbles in many other safe havens around the world.

“But combined with our lack of future proof industries and exports, our economy is completely stuffed. And it’s only going to get worse unless we make a major transformation of the Australian economy.”

Instead of relying on a property bubble as pretense that our economy is strong, we need serious structural change to the composition of GDP that’s substantially more sophisticated in terms of the industries that contribute to it.

Australia’s GDP of $1.6 trillion is 69 per cent services. Our “economic miracle” of GDP growth comes from digging rocks out of the ground, shipping the by-products of dead fossils, and stuff we grow. Mining, which used to be 19 per cent, is now 7 per cent and falling. Combined, the three industries now contribute just 12 per cent of GDP thanks to the global collapse in commodities prices.

If you look at businesses as a whole, Company tax hasn’t moved from $68 billion in the last three years – our companies are not making more profits. This country is sick.

Indeed if you look at the budget, about the only thing going up in terms of revenue for the federal government are taxes on you having a good time – taxes on beer, wine, spirits, luxury cars, cigarettes and the like. It would probably shock the average person on the street to discover that the government collects more tax from cigarettes ($9.8 billion) than it collects from tax on superannuation ($6.8 billion), over double what it collects from Fringe Benefits Tax ($4.4 billion) and over thirteen times more tax than it does from our oil fields ($741 million).

But instead of thinking of intelligent ways to grow the economy, the focus is purely on finding more ways to tax you.

Here’s a crazy idea: the dominant government revenue line is income tax. Income tax is generated from wages. Education has always been the lubricant of upward mobility, so perhaps if we find ways to encourage our citizens to study in the right areas – for example science & engineering – then maybe they might get better jobs or create better jobs and ultimately earn higher wages and pay more tax.

Instead the government proposed the biggest cuts to university funding in 20 years with a new “efficiency dividend” cutting funding by $1.2 billion, increasing student fees by 7.5 percent and slashing the HECS repayment threshold from $55,874 to $42,000. These changes would make one year of postgraduate study in Electrical Engineering at the University of New South Wales cost about $34,000.

We should be encouraging more people into engineering, not discouraging them by making their degrees ridiculously expensive. In my books, the expected net present value of future income tax receipts alone from that person pursuing a career in technology would far outweigh the short sighted sugar hit from making such a degree more costly – let alone the expected net present value of wealth creation if that person decides to start a company. The technology industry is inherently entrepreneurial, because technology companies create new products and services.

Speaking of companies, how about as a country we start having a good think about what sorts of industries we want to have a meaningful contribution to GDP in the coming decades?

For a start, we need to elaborately transform the commodities we produce into higher end, higher margin products. Manufacturing contributes 5 per cent to GDP. In the last 10 years, we have lost 100,000 jobs in manufacturing. Part of the problem is that the manufacturing we do has largely become commoditised while our labour force remains one of the most expensive in the world. This cost is further exacerbated by our trade unions – in the case of the car industry, the government had to subsidise the cost of union work practices, which ultimately failed to keep the industry alive. So if our people are going to cost a lot, we better be manufacturing high end products or using advanced manufacturing techniques otherwise other countries will do it cheaper and naturally it’s all going to leave.

Last year, for example, 30.3 per cent of all manufacturing jobs in the textile, leather, clothing & footwear industries were lost in this country. Yes, a third. People still need clothes, but you don’t need expensive Australians to make them, you can make them anywhere.

“That’s why we need to seriously talk about technology, because technology is the great wealth and productivity multiplier. However the thinking at the top of government is all wrong.”

The largest four companies by market capitalisation globally as of the end of Q2 2017 globally were Apple, Alphabet, Microsoft and Amazon. Facebook is eight. Together, these five companies generate over half a trillion dollars in revenue per annum. That’s equivalent to about half of Australia’s entire GDP. And many of these companies are still growing revenue at rates of 30 per cent or more per annum.

These are exactly the sorts of companies that we need to be building.

With our population of 24 million and labour force of 12 million, there’s no other industry that can deliver long term productivity and wealth multipliers like technology.

“Today Australia’s economy is in the stone age. Literally. “By comparison, Australia’s top 10 companies are a bank, a bank, a bank, a mine, a bank, a biotechnology company (yay!), a conglomerate of mines and supermarkets, a monopoly telephone company, a supermarket and a bank.”

We live in a monumental time in history where technology is remapping and reshaping industry after industry – as Marc Andreessen said “Software is eating the world!” – many people would be well aware we are in a technology gold rush.

And they would be also well aware that Australia is completely missing out.

Most worrying to me, the number of students studying information technology in Australia has fallen by between 40 and 60 per cent in the last decade depending on whose numbers you look at. Likewise, enrollments in other hard sciences and STEM subjects such as maths, physics and chemistry are falling too. Enrolments in engineering have been rising, but way too slowly.

This is all while we have had a 40 per cent increase in new undergraduate students as a whole.

Women once made up 25 percent of students commencing a technology degree, they are now closer to 10 percent.

All this in the middle of a historic boom in technology. This situation is an absolute crisis. If there is one thing, and one thing only that you do to fix this industry, it’s get more people into it. To me, the most important thing Australia absolutely has to do is build a world class science & technology curriculum in our K-12 system so that more kids go on to do engineering.

In terms of maths & science, the secondary school system has declined so far now that the top 10% of 15-year olds are on par with the 40-50% band of of students in Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan.

For technology, we lump a couple of horrendous subjects about technology in with woodwork and home economics. In 2017, I am not sure why teaching kids to make a wooden photo frame or bake a cake are considered by the department of education as being on par with software engineering. Yes there is a little bit of change coming, but it’s mostly lip service.

Meanwhile, in Estonia, 100% of publicly educated students will learn how to code starting at age 7 or 8 in first grade, and continue all the way to age 16 in their final year of school.

At my company, Freelancer.com, we’ll hire as many good software developers as we can get. We’re lucky to get one good applicant per day. On the contrary, when I put up a job for an Office Manager, I received 350 applicants in 2 days.

But unfortunately the curriculum in high school continues to slide, and it pays lip service to technology and while kids would love to design mobile apps, build self-driving cars or design the next Facebook, they come out of high school not knowing that you can actually do this as a career.

I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s actually all too hard to fix – and I came to this conclusion a while ago as I was writing some suggestions for the incoming Prime Minister on technology policy. I had a good think about why we are fundamentally held back in Australia from major structural change to our economy to drive innovation.

I kept coming back to the same points.

The problems we face in terraforming Australia to be innovative are systemic, and there is something seriously wrong with how we govern this country. There are problems throughout the system, from how we choose the Prime Minister, how we govern ourselves, how we make decisions, all the way through.

For a start, we are chronically over governed in this country. This country has 24 million people. It is not a lot. By comparison my website has about 26 million registered users. However this country of 24 million people is governed at the State and Federal level by 17 parliaments with 840 members of parliament. My company has a board of three and a management team of a dozen.

Half of those parliaments are supposed to be representatives directly elected by the people. Frankly, you could probably replace them all with an iPhone app. If you really wanted to know what the people thought about an issue, technology allows you to poll everyone, everywhere, instantly. You’d also get the results basically for free. I’ve always said that if Mark Zuckerberg put a vote button inside Facebook, he’d win a Nobel Peace Prize. Instead we waste a colossal $122 million on a non-binding plebiscite to ask a yes/no question on same sex marriage that shouldn’t need to be asked in the first place, because those that it affects would almost certainly want it, and those that it doesn’t affect should really butt out and let others live their lives as they want to.

Instead these 840 MPs spend all day jeering at each other and thinking up new legislation to churn out. Last year the Commonwealth parliament alone spewed out 6,482 pages of legislation, adding to over 100,000 pages already enacted. That’s not even looking at State Governments.

“What about trying to attract more senior people to Sydney? I’ll tell you what my experience was like trying to attract senior technology talent from Silicon Valley.”

I called the top recruiter for engineering in Silicon Valley not so long ago for Vice President role. We are talking a top role, very highly paid. The recruiter that placed the role would earn a hefty six figure commission. This recruiter had placed VPs at Twitter, Uber, Pinterest.

The call with their principal lasted less than a minute “Look, as much as I would like to help you, the answer is no. We just turned down [another billion dollar Australian technology company] for a similar role. We tried placing a split role, half time in Australia and half time in the US. Nobody wanted that. We’ve tried in the past looking, nobody from Silicon Valley wants to come to Australia for any role. We used to think maybe someone would move for a lifestyle thing, but they don’t want to do that anymore.

“It’s not just that they are being paid well, it’s that it’s a backwater and they consider it as two moves they have to move once to get over there but more importantly when they finish they have to move back and it’s hard from them to break back in being out of the action.

“I’m really sorry but we won’t even look at taking a placement for Australia”.

We have serious problems in this country. And I think they are about to become very serious. We are on the wrong trajectory.

I’ll leave you now with one final thought.

Harvard University created something called the Economic Complexity Index. This measure ranks countries based upon their economic diversity- how many different products a country can produce – and economic ubiquity – how many countries are able to make those products.

Where does Australia rank on the global scale?

Worse than Mauritius, Macedonia, Oman, Moldova, Vietnam, Egypt and Botswana.

Worse than Georgia, Kuwait, Colombia, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and El Salvador.

Sitting embarrassingly and awkwardly between Kazakhstan and Jamaica, and worse than the Dominican Republic at 74 and Guatemala at 75.

“Australia ranks off the deep end of the scale at 77th place. 77th and falling. After Tajikistan, Australia had the fourth highest loss in Economic Complexity over the last decade, falling 18 places.”

Thirty years ago, a time when our Economic Complexity ranked substantially higher, these words rocked the nation:

“We took the view in the 1970s it’s the old cargo cult mentality of Australia that she’ll be right. This is the lucky country, we can dig up another mound of rock and someone will buy it from us, or we can sell a bit of wheat and bit of wool and we will just sort of muddle through In the 1970s we became a third world economy selling raw materials and food and we let the sophisticated industrial side fall apart If in the final analysis Australia is so undisciplined, so disinterested in its salvation and its economic well being, that it doesn’t deal with these fundamental problems Then you are gone. You are a banana republic.”

Looks like Paul Keating was right.

The national conversation needs to change, now.

(This is an edited version of Matt Barrie’s “House of Cards” opinion feature and was co-authored with Craig Tindale)