Money trees are magical; energy trees are not

9 08 2018

Another excellent post from the Consciousness of Sheep……..  a bit anglo-centric, but easily applies to anywhere not least Australia.

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Equating money with wealth is among the most dangerous delusions currently afflicting humanity.

This is, perhaps, understandable given that so few people now have access to money in the quantities needed to improve their lives.

Government, meanwhile, effectively lies when it points to the various pots of money that it has allocated to this or that infrastructure, entitlement or service.  This is mendacious because money from central government is allocated as a block grant to local government and other public bodies.  In total, these public bodies lack the income to fund their legal responsibilities.  As a result, money that was theoretically allocated to provide for such things as mental health beds, fixing potholes and a host of other discretionary activities is actually deployed in firefighting the collapse of mandatory services like child welfare or social care for the elderly.

The solution to this for many in the political sphere is to loosen the purse strings.  Quite correctly, they identify the central flaw in the pronouncements of duplicitous politicians like Theresa May and Phillip Hammond; who tell us that “there isn’t a magic money tree.”  Because… well… actually, yes there is.  It’s called the Bank of England.  And were politicians to instruct it to do so, it can spirit into existence as much new currency as it likes.

The conventional way in which central banks spirit money into existence is via the issuance of government debt.  Government issues a bond (called a Gilt-Edged Security in the UK) which is auctioned to a closed group of banks and financial institutions.  The central bank then spirits new money into existence and uses it to buy these bonds back.  That new money then enters the economy via the financial sector.

This, of course, is no more than tradition.  There is nothing to prevent the central bank from conjuring new money out of thin air and then distributing it directly into the bank accounts of every citizen.  Indeed, this is one of the points made by those who favour some form of Universal Basic Income as an alternative to the UK’s overly bureaucratic and increasingly ineffective social security system.  The reason that money is not created in this way is simply that channelling it through the banking and financial system favours the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the wider population.

Midway between the current practice of handing new money to the already wealthy – who get to enjoy it before inflation devalues it – and channelling it directly to the people, is the proposed creation of a national investment bank.  Whereas feeding new money to the already wealthy serves only to inflate asset bubbles in unproductive areas like property, fine art and collectibles, an investment bank could provide funding for national infrastructure development.  This, in turn, would provide new jobs as well as enhancing the productivity of the economy as a whole.

The only requirement of any of these forms of currency creation is that the government removes sufficient money from the economy through taxation to prevent inflation running out of control.  Herein, however, is the problem that has vexed governments down the ages.  Exactly how much money does the government need to remove from the economy to prevent inflation?

The current practice of giving new money to the already wealthy requires very little government action.  The central bank practice of raising interest rates is considered sufficient.  This is because, like taxes, debt repayment is a means of removing currency from the economy.  Just as banks create new currency when they make loans, so currency is destroyed when loans are repaid.  When the interest rate rises, an additional proportion of the currency in circulation has to be destroyed in order to pay the higher charge.

Once governments start moving new currency directly into the economy – either through investment banks or direct transfers to people’s bank accounts – taxation has to be adjusted accordingly in order to prevent the money supply growing too high and causing inflation.

The problem is that just as central banks cause financial crises by raising interest rates beyond the point where creditors begin to default; governments have a habit of causing crises by allowing too much new currency to be created.  It is all too easy for politicians – who need to get re-elected – to promise new investments in popular services – without thinking about the impact of that new spending on the broader economy.  In the 1970s, the impact of this kind of currency creation was so great that governments around the world handed control of their money supply to the banking sector; and passed legislation and entered into treaties (like Maastricht) that forbid direct government money printing (states are permitted to bail out banks, but not businesses or citizens).

The inflation of the 1970s is explained in economics textbooks as being the result of profligate governments playing fast and loose with their national economies.  The difficulty with that explanation, however, is that exactly the same money creation policies kick-started the greatest economic expansion the world has ever seen.  The post-war Marshall Aid programme which printed new dollars into existence in order to rebuild the shattered economies of Western Europe and Japan, together with the spending programme of Britain’s Labour government (which didn’t receive Marshall Aid), paved the way for the twenty-year boom 1953-73.  With western growth rates similar to those claimed by modern China, states using newly created currency to invest in and grow the economy became the economic orthodoxy for three decades.

If the supposed relationship between money printing and economic growth and crisis is beginning to sound like a false correlation to you, it is because it is.  It is what I refer to as “the Keynesian paradox.”

Having witnessed the austerity, depression and eventual rise of fascism in the aftermath of the First World War, economist John Maynard Keynes argued that the big mistake made in 1919 was for governments to return to the economic orthodoxy of the pre-war years.  This had resulted in austerity policies at home and the imposition of reparations on the defeated enemy.  What Keynes argued for was close to what the US delivered in 1945, when it realised its best protection against the Soviet Union was a prosperous, interconnected western bloc.

Keynes’ proposition was straightforward enough: if you give newly created money to a wealthy person, they will exchange it for some form of unproductive asset – a house, a piece of art, a vintage car, etc.  If, on the other hand, you give the same new money to a poor person, they will spend it all more or less immediately – on necessities like food, rent, fuel and clothing.  In this way, new currency distributed to the poor would quickly circulate around the economy; stimulating growth.

Keynes was correct in terms of money flows but wrong about growth.  Indeed, there was a period in European history – the years following the colonisation of the Americas – when a sudden influx of new money (in the form of the gold and silver shipped back to Spain) had exactly the opposite effect.  Without the influx of precious metals from the Americas, the Hapsburg Empire might have gone on to become the United States of Europe.  Instead, it experienced a prolonged and ruinous period of inflation that resulted in internal revolt and division.  In effect, the sudden influx of precious metals had the effect of devaluing the gold and silver (and money based upon it) already in circulation; manifesting as rapidly rising prices across the economy.

More recently, excessive money printing (in order to inflate away reparation debt) in Germany resulted in the runaway inflation of 1924 that helped propel Hitler and the Nazis onto the world stage.

This is the Keynesian Paradox.  An economic policy (Marshall Aid) that patently kick-started the largest economic boom in history, also created the inflation of the sixteenth century and the stagflation of the 1970s.

Might this suggest that there was some deeper factor common to sixteenth century Europe and the 1970s that was absent or opposite to conditions in the late 1940s?  What else happened in the 1970s?  The world experienced a major oil shock as US reserves were no longer sufficient to regulate global oil prices.  In the aftermath of the Second World War, global oil production grew exponentially; fuelling the boom.  That came to an end in 1973:

World oil production exponential-linear
Source: The Oil Drum/COS

In the period since 1973, oil production has continued to grow; but growth has been linear.  The result is that the rates of growth enjoyed in the west between 1953 and 1973 are never coming back.  Indeed, much of the oil we are adding to the mix today is expensive; giving it a much lower value to the economy than the oil being produced in the aftermath of the Second World War.

One of Keynes’ contemporaries – English Nobel Prize-winning chemist Frederick Soddy – understood this far better than Keynes:

“Still one point seemed lacking to account for the phenomenal outburst of activity that followed in the Western world the invention of the steam engine, for it could not be ascribed simply to the substitution of inanimate energy for animal labour. The ancients used the wind in navigation and drew upon water-power in rudimentary ways. The profound change that then occurred seemed to be rather due to the fact that, for the first time in history, men began to tap a large capital store of energy and ceased to be entirely dependent on the revenue of sunshine…

“Then came the odd thought about fuel considered as a capital store, out of the consumption of which our whole civilisation, in so far as it is modern, has been built. You cannot burn it and still have it, and once burnt there is no way, thermodynamically, of extracting perennial interest from it. Such mysteries are among the inexorable laws of economics rather than of physics. With the doctrine of evolution, the real Adam turns out to have been an animal, and with the doctrine of energy the real capitalist proves to be a plant. The flamboyant era through which we have been passing is due not to our own merits, but to our having inherited accumulations of solar energy from the carboniferous era, so that life for once has been able to live beyond its income. Had it but known it, it might have been a merrier age!”

The economic expansion that Soddy correctly attributed to the fossilised sunlight locked up in coal deposits was to be multiplied a hundredfold by the oil-based expansion that followed the Second World War.  And indeed, had we known that it was oil rather than one or other version of politics or economics that was responsible for our brief period of prosperity, our age too might have been merrier.

In this, the sixteenth century Europeans might have had something to tell us; because they also experienced an energy crisis.  Given that this was a period when economies ran entirely on renewable energy, there is a corrective here too for those who imagine that returning to some pre-industrial idyll might be our salvation.  Sixteenth century Europeans chopped down their forests at a much faster rate than the trees could be regrown.  As historian Clive Ponting notes:

“A timber shortage was first noticed in Europe in specialised areas such as shipbuilding… In the 1580s when Philip II of Spain built the armada to sail against England and the Dutch had to import timber from Poland… Local sources of wood and charcoal were becoming exhausted – given the poor state of communications and the costs involved it was impossible to move supplies very far.  As early as 1560 the iron foundries of Slovakia were forced to cut back production as charcoal supplies began to dry up.  Thirty years later the bakers of Montpellier in the South of France had to cut down bushes to heat their ovens because there was no timber left in their town…”

Creating new currency – in this case the new precious metals from the Americas – into an economy that has outrun its energy supplies could only result in inflation because without sufficient energy there could be no economic growth.  Only when new sources of energy – in this case, coal from the Severn Valley – can be brought into production does the economy recover and a new round of economic growth begin.

When western states printed new currency into existence to rebuild their war-torn economies in the years after 1945, they did so while almost all of the planet’s oil deposits were still in the ground.  Much of the new currency was invested into economic activities that required oil for manufacture and/or transportation.  That, in turn, meant that a proportion of the new currency found its way into the accounts of the big oil companies; who used it to open up the vast oil reserves around the planet.  It was this cheap, abundant reserve of oil that allowed for massive currency creation without generating inflation.  It was precisely at the point when money creation overshot oil production that the inflation of the 1970s set in.

Fast-forward to the very different world of 2018: World production of “conventional” crude oil peaked in 2005.  The resulting inflation – followed by the inevitable interest rate rises – triggered the worst financial collapse in living memory.  Oil production is still, just about, increasing; but only at great expense.  Low quality and expensive oil from fracking, tar sands and ultra-deep water is keeping the economy going; but only at the cost of obliging us – businesses and households – to devote a greater part of our income to energy (either directly or through the energy embodied in the goods and services we purchase).

Unlike money trees, there is nothing magical about oil (which, a handful of electric cars aside, still powers almost all of our agricultural, industrial and transportation vehicles and machinery).  Even now, there is more oil beneath the ground than we have used so far.  But most of what is left is going to stay in the ground simply because it is too expensive (i.e. it requires too much energy) to extract.

Alternative energy sources do not really exist, other than by sleight of hand.  Most often, this is done simply by conflating electricity with energy.  But the crisis we face is primarily a liquid fuel crisis.  As such, the electrical energy generated by a wind turbine or a nuclear plant is irrelevant.  What has actually happened has nothing to do with ending our use of fossil fuels.  Rather, states around the world have turned to alternative fossil fuels – coal and gas – together with renewables and nuclear to free up the remaining extractable oil for use in industry, agriculture and transportation.  Oil consumption, however, continues to rise, because without it growth would end and the mountain of debt-based currency would collapse around our ears.

This brings us back to the money question.  There is a growing belief that the solution to our problems will come in the form of a switch from austerity economics to an expansionary policy based on distributing newly created currency via investment banks and/or universal basic incomes.  This, however, is highly unlikely to succeed until or unless we find a means of massively increasing the energy available (at the point of use) to the economy to counteract the decline in affordable oil that is beginning to emerge (replacing unaffordable oil with unaffordable renewables doesn’t really count).

Politically, the demand for an end to austerity is becoming irresistible.  We already see its manifestation in Brexit, the election of Donald Trump and the rise of populist (right and left) parties across Europe.  Around the world, the people have put the elites on notice that they will no longer tolerate an economy in which a tiny handful of kleptocrats continue to accumulate wealth via a rigged financial system while everyone else sees their standard of living plummet.

The mistake, however, would be to assume that simply printing currency will solve the problem.  Without useable energy to back it up, new currency is worthless.  Its only role is to steal a fraction of all of the currency already in circulation.  This may have small benefits if channelled to ordinary people, since it will be the accumulated currency of the wealthy that is devalued the most – a kind of hidden tax.  But the ensuing price increases are far more likely to be experienced by those at the bottom of the income scale; as their ability to pay for necessities is rapidly eroded.

The crisis of our age, then, is not to pick the fruit of the magic money tree; but to discover the location of the magic energy tree whose fruit has fertilised the money tree for the past 250 years.  Sadly, that magic (fossilised sunlight) energy tree has shrivelled with age.  We may never see its like again.





I’m not the only one who’s worked it out….

7 11 2017

Following up on the post where I ‘claimed’ to have worked it out, along comes this article from a website I recently discovered that all my readers should also follow. Dr Tim Morgan who runs the WordPress blog Surplus Energy Economics, published the following, called Anticipating the next crash. While he doesn’t exactly mention printing one’s own community money, every single argument he makes proves my point as far as I am concerned…… the loss of trust in money in particular really caught my attention…..

Enjoy….

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THIS TIME IT COULD BE MONEY – NOT BANKS

tim morganBecause the global financial crisis (GFC) was caused by a collapse of trust in banks, it can be all too easy to assume that the next crash, if there is one, must take the same form.

In fact, it’s more likely to be different. Whilst the idiocy-of choice before 2008 had been irresponsible lending, by far the most dangerous recklessness today is monetary adventurism.

So it’s faith in money, rather than in banks, that could trigger the next crisis.

Introduction – mistaken confidence

Whenever we live through a traumatic event, such as the GFC of 2008, the authorities ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’. They put in place measures that might have countered the previous crisis, if only they had they known its nature in advance.

The reason why such measures so often fail to prevent another crash is simple – the next crisis is never the same as the last one.

That’s where we are now. We might be slightly better-placed to combat a GFC-style event today than we were back in 2008, though even that is doubtful. But we are dangerously ill-prepared for what is actually likely to happen.

Put at its simplest, the GFC resulted from the reckless accumulation of debt over the previous 8-10 years. Debt creation has continued – indeed, accelerated – since 2008, but the new form of recklessness has been monetary adventurism.

So it’s likely to be money, not debt, which brings the house down this time. Where 2008 was triggered by a collapse of faith in banks, a loss of faith in currencies could be the trigger for the next crisis.

And, judging by their actions, the authorities seem not to have spotted this risk at all.

Unfinished business?

Where the likelihood of a sequel to 2008 is concerned, opinion divides into two camps.

Some of us are convinced that the GFC is unfinished business – and that another crisis has been made more likely by the responses adopted back then. That we’re in a minority shouldn’t worry us because, after all, change happens when the majority (‘consensus’) view turns out to be wrong.

Others, probably the majority, believe that normality has now been restored.

But this view, frankly, is illogical. To believe that what we have now is “normality”, you would have to accept each of these propositions as true.

1. Current monetary conditions, with interest rates that are negative (lower than inflation), are “normal”

2. It is “normal” for people to be punished for saving, but rewarded for borrowing

3. It is also “normal” for debt to be growing even more rapidly now than it did before 2008

4. Buying $1 of “growth” with $3 or more of borrowing is “normal”

5. QE – the creation of vast sums of new money out of thin air – is also “normal”

6. Vastly inflated asset values, and extremely depressed incomes, are “normal”

7. Policies which hand money to the already-wealthy, at the expense of everyone else, are another aspect of “normal”

8. It is quite “normal” for us to have destroyed the ability to save for pensions, or for any other purpose.

To be sure, Lewis Carroll’s White Queen famously managed to believe “six impossible things before breakfast”, but even she would have struggled to swallow this lot with her croissants and coffee.

When we consider, also, the continued stumbling global economy – which, nearly a decade after the crisis, remains nowhere near “escape velocity” – the case for expecting a second crash becomes pretty compelling.

But this does not mean that we should expect a re-run of 2008 in the same form.

Rather, everything suggests that the sequel to 2008 will be a different kind of crisis. The markets won’t be frightened by something familiar, but will be panicked by something new.

This means that we should expect a form of crisis that hasn’t been anticipated, and hasn’t been prepared for.

2008 – a loss of trust in banks

We need to be clear that the GFC had two real causes, both traceable in the last analysis to reckless deregulation.

First, debt had escalated to unsustainable levels.

Second, risk had proliferated, and been allowed to disperse in ways that were not well understood.

Of these, it was the risk factor which really triggered the crash, because nobody knew which banks and other financial institutions were safe, and which weren’t. This put the financial system into the lock-down known as “the credit crunch”, which was the immediate precursor to the crash.

Ultimately, this was all about a loss of trust. Even a perfectly sound bank can collapse, if trust is lost. Because banks are in the business of borrowing short and lending long, there is no way that they can call in loans if depositors are panicked into pulling their money out.

This also means – and please be in no doubt about this – that there is no amount of reserves which can prevent a bank collapse.

So – and despite claims to the contrary – a 2008-style banking crisis certainly could take place again, even though reserve ratios have been strengthened. This time, though, banks are likely to be in the second wave of a crash, not in the front line.

Coming next – a loss of trust in money?

The broader lesson to be learned from the financial crisis is that absolute dependency on faith is by no means unique to banks.

Trust is a defining characteristic of the entire financial system – and is particularly true of currencies.

Modern money, not backed by gold or other tangible assets, is particularly vulnerable to any loss of trust. The value of fiat money depends entirely on the “full faith and credit” of its sponsoring government. If that faith and creditworthiness are ever called into serious question, the ensuing panic can literally destroy the value of the currency. It’s happened very often in the past, and can certainly happen again.

Loss of faith in a currency can happen in many ways. It can happen if the state, or its economy, become perceived as non-viable. In fact, though, this isn’t the most common reason for currency collapse. Rather, any state can imperil the trustworthiness of its currency if it behaves irresponsibly.

Again, we can’t afford to be vague about this. Currency collapse, resulting from a haemorrhaging of faith, is always a consequence of reckless monetary policy. Wherever there is policy irresponsibility, a currency can be expected to collapse.

In instances such as Weimar Germany and modern-day Zimbabwe, the creation of too much money was “route one” to the destruction of the trust. But this isn’t the only way in which faith in a currency can be destroyed. Another trust-destroying practice is the monetizing of debt, which means creating money to “pay” government deficits.

So the general point is that the viability of a currency can be jeopardized by any form of monetary irresponsibility. The scale of risk is in direct proportion to the extent of that irresponsibility.

The disturbing and inescapable reality today is that the authorities, over an extended period, have engaged in unprecedented monetary adventurism. As well as slashing interest rates to levels that are literally without precedent, they have engaged in money creation on a scale that would have frightened earlier generations of central bankers out of their wits.

Let’s be crystal clear about something else, too. Anyone who asserts that this adventurism isn’t attended by an escalation in risk is living in a fantasy world of “this time it’s different”.

Here is a common factor linking 2008 and 2017. In the years before the GFC, reckless deregulation created dangerous debt excesses. Since then, recklessness has extended from regulation into monetary policy itself. Now, as then, irresponsible behaviour has been the common factor.

A big difference between then and now, though, lies in the scope for recovery. In 2008, the banks could be rescued, because trust in money remained. This meant that governments could rescue banks by pumping in money. There exist few, if any, conceivable responses that could counter a haemorrhage of faith in money.

Obviously, you can’t rescue a discredited currency by creating more of it. [ED. hence the need to create local currency]

If a single currency loses trust, another country or bloc might just bail it out. But even this is pretty unlikely, because of both sheer scale, and contagion risk.

So there is no possible escape route from a systemic loss of trust in fiat money. In that situation, the only response would be to introduce wholly new currencies which start out with a clean bill of health.

An exercise in folly

To understand the current risk, we need to know how we got here. Essentially, we are where we are because of how the authorities responded to the GFC.

In 2008, the immediate threat facing the financial system wasn’t the sheer impossibility of ever repaying the debt mountain created in previous years. Most debt doesn’t have to be repaid immediately, and can often be replaced or rolled-over.

Rather, the “clear and present danger” back then was an inability to keep up interest payments on that debt. Because the spending of borrowed money had given an artificial boost to apparent economic activity, there was widespread complacency about how much debt we could actually afford to service. When the crash unmasked the weakness of borrowers, it became glaringly apparent that the debt mountain simply couldn’t be serviced at a ‘normal’ rate of interest (with ‘normal’, for our purposes, meaning rates in the range 4-6%).

The obvious response was to circumvent this debt service problem by slashing rates. Cutting policy rates was a relatively straightforward, administrative exercise for central bankers. But prevailing rates aren’t determined by policy alone, because markets have a very big say in rate-setting. This, ultimately, was why QE (quantitative easing) was implemented. QE enabled central banks to drive down bond yields, by using gigantic buying power to push up the prices of bonds.

Beyond the mistaken assurance that QE wasn’t the same as “printing money” – so wouldn’t drive inflation up – little or no thought seems to have been devoted to the medium- or longer-term consequences of monetary adventurism.

In essence, ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) was a medicine employed to rescue a patient in immediate danger. Even when responding to a crisis, however, the wise physician is cognisant of two drug risks – side-effects, and addiction.

The financial physicians considered neither of these risks in their panic response to 2008. The result is that today we have addiction to cheap money, and we are suffering some economic side-effects that are very nasty indeed.

The inflation delusion

Even the assurance about inflation was misleading, because increasing the quantity of money without simultaneously increasing the supply of goods and services must create inflation. This is a mathematical certainty.

Rather, the only question is where the inflation is going to turn up.

As has been well explained elsewhere, handing new money to everyone would drive up general inflation. Giving all of it to little girls, on the other hand, would drive up the price of Barbie dolls. Since QE handed money to capital markets, its effect was to drive up the price of assets.

That much was predictable. Unfortunately, though, when policymakers think about inflation, they usually think only in terms of high street prices. When, for example, the Bank of England was given a degree of independence in 1997, its remit was framed wholly in CPI terms, as though the concept of asset inflation hadn’t occurred to anyone.

This is a dangerous blind-spot. The reality is that asset inflation is every bit as ‘real’ as high street inflation – and can be every bit as harmful.

Massive damage

In itself, though, inflation (asset or otherwise) is neither the only nor the worst consequence of extreme monetary recklessness. Taken overall, shifting the basis of the entire economy onto ultra-cheap money must be one of the most damaging policies ever adopted.

Indeed, it is harmful enough to make Soviet collectivism look almost rational.

The essence of cheap money is policy to transform the relationship between assets and incomes through the brute force of monetary manipulation.

Like communism before it, this manipulation seeks to over-rule market forces which, in a sane world, would be allowed to determine this relationship.

By manipulating interest rates, and thereby unavoidably distorting all returns on capital, this policy has all but destroyed rational investment.

Take pensions as an example. Historically, a saver needing $10,000 in twenty-five years’ time could achieve this by investing about $2,400 today. Now, though, he would need to invest around $6,500 to attain the same result.

In effect, manipulating rates of return has crippled the ability to save, raising the cost of pension provision by a factor of about 2.7x.

Therefore, if (say) saving an affordable 10% of income represented adequate provision in the past, the equivalent savings rate required now is 27%. This is completely unaffordable for the vast majority.  In effect, then – and for all but the very richest – policymakers have destroyed the ability to save for retirement.

Small wonder that, for eight countries alone, a recent study calculated pension shortfalls at $67 trillion, a number projected to rise to $428 trillion (at 2015 values) by 2050.

What this amounts to is cannibalizing the economy. This is a good way to think about what happens when we subsidise current consumption by destroying the ability to provide for the future.

Savings, of course, are a flip-side of investment, so the destruction of the ability to save simultaneously cripples the capability to invest efficiently as well. The transmission mechanism is the ultra-low rate of return that can now be earned on capital.

A further adverse effect of monetary adventurism has been to stop the necessary process of “creative destruction” in its tracks. In a healthy economy, it is vital that weak competitors go under, freeing up capital and market share for new, more dynamic entrants. Very often, the victims of this process are brought down by an inability to service their debts. So, by keeping these “zombies” afloat, cheap money makes it difficult for new companies to compete.

Obviously, we also have a problem with inflated asset values in classes such as stocks, bonds and property. These elevated values build in crash potential, and steer investors towards ever greater risk in pursuit of yield. Inflated property prices are damaging in many ways. They tend towards complacency about credit. They impair labour mobility, and discriminate against the young.

More broadly, the combination of inflated asset values and depressed incomes provides adverse incentives, favouring speculation over innovation. And this is where some of the world’s more incompetent governments have stepped in to make things even worse.

In any economic situation, there’s nothing that can’t be made worse if government really works at it. The problems created by “zombie” companies are worsened where government fails to enforce competition by breaking up market domination. Though the EU is quite proactive over promoting competition, the governments of America and Britain repeatedly demonstrate their frail grasp of market economics when they fail to do the same.

Worse still, the US and the UK [and AUSTRALIA…] actually increase the shift of incentives towards speculation and away from innovation. Having failed to tax the gains handed gratuitously to investors by QE, these countries follow policies designed to favour speculation. Capital gains are often taxed at rates less than income, and these gains are sheltered by allowances vastly larger than are available on income.

The United Kingdom has even backstopped property markets using cheap credit, apparently under the delusional belief that inflated house prices are somehow “good” for the economy.

How will it happen?

As we’ve seen, monetary recklessness – forced on central bankers by the GFC, but now extended for far too long – has weakened economic performance as well as intensifying risk. In some instances, fiscal policy has made a bad problem worse.

In short, the years since the crash have been characterised by some of the most idiotic policies ever contemplated.

All that remains to consider is how the crash happens. The prediction made here is that, this time around, it will be currencies, rather than banks, which will be first suffer the crisis-inducing loss of trust (though this crisis seems certain to engulf the banks as well, and pretty quickly).

The big question is whether the collapse of faith in currencies will begin in a localized way, or will happen systemically.

The former seems likelier. Although Japan has now monetized its debt to a dangerous scale (with the Bank of Japan now owning very nearly half of all Japanese government bonds), by far the most at-risk major currency is the British pound.

In an earlier article, we examined the case for a sterling crash, so this need not be revisited here. In short, it’s hard to find any reason at all for owning sterling, given the state of the economy. On top of this, there are at least two potential pitfalls.  One of these is “Brexit”, and the other is the very real possibility than an exasperated public might elect a far-left government.

Given a major common factor – the fatuity of the “Anglo-American economic model” – it is tempting to think that the dollar might be the next currency at risk. There are, pretty obviously, significant weaknesses in the American economy. But the dollar enjoys one crucial advantage over sterling, and that is the “petro-prop”. Because oil (and other commodities) are priced in dollars, anyone wanting to purchase them has to buy dollars first. This provides support for the dollar, despite America’s economic weaknesses (which include cheap money, and a failure to break up market-dominating players across a series of important sectors).

[ED. More and more countries, not least China, are now buying oil without US$]

Conclusion

Once the loss of trust in currencies gets under way, many different weaknesses are likely to be exposed.

The single most likely sequence starts with a sterling crash. By elevating the local value of debt denominated in foreign currencies, this could raise the spectre of default, which could in turn have devastating effects on faith in the balance sheets of other countries. Moreover, a collapse in Britain would, in itself, inflict grave damage on the world economy.

Of course, how the next crisis happens is unknowable, and is largely a secondary question. Right now, there are two points which need to be taken on board.

First, the sheer abnormality of current conditions makes a new financial crisis highly likely.

Second, rather than assume that banks will again be in the eye of the storm, we should be looking instead at the most vulnerable currencies.

Losing faith in banks, as happened in 2007-08, was bad enough.

But a loss of faith in money would be very, very much worse.





Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (3)

9 09 2016

Here is Part 3 of Nicole Foss’ wonderful 4 part article on the collapse of money as we know it. Originally published over at the Automatic Earth where you can buy DVDs of Nicole’s talks…

What’s even more amazing is that this concept of traditional banking — holding physical cash in a bank vault — is now considered revolutionary and radical.

Part 1 is here

Part 2 is here

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Promoters, Mechanisms and Risks in the War on Cash

nicolefossBitcoin and other electronic platforms have paved the way psychologically for a shift away from cash, although they have done so by emphasising decentralisation and anonymity rather than the much greater central control which would be inherent in a mainstream electronic currency. The loss of privacy would no doubt be glossed over in any media campaign, as would the risks of cyber-attack and the lack of a fallback for providing liquidity to the economy in the event of a systems crash. Electronic currency is much favoured by techno-optimists, but not so much by those concerned about the risks of absolute structural dependency on technological complexity. The argument regarding greatly reduced socioeconomic resilience is particularly noteworthy, given the vulnerability and potential fragility of electronic systems.

There is an important distinction to be made between official electronic currency – allowing everyone to hold an account with the central bank — and private electronic currency. It would be official currency which would provide the central control sought by governments and central banks, but if individuals saw central bank accounts as less risky than commercial institutions, which seems highly likely, the extent of the potential funds transfer could crash the existing banking system, causing a bank run in a similar manner as large-scale cash withdrawals would. As the power of money creation is of the highest significance, and that power is currently in private hands, any attempt to threaten that power would almost certainly be met with considerable resistance from powerful parties. Private digital currency would be more compatible with the existing framework, but would not confer all of the control that governments would prefer:

People would convert a very large share of their current bank deposits into official digital money, in effect taking them out of the private banking system. Why might this be a problem? If it’s an acute rush for safety in a crisis, the risk is that private banks may not have enough reserves to honour all the withdrawals. But that is exactly the same risk as with physical cash: it’s often forgotten that it’s central bank reserves, not the much larger quantity of deposits, that banks can convert into cash with the central bank. Both with cash and official e-cash, the way to meet a more severe bank run is for the bank to borrow more reserves from the central bank, posting its various assets as security. In effect, this would mean the central bank taking over the funding of the broader economy in a panic — but that’s just what central banks should do.

A more chronic challenge is that people may prefer the safety of central bank accounts even in normal times. That would destroy private banks’ current deposit-funded model. Is that a bad thing? They would still have a role as direct intermediators between savers and borrowers, by offering investment products sufficiently attractive for people to get out of the safety of e-cash. Meanwhile, the broad money supply would be more directly under the control of the central bank, whereas now it’s a product of the vagaries of private lending decisions. The more of the broad money supply that was in the form of official digital cash, the easier it would be, for example, for the central bank to use tools such as negative interest rates or helicopter drops.

As an indication that the interests of the private banking system and public central authorities are not always aligned, consider the actions of the Bavarian Banking Association in attempting to avoid the imposition of negative interest rates on reserves held with the ECB:

German newspaper Der Spiegel reported yesterday that the Bavarian Banking Association has recommended that its member banks start stockpiling PHYSICAL CASH. The Bavarian Banking Association has had enough of this financial dictatorship. Their new recommendation is for all member banks to ditch the ECB and instead start keeping their excess reserves in physical cash, stored in their own bank vaults. This is officially an all-out revolution of the financial system where banks are now actively rebelling against the central bank. (What’s even more amazing is that this concept of traditional banking — holding physical cash in a bank vault — is now considered revolutionary and radical.)

There’s just one teensy tiny problem: there simply is not enough physical cash in the entire financial system to support even a tiny fraction of the demand. Total bank deposits exceed trillions of euros. Physical cash constitutes just a small percentage of that sum. So if German banks do start hoarding physical currency, there won’t be any left in the financial system. This will force the ECB to choose between two options:

  1. Support this rebellion and authorize the issuance of more physical cash; or
  2. Impose capital controls.

Given that just two weeks ago the President of the ECB spoke about the possibility of banning some higher denomination cash notes, it’s not hard to figure out what’s going to happen next.

Advantages of official electronic currency to governments and central banks are clear. All transactions are transparent, and all can be subject to fees and taxes. Central control over the money supply would be greatly increased and tax evasion would be difficult to impossible, at least for ordinary people. Capital controls would be built right into the system, and personal spending information would be conveniently gathered for inspection by central authorities (for cross-correlation with other personal data they possess). The first step would likely be to set up a dual system, with both cash and electronic money in parallel use, but with electronic money as the defined unit of value and cash subject to a marginally disadvantageous exchange rate.

The exchange rate devaluing cash in relation to electronic money could increase over time, in order to incentivize people to switch away from seeing physical cash as a store of value, and to increase their preference for goods over cash. In addition to providing an active incentive, the use of cash would probably be publicly disparaged as well as actively discouraged in many ways. For instance, key functions such as tax payments could be designated as by electronic remittance only. The point would be to forced everyone into the system by depriving them of the choice to opt out. Once all were captured, many forms of central control would be possible, including substantial account haircuts if central authorities deemed them necessary.

 

The main promoters of cash elimination in favour of electronic currency are Willem Buiter, Kenneth Rogoff, and Miles Kimball.

Economist Willem Buiter has been pushing for the relegation of cash, at least the removal of its status as official unit of account, since the financial crisis of 2008. He suggests a number of mechanisms for achieving the transition to electronic money, emphasising the need for the electronic currency to become the definitive unit of account in order to implement substantially negative interest rates:

The first method does away with currency completely. This has the additional benefit of inconveniencing the main users of currency-operators in the grey, black and outright criminal economies. Adequate substitutes for the legitimate uses of currency, on which positive or negative interest could be paid, are available. The second approach, proposed by Gesell, is to tax currency by making it subject to an expiration date. Currency would have to be “stamped” periodically by the Fed to keep it current. When done so, interest (positive or negative) is received or paid.

The third method ends the fixed exchange rate (set at one) between dollar deposits with the Fed (reserves) and dollar bills. There could be a currency reform first. All existing dollar bills and coin would be converted by a certain date and at a fixed exchange rate into a new currency called, say, the rallod. Reserves at the Fed would continue to be denominated in dollars. As long as the Federal Funds target rate is positive or zero, the Fed would maintain the fixed exchange rate between the dollar and the rallod.

When the Fed wants to set the Federal Funds target rate at minus five per cent, say, it would set the forward exchange rate between the dollar and the rallod, the number of dollars that have to be paid today to receive one rallod tomorrow, at five per cent below the spot exchange rate — the number of dollars paid today for one rallod delivered today. That way, the rate of return, expressed in a common unit, on dollar reserves is the same as on rallod currency.

For the dollar interest rate to remain the relevant one, the dollar has to remain the unit of account for setting prices and wages. This can be encouraged by the government continuing to denominate all of its contracts in dollars, including the invoicing and payment of taxes and benefits. Imposing the legal restriction that checkable deposits and other private means of payment cannot be denominated in rallod would help.

In justifying his proposals, he emphasises the importance of combatting criminal activity…

The only domestic beneficiaries from the existence of anonymity-providing currency are the criminal fraternity: those engaged in tax evasion and money laundering, and those wishing to store the proceeds from crime and the means to commit further crimes. Large denomination bank notes are an especially scandalous subsidy to criminal activity and to the grey and black economies.

… over the acknowledged risks of government intrusion in legitimately private affairs:

My good friend and colleague Charles Goodhart responded to an earlier proposal of mine that currency (negotiable bearer bonds with legal tender status) be abolished that this proposal was “appallingly illiberal”. I concur with him that anonymity/invisibility of the citizen vis-a-vis the state is often desirable, given the irrepressible tendency of the state to infringe on our fundamental rights and liberties and given the state’s ever-expanding capacity to do so (I am waiting for the US or UK government to contract Google to link all personal health information to all tax information, information on cross-border travel, social security information, census information, police records, credit records, and information on personal phone calls, internet use and internet shopping habits).

In his seminal 2014 paper “Costs and Benefits to Phasing Out Paper Currency.”, Kenneth Rogoff also argues strongly for the primacy of electronic currency and the elimination of physical cash as an escape route:

Paper currency has two very distinct properties that should draw our attention. First, it is precisely the existence of paper currency that makes it difficult for central banks to take policy interest rates much below zero, a limitation that seems to have become increasingly relevant during this century. As Blanchard et al. (2010) point out, today’s environment of low and stable inflation rates has drastically pushed down the general level of interest rates. The low overall level, combined with the zero bound, means that central banks cannot cut interest rates nearly as much as they might like in response to large deflationary shocks.

If all central bank liabilities were electronic, paying a negative interest on reserves (basically charging a fee) would be trivial. But as long as central banks stand ready to convert electronic deposits to zero-interest paper currency in unlimited amounts, it suddenly becomes very hard to push interest rates below levels of, say, -0.25 to -0.50 percent, certainly not on a sustained basis. Hoarding cash may be inconvenient and risky, but if rates become too negative, it becomes worth it.

However, he too notes associated risks:

Another argument for maintaining paper currency is that it pays to have a diversity of technologies and not to become overly dependent on an electronic grid that may one day turn out to be very vulnerable. Paper currency diversifies the transactions system and hardens it against cyber attack, EMP blasts, etc. This argument, however, seems increasingly less relevant because economies are so totally exposed to these problems anyway. With paper currency being so marginalized already in the legal economy in many countries, it is hard to see how it could be brought back quickly, particularly if ATM machines were compromised at the same time as other electronic systems.

A different type of argument against eliminating currency relates to civil liberties. In a world where society’s mores and customs evolve, it is important to tolerate experimentation at the fringes. This is potentially a very important argument, though the problem might be mitigated if controls are placed on the government’s use of information (as is done say with tax information), and the problem might also be ameliorated if small bills continue to circulate. Last but not least, if any country attempts to unilaterally reduce the use of its currency, there is a risk that another country’s currency would be used within domestic borders.

Miles Kimball’s proposals are very much in tune with Buiter and Rogoff:

There are two key parts to Miles Kimball’s solution. The first part is to make electronic money or deposits the sole unit of account. Everything else would be priced in terms of electronic dollars, including paper dollars. The second part is that the fixed exchange rate that now exists between deposits and paper dollars would become variable. This crawling peg between deposits and paper currency would be based on the state of the economy. When the economy was in a slump and the central bank needed to set negative interest rates to restore full employment, the peg would adjust so that paper currency would lose value relative to electronic money. This would prevent folks from rushing to paper currency as interest rates turned negative. Once the economy started improving, the crawling peg would start adjusting toward parity.

This approach views the economy in very mechanistic terms, as if it were a machine where pulling a lever would have a predictable linear effect — make holding savings less attractive and automatically consumption will increase. This is actually a highly simplistic view, resting on the notions of stabilising negative feedback and bringing an economy ‘back into equilibrium’. If it were so simple to control an economy centrally, there would never have been deflationary spirals or economic depressions in the past.

Assuming away the more complex aspects of human behaviour — a flight to safety, the compulsion to save for a rainy day when conditions are unstable, or the natural response to a negative ‘wealth effect’ — leads to a model divorced from reality. Taxing savings does not necessarily lead to increased consumption, in fact it is far more likely to have the opposite effect.:

But under Miles Kimball’s proposal, the Fed would lower interest rates to below zero by taxing away balances of e-currency. This is a reduction in monetary base, just like the case of IOR, and by itself would be contractionary, not expansionary. The expansionary effects of Kimball’s policy depend on the assumption that households will increase consumption in response to the taxing of their cash savings, rather than letting their savings depreciate.

That needn’t be the case — it depends on the relative magnitudes of income and substitution effects for real money balances. The substitution effect is what Kimball has in mind — raising the price of real money balances will induce substitution out of money and into consumption. But there’s also an income effect, whereby the loss of wealth induces less consumption and more savings. Thus, negative interest rate policy can be contractionary even though positive interest rate policy is expansionary.

Indeed, what Kimball has proposed amounts to a reverse Bernanke Helicopter — imagine a giant vacuum flying around the country sucking money out of people’s pockets. Why would we assume that this would be inflationary?

 

Given that the effect on the money supply would be contractionary, the supposed stimulus effect on the velocity of money (as, in theory, savings turn into consumption in order to avoid the negative interest rate penalty) would have to be large enough to outweigh a contracting money supply. In some ways, modern proponents of electronic money bearing negative interest rates are attempting to copy Silvio Gesell’s early 20th century work. Gesell proposed the use of stamp scrip — money that had to be regularly stamped, at a small cost, in order to remain current. The effect would be for money to lose value over time, so that hoarding currency it would make little sense. Consumption would, in theory, be favoured, so money would be kept in circulation.

This idea was implemented to great effect in the Austrian town of Wörgl during the Great Depression, where the velocity of money increased sufficiently to allow a hive of economic activity to develop (temporarily) in the previously depressed town. Despite the similarities between current proposals and Gesell’s model applied in Wörgl, there are fundamental differences:

There is a critical difference, however, between the Wörgl currency and the modern-day central bankers’ negative interest scheme. The Wörgl government first issued its new “free money,” getting it into the local economy and increasing purchasing power, before taxing a portion of it back. And the proceeds of the stamp tax went to the city, to be used for the benefit of the taxpayers….Today’s central bankers are proposing to tax existing money, diminishing spending power without first building it up. And the interest will go to private bankers, not to the local government.

The Wörgl experiment was a profoundly local initiative, instigated at the local government level by the mayor. In contrast, modern proposals for negative interest rates would operate at a much larger scale and would be imposed on the population in accordance with the interests of those at the top of the financial foodchain. Instead of being introduced for the direct benefit of those who pay, as stamp scrip was in Wörgl, it would tax the people in the economic periphery for the continued benefit of the financial centre. As such it would amount to just another attempt to perpetuate the current system, and to do so at a scale far beyond the trust horizon.

As the trust horizon contracts in times of economic crisis, effective organizational scale will also contract, leaving large organizations (both public and private) as stranded assets from a trust perspective, and therefore lacking in political legitimacy. Large scale, top down solutions will be very difficult to implement. It is not unusual for the actions of central authorities to have the opposite of the desired effect under such circumstances:

Consumers today already have very little discretionary money. Imposing negative interest without first adding new money into the economy means they will have even less money to spend. This would be more likely to prompt them to save their scarce funds than to go on a shopping spree. People are not keeping their money in the bank today for the interest (which is already nearly non-existent). It is for the convenience of writing checks, issuing bank cards, and storing their money in a “safe” place. They would no doubt be willing to pay a modest negative interest for that convenience; but if the fee got too high, they might pull their money out and save it elsewhere. The fee itself, however, would not drive them to buy things they did not otherwise need.

People would be very likely to respond to negative interest rates by self-organising alternative means of exchange, rather than bowing to the imposition of negative rates. Bitcoin and other crypto-currencies would be one possibility, as would using foreign currency, using trading goods as units of value, or developing local alternative currencies along the lines of the Wörgl model:

The use of sheep, bottled water, and cigarettes as media of exchange in Iraqi rural villages after the US invasion and collapse of the dinar is one recent example. Another example was Argentina after the collapse of the peso, when grain contracts priced in dollars were regularly exchanged for big-ticket items like automobiles, trucks, and farm equipment. In fact, Argentine farmers began hoarding grain in silos to substitute for holding cash balances in the form of depreciating pesos.

 

For the electronic money model grounded in negative interest rates to work, all these alternatives would have to be made illegal, or at least hampered to the point of uselessness, so people would have no other legal choice but to participate in the electronic system. Rogoff seems very keen to see this happen:

Won’t the private sector continually find new ways to make anonymous transfers that sidestep government restrictions? Certainly. But as long as the government keeps playing Whac-A-Mole and prevents these alternative vehicles from being easily used at retail stores or banks, they won’t be able fill the role that cash plays today. Forcing criminals and tax evaders to turn to riskier and more costly alternatives to cash will make their lives harder and their enterprises less profitable.

It is very likely that in times of crisis, people would do what they have to do regardless of legal niceties. While it may be possible to close off some alternative options with legal sanctions, it is unlikely that all could be prevented, or even enough to avoid the electronic system being fatally undermined.

The other major obstacle would be overcoming the preference for cash over goods in times of crisis:

Understanding how negative rates may or may not help economic growth is much more complex than most central bankers and investors probably appreciate. Ultimately the confusion resides around differences in view on the theory of money. In a classical world, money supply multiplied by a constant velocity of circulation equates to nominal growth.

In a Keynesian world, velocity is not necessarily constant — specifically for Keynes, there is a money demand function (liquidity preference) and therefore a theory of interest that allows for a liquidity trap whereby increasing money supply does not lead to higher nominal growth as the increase in money is hoarded. The interest rate (or inverse of the price of bonds) becomes sticky because at low rates, for infinitesimal expectations of any further rise in bond prices and a further fall in interest rates, demand for money tends to infinity.

In Gesell’s world money supply itself becomes inversely correlated with velocity of circulation due to money characteristics being superior to goods (or commodities). There are costs to storage that money does not have and so interest on money capital sets a bar to interest on real capital that produces goods. This is similar to Keynes’ concept of the marginal efficiency of capital schedule being separate from the interest rate. For Gesell the product of money and velocity is effective demand (nominal growth) but because of money capital’s superiority to real capital, if money supply expands it comes at the expense of velocity.

The new money supply is hoarded because as interest rates fall, expected returns on capital also fall through oversupply — for economic agents goods remain unattractive to money. The demand for money thus rises as velocity slows. This is simply a deflation spiral, consumers delaying purchases of goods, hoarding money, expecting further falls in goods prices before they are willing to part with their money….In a Keynesian world of deficient demand, the burden is on fiscal policy to restore demand. Monetary policy simply won’t work if there is a liquidity trap and demand for cash is infinite.

During the era of globalisation (since the financial liberalisation of the early 1980s), extractive capitalism in debt-driven over-drive has created perverse incentives to continually increase supply. Financial bubbles, grounded in the rediscovery of excess leverage, always act to create an artificial demand stimulus, which is met by artificially inflated supply during the boom phase. The value of the debt created collapses as boom turns into bust, crashing the money supply, and with it asset price support. Not only does the artificial stimulus disappear, but a demand undershoot develops, leaving all that supply without a market. Over the full cycle of a bubble and its aftermath, credit is demand neutral, but within the bubble it is anything but neutral. Forward shifting the demand curve provides for an orgy of present consumption and asset price increases, which is inevitably followed by the opposite.

Kimball stresses bringing demand forward as a positive aspect of his model:

In an economic situation like the one we are now in, we would like to encourage a company thinking about building a factory in a couple of years to build that factory now instead. If someone would lend to them at an interest rate of -3.33% per year, the company could borrow $1 million to build the factory now, and pay back something like $900,000 on the loan three years later. (Despite the negative interest rate, compounding makes the amount to be paid back a bit bigger, but not by much.)

That would be a good enough deal that the company might move up its schedule for building the factory. But everything runs aground on the fact that any potential lender, just by putting $1 million worth of green pieces of paper in a vault could get back $1 million three years later, which is a lot better than getting back a little over $900,000 three years later.

This is, however, a short-sighted assessment. Stimulating demand today means a demand undershoot tomorrow. Kimball names long term price stability as a primary goal, but this seems unlikely. Large scale central planning has a poor track record for success, to put it mildly. It requires the central authority in question to have access to all necessary information in realtime, and to have the ability to respond to that information both wisely and rapidly, or even proactively. It also assumes the ability to accurately filter out misinformation and disinformation. This is unlikely even in good times, thanks to the difficulties of ‘organizational stupidity’ at large scale, and even more improbable in the times of crisis.

Part 4 is here





Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

5 09 2016

Nicole Foss, one of my gurus, has not written much since going on a world speaking tour. This article, split into a four part series by Raul Ilargi of the Automatic Earth where this was first posted because of its length, is so important it must be widely shared….. people must wake up to what the powers that be are up to in the vain attempt of keeping business as usual going in the increasingly obvious Limits to Growth wall we are approaching at very high speed…..

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nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

As momentum builds in the developing deflationary spiral, we are seeing increasingly desperate measures to keep the global credit ponzi scheme from its inevitable conclusion. Credit bubbles are dynamic — they must grow continually or implode — hence they require ever more money to be lent into existence. But that in turn requires a plethora of willing and able borrowers to maintain demand for new credit money, lenders who are not too risk-averse to make new loans, and (apparently effective) mechanisms for diluting risk to the point where it can (apparently safely) be ignored. As the peak of a credit bubble is reached, all these necessary factors first become problematic and then cease to be available at all. Past a certain point, there are hard limits to financial expansions, and the global economy is set to hit one imminently.

Borrowers are increasingly maxed out and afraid they will not be able to service existing loans, let alone new ones. Many families already have more than enough ‘stuff’ for their available storage capacity in any case, and are looking to downsize and simplify their cluttered lives. Many businesses are already struggling to sell goods and services, and so are unwilling to borrow in order to expand their activities. Without willingness to borrow, demand for new loans will fall substantially. As risk factors loom, lenders become far more risk-averse, often very quickly losing trust in the solvency of of their counterparties. As we saw in 2008, the transition from embracing risky prospects to avoiding them like the plague can be very rapid, changing the rules of the game very abruptly.

Mechanisms for spreading risk to the point of ‘dilution to nothingness’, such as securitization, seen as effective and reliable during monetary expansions, cease to be seen as such as expansion morphs into contraction. The securitized instruments previously created then cease to be perceived as holding value, leading to them being repriced at pennies on the dollar once price discovery occurs, and the destruction of that value is highly deflationary. The continued existence of risk becomes increasingly evident, and the realisation that that risk could be catastrophic begins to dawn.

Natural limits for both borrowing and lending threaten the capacity to prolong the credit boom any further, meaning that even if central authorities are prepared to pay almost any price to do so, it ceases to be possible to kick the can further down the road. Negative interest rates and the war on cash are symptoms of such a limit being reached. As confidence evaporates, so does liquidity. This is where we find ourselves at the moment — on the cusp of phase two of the credit crunch, sliding into the same unavoidable constellation of conditions we saw in 2008, but on a much larger scale.

From ZIRP to NIRP

Interest rates have remained at extremely low levels, hardly distinguishable from zero, for the several years. This zero interest rate policy (ZIRP) is a reflection of both the extreme complacency as to risk during the rise into the peak of a major bubble, and increasingly acute pressure to keep the credit mountain growing through constant stimulation of demand for borrowing. The resulting search for yield in a world of artificially stimulated over-borrowing has lead to an extraordinary array of malinvestment across many sectors of the real economy. Ever more excess capacity is being built in a world facing a severe retrenchment in aggregate demand. It is this that is termed ‘recovery’, but rather than a recovery, it is a form of double jeopardy — an intensification of previous failed strategies in the hope that a different outcome will result. This is, of course, one definition of insanity.

Now that financial crisis conditions are developing again, policies are being implemented which amount to an even greater intensification of the old strategy. In many locations, notably those perceived to be safe havens, the benchmark is moving from a zero interest rate policy to a negative interest rate policy (NIRP), initially for bank reserves, but potentially for business clients (for instance in Holland and the UK). Individual savers would be next in line. Punishing savers, while effectively encouraging banks to lend to weaker, and therefore riskier, borrowers, creates incentives for both borrowers and lenders to continue the very behaviour that set the stage for financial crisis in the first place, while punishing the kind of responsibility that might have prevented it.

Risk is relative. During expansionary times, when risk perception is low almost across the board (despite actual risk steadily increasing), the risk premium that interest rates represent shows relatively little variation between different lenders, and little volatility. For instance, the interest rates on sovereign bonds across Europe, prior to financial crisis, were low and broadly similar for many years. In other words, credit spreads were very narrow during that time. Greece was able to borrow almost as easily and cheaply as Germany, as lenders bet that Europe’s strong economies would back the debt of its weaker parties. However, as collective psychology shifts from unity to fragmentation, risk perception increases dramatically, and risk distinctions of all kinds emerge, with widening credit spreads. We saw this happen in 2008, and it can be expected to be far more pronounced in the coming years, with credit spreads widening to record levels. Interest rate divergences create self-fulfilling prophecies as to relative default risk, against a backdrop of fear-driven high volatility.

Many risk distinctions can be made — government versus private debt, long versus short term, economic centre versus emerging markets, inside the European single currency versus outside, the European centre versus the troubled periphery, high grade bonds versus junk bonds etc. As the risk distinctions increase, the interest rate risk premiums diverge. Higher risk borrowers will pay higher premiums, in recognition of the higher default risk, but the higher premium raises the actual risk of default, leading to still higher premiums in a spiral of positive feedback. Increased risk perception thus drives actual risk, and may do so until the weak borrower is driven over the edge into insolvency. Similarly, borrowers perceived to be relative safe havens benefit from lower risk premiums, which in turn makes their debt burden easier to bear and lowers (or delays) their actual risk of default. This reduced risk of default is then reflected in even lower premiums. The risky become riskier and the relatively safe become relatively safer (which is not necessarily to say safe in absolute terms). Perception shapes reality, which feeds back into perception in a positive feedback loop.

 

The process of diverging risk perception is already underway, and it is generally the states seen as relatively safe where negative interest rates are being proposed or implemented. Negative rates are already in place for bank reserves held with the ECB and in a number of European states from 2012 onwards, notably Scandinavia and Switzerland. The desire for capital preservation has led to a willingness among those with capital to accept paying for the privilege of keeping it in ‘safe havens’. Note that perception of safety and actual safety are not equivalent. States at the peak of a bubble may appear to be at low risk, but in fact the opposite is true. At the peak of a bubble, there is nowhere to go but down, as Iceland and Ireland discovered in phase one of the financial crisis, and many others will discover as we move into phase two. For now, however, the perception of low risk is sufficient for a flight to safety into negative interest rate environments.

This situation serves a number of short term purposes for the states involved. Negative rates help to control destabilizing financial inflows at times when fear is increasingly driving large amounts of money across borders. A primary objective has been to reduce upward pressure on currencies outside the eurozone. The Swiss, Danish and Swedish currencies have all been experiencing currency appreciation, hence a desire to use negative interest rates to protect their exchange rate, and therefore the price of their exports, by encouraging foreigners to keep their money elsewhere. The Danish central bank’s sole mandate is to control the value of the currency against the euro. For a time, Switzerland pegged their currency directly to the euro, but found the cost of doing so to be prohibitive. For them, negative rates are a less costly attempt to weaken the currency without the need to defend a formal peg. In a world of competitive, beggar-thy-neighbour currency devaluations, negative interest rates are seen as a means to achieve or maintain an export advantage, and evidence of the growing currency war.

Negative rates are also intended to discourage saving and encourage both spending and investment. If savers must pay a penalty, spending or investment should, in theory, become more attractive propositions. The intention is to lead to more money actively circulating in the economy. Increasing the velocity of money in circulation should, in turn, provide price support in an environment where prices are flat to falling. (Mainstream commentators would describe this as as an attempt to increase ‘inflation’, by which they mean price increases, to the common target of 2%, but here at The Automatic Earth, we define inflation and deflation as an increase or decrease, respectively, in the money supply, not as an increase or decrease in prices.) The goal would be to stave off a scenario of falling prices where buyers would have an incentive to defer spending as they wait for lower prices in the future, starving the economy of circulating currency in the meantime. Expectations of falling prices create further downward price pressure, leading into a vicious circle of deepening economic depression. Preventing such expectations from taking hold in the first place is a major priority for central authorities.

Negative rates in the historical record are symptomatic of times of crisis when conventional policies have failed, and as such are rare. Their use is a measure of desperation:

First, a policy rate likely would be set to a negative value only when economic conditions are so weak that the central bank has previously reduced its policy rate to zero. Identifying creditworthy borrowers during such periods is unusually challenging. How strongly should banks during such a period be encouraged to expand lending?

However strongly banks are ‘encouraged’ to lend, willing borrowers and lenders are set to become‘endangered species’:

The goal of such rates is to force banks to lend their excess reserves. The assumption is that such lending will boost aggregate demand and help struggling economies recover. Using the same central bank logic as in 2008, the solution to a debt problem is to add on more debt. Yet, there is an old adage: you can bring a horse to water but you cannot make him drink! With the world economy sinking into recession, few banks have credit-worthy customers and many banks are having difficulties collecting on existing loans.
Italy’s non-performing loans have gone from about 5 percent in 2010 to over 15 percent today. The shale oil bust has left many US banks with over a trillion dollars of highly risky energy loans on their books. The very low interest rate environment in Japan and the EU has done little to spur demand in an environment full of malinvestments and growing government constraints.

Doing more of the same simply elevates the already enormous risk that a new financial crisis is right around the corner:

Banks rely on rates to make returns. As the former Bank of England rate-setter Charlie Bean has written in a recent paper for The Economic Journal, pension funds will struggle to make adequate returns, while fund managers will borrow a lot more to make profits. Mr Bean says: “All of this makes a leveraged ‘search for yield’ of the sort that marked the prelude to the crisis more likely.” This is not comforting but it is highly plausible: barely a decade on from the crash, we may be about to repeat it. This comes from tasking central bankers with keeping the world economy growing, even while governments have cut spending.

Experiences with Negative Interest Rates

The existing low interest rate environment has already caused asset price bubbles to inflate further, placing assets such as real estate ever more beyond the reach of ordinary people at the same time as hampering those same people attempting to build sufficient savings for a deposit. Negative interest rates provide an increased incentive for this to continue. In locations where the rates are already negative, the asset bubble effect has worsened. For instance, in Denmark negative interest rates have added considerable impetus to the housing bubble in Copenhagen, resulting in an ever larger pool over over-leveraged property owners exposed to the risks of a property price collapse and debt default:

Where do you invest your money when rates are below zero? The Danish experience says equities and the property market. The benchmark index of Denmark’s 20 most-traded stocks has soared more than 100 percent since the second quarter of 2012, which is just before the central bank resorted to negative rates. That’s more than twice the stock-price gains of the Stoxx Europe 600 and Dow Jones Industrial Average over the period. Danish house prices have jumped so much that Danske Bank A/S, Denmark’s biggest lender, says Copenhagen is fast becoming Scandinavia’s riskiest property market.

Considering that risky property markets are the norm in Scandinavia, Copenhagen represents an extreme situation:

“Property prices in Copenhagen have risen 40–60 percent since the middle of 2012, when the central bank first resorted to negative interest rates to defend the krone’s peg to the euro.”

This should come as no surprise: recall that there are documented cases where Danish borrowers are paid to take on debt and buy houses “In Denmark You Are Now Paid To Take Out A Mortgage”, so between rewarding debtors and punishing savers, this outcome is hardly shocking. Yet it is the negative rates that have made this unprecedented surge in home prices feel relatively benign on broader price levels, since the source of housing funds is not savings but cash, usually cash belonging to the bank.

 

The Swedish property market is similarly reaching for the sky. Like Japan at the peak of it’s bubble in the late 1980s, Sweden has intergenerational mortgages, with an average term of 140 years! Recent regulatory attempts to rein in the ballooning debt by reducing the maximum term to a ‘mere’ 105 years have been met with protest:

Swedish banks were quoted in the local press as opposing the move. “It isn’t good for the finances of households as it will make mortgages more expensive and the terms not as good. And it isn’t good for financial stability,” the head of Swedish Bankers’ Association was reported to say.

Apart from stimulating further leverage in an already over-leveraged market, negative interest rates do not appear to be stimulating actual economic activity:

If negative rates don’t spur growth — Danish inflation since 2012 has been negligible and GDP growth anemic — what are they good for?….Danish businesses have barely increased their investments, adding less than 6 percent in the 12 quarters since Denmark’s policy rate turned negative for the first time. At a growth rate of 5 percent over the period, private consumption has been similarly muted. Why is that? Simply put, a weak economy makes interest rates a less powerful tool than central bankers would like.

“If you’re very busy worrying about the economy and your job, you don’t care very much what the exact rate is on your car loan,” says Torsten Slok, Deutsche Bank’s chief international economist in New York.

Fueling inequality and profligacy while punishing responsible behaviour is politically unpopular, and the consequences, when they eventually manifest, will be even more so. Unfortunately, at the peak of a bubble, it is only continued financial irresponsibility that can keep a credit expansion going and therefore keep the financial system from abruptly crashing. The only things keeping the system ‘running on fumes’ as it currently is, are financial sleight-of-hand, disingenuous bribery and outright fraud. The price to pay is that the systemic risks continue to grow, and with it the scale of the impacts that can be expected when the risk is eventually realised. Politicians desperately wish to avoid those consequences occurring in their term of office, hence they postpone the inevitable at any cost for as long as physically possible.

The Zero Lower Bound and the Problem of Physical Cash

Central bankers attempting to stimulate the circulation of money in the economy through the use of negative interest rates have a number of problems. For starters, setting a low official rate does not necessarily mean that low rates will prevail in the economy, particularly in times of crisis:

The experience of the global financial crisis taught us that the type of shocks which can drive policy interest rates to the lower bound are also shocks which produce severe impairments to the monetary policy transmission mechanism. Suppose, for example, that the interbank market freezes and prevents a smooth transmission of the policy interest rate throughout the banking sector and financial markets at large. In this case, any cut in the policy rate may be almost completely ineffective in terms of influencing the macroeconomy and prices.

This is exactly what we saw in 2008, when interbank lending seized up due to the collapse of confidence in the banking sector. We have not seen this happen again yet, but it inevitably will as crisis conditions resume, and when it does it will illustrate vividly the limits of central bank power to control financial parameters. At that point, interest rates are very likely to spike in practice, with banks not trusting each other to repay even very short term loans, since they know what toxic debt is on their own books and rationally assume their potential counterparties are no better. Widening credit spreads would also lead to much higher rates on any debt perceived to be risky, which, increasingly, would be all debt with the exception of government bonds in the jurisdictions perceived to be safest. Low rates on high grade debt would not translate into low rates economy-wide. Given the extent of private debt, and the consequent vulnerability to higher interest rates across the developed world, an interest rate spike following the NIRP period would be financially devastating.

The major issue with negative rates in the shorter term is the ability to escape from the banking system into physical cash. Instead of causing people to spend, a penalty on holding savings in a banks creates an incentive for them to withdraw their funds and hold cash under their own control, thereby avoiding both the penalty and the increasing risk associated with the banking system:

Western banking systems are highly illiquid, meaning that they have very low cash equivalents as a percentage of customer deposits….Solvency in many Western banking systems is also highly questionable, with many loaded up on the debts of their bankrupt governments. Banks also play clever accounting games to hide the true nature of their capital inadequacy. We live in a world where questionably solvent, highly illiquid banks are backed by under capitalized insurance funds like the FDIC, which in turn are backed by insolvent governments and borderline insolvent central banks. This is hardly a risk-free proposition. Yet your reward for taking the risk of holding your money in a precarious banking system is a rate of return that is substantially lower than the official rate of inflation.

In other words, negative rates encourage an arbitrage situation favouring cash. In an environment of few good investment opportunities, increasing recognition of risk and a rising level of fear, a desire for large scale cash withdrawal is highly plausible:

From a portfolio choice perspective, cash is, under normal circumstances, a strictly dominated asset, because it is subject to the same inflation risk as bonds but, in contrast to bonds, it yields zero return. It has also long been known that this relationship would be reversed if the return on bonds were negative. In that case, an investor would be certain of earning a profit by borrowing at negative rates and investing the proceedings in cash. Ignoring storage and transportation costs, there is therefore a zero lower bound (ZLB) on nominal interest rates.

Zero is the lower bound for nominal interest rates if one would want to avoid creating such an incentive structure, but in a contractionary environment, zero is not low enough to make borrowing and lending attractive. This is because, while the nominal rate might be zero, the real rate (the nominal rate minus negative inflation) can remain high, or perhaps very high, depending on how contractionary the financial landscape becomes. As Keynes observed, attempting to stimulate demand for money by lowering interest rates amounts to ‘pushing on a piece of string‘. Central authorities find themselves caught in the liquidity trap, where monetary policy ceases to be effective:

Many big economies are now experiencing ‘deflation’, where prices are falling. In the euro zone, for instance, the main interest rate is at 0.05% but the “real” (or adjusted for inflation) interest rate is considerably higher, at 0.65%, because euro-area inflation has dropped into negative territory at -0.6%. If deflation gets worse then real interest rates will rise even more, choking off recovery rather than giving it a lift.

If nominal rates are sufficiently negative to compensate for the contractionary environment, real rates could, in theory, be low enough to stimulate the velocity of money, but the more negative the nominal rate, the greater the incentive to withdraw physical cash. Hoarded cash would reduce, instead of increase, the velocity of money. In practice, lowering rates can be moderately reflationary, provided there remains sufficient economic optimism for people to see the move in a positive light. However, sending rates into negative territory at a time pessimism is dominant can easily be interpreted as a sign of desperation, and therefore as confirmation of a negative outlook. Under such circumstances, the incentives to regard the banking system as risky, to withdraw physical cash and to hoard it for a rainy day increase substantially. Not only does the money supply fail to grow, as new loans are not made, but the velocity of money falls as money is hoarded, thereby aggravating a deflationary spiral:

A decline in the velocity of money increases deflationary pressure. Each dollar (or yen or euro) generates less and less economic activity, so policymakers must pump more money into the system to generate growth. As consumers watch prices decline, they defer purchases, reducing consumption and slowing growth. Deflation also lifts real interest rates, which drives currency values higher. In today’s mercantilist, beggar-thy-neighbour world of global trade, a strong currency is a headwind to exports. Obviously, this is not the desired outcome of policymakers. But as central banks grasp for new, stimulative tools, they end up pushing on an ever-lengthening piece of string.

 

Japan has been in the economic doldrums, with pessimism dominant, for over 25 years, and the population has become highly sceptical of stimulation measures intended to lead to recovery. The negative interest rates introduced there (described as ‘economic kamikaze’) have had a very different effect than in Scandinavia, which is still more or less at the peak of its bubble and therefore much more optimistic. Unfortunately, lowering interest rates in times of collective pessimism has a poor record of acting to increase spending and stimulate the economy, as Japan has discovered since their bubble burst in 1989:

For about a quarter of a century the Japanese have proved to be fanatical savers, and no matter how low the Bank of Japan cuts rates, they simply cannot be persuaded to spend their money, or even invest it in the stock market. They fear losing their jobs; they fear a further fall in shares or property values; they have no confidence in the investment opportunities in front of them. So pathological has this psychology grown that they would rather see the value of their savings fall than spend the cash. That draining of confidence after the collapse of the 1980s “bubble” economy has depressed Japanese growth for decades.

Fear is a very sharp driver of behaviour — easily capable of over-riding incentives designed to promote spending and investment:

When people are fearful they tend to save; and when they become especially fearful then they save even more, even if the returns on their savings are extremely low. Much the same goes for businesses, and there are increasing reports of them “hoarding” their profits rather than reinvesting them in their business, such is the great “uncertainty” around the world economy. Brexit obviously only added to the fears and misgivings about the future.

Deflation is so difficult to overcome precisely because of its strong psychological component. When the balance of collective psychology tips from optimism, hope and greed to pessimism and fear, everything is perceived differently. Measures intended to restore confidence end up being interpreted as desperation, and therefore get little or no traction. As such initiatives fail, their failure becomes conformation of a negative bias, which increases the power of that bias, causing more stimulus initiatives to fail. The resulting positive feedback loop creates and maintains a vicious circle, both economically and socially:

There is a strong argument that when rates go negative it squeezes the speed at which money circulates through the economy, commonly referred to by economists as the velocity of money. We are already seeing this happen in Japan where citizens are clamouring for ¥10,000 bills (and home safes to store them in). People are taking their money out of the banking system to stuff it under their metaphorical mattresses. This may sound extreme, but whether paper money is stashed in home safes or moved into transaction substitutes or other stores of value like gold, the point is it’s not circulating in the economy. The empirical data support this view — the velocity of money has declined precipitously as policymakers have moved aggressively to reduce rates.

Physical cash under one’s own control is increasingly seen as one of the primary escape routes for ordinary people fearing the resumption of the 2008 liquidity crunch, and its popularity as a store of value is increasing steadily, with demand for cash rising more rapidly than GDP in a wide range of countries:

While cash’s use is in continual decline, claims that it is set to disappear entirely may be premature, according to the Bank of England….The Bank estimates that 21pc to 27pc of everyday transactions last year were in cash, down from between 34pc and 45pc at the turn of the millennium. Yet simultaneously the demand for banknotes has risen faster than the total amount of spending in the economy, a trend that has only become more pronounced since the mid-1990s. The same phenomenon has been seen internationally, in the US, eurozone, Australia and Canada….

….The prevalence of hoarding has also firmed up the demand for physical money. Hoarders are those who “choose to save their money in a safety deposit box, or under the mattress, or even buried in the garden, rather than placing it in a bank account”, the Bank said. At a time when savings rates have not turned negative, and deposits are guaranteed by the government, this kind of activity seems to defy economic theory. “For such action to be considered as rational, those that are hoarding cash must be gaining a non-financial benefit,” the Bank said. And that benefit must exceed the returns and security offered by putting that hoarded cash in a bank deposit account. A Bank survey conducted last year found that 18pc of people said they hoarded cash largely “to provide comfort against potential emergencies”.

This would suggest that a minimum of £3bn is hoarded in the UK, or around £345 a person. A government survey conducted in 2012 suggested that the total number might be higher, at £5bn….

…..But Bank staff believe that its survey results understate the extent of hoarding, as “the sensitivity of the subject” most likely affects the truthfulness of hoarders. “Based on anecdotal evidence, a small number of people are thought to hoard large values of cash.” The Bank said: “As an illustrative example, if one in every thousand adults in the United Kingdom were to hoard as much as £100,000, this would account for around £5bn — nearly 10pc of notes in circulation.” While there may be newer and more convenient methods of payment available, this strong preference for cash as a safety net means that it is likely to endure, unless steps are taken to discourage its use.

Part 2 is here





This is the big one……

11 02 2016

This article from The Great Recession Blog just arrived in my news feed, straight from Nicole Foss no less…… written by David Haggith, it’s an amazing read, and you better hang onto your seat, we’re in for a pretty wild ride.

 

 

DavidHaggith-269x300

David Haggith

Only a couple of weeks ago, I said we were entering the jaws of the Epocalypse. Now we are sliding rapidly down the great beast’s throat toward its cavernous belly. The biggest economic collapse the world has ever seen is consuming everything — all commodities, all industries, all national economies, all monetary systems, and eventually all peace and stability. This is the mother of all recessions.

That’s a big statement to swallow, especially when many don’t see the beast because we’re already inside of it. You need to look down from 100,000 feet up in order to observe the scale of this monster that is rising up out of the sea and to see how rapidly it is enveloping the globe and how the world’s collapse into its throat is accelerating. The belly of this leviathan is a swirling black hole, composed of all the word’s debts, that is large enough to swallow every economy on earth.

Mexican retail billionaire Hugo Salinas Price has looked long into the stomach of this mammoth, and this is what he has seen:

 

[Global] debt [as a percentage of GDP] peaked in August of 2014. I’ve been watching this for 20 years, and I have never seen anything like it. It was always growing, and now something has changed. A big change of this sort is an enormous event. I think it portends a new trend, and that trend will be to get out of debt. Deleverage and pay down debt. That is, of course, a contraction. Contraction means depression. The world is going into a depression. It’s going to get very nasty. (USAWatchdog)

 

So, let’s step back and look at the big picture in order to see how immense this thing is: (One thing that you’ll notice is common in the statements of many sources below is comparisons to 2008, when we first entered the Great Recession. You hear that comparison every day now, which says many people feel that, after piling on trillions of dollars and trillions of euros and trillions of ___ in debt to save ourselves, we are right back where we started … but exhausted from the effort.)

 


Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy


 

Toxic debt flush heard round the world

 

As Hugo Salinas Price warns, toxic debt may have hit a ceiling where it has stopped going up because individuals, industries, and now nations have reached real debt limits they cannot support. According to the New York Times, toxic loans around the world are weighing heavily on global growth:

 

Beneath the surface of the global financial system lurks a multitrillion-dollar problem that could sap the strength of large economies for years to come. The problem is the giant, stagnant pool of loans that companies and people around the world are struggling to pay back. Bad debts have been a drag on economic activity ever since the financial crisis of 2008, but in recent months, the threat posed by an overhang of bad loans appears to be rising.

 

The Times lists China as leading the world for personal and industrial bad debt at $5 trillion, which in terms of its economy is half of China’s GDP. As a result of hitting this ceiling, Chinese banks reeled in lending in the last month of 2015.

And this is just bad debt. It does not include debts that are being properly paid or China’s national debts. These are the loans already failing. Likewise with the global debt problem The Times is writing about. Bad loans in Europe, for example, total about $1 trillion. Again, that’s just the loans that are already falling into the abyss.

Many national debts are more than the entire annual GDP of the nation, including the enormous US national debt, which will reach $20,000,000,000,000 by the time the next president takes office. (You can’t even see wide enough to focus on that many zeroes at the same time. The “2” gets lost in your peripheral vision.) And many places like Greece and Brazil and Puerto Rico are defaulting on their debts.

The United State’s debt alone is only payable so long as interest rates stay near zero; but rates are now rising, and the number of financiers has greatly retreated. The only thing to save the US from its toppling debt problem in the short term may be that people all over the world run to the shelter of US bonds when everything else is caving into the black hole.

 


Between Debt and the Devil: Money, Credit, and Fixing Global Finance. One of Financial Times Best Economics Books of 2015. “A devastating critique of the banking system. Most credit is not needed for economic growth — but it drives real estate booms and busts and leads to financial crisis and depression.”


 

Bulls become bears

 

The first sign that this global change is now consuming the US is in how many of the market’s permabulls are becoming neobears and which sizable institutions are making the switch quickly. Citi has been bullish over the years, but now they have stepped out of the back half of the bull suit and put on a toothy bear suit, expecting oil to drop to the mid-twenties and geopolitical change that “is maybe unprecedented for the last decades”:

 

The global economy seems trapped in a “death spiral” that could lead to further weakness in oil prices, recession and a serious equity bear market, Citi … strategists have warned…. “The stakes are high, perhaps higher than they have ever been in the post-World War II era.”(Yahoo)

 

Here’s a 100,000-foot-high look at the US stock market that is now swirling down the throat of the beast: Last year, the number of stock dividend reductions surpassed 2008. In fact, 2015’s number of cuts — now that the year is barely past — was 35% higher than the number of cuts going into the Great Recession. That gives you some sense of the scale of corporate pain that is just starting to be felt. Companies cut dividends when they have less profit to share with their owners. Bloomberg referred to it as “equity investors … suffered death by 394 cuts.”

Another high-view snapshot of corporate collapse can be see everywhere in US retail: Walmart, Macy’s, J.C. Penny’s, K-Mart, The Gap and many smaller retailers have all announced a large number of store closures and layoffs to come.

US Corporate earnings across all industries are on track for their third quarter in a row of year-on-year declines. That is an ominous signal because back-to-back periods of decline for just two quarters are always followed by a decline of, at least, 20% (a bear market) in the S&P 500.

 

This weakness in overall corporate earnings growth could bode badly for the broader stock market, as it represents the actual impact of geopolitical concerns, the slowdown in China, the weakness in oil prices and productivity, said Karyn Cavanaugh, senior market strategiest at Voya Investment Management. “Earnings discount all the noise…. It’s the best unbiased view of what’s going on in the global economy.” (MarketWatch)

 

As earnings fall, the much watched price-earnings ratio gets more top-heavy, putting pressure on stocks to fall. Thus, on Friday:

 

The willingness of U.S. stock investors to abide price-earnings ratios stretching into three and four digits all but ended Friday as the Nasdaq Composite Index fell to its lowest since October 2014. The … tumble in American equities turned into a full-blown selloff in stocks with the highest valuation. The Nasdaq Internet Index sank 5.2 percent, as Facebook Inc. lost 5.8 percent. (NewsMax)

 

The most significant part of this picture is that tech stocks have finally started making the big drop with the few that have been holding the stock market’s average up being the ones now taking the biggest plunge. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft are all falling fast. LinkedIn is getting “destroyed.” The time at the top is over, which leaves the market with zero levitation. Therefore, it’s no surprise that we saw another major sell-off on Monday.

Said USA Today, Bye, Bye Internet Bubble 2.0,” calling this “the worst start of a year for technology stocks since the Great Recession.

 

Collapse of the petrodollar opening sink holes everywhere

 

It’s no secret that Russia has outlawed trading oil in dollars among its satellite nations and that China and Russia trade in yuan now, not dollars, but Iran is the latest to stick it to the US, announcing that it will no longer trade oil in US dollars either but will sell its oil only for euros. So, we have the gargantyuan and the petroeuro, taking major bites out of the petrodollar now. China and Russia have also been divesting from US treasuries for some time and investing in gold, something I started point out here a few years ago.

All of this means that the US dollar is rapidly ceasing to be the trade currency of the world, and that prized status is the only thing that has made the US national debt manageable over the years, as the high demand for trade dollars guarantees low interest on the most colossal debt in the world because national treasuries and businesses sop up US bonds as a safe way to store trade dollars. The Federal Reserve has become the buyer of last resort for US debt; but it has maxed out.

The move away from the petrodollar is momentous. Losing its status as the reserve currency of the world will take a massive bite out of US superpower status, and that, of course, is exactly what Russia, China and Iran are counting on. With so many countries now trading oil exclusively in non-dollar currencies, one has to wonder how much longer overstretched Saudi Arabia can hold out as an oil supplier that trades oil only in dollars. Most likely they will feel a lot of economic pressure to start trading in other currencies, especially now that US support of Saudi Arabia appears to have weakened.

Iran’s announcement may be why the dollar dropped drastically in value last week. The high value of the dollar makes oil very expensive to other nations, who have to convert their low-valued currency to dollars to buy oil. This is surely another reason the price of oil has been falling, though almost no one talks about it … almost as if the economic geniuses of the world can’t figure this simple relationship out. As nations compete to lower the value of their currency with zero interest policies and quantitative easing, they are burying the petrodollar.

In nations with currencies priced very low compared to the dollar, oil is like an American export — too expensive for people in that nation to afford, causing demand to fall off and, thus, further increasing the problem of oversupply and lowering the price of oil. This creates another big reason for many nations to want to stop trading oil in dollars.

I’ve been reporting on this site for a few years now on this global campaign to kill the petrodollar, and that campaign is finally nearing maturity. For the US, it will mark a horrible transformation in the world, as it will hugely erode US superpower status because it will become much more difficult to finance a massive military machine.

 

The banks that are too-big-to-fail are falling FAST!

 

Deutsch Bank‘s derivative bonds (the kind that caused the Great Recession) are pealing away. The top-tier bonds of Germany’s largest bank have lost about 20% since the start of the year. Investors are fleeing as tumbling profits cause them to doubt the issuer’s ability to support the coupon payments on the bonds. InvestmentWatch reports that “Deutsche Bank is shaking to its foundations” and asks “is a new banking crisis around the corner?” DB stock has fallen off its high last July by 50%.

By how much is Deutsch Bank too big to fall? DB’s exposure to derivatives is over 55-trillion euros. That’s five times more than the GDP of the entire Eurozone or three times the amount of debt the United States has accumulated since it was founded. Its CEO says publicly he’d rather be somewhere else. Looking up at a leaning tower like that, I imagine so.

As DB bleeds red ink from its throat, its cries to the European Central Bank are burbled in blood. DB has warned the central bank that zero-interest-rate policies and quantitative easing are now killing bank stocks, but that didn’t stop giddy ECB president, Murio Draghi, from announcing a lot more easing to come … as much as it takes. As much as it takes to what? Kill all of Europe’s banks now that stimulus is working in reverse with negative interest making new money in reserves expensive to hang on to?

Is the ECB waging war on it major banks, or is it just too dumb to realize that QE is far beyond the high point on the bell curve of diminishing returns to where it is now killing stock values while doing nothing to boost the economy? (Hence, the move to negative interest rates to go to the ultimate extreme of easing because you have to push the accelerator through the floor when returns are diminishing that fast). As ZeroHedge has said, we are now entering a “monetary twilight zone”where …

 

Europe’s largest bank is openly defying central bank policy and demanding an end to easy money. Alas, since tighter monetary policy assures just as much if not more pain, one can’t help but wonder just how the central banks get themselves out of this particular trap they set up for themselves.

 

Credit Suisse reported a loss of 6.4 billion Swiss francs for the fourth quarter of 2015, suffering from its exposure to leveraged loans and bad acquisitions.

 

DoubleLine Capital’s Jeffrey Gundlach said it’s “frightening” to see major financial stocks trading at prices below their financial crisis levels…. “Do you know that Credit Suisse, which is a powerhouse bank, their stock price is lower than it was in the depths of the financial crisis in 2009?” (NewMax)

 

Credit Suisse has announced it will cut 4,000 jobs after posting its first quarterly loss since 2008. The Stoxx Europe 600 Banks Index has also posted its longest string of weekly losses since 2008, having posted six straight weeks of decline. The European Central Bank’s calculus says banks in Europe should be benefiting from QE, but it’s clearly lost all of its mojo or is now  actually more detrimental than good like a megadose of potent medicine. Negative interest rates are particularly taking a toll because banks have to pay interest on their reserves, instead of making interest.

Banks have rapidly become so troubled that NewsMax ran the following headline “Bank Selloffs Replacing Oil Rout as Stock Market Pressure Point.”  In other words, bank stocks are not just falling; they are falling at a rate that is causing fear contagion to other stocks. It’s not easy these days to beat out oil as a cause of further sell-offs in the stock market.

How quickly we moved from a world of commodity collapse to what now appears to be morphing into a banking collapse like we saw in 2008. Financial stocks overall have lost $350 billion just since 2016 began. Volatility in bank shares has spiked to levels not seen since … well, once again, 2008.

Consider how big the derivatives market is — that new investment vehicle that turned into such a pernicious demon in 2007 and 2008 because they are so complicated almost no one understands what they are buying and because they mix a little toxic debt throughout, like reducing the cancer in one part of the body by spreading its cells evenly everywhere. Instead of learning from the first crash into the Great Recession, we have run full speed into expanding this market. Estimates of the value of derivatives in the market range half a quadrillion dollars to one-and-a-half quadrillion dollars (depending on what you count and whether you go by how much was invested into them or their face value). Either way, that’s a behemoth number of derivatives floating around the world, many of them carrying their own little attachment of metastasizing toxins! (That’s, at least, a thousand trillions! More than ten times the entire GDP of the world.)

Still think 2016 isn’t the Year of the Epocalypse? Well, if you do, the rest of the ride will convince you soon enough. If I were the Fed, I’d be really, really worried that my star-spangled recovery plan was starting to look more like Mothra in flames.

 

The oil spillover

 

But don’t think oil is loosing its shine as a market killer. Another bearish prediction by Citi, now that it has change suits, is to expect “Oilmegeddon.” (Hmm, sounds like something that would be found in an epocalypse to me.)

 

“It seems reasonable to assume that another year of extreme moves in U.S. dollar (higher) and oil/commodity prices (lower) would likely continue to drive this negative feedback loop and make it very difficult for policy makers in emerging markets and developing markets to fight disinflationary forces and intercept downside risks,” the analysts add. “Corporate profits and equity markets would also likely suffer further downside risk in this scenario of Oilmageddon….We should all fear Oilmageddon,” Citi concludes. “Global recession, as we define it, would leave nowhere to hide in equities. Cash wins.” (NewsMax)

 

In the first months of the crash in oil prices, most analysts felt that the only companies that would be seriously hurt would be marginal fracking companies — the speculative little guys jumping into the oil shale. Now that fourth-quarter results are coming in from the world’s largest refineries, we find that isn’t true:

 

British Petroleum kicked off the European oil and gas reporting season with an ugly set of fourth-quarter results. The company reported a sharp drop in earnings for the fourth quarter. It’s own measure of underlying profit dropped 91%.… All of this is a recipe for two things — more cost cutting and more job cuts… What’s worrying for investors is that the first quarter, so far, doesn’t look much better. (MarketWatch)

 

That’s massive. BP has already announced the elimination of 7,000 jobs. Chevron and Shell also saw profit declines. Royal Dutch Shell has announced it will be making 10,000 job cuts.

If that’s how bad things got during the fourth quarter of 2015, imagine how bad they will get this quarter now that oil prices have gone down a lot more. Hence, the talk of “Oilmageddon.”

As if the industry wasn’t already burning up, President Obama is trying to impose a $10 carbon tax on each barrel of oil. At today’s oil prices, that is a 30% tax. At tomorrow’s prices, it may be a 50% tax! One has to wonder how far out of touch economically, a president can get in order to propose a hefty tax like that at a time like this.

Naturally, oil magnate T. Boone Pickens calls it “the dumbest idea ever.” While I have a general hatred for gigantic oil companies, especially since gasoline prices in my area have not dropped much, I have to agree that a $10/barrel carbon tax could cinch the noose around the neck of an already strangle industry.

Maybe that’s the plan. While the tax would hit the end user more, no tax helps an industry thrive.

 

The Epocalypse swallows everything whole

 

The reason the Epocalypse is going to be a far worse bloodbath than the first plunge into the Great Recession is that all of the central banks of the world have, by their own admission now, “exhausted their ammunition” to fight back against another recession. Back at the start of the Fed’s Goliath recovery plan, I posited that we would be falling back into the abyss right at the time when all central banks had exhausted their strength and when all nations had maxed their debt.

Here we are.

Many central banks are already doing negative interest; yet, their economies are still sinking. It appears that more negative interest could actually sink them faster by eroding their banks with internal ulcers. It will certainly require going cashless in order for those banks to start handing the negative interest down to their customers. They have to absorb the cost of negative interest if they cannot loan out their funds fast enough. That’s why some banks are now pleading with their government’s for a cashless solution … so they can prevent their customers from switching to the cash-under-the-mattress exit plan.

The world faces a tsunami of epochal defaults. William White, former economist for the International Bank of Settlements, says,

 

Debts have continued to build up over the last eight years and they have reached such levels in every part of the world that they have become a potent cause for mischief…. It was always dangerous to rely on central banks to sort out a solvency problem … It is a recipe for disorder, and now we are hitting the limit… It will become obvious in the next recession that many of these debts will never be serviced or repaid, and this will be uncomfortable for a lot of people who think they own assets that are worth something. (The Telegraph)

 

We have finally reached that time in our decades of astronomical debt-based economic expansion where it is time to pay the piper. We traveled blithely along many decades on currency cushions filled with hot air. In an article titled, “Debt, defaults, and devaluations: why this market crash is like nothing we’ve seen before,” The Telegraph says,

 

A pernicious cycle of collapsing commodities, corporate defaults, and currency wars loom over the global economy. Can anything stop it from unravelling…? Commodity prices have crashed by two thirds since their peaks in 2014…. China, the emerging world, and financial markets – are all brewing to create a perfect storm in a global economy that has barely come to terms with the Great Recession…. “We are in a very unusual situation where market sentiment is of a different nature to anything we’ve seen before.”

 

Yes, this is the big one. The times we now face are the reason I started writing this blog four+ years ago. The Federal Reserve’s Goliath recovery plan was cloned all over the world for seven years, and for seven years all nations have done nothing to rethink their debt-based economic structures that are now cracking and groaning and falling into … the Epocalypse.





Raul Ilargi at his best……

23 01 2016

Square Holes and Currency Pegs

When David Bowie died, everybody, in what they wrote and said, seemed to feel they owned him, and owned his death, even if they hadn’t thought about him, or listened to him, for years. In the same vein, though the Automatic Earth has been talking about deflation (for 8 years, it’s our anniversary today) and the looming China Ponzi disaster for a long time, now that these things actually play out, everybody talks as if they own the story, and present it as new (because, for one thing, well, after all for them it is new…).

And that’s alright, it’s how people live, and function, they always have, and no-one’s going to change that. It’s just that for me, I’ve been wondering a little about what to write lately, because I’ve already written the deflation and China stories, many times, before most others tuned into them. But still, it’s strange to now, as markets start plunging, read things like ‘Deflation is Here’, as if deflation is something new on the block.

Deflation has been playing out for years. Central bank largesse has largely kept it at bay in the public eye, but that now seems over. Debt deflation is inevitable when -debt- bubbles burst, and when these bubbles are large enough, there’s nothing that can stop the process, not even miracle growth. But you’re not going to understand this if and when you look only at falling prices as the main sign of deflation; they’re merely a small part of the process, and a lagging one at that.

A much better indicator of deflation is the velocity of money, the speed at which ‘consumers’ spend money. And velocity has been going down for years. That’s where and how you notice deflation, when combined with the money and credit supply. Which have soared in most places, but were no match for a much faster declining velocity. People have much less money to spend. Which shouldn’t be a surprise if, just to name an example, new US jobs pay 23% less than the ones they’re -supposedly- replacing.

As I said a few weeks ago, it’s probably only fitting, given its pivotal role in our economies and societies, that it’s oil that’s leading the way down. Other commodities are not far behind, because demand for -and spending on- them has been plummeting too, as overproduction and overinvestment, especially in China, do the rest.

However you look at present global debt, percentage wise, or in absolute numbers, you name it, there’s never been anything like it. We outdid ourselves by so much we don’t have the rational or probably even subconscious ability to oversee what we’ve done. We live in the world’s biggest bubble ever by a margin of god only knows how much. And that bubble will deflate. It is already doing just that.

The next steps in the debt deflation process will of necessity be chaotic. A substantial part of that chaos is bound to emerge from denial, and the reluctance to accept reality. Which often rise from a poor understanding of the processes taking place. It certainly looks as if there’s lots of that in China, where both the working principles of financial markets and the grip authorities -can- have on them, seem to be met with a huge dose of incomprehension.

Mind you, given the levels of comprehension vs outright ‘theoretical religion’ among leading western politicians and economists, the ones who most often rise to decision-making positions in governments and financial institutions, we have nothing on China when it comes to truth and denial.

From all that follows what will be the next leg down in the ‘magnificent slump’: the awfully messy demise of currency pegs.

In a short explainer for the uninitiated, allow me to steal a few words from Investopedia: “There are two types of currency exchange rates—floating and fixed, still in existence. Major currencies, such as the Japanese yen, euro, and the US dollar, are floating currencies—their values change according to how the currency is being traded on forex markets. Fixed currencies, on the other hand, derive value by being fixed (or pegged) to another currency.”

While there are more currency pegs in the world today than we should care to mention -there are dozens-, it seems fair to say that in today’s deflationary environment, practically all are under siege. Most African currencies are pegged to the euro, and they do have to wonder how smart that is going forward. Still, the main, and immediate, problems seem to arise in pegs to the US dollar (with one interesting exception: the Swiss franc – more in a bit).

Most oil producing Gulf nations are pegged to the greenback. So is Hong Kong. And, for all intents and purposes, so is China, though you have to wonder what a peg truly is if you change it on a daily basis. China is on its way to a peg vs a basket of currencies, but that seriously interferes with its stated intention to become a reserve currency -of sorts-. If your currency can’t stand on its own two feet, i.e. float, you’re per definition weak.

China’s vice president Li Yuanchao said this week in Davos that Beijing has no plans to devalue the yuan, i.e. to cut the peg to the dollar. Then again, he also stated that “central command” would ‘look after’ stock market investors. Put the two statements together and you have to wonder what the one on the yuan (couldn’t help myself there) is worth.

The first “link in the chain” that appears vulnerable is the Hong Kong dollar, which is stuck between China and the US, and unlike the yuan still has a solid dollar peg, but, obviously, also has a strong link to the yuan. The issue is that if China continues on its current course of daily small yuan devaluations, the difference with the HKD will grow so large that ever more investments and savings will move to Hong Kong, despite a maze of laws designed to keep just that from happening.

And that is the overall danger to currency pegs as they still exist in today’s rapidly changing global financial world: all economies are falling, but some are falling -much- faster than others.

Not so long ago, the World Bank called on Saudi Arabia to defend its USD peg with its FX reserves. It even looked as if they meant it. But Saudi Arabia has no choice but to deplete those reserves to prevent other nasty things from happening that are much more important than a currency peg. Like social chaos.

It’s somewhat wonderfully ironic that the main most recent experience with abandoning a peg comes from a source that faced -and now feels- the exact opposite of what nations like Saudi Arabia and China do. That is, it became too costly and risky for Switzerland to keep its franc pegged (or ‘capped’, to be precise) to the euro any longer a year ago, because of upward, not downward pressure.

Since then, the euro went from 1.20 franc to 1.09 or thereabouts, which perhaps doesn’t look all that crazy, and many ‘experts’ seek to downplay the effects of the move, but it’s still estimated to have cost the Swiss some $25 billion. For comparison, the US has 40 times as many people as Switzerland’s 8 million, so the per capita bill would be close to $1 trillion stateside. That wouldn’t have added to Yellen’s popularity. Currency pegs and caps can be expensive hobbies.

And that’s why the Saudis and Chinese are so anxious about letting go of their pegs. That and pride. In their cases, their respective currencies wouldn’t, like the franc, rise versus the one they’re pegged to, they would instead lose a lot of value. And in the fake markets we live in today, where price discovery has long since been left behind, there’s no telling how much. Well, unless they seek to keep control, but then it would be just a matter of time until they need to rinse and repeat.

Even if it seems obvious to make a particular move, and if everybody knows you really should, showing what can be perceived as real weakness could be a killer when everything else around you is manipulated to the bone.

Still, neither Beijing nor Riyadh stand a chance in a frozen-over hell, to ultimately NOT sharply devalue their currencies or just simply let go of their pegs. Simply because China’s economy is falling to pieces, and the Saudi’s dependence on oil prices is dragging it into a financial gutter. Just look at what falling prices had done to the riyal vs non-pegged oil producer currencies by October 2015, when Brent was still at $45:

The Saudis could have been paid for their oil in a currency worth perhaps twice as much as their own, the one their domestic economy runs on. That’s overly simplistic, because the Saudi tie to the USD runs far and deep, but that doesn’t make it untrue.

What will bring down the Chinese and Saudi pegs, along with a long list of other pegs, is, how appropriately, the very same markets they’ve been relying on to NOT function. The bets against Hong Kong’s ability to maintain its USD peg have already started, and China is next, along with the House of Saud (the latter two just take more fire-power). Which of course is exactly why they speak their soothing ‘confident’ words. Words that are today interpreted as the very sign of weakness they’re meant to circumvent.

What worked for George Soros in his bet vs the Bank of England and the pound sterling in 1992, will work again unless these countries are ahead of the game and swallow their pride and -ultimately- smaller losses.

Granted, so much will have to be recalibrated if the yuan devalues by 50% or so, and the riyal does something similar (it’s very hard to see either not happening), that it will take some serious time before everyone knows where they -and others- stand. And since volatility tends to feed on itself once there’s enough of it, it seems to make sense that governments would seek control. But that doesn’t mean they -can- actually have any.

Today’s major currency pegs are remnants of a land of long ago lore; they have no place in this world, they are financial misfits. Who’ve been allowed to persist only because central banks and governments have been able to distort markets for as long as they have. But that ability is not infinite, and it’s in nobody’s longer term interest that it would be.

Not even those that now seem to profit most from it. We will end up with societies that function no better for the ridiculous Davos elites than they do for the bottom rung. But no elite will ever see that, let alone admit it voluntarily.

Deflation and foreign exchange chaos. There’s your future. As for stocks and oil, who’s left to buy any? Not the consumer who’s 70% of US and perhaps 60% of EU GDP, they’re maxed out on private debt. So why would investors put their money in either? And if they don’t, where do you see prices go?

Even more importantly, deflation makes a lot of money, and even much more virtual money, vanish into overnight thin air. That’s what everyone is running into when all these currencies, China, Saudi, Gulf states et al, are forced to recalibrate. $17 trillion disappeared from global equities markets in the past 6 months.

How much vanished from the value of ‘official’ oil reserves? How much from iron ore and aluminum? How much do all the world’s behemoth corporations and banks and commodity-exporting countries have their resource ‘wealth’ on their books for in their sunny creative accounting models? And how much of that is just thin hot air too?

We’re about to find out.





Three Evils of Capitalism

24 02 2015

Reblogged from https://leftymathprof.wordpress.com/3evils/

(Read the essay, or watch the 14 minute video version here in this little box, or on its Youtube page, or full-screen.)

Poverty and war have tormented us for ages, but they won’t for much longer; soon we will be forced to choose between harmony and extinction. Any compromise between those two extremes is nearing an end, because information and ecocide are both growing toward tipping points. And the new vision we need for survival is uncomplicated but also unfamiliar, especially regarding economics.

When people blame the problems of the world on “unregulated capitalism” or “predatory capitalism,” they are implying that capitalism itself is a good and healthy thing. They are implying that we have merely strayed from its sound principles into corruption, a superficial problem that can be cleaned up through reform. But these reformists are mistaken. They have not seen the world as it is; they have not understood what the principles really are. The evils of inequality, externalities, and alienation are inherent in any market economy. To halt the torment and destruction, we’ll have to learn how to share. That didn’t work in some previous attempts, but that just means we’ll have to try doing it differently; the reasons for doing it are still valid. Forcing it on people won’t work, so a change in law won’t be enough; we need a change in culture.

The problem is not “unregulated capitalism.” Writing regulations more carefully will not save us. Satan’s army of lawyers can find him a loophole whenever he wants to escape one of his contracts. And our plutocracy simply disregards its contracts — just look at all of the US government’s violations of its own laws. Money erodes its way through regulations as surely as water finds a way downhill. Any separation between government and big business, between regulators and regulated, is illusory: They share a revolving door, and sometimes a bed. The only way to avoid rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class.

And fighting against one Monsanto or Halliburton at a time is futile. It’s like Hercules fighting the Hydra: Each time he cut off one head, two more grew in its place. We must look deeper, to what Monsanto’s poisons and Halliburton’s wars have in common.

When Neo awakened from The Matrix, physical reality changed for him, but that film was only a metaphor. When we awaken from the propaganda all around us, physical objects are not changed, but their significance is changed, and our history and expectations are vastly changed.

The old world is dying; we must move on to the new world being born. How will we make the great change? I don’t know the details of that. But it has already begun; you can see it in the peaceful demonstrators being beaten by police. Awareness and understanding are spreading, and our foremost tactic must be to spread them further. When enough people see what is really going on, we will unite, and we will find a way to change things, and the violence will end.

1st evil:   INEQUALITY (3:30 in video)

The data in Thomas Piketty’s recent book shows that increasing economic inequality is a normal trend in capitalism, not an aberration. The problem is deeper than debt-based currency or any other particular method of exploitation and theft. It is inherent in all market economies, even barter economies: Market transactions increase inequality, because they favor whichever participant is in the stronger bargaining position. The only way to not have a wealthy class is by not having a market — that is, by sharing.

Increasing inequality is simplified in the board game Monopoly, which always ends with all the players but one totally impoverished. That’s the outcome even if no one cheats, so the problem is in the principles, not in “corruption.”

The recent study by Gilens and Page shows quantitatively that the USA is a plutocracy, not a democracy. Just a few people now own our homes, workplaces, debts, government, mass communications media, everything. Privately owned workplaces are little dictatorships; that’s why we hate Mondays. Progress brings higher productivity, but its benefits are pocketed by the owners of the workplaces; for the rest of us, progress means layoffs, not leisure.

Psychopaths seek positions of power over others, and even people who are not already psychopaths become corrupted by power if they acquire it; strong evidence of that was given by the Stanford Prison Experiment. We see cruelty wherever the opportunity for it arises — in prison guards, police, soldiers, workplace managers, business tycoons, dictators, or even democratically elected politicians — though in that last case, they cover it up by conducting much of their work in secret and lying about the rest. All these bullies proclaim, and perhaps believe, that they are deserving and that their victims are not.

Clearly, we should reorganize our society so that there are no concentrations of power. That requires not only replacing markets with sharing, but also replacing authoritarian hierarchical government with peer-to-peer networking. This is why I’m an anarcho-commie, which means share and don’t hit, the first two things we all learned in kindergarten.

2nd evil:   EXTERNALITIES (6:17 in video)

Any market transaction is negotiated by a buyer and a seller, but it may affect other parties besides those two. Such effects are outside the considerations of the negotiations, and so they are called externalities. During the crash of 2008, Wall Street traders often reassured one another with the acronym “IBGYBG,” which stood for “I’ll be gone, you’ll be gone.”

Externalities are more due to indifference than outright malice, and so you might think their effects would be random — sometimes harmful and sometimes beneficial — but it doesn’t work that way. The proverbial “bull in a china shop” is not motivated by malice, but he is never beneficial.

Market prices are far from true costs, because they leave out the externalities. Thus the market is not at all the “wise and efficient” allocator of resources claimed by its worshipers. Conventional textbooks gloss over this topic, as though it were something minor, but in fact externalities are enormous: War, poverty, and ecocide are inevitable consequences of any market economy. And by the way, the ecocide is a lot worse than most people realize; feedback loops are about to send us over a climate cliff.

A living whale is an awesome creature, but it has no monetary value. The parts of a recently killed whale are worth a million dollars in quick profit to someone who doesn’t care about the consequences elsewhere. That’s why the whales are disappearing. And that’s why the ecosystem is disappearing too, though it’s larger, more abstract, and harder to see.

You might think that the few people in power would get together and conspire to save the planet that they have seized for their own. But that’s not how they’re behaving.

For instance, a few years ago, the Arctic began melting rapidly. That’s one of the climate feedback loops, and it should have been a wakeup call to stop using fossil fuels before they kill everyone. But instead the plutocrats said, “oh goody, now it will be so much easier to extract fossil fuels from the Arctic!”

The market compels its biggest players to compete against each other in offering quick profits to investors, without regard to consequences. Any big players who find scruples will fall behind in the competition, and will be replaced. We need to overthrow not just the big players, but the entire system.

3rd evil:   ALIENATION   (9:06 in video)

The problem is not just in our rulers. It’s in all of us, in our culture, in the so-called “American dream“: You keep your stuff in your house, I keep my stuff in my house, and God help the guy who doesn’t have a house, because no one else can help him, in our present socioeconomic system. We get the illusion that my well being doesn’t depend on yours, and I don’t need to care about you, and in fact I can’t afford to care about you. We blame the less fortunate for their bad luck, because that’s easier than facing up to the fact that we might be next, that the system is unjust, and that we don’t know how to fix it. We may try to be kind, because that’s human nature, but that’s swimming upstream against the current of separateness.

How blind are we to our own culture? Compare it with physics. An apple’s mass, volume, and colour are objective and measurable traits, independent of any observer. The “owner” of the apple is merely a story that we agree upon, one that can be changed by whoever controls the courts. And yet it has become impossible for us to imagine an apple without an owner.

Our possessions separate us psychologically, and that in turn legitimizes our material separateness. Apathy and alienation seem inevitable and normal. We are forced to compete against each other for survival; friendships become commodities and strategic alliances. We’re distrustful, and our anxiety about lack of security is medically harmful. The wealthy are harmfully stressed too, by their desire to stay ahead, and by their lack of the things that money can’t buy. Lacking meaning, purpose, and direction in our lives, we turn to drugs and entertainments. We see ourselves alone and helpless, and few of us realize that everyone else is alone in much the same way.

No wonder random shootings have become commonplace in our shopping malls. The only thing that can make us safe is a change to a culture in which everyone cares about everyone else and no one gets left behind. But that kind of caring will require sharing. To shelter the homeless and to end the prevalence of sh*t jobs, we’ll have to restructure the entire economy, and we’ll have to change how we feel about one another.

We’ve been told — and some of us have believed it — that it’s human nature to be greedy, selfish, and lazy. We’ve been told that humans work only for private gain, and work well only in competition. We’ve been told that our culture and behaviour can’t change. But none of that is true.

The Fall from Grace was 10,000 years ago, with the invention of the word “mine,” and we’ve lived in its shadow ever since. But throughout the 200,000 years before that, we lived cooperatively, without rulers, sharing everything of importance, and that’s still our deeper nature, our genetic heritage. You can see the cooperation at any traffic merge.

“Half full” and “half empty” are optimistic and pessimistic observations of the same glass. But human nature is not just what we observe. It’s what we choose and aspire to be. Even if the reformists were right — that it is possible to make selfishness viable — why would anyone want to? Right now our culture encourages our worst behaviour; let’s replace it with a culture that brings out our better side.

I’m hoping for a miracle. That doesn’t necessarily involve supernatural intervention; Charles Eisenstein defined a “miracle” to be simply an event that most people believe impossible until it happens. The miracle I’m hoping for — and actually, I believe it is possible, even if a lot of people don’t — is that some good ideas will spread very quickly, and people everywhere will begin sharing and cooperating. That’s the only thing that might still save us from the rapidly accelerating ecocide. Can we shed our cynicism, and see with new eyes, and give each other the inspiration we need?