The Bumpy Road Down, Part 4: Trends in Collapse

27 01 2018

IrvMillsIrv Mills has just published part 4 of his Bumpy Road Down series of articles…..

This time I’m going to look at some of the changes that will happen along the bumpy road down and the forces and trends that will lead to them. If you followed what I was saying in my last post, you’ll have realized that the bumpy road will be a matter of repeatedly getting slapped down as a result of going into overshoot—exceeding our limits, crashing, then recovering, only to get slapped again as we go into overshoot yet again.

Along the way, where people have a choice, they will choose to do a range of different things (some beneficial, others not so much), according to their circumstances and inclinations. Inertia is also an important factor—people resist change. And politicians are adept at “kicking the can down the road”—patching together the current system to keep it working for little while longer and letting the guy who gets elected next worry about the consequences.

Because the world will become a smaller place for most of us, we’ll feel less influence from other areas and in turn have less influence over them. There will be a lot more “dissensus”—people doing their own thing and letting other people do theirs. I expect this will lead to quite a variety of approaches, some that fail and some that do work to some extent. In the short run, of course, “working” means recovering from whatever disaster we are currently trying to cope with. But in the long run, the real challenge is learning to live within our limits and accept “just enough” rather than always striving for more. Trying a lot of different approaches to this will make it more likely that we find some that are successful.

Anyways—changes, forces and trend…and how they will work on the bumpy road down.

I’ve included the stepped or oscillating decline diagram from my last post here to make it easier to visualize what I’m talking about.

ENERGY DECLINE

Because I’m a “Peak Oil guy” and because energy is at the heart of the financial problems we’re facing, I’ll talk about energy first. As I said in a recent post:

“Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for the great majority of our energy needs, and those needs are largely ones that cannot be met by anything other than fossil duels, especially oil. While it is true that fossil fuels are far from running out, the amount of surplus energy they deliver (the EROEI—energy returned on energy invested) has declined to the point where it no longer supports robust economic growth. Indeed, since the 1990s, real economic growth has largely stopped. What limited growth we are seeing is based on debt, rather than an abundance of surplus energy.”

It is my analysis that there is zero chance of implementing any alternative to fossil fuels remotely capable of sustaining “business as usual” in the remaining few years before a major economic crash happens and changes everything. So the first trend I’ll point to is a continued reliance on fossil fuels. Fuels of ever decreasing EROEI, which will increase the stress on the global economy and continue contribute to climate change and ocean acidification.

Those who are mainly concerned about the environmental effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels would have us stop using those fuels, whatever the cost. But it is clear to me that the cost of such a move would be a global economic depression different only in the details from the one I’ve been predicting. Lack of energy, excess of debt, environmental disaster—take your pick….

It has been interesting to watch the governments of Canada and the US take two different approaches to this over the last couple of years.

The American approach has been based on denial. Denial of climate change on the one hand, and denial of the fossil fuel depletion situation on the other. “Drill baby, drill!” is expected to solve the energy problem without causing an environmental problem. I don’t believe that either expectation will be borne out over the next few years.

Our Canadian government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has made quite a bit of political hay by acknowledging the reality of climate change and championing the Paris Climate Agreement in the international arena. Here at home, though, it is clear that Trudeau understands the role of oil in our economy and he has been quick to quietly reassure the oil companies that they have nothing to fear, approving two major pipeline projects to keep oil flowing from Alberta to the Pacific coast and, eventually, to Chinese markets.

Yes, Ottawa has set a starting price of $10 a tonne on carbon dioxide emissions in 2018, increasing to $50 a tonne by 2022. This is to be implemented by provincial governments who have until the end of the year to submit their own carbon pricing plans before a national price is imposed on those that don’t meet the federal standard. It will be interesting to see how this goes and if the federal government sticks to its plan. Canada is one of the most highly indebted nations in the world and I wouldn’t be surprised if our economy was one of the first to falter.

At any rate, sometime in the next few years the economy is going to fall apart (point “c” in the diagram). As I’ve said, this may well be initiated by volatility in oil prices as the current oil surplus situation comes to an end. This will lead to financial chaos that soon spreads to the rest of the economy.

On the face of it this isn’t too different from the traditional Peak Oil scenario—the collapse of industrial civilization caused by oil shortages and sharply rising oil prices. But as you might guess by now, this isn’t exactly what I think will happen.

In fact, I think that we’ll see an economic depression where the demand for oil drops more quickly than the natural decline rate of our oil supplies and the price falls even further than it did in the last few years. We won’t be using nearly so much oil as at present, so we will once again accumulate a surplus, and we’ll even leave some reserves of oil in the ground, at least initially. This will help drive a recovery after the depression bottoms out (point “e” in the diagram). Please note that I am talking about the remaining relatively high EROEI conventional oil here. Unconventional sources just don’t produce enough surplus energy to fuel a recovery.

But the demand for oil will be a lot less than it is today and this will have a very negative effect on oil companies. Some governments will subsidize the oil industry even more than they have traditionally, just to keep to it going in the face of low prices. Other governments will outright nationalize their oil industries to ensure oil keeps getting pumped out of the ground, even if it isn’t very profitable to do so. Bankruptcy of critical industries in general is going to be a problem during and after the crash. More on that in my next post.

During the upcoming crash and depression fossil fuel use may well decline enough to significantly reduce our releases of CO2 into the atmosphere—not enough perhaps to stop climate change, but enough to slow it down. As we continue down the bumpy road, though, our use of fossil fuels and the release of CO2 from burning them will taper off to essentially nothing, allowing the ecosphere to finally begin a slow recovery from the abuses of the industrial age.

The other trend involving fossil fuels, as we go further down the bumpy road, will be their declining availability as we gradually use them up. Eventually our energy consumption will be determined by local availability of renewable energy that can be accessed using a relatively low level of technology. Things like biomass (mainly firewood), falling water, wind, passive solar, maybe even tidal and wave energy. Since these sources vary in quantity from one locality to another, the level of energy use will vary as well. Where these sources are intermittent, the users will simply have to adapt to that intermittency.

No doubt some of my readers will be wondering why I don’t think high tech renewables like solar cells and large wind turbines will save the day. The list of reasons is a long one—difficulty raising capital in a contracting economy, low EROEI, intermittency of supply and difficulty of operating, maintaining and regularly replacing such equipment once fossil fuels are gone—to mention just a few.

Large scale storage of power to deal with intermittency will in the long run prove unfeasible. Certainly batteries aren’t going to do it. There are a few locations where pumped storage of water can be set up at a relatively low cost, but not enough to make a big difference. And on top of all that, I very much doubt that large electrical grids are feasible in the long run (and I spent half my life maintaining on one such grid).

THE FIRE INDUSTRIES

The next trend I can see is in the FIRE (financial, insurance and real estate) sector of the economy. During the growth phase of our economy over that last couple of centuries the FIRE industries embodied a wide range of organizational technologies that facilitated business, trade and growth. Unfortunately, because they were set up to support growth, they were unable to cope with the end of real growth late in the twentieth century. They have supported debt based growth for the last couple of decades as the only alternative that they could deal with. This led to the unprecedented amount of debt that we see in the world today. Much of this debt is quite risky and will likely lead to a wave of bankruptcies and defaults—the very crash I’ve been talking about.

The FIRE industries will be at the heart of that crash and will suffer horribly. Many, perhaps the majority, of the companies in that sector won’t survive. In today’s world they wield a great deal of political power. During the global financial crisis (GFC) in 2007-8 that power was enough to see them through largely unscathed. This is unlikely to be the case in the upcoming crash, creating a desperate need for their services and an opportunity to fill that need which will be another factor in the recovery after the crash bottoms out. But of course there is more than one way it can be done.

In the 3rd4th5th6th and 7th posts in my ” Collapse Step by Step” series, I dealt with the political realities of our modern world, which limit what can be done by democratic governments. I identified a political spectrum defined by those limits. At the left end of this spectrum we have Social Democratic societies, which still practice capitalism, but where those in power are concerned with the welfare of everyone within the society. At the right end we have Right Wing Capitalist societies where the ruling elite is concerned only with accumulating more wealth and power for itself.

Since the FIRE industries are crucial to the accumulation and distribution of wealth in our societies, the way they are rebuilt following the crash will be largely determined by the political goals of those doing the rebuilding.

At the left end of the spectrum there is much that can be done to regulate the FIRE industries and stop their excesses from leading immediately to further crises.

At the right end of the political spectrum the elite is so closely tied to the FIRE industries and so little concerned with the welfare of the general populace, that those industries will likely be rebuilt on a plan very similar to their current organization. A policy of “exterminism” is likely to be followed, where prosperity for the elite and an ever shrinking middle class is seen as the only goal and the poor are a burden to be abandoned or outright exterminated.(Thanks for Peter Frase, author of Four Futures—Life After Captialism for the term “exterminism”.)

In the case of either of these extremes, or anywhere along the spectrum between them, there are some common things I can see happening.

The whole FIRE sector depends on trust. In the last few decades (since the 1970s) we have switched from currencies based on precious metals to “fiat money” which is based on nothing but trust in the governments issuing it. This was done to accommodate growth fueled by abundant surplus energy and then to facilitate issuing ever more debt as the surplus energy supply declined. I don’t advocate going back to precious metals—what we need is a monetary system that can accommodate degrowth, of which a great deal lies in our future. Unfortunately we don’t yet know what such a system might look like.

It is clear, though, that the coming crash is going to shake our trust in the FIRE industries to its very roots. Since central banks will have been central to the monetary problems leading to the crash, they may well be set up as scapegoats for that crash and their relative lack of success in coping with it. People will be very suspicious after watching the FIRE industries fall apart during the crash and their lack of trust will force those industries to take some different approaches.

I think governments will take over the functions of central banks and stop charging themselves interest on the money they print. Yes, I know that printing money has often led to runaway inflation, but the conditions during the crash and its aftermath will be so profoundly deflationary that inflation will not likely be a problem.

The creation of debt will be viewed much less favourably and credit will be much harder to get. And of course this will make the crash and following depression that much worse. In response to this many areas will create local banks and currencies to provide the services that local businesses need to get moving again.

During the last couple of decades there has been a move to loosen regulations in the FIRE industries, to let single large entities become involved in investment banking, business and personal banking, insurance and real estate. Most such entities began as experts in one of those areas, but one has to question their expertise in the new areas they moved into. In any case they became “too big to fail” and their failure threatened the stability the whole FIRE sector. Following the GFC there was only minor tightening of regulations to discourage this sort of thing, but after the upcoming crash I suspect many governments, especially toward the left end of the political spectrum, will institute a major re-regulation of the FIRE industries and a splitting up of the few “too big to fail” companies who didn’t actually fail.

It is all very well to talk about business and even governments failing when their debt load becomes too great. But there is also a lot of personal debt that is, at this point, unlikely ever to get paid back. What does it mean, in this context, for a person to fail? What I carry as debt is an asset for someone else—probably the share holders of a bank. They are understandably reluctant to watch their assets evaporate, and I have to admit that there is a moral hazard involved in just letting people walk away from their debts. That feeling was so strong in the past that those who couldn’t pay their debts ended up in debtors’ prisons. Such punishment was eventually seen as futile and the practice was abandoned and personal bankruptcies were allowed.

One suspects that in the depression following the coming crash it will be necessary to declare a jubilee, forgiving large classes of personal debt. What might become of all the suddenly destitute people depends on where their country lies on the political spectrum. I wouldn’t rule out debtors prisons or work camps, the sort of modern slavery that is already gaining a foothold in the prison system of the United States.

If we were willing to give up growth as the sole purpose of our economic system, there are many changes that could be made to the FIRE industries that would allow them to provide the services needed by businesses and individuals without stimulating the unchecked growth that leads to collapse. I think we are unlikely to see this happen after the upcoming crash—we will be desperate for recovery and that will still mean growth at destructive levels.

I think the crash following that recovery will involve the food supply and still unchecked population growth and sadly a lot of people won’t make it through (more on this in my next post). Following that, it’s even possible that in some areas people may reach the conclusion that growth is the problem and quit sticking their heads up to get slapped down again. They’ll have to find a more sustainable way to live, but with it will come a less bumpy road forward.

AUTHORITARIANISM

In the aftermath of the next crash, I think we’ll see an increase in authoritarianism in an attempt to optimize the systems that failed during the crash—to make them work again and work more effectively. Free market laissez faire economics will be seen to have failed by many people. Others will hang tight, claiming that if they just keep doing yet again the same thing that failed before, it will finally work.

As is always the case with this sort of optimization, it will create a less resilient system, much more susceptible to subsequent crashes. And after those crashes governments will be reduced to such a small scale affair that authoritarianism won’t be so much of an issue.

Fortunately, beyond authoritarianism, there are some other trends that will lead to increased resilience and sustainability. We’ll take a look at those in my next post.

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

4 01 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That neighbour is China.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This can only be described as completely “insane”.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So why are governments so keen to inflate housing prices?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I kept coming back to the same points.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’ll leave you now with one final thought.

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

Where does Australia rank on the global scale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looks like Paul Keating was right.

The national conversation needs to change, now.

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





The Bumpy Road Down

18 12 2017

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IrvMills

Irv Mills

The term “bumpy road down” refers to the cyclic pattern of crash and partial recovery that I believe will characterize the rest of the age of scarcity and make for a slow step by step collapse, rather than a single hard and fast crash. Indeed, that is where the “step-by-step” in the title of this series of posts comes from. And yes, many of the individual steps down will happen quite quickly and seem quite harsh. But it will likely take many steps and many decades before we can say collapse is essentially complete, and between those steps down there will (in many areas) be long periods when things are stable or even actually improving somewhat.

The fast collapse is a favourite trope of collapse fiction and makes for some exciting stories, in which stalwart heroes defend their group from hungry hordes and evil strong men. And if the story happens in the U.S. the characters get to do their best to stop a whole lot of ammunition from going stale. But it seems to me that in most parts of the world things will progress quite differently when disaster strikes. Indeed there is a branch of sociology which studies how people and societies respond to disaster, and it has identified a set of incorrect beliefs, known as “the disaster mythology” that much of the general public holds on the subject. In particular, the expectation of looting, mass panic and violence is not borne out in really. Here are some further links on the subject: 1234.

Dysfunctional as today’s world may seem to many of us, it is working fairly well for those who are in power. They have a great deal invested in maintaining the “status quo”, and in making sure that whatever changes do happen don’t have any great effect on them. They also have a lot of resources to bring to bear on pursuing those ends, and a lot of avenues to go down before they run out of alternatives.

The other 80% of us, who are just along for the ride so to speak, still rely on industrial society for the necessities of life. We are hardly self sufficient at all, dependent on “the system” to a degree that is unprecedented in mankind’s history and prehistory. As unhappy as we may be with the way things are at present, it’s hard to imagine collapse without a certain amount of trepidation. Denial is a very common response to this situation.

Some of us, though, aren’t very good at denial. Even if we only follow the news on North American TV, which largely ignores the rest of the world, we’ve seen lots of disturbing events in the last year or two and it is hard not to wonder if they are leading up to something serious. Many people in the “collapse sphere” are predicting a major disturbance in the next few years, and some think that this will be the one that takes us down—all the way.

I definitely agree that something is about to happen, but I don’t think it is going be the last straw. Just one more step along the way.

As always, I am directing this mainly to those who are not highly “collapse aware”, so a closer look at what’s going on and what this next big bump might look like would seem to be a good idea. And of course I am making generalizations in what follows. As always, things will vary a good bit between different areas and at different times, and all of this will affect people of the various social classes differently. Also beware that I am not an economist, just a layman who has been watching the field with keen interest for some time. What follows is a summary of what I have learned, in a field where there is lots of disagreement and where the experts themselves have been wrong again and again.

Despite all the optimistic talk about renewable energy, we are still dependent on fossil fuels for around 87% of our energy needs, and those needs are largely ones that cannot be met by anything other than fossil fuels, especially oil. While it is true that fossil fuels are far from running out, the amount of surplus energy they deliver (the EROEI—”energy returned on energy invested”) has declined to the point where it no longer supports robust economic growth. Indeed, since the 1990s, real economic growth has largely stopped. What limited growth we are seeing is based on debt, rather than an abundance of surplus energy. And various adjustments to the way GDP is calculated have made the situation seem less serious that it really is.

Because of the growth situation, investors looking for good returns on their money have been hard pressed to find any and so have turned to riskier investments, which has resulted in speculative bubbles and subsequent crashes. The thing about bubbles is they are based on trust. Trust in some sort of investment that in saner times would be recognized for the risky proposition it really is. But always there comes a day when the risk becomes obvious, people rush to get out, and the bubble crashes.

The dot com bubble was the first to burst in this century, and the real estate bubble in the US was the next, leading to the crash of 2008.

After 2008 many governments borrowed money to bailout financial institutions (banks) which were in danger of failing, since that failure would have had a very negative effect on the rest of the economy. To control the cost of that borrowing and stimulate the economy, they lowered interest rates. These low interest rates have made it possible to use debt as a temporary replacement for surplus energy as the driver of the economy. Unfortunately this is pretty inefficient—it takes several dollars of debt to create a dollar’s worth of growth, and the result has been debt increasing to totally unprecedented levels.

Meanwhile, much of the ill advised risk taking in the financial industry that led to the crash in 2008 has continued on unabated. You may wonder why responsible governments didn’t enact regulations to stop that sort of thing. And indeed they did, to a limited extent. I suspect, though, that really effective regulations would have stopped growth cold, and no one was willing to accept the negative results of that. Better to let things to go on as they are, leaving future governments to worry about the consequences.

So, in 2017 we are deep into what might be called a “debt bubble.” It relies on trust that interest rates will remain low and that any day now there will be a return to robust growth so that we can all make some money and pay off our debts. Those are risky propositions, to say the least.

On top of that, low interest rates have made it much more of a challenge for pension funds to raise enough money to meet their obligations, a vital concern for retired baby boomers like myself.

Those same low interest rates have made it possible for many non-viable or barely viable businesses to continuing operating on borrowed money, where under more normal circumstances they would have been forced out of business. This makes for a weaker economy, not a stronger one.

Here in Canada we still have a real estate bubble going on, especially in cities like Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, and that despite recent government efforts to cool the real estate market by making it more difficult to get a mortgage, and by applying a tax on foreign real estate investors.

And over the last year that have been a long list of natural disasters which have increased the financial stress on governments, insurance companies and even re-insurance companies (who insure the insurance companies themselves).

The more conventional economists have come to think that all this is a normal situation and that it can just keep on keeping on. But there are others who think that this will lead to a crash of even greater magnitude that 2008. And many kollapsniks think this crash will mean the end of industrial civilization.

Some commentators expect this crash to take the form of a rash of debt defaults by governments who can no longer carry the debt loads they have built up. And a similar wave of bankruptcies of those shaky businesses I was just talking about, when they finally get to the point where they can no longer hold on. Tim Morgan, one of my favourite economists (who is certainly aware of the possibility of collapse), speculates that this bubble may burst in a different way than those of the past, with the collapse of one or more currencies. He points to the British pound as a prime candidate for the first to go and thinks that the U.S. dollar may follow it.

Other experts I’ve asked say that while the U.S government does have huge debts, they are not so large in comparison to the size of its economy—an economy that is strong enough that trust in it is unlikely to fail. I am not so sure. Much of the strength of the U.S. dollar comes from the fact that all trading of oil is done in it. If you want to buy oil then you need U.S. dollars, so the demand for them is always high. But a number of countries who are not allies of the US have proposed abandoning this system, suggesting that they are willing to accept other currencies for their oil. If this were to happen on a large scale it would significantly weaken the US dollar.

But it takes some sort of unusual event to start a crash like this, to initiate the loss of trust. And that brings us back to the fossil fuel industry.

While the falling EROEIs of fossil fuels have hurt economic growth, it is a mistake to think that those fuels are not still the life blood of our civilization. The success of modern industry is based on the productivity boost provided by cheap energy. The price of oil, for many years, was a fraction of its worth in terms of what could be made with the energy embodied in that oil. But when the price of energy goes up, it reduces the profitability of industry, often leading to a recession.

The oil prices I quote here are for Brent crude, just to keep things simple. In fact, oil trades at a dizzying variety of different prices, depending on where it comes from and its quality, among other things. If you look back over the history of recessions since the 1950s it is interesting to note almost all of them were preceded by a spike in the price of oil. In the summer of 2008 the price of oil, which had been going up for several years, topped out just before the crash at almost $140 per barrel.

After the crash, the economy slowed down significantly, and the price of oil dropped to around $30 per barrel due to falling demand. Starting in mid-2009 the economy began to recover and the price of oil increased to over $100. This appeared to be a straight forward case of supply and demand—an indication that the supply of oil was barely keeping up and suppliers were being forced to turn to more expensive sources of oil to meet the demand.

Then in mid 2014 something surprising happened— the price of oil and many other bulk commodities began to go down. By early 2016 the price of oil was under $40/barrel, and it stayed in the range between $40 and $60 until quite recently when it edged up over $60.

All kinds of ideas have been put forth as to why this drop in the price of oil happened, many of them contradictory. It is my thought that two things have been happening. First, demand destruction—a slowing down of the world economy caused by high energy prices. Second, a temporary increase in the supply of oil, mainly from fracking in the continental US and tapping of unconventional oil—tar sands in Canada, heavy oil in Venezuela, and deep offshore oil in various place around the world, that were suddenly profitable when the price was around $100 per barrel.

Whatever is the cause, it is clear that we have had a surplus of oil for the last few years, and this has kept the price down. OPEC discussed limiting supply to force the price back up, but very little came of it, even though the lower price was severely hurting the economies of the OPEC nations.

In the short run, lower oil prices have had a beneficial effect on economic growth. But unfortunately, the big oil companies were making so little profit that they couldn’t afford to invest much in oil discovery.

Regardless of what you may think of the idea of “peak oil” on a global basis, it is a simple fact that the output of any individual oil field declines as it ages. Exploration for new oil aims to match that natural decline with new discoveries. For conventional oil, that has not happened since 1963 and by the start of this century this was becoming a problem. A problem that likely had something to do with the run up of oil prices prior to 2008.

Following 2008, higher prices and improved technology (like fracking and the syncrude process for getting oil out of the tar sands) made more oil accessible. But with the current lower prices, that is no longer the case. Furthermore the wells opened up by fracking are proving to have very high decline rates.

So it seems that sometime in the next year or two, the decline rate of the world’s oil fields will have eaten up the surplus of oil. Discovery of new oil fields doesn’t happen overnight, so there will be a crunch in oil supply. Not that there will be no oil available, but oil suppliers will be hard pressed to keep up with the demand and the price will spike upward. There may even be shortages of some petroleum products until those higher prices pull demand back to match the available supply.

It seems very likely that such a spike in the price of oil will touch off a loss of trust leading to a recession of such severity as to make 2008 look minor.

In my next post in this series I’ll look at how that recession—might as well call it a crash—might proceed and what will likely be done to mitigate its effects.





The model is broken…..

22 11 2017

This amazing article was originally published here…….

IS ‘SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT’ A MYTH?

For a long time now, “sustainable development” has been the fashionable economic objective, the Holy Grail for anyone aiming to achieve economic growth without inducing catastrophic climate degradation. This has become the default position for two, very obvious reasons. First, no politician wants to tell his electorate that growth is over (even in countries where, very clearly, prosperity is now in decline). Second, policymakers prepared to invite ridicule by denying the reality of climate change are thin on the ground.

Accordingly, “sustainable development” has become a political article of faith. The approach seems to be to assume that sustainable development is achievable, and use selective data to prove it.

Where this comfortable assumption is concerned, this discussion is iconoclastic. Using the tools of Surplus Energy Economics, it concludes that the likelihood of achieving sustainable development is pretty low. Rather, it agrees with distinguished scientist James Lovelock in his observation that sustainable retreat might be the best we can expect.

This site is dedicated to the critical relationship between energy and economics, but this should never blind us to the huge threat posed by climate change. There seems no convincing reason to doubt either the reality of climate change science or the role that emissions (most obviously of CO²) are playing in this process. As well as counselling sustainable retreat, James Lovelock might be right, too, in characterising the earth as a system capable of self-regeneration so long as its regenerative capabilities are not tested too far.

False comfort

Economics is central to this debate. Here, comparing 2016 with 2001, are some of the figures involved;

Real GDP, 2016 values in PPP dollars:

2001: $73 trillion. 2016: $120tn (+65%)

Energy consumption, tonnes of oil equivalent:

2001: 9.5bn toe. 2016: 13.3bn toe (+40%)

Emissions of CO², tonnes:

2001: 24.3bn t. 2016: 33.4bn t (+37%)

If we accept these figures as accurate, each tonne of CO² emissions in 2001 was associated with $2,990 of GDP. By 2016, that number had risen to $3,595. Put another way, 17% less CO² was emitted for each $1 of GDP. By the same token, the quantity of energy required for each dollar of GDP declined by 15% over the same period.

This is the critical equation supporting the plausibility of “sustainable growth”. If we have really shown that we can deliver successive reductions in CO² emissions per dollar of GDP, we have options.

One option is to keep CO2 levels where they are now, yet still grow the economy. Another is to keep the economy where it is now and reduce CO2 emissions. A third is to seek a “goldilocks” permutation, both growing the economy and reducing emissions at the same time.

Obviously, the generosity of these choices depends on how rapidly we can continue our progress on the efficiency curve. Many policymakers, being pretty simple people, probably use the “fool’s guideline” of extrapolation – ‘if we’ve achieved 17% progress over the past fifteen years’, they conclude, ‘then we can expect a further 17% improvement over the next fifteen’.

Pretty lies

But what if the apparent ‘progress’ is illusory? The emissions numbers used as the denominator in the equation can be taken as accurate, as can the figures for energy consumption. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of the economic numerator. As so often, we are telling ourselves comforting untruths about the way in which the world economy is behaving.

This issue is utterly critical for the cause of “sustainable development”, whose plausibility rests entirely on the numbers used to calculate recent trends.

And there are compelling reasons for suspecting the validity of GDP numbers.

For starters, apparent “growth” in economic output seems counter-intuitive. According to recorded numbers for per capita GDP, the average American was 6% better off in 2016 than in 2006, and the average Briton was 3% more prosperous. These aren’t big numbers, to be sure, but they are positive, suggesting improvement, not deterioration. Moreover, there was a pretty big slump in the early part of that decade. Adjustment for this has been used to suggest that people are growing more prosperous at rates faster than the trailing-10-year per capita GDP numbers indicate.

Yet the public don’t buy into the thesis of “you’ve never had it so good”. Indeed, it isn’t possible reconcile GDP numbers with popular perception. People feel poorer now than they did in 2006, not richer. That’s been a powerful contributing factor to Americans electing Donald Trump, and British voters opting for “Brexit”, crippling Theresa May’s administration and turning in large numbers to Jeremy Corbyn’s collectivist agenda. Much the same can be said of other developed economies, including France (where no established party made it to the second round of presidential voting) and Italy (where a referendum overwhelmingly rejected reforms proposed by the then-government).

Ground-level data suggests that the popular perception is right, and the per capita GDP figures are wrong. The cost of household essentials has outpaced both incomes and general inflation over the past decade. Levels of both household and government debt are far higher now than they were back in 2006. Perhaps worst of all – ‘though let’s not tell the voters’ – pension provision has been all but destroyed.

The pension catastrophe has been attested by a report from the World Economic Forum (WEF), and has been discussed here in a previous article. It is a topic to which we shall return in this discussion.

The mythology of “growth”

If we understand what really has been going on, we can conclude that, where prosperity is concerned, the popular perception is right, meaning that the headline GDP per capita numbers must be misleading. Here is the true story of “growth” since the turn of the century.

Between 2001 and 2016, recorded GDP grew by 65%, adding $47tn to output. Over the same period, however, and measured in constant 2016 PPP dollars, debt increased by $135tn (108%), meaning that each $1 of recorded growth came at a cost of $2.85 in net new borrowing.

This ratio has worsened successively, mainly because emerging market economies (EMEs), and most obviously China, have been borrowing at rates far larger than growth, a vice previously confined to the developed West.

This relationship between borrowing and growth makes it eminently reasonable to conclude that much of the apparent “growth” has, in reality, been nothing more substantial than the spending of borrowed money. Put another way, we have been boosting “today” by plundering “tomorrow”, hardly an encouraging practice for anyone convinced by “sustainable development” (or, for that matter, sustainable anything).

Nor is this all. Since the global financial crisis (GFC) of 2008, we have witnessed the emergence of enormous shortfalls in society’s provision for retirement. According to the WEF study of eight countries – America, Australia, Britain, Canada, China, India, Japan and the Netherlands – pension provision was deficient by $67tn in 2015, a number set to reach $428tn (at constant values) by 2050.

Though the study covers just eight countries, the latter number dwarfs current GDP for the entire world economy ($120tn PPP). The aggregate eight-country number is worsening by $28bn per day. In the United States alone, the annual deterioration is $3tn, equivalent to 16% of GDP and, incidentally, roughly five times what America spends on defence. Moreover, these ratios seem certain to worsen, for pension gaps are increasing at annual rates far in excess of actual or even conceivable economic growth.

For the world as a whole, the equivalent of the eight-country number is likely to be about $124tn. This is a huge increase since 2008, because the major cause of the pensions gap has been the returns-destroying policy of ultra-cheap money, itself introduced in 2008-09 as a response to the debt mountain which created the GFC. Finally, on the liabilities side, is interbank or ‘financial sector’ debt, not included in headline numbers for debt aggregates.

Together, then, liabilities can be estimated at $450tn – $260tn of economic debt, about $67tn of interbank indebtedness and an estimated $124tn of pension under-provision. The equivalent number for 2001 is $176tn, expressed at constant 2016 PPP values. This means that aggregate liabilities have increased by $274tn over fifteen years – a period in which GDP grew by just $47tn.

The relationship between liabilities and recorded GDP is set out in the first pair of charts, which, respectively, set GDP against debt and against broader liabilities. Incidentally, the pensions issue is, arguably, a lot more serious than debt. This is because the real value of existing debt can be “inflated away” – a form of “soft default” – by governments willing to unleash inflation. The same cannot be said of pension requirements, which are, in effect, index-linked.

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Where climate change is concerned, what matters isn’t so much the debt or broader liability aggregates, or even the rate of escalation, but what they tell us about the credibility of recorded GDP and growth.

Here, to illustrate the issues involved, are comparative annual growth rates between 2001 and 2016, a period long enough to be reliably representative:

GDP: +3.4% per year

Debt: +5.0%

Pension gap and interbank debt: +9.1%

To this we can add two further, very pertinent indicators:

Energy consumption: +2.2%

CO2 emissions: +2.1%

The real story

As we have seen, growth of $47tn in recorded GDP between 2001 and 2016 was accompanied – indeed, made possible – by a vast pillaging of the balance sheet, including $135tn in additional indebtedness, and an estimated $140tn in other liabilities.

The only realistic conclusion is that the economy has been inflated by massive credit injections, and by a comparably enormous unwinding of provisions for the future. It follows that, absent these expedients, organic growth would have been nowhere near the 3.4% recorded over the period.

SEEDS – the Surplus Energy Economics Data System – has an algorithm designed to ex-out the effect of debt-funded consumption (though it does not extend this to include pension gaps or interbank debt). According to this, adjusted growth between 2001 and 2016 was only 1.55%. As this is not all that much faster than the rate at which the population has been growing, the implication is that per capita growth has been truly pedestrian, once we see behind the smoke-and-mirrors effects of gargantuan credit creation.

This isn’t the whole story. The above is a global number, which embraces faster-than-average growth in China, India and other EMEs. Constrastingly, prosperity has actually deteriorated in Britain, America and most other developed economies. Citizens of these countries, then, are not imagining the fall in prosperity which has helped fuel their discontent with incumbent governing elites. The deterioration has been all too real.

The second set of charts illustrates these points. The first shows quite how dramatically annual borrowing has dwarfed annual growth, with both expressed in constant dollars. The second sets out what GDP would have looked like, according to SEEDS, if we hadn’t been prepared to trash collective balance sheets in pursuit of phoney “growth”. You will notice that the adjusted trajectory is consistent with what was happening before we ‘unleashed the dogs of cheap and easy credit’ around the time of the millenium.

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Flagging growth – the energy connection

As we have seen, then, the very strong likelihood is that real growth in global economic output over fifteen years has been less than 1.6% annually, slower than growth either in energy consumption (2.2%) or in CO² emissions(2.1%). In compound terms, growth in underlying GDP seems to have been about 26% between 2001 and 2016, appreciably less than increases in either energy consumption (+40%) or emissions (+37%).

At this point, some readers might think this conclusion counter-intuitive – after all, if technological change has boosted efficiency, shouldn’t we be using less energy per dollar of activity, not more?

There is, in fact, a perfectly logical explanation for this process. Essentially, the economy is fuelled, not by energy in the aggregate, but by surplusenergy. Whenever energy is accessed, some energy is always consumed in the access process. This is expressed here as ECoE (the energy cost of energy), a percentage of the gross quantity of energy accessed. The critical point is that ECoE is on a rising trajectory. Indeed, the rate of increase in the energy cost of energy has been rising exponentially.

As mature resources are depleted, recourse is made to successively costlier (higher ECoE) alternative sources. This depletion effect is moderated by technological progress, which lowers the cost of accessing any given form of energy. But technology cannot breach the thermodynamic parameters of the resource. It cannot, as it were, ‘trump the laws of physics’. Technology has made shale oil cheaper to extract than shale oil would have been in times past. But what it has not done is transform shales into the economic equivalent of giant, technically-straightforward conventional fields like Al Ghawar in Saudi Arabia. Any such transformation is something that the laws of physics simply do not permit.

According to estimates generated on a multi-fuel basis by SEEDS, world ECoE averaged 4.0% in 2001, but had risen to 7.5% by 2016. What that really means is that, out of any given $100 of economic output, we now have to invest $7.50, instead of $4, in accessing energy. The resources that we can use for all other purposes are correspondingly reduced.

In the third pair of charts, the left-hand figure illustrates this process. The area in blue is the net energy that fuels all activities other than the supply of energy itself. This net energy supply continues to increase. But the red bars, which are the energy cost of energy, are rising too, and at a more rapid rate. Consequently, gross energy requirements – the aggregate of the blue and the red – are rising faster than the required net energy amount. This is why, when gross energy is compared with economic output, the energy intensity of the economy deteriorates, even though the efficiency with which netenergy is used has improved.

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Here’s another way to look at ECoE and the gross/net energy balance. Back in 2001, we needed to access 104.2 units of energy in order to have 100 units for our use. In 2016, we had to access 108.1 units for that same 100 units of deployable energy. This process, which elsewhere has been called “energy sprawl”, means that any given amount of economic activity is requiring the accessing of ever more gross energy in order to deliver the requisite amount of net (surplus) energy. By 2026, the ratio is likely to have risen to 112.7/100.

The companion chart shows the trajectory of CO² emissions. Since these emissions are linked directly to energy use, they can be divided into net (the pale boxes), ECoE (in dark grey) and gross (the sum of the two). Thanks to a lower-carbon energy slate, net emissions seem to be flattening out. Unfortunately, gross emissions continue to increase, because of the CO2 associated with the ECoE component of gross energy requirements.

Shot down in flames? The “evidence” for “sustainable development”

As we have seen, a claimed rate of economic growth (between 2001 and 2016) that is higher (65%) than the rate at which CO2 emissions have expanded (37%) has been used to “prove” increasing efficiency. It is entirely upon these claims that the viability of “sustainable development” is based.

But, as we have also seen, reported growth has been spurious, the product of unsustainable credit manipulation, and the unwinding of provision for the future. Real growth, adjusted to exclude this manipulation, is estimated by SEEDS at 26% over that period. Crucially, that is less than the 37% rate at which CO² emissions have grown.

On this basis, a claimed 17% “improvement” in the amount of CO2 per dollar of output reverses into a deterioration. Far from improving, the relationship between CO2 and economic output worsened by 9% between 2001 and 2016. In parallel with this, the amount of energy required for each dollar of output increased by 11% over the same period.

The final pair of charts illustrate this divergence. On the left, economic activity per tonne of CO2 is shown. The second chart re-expresses this relationship using GDP adjusted for the artificial “growth” injected by monetary manipulation. If this interpretation is correct – and despite a very gradual upturn in the red line since 2010 – the comforting case for “sustainable development” falls to pieces.

In short, if growth continues, rising ECoEs dictate that both energy needs, and associated emissions of CO2, will grow at rates exceeding that of economic output.

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We are back where many have argued that we have been all along. The pursuit of growth seems to be incompatible with averting potentially irreversible climate change.

There is a nasty sting-in-the-tail here, too. The ECoE of oil supplies is rising particularly markedly, and there seems a very real danger that this will force an increased reliance on coal, a significantly dirtier fuel. A recent study by the China University of Petroleum predicted exactly such a trend in China, already the world’s biggest producer of CO2. As domestic oil supply peaks and then declines because of higher ECoEs, the study postulates a rapid increase in coal consumption to feed the country’s voracious need for energy. This process is most unlikely to be confined to China.

Where does this leave us?

The central contention here is that the case for “sustainable development” is fatally flawed, because the divergence between gross and net energy needs is more than offsetting progress in greening our energy mix and combatting emissions of harmful gases. “Sustainable development” is a laudable aim, but may simply not be achievable within the laws of physics as they govern energy supply.

If this interpretation is correct, it means that growth in the global economy can be pursued only at grave climate risk. A (slightly) more comforting interpretation might that the super-heated rate of borrowing, and the seemingly disastrous rate at which pension capability is being destroyed, might well crash the system before our obsession with ‘growth at all costs’ can inflict irreparable damage to the environment.





AND the shale oil rout continues unabated…….

16 11 2017

Republished from SRS Rocco Report….  for those of you who don’t know it exists!

U.S. SHALE OIL PRODUCTION UPDATE: Financial Carnage Continues To Gut Industry

As the Mainstream media reports about the next phase of the glorious U.S. Shale Oil Revolution, the financial carnage continues to gut the industry deep down inside the entrails of its horizontal laterals.  The stench of fracking fluid must be driving shale oil advocates utterly insane as they are no longer able to see financial wreckage taking place in these companies quarterly reports.

This weekend, one of my readers sent me the following Bloomberg 45 minute TV special titled, The Next Shale Revolution.  If you are in need of a good laugh, I highly recommend watching part of the video.  At the beginning of the video, it starts off with President Trump stating that the U.S. has become an energy exporter for the first time ever.  Trump goes on to say, “that powered by new innovation and technology, we are now on the cusp of a new energy revolution.”  While I have to applaud Trump’s efforts for putting out some positive and reassuring news, I wonder who is providing him with terribly inaccurate energy information.

I would kindly like to remind the reader; the United States is still a NET IMPORTER of oil.  We still import nearly six million barrels of oil per day, but we export some finished products and a percentage of our shale oil production.  Thus, we still import a net of approximately three million barrels per day of oil.

A few minutes into the Bloomberg video, both Pioneer Resources Chairman, Scott Sheffield, and Continental Resources CEO, Harold Hamm, explain how advanced technology will revolutionize the shale oil industry and bring down costs.  I find that statement quite hilarious as Continental Resources and Pioneer continue to spend more money drilling for oil and gas then they make from their operations.  As I stated in a previous article, Continental Resources long-term debt ballooned from $165 million in 2007 to $6.5 billion currently.  So, how did advanced technology lower costs when Continental now has accumulated debt up to its eyeballs?

Of course… it didn’t.  Debt increased on Continental Resources balance sheet because shale oil production wasn’t profitable… even at $100 a barrel.  So, now the investor who purchased Continental bonds and debt are the Bag Holders.

Regardless, while U.S. oil production continues to increase at a moderate pace, there are some troubling signs in one of the country’s largest shale oil fields.

Shale Oil Production At the Mighty Eagle Ford Stagnates As Companies’ Financial Losses Mount

It was just a few short years ago that the energy industry was bragging about the tremendous growth of shale oil production at the mighty  Eagle Ford Region in Texas.  At the beginning of 2015, Eagle Ford oil production peaked at a record 1.7 million barrels per day (mbd).  Currently, it is nearly 500,000 barrels per day lower.  According to the EIA – U.S Energy Information Agency’s most recently released Drilling Productivity Report, oil production in the Eagle Ford is forecasted to grow by ZERO barrels in December:

The chart above suggests that the companies drilling and producing oil in the Eagle Ford spent one hell of a lot of money, just to keep production flat.  Even though the shale oil producers were able to bring on 88,000 barrels per day of new oil, the field lost 88,000 barrels per day due to legacy declines.  We need not take out a calculator to understand production growth at the Eagle Ford is a BIG PHAT ZERO.

Here are the five largest shale oil and gas producers in the Eagle Ford where:

  1. EOG Resources
  2. ConocoPhillips
  3. BHP Billiton
  4. Chesapeake Energy
  5. Marathon Oil

The company that doesn’t quite fit in the energy group above is BHP Billiton.  BHP Billiton is one of the largest base metal mining companies in the world.  Unfortunately for BHP Billiton, the company decided to get into U.S. Shale at the worst possible time.  BHP Billiton bought shale oil properties when prices were high and eventually had to liquidate when prices were low.  A Rookie mistake made by supposed professionals.  I wrote about this in my article; DOMINOES BEGIN TO FALL: BHP Chairman Says $20 Billion Shale Investment “MISTAKE.”

I decided to take a look at the current financial reports published by the five companies listed above.  The largest player in the Eagle Ford is EOG Resources.  I went to YahooFinance and created the following Cash Flow table for EOG:

In the latest quarter (Q3 2017), EOG reported $961 million in cash from operations.  However, the company spent $1,094 million on capital (CAPEX) expenditures and another $96 million in shareholder dividends.  Applying simple arithmetic, EOG spent $229 million more on CAPEX and dividends than it made from its operations.  Maybe someone can tell me how advanced technology is bringing down the cost for EOG.

The next largest player in the Eagle Ford is ConocoPhillips.  If we look at ConocoPhillips net income at its different business segments, we can see that the company isn’t making any money producing oil and gas in the lower 48 states:

While ConocoPhillips enjoyed a $103 million profit in Alaska, it suffered a $97 million loss in the lower 48 states.  Thus, the third largest oil company in the U.S. isn’t making any money producing oil and gas in the majority of the country.  According to the data, ConocoPhillips produced twice as much oil and gas in the lower 48 states then what they reported in Alaska, but the company still lost $97 million.

The third largest company producing oil in the Eagle Ford is BHP Billiton.  Instead of providing financial results, I thought this chart on BHP Billiton’s Return On Capital Employed was a better indicator of how bad their U.S. Shale assets were performing.  If we look at the right-hand side of the chart, BHP Billiton’s shale oil resources have become one hell of a drag on the company’s asset portfolio:

While BHP Billiton is enjoying a healthy positive Return On Capital Employed on most of its assets, shale oil resources are showing a negative return.  Furthermore, the company makes a note to above stating, “Detailed plans to improve, optimize or EXIT.”  I would bet my bottom Silver Dollar that their decision will end up “EXITING” the wonderful world of shale energy, with the sale of their assets for pennies on the dollar.

Moving down the list to the next shale company, we come to Chesapeake.  While Chesapeake is the country’s second-largest natural gas producer, the company has been losing money for more than a decade.  Unfortunately, the situation hasn’t improved for Chesapeake as its current financial statement reveals the company continues to burn through cash to produce its oil and gas:

Chesapeake’s net cash provided by its operating activities equaled $273 million for the first three-quarters of 2017.  However, the company spent a whopping $1,597 million on drilling and completion costs (CAPEX).  Thus, Chesapeake spent $1.3 billion more on producing its oil and natural gas Q1-Q3 2017 than it made from its operations.  Again, how is advanced technology making shale oil and gas more profitable?

If it weren’t for the asset sale of $1,193 million, Chesapeake would have needed to borrow that money to make up the difference.  Regrettably, selling assets to fortify one’s balance sheet isn’t a long-term viable business model.  There are only so many assets one can sell, and at some point, in the future, the market will realize those assets will have turned into worthless liabilities.

Okay, we finally come to the fifth largest player in the Eagle Ford…. Marathon Oil.  The situation at Marathon isn’t any better than the other companies drilling and producing oil in the Eagle Ford.  According to the companies third-quarter report, Marathon suffered a $600 million net income loss:

Again, we have another example of an energy company losing a lot of money producing shale oil and gas.  You will notice how high Marathon’s Depreciation, depletion, and amortization are in both the third-quarter and nine months ending on Sept 30th.  While some may believe this is just a tax write off for the company… it isn’t.  Due to the massive decline rate in producing shale oil and gas, PLEASE SEE the FIRST CHART ABOVE on the EAGLE FORD GROWTH OF ZERO, these companies have to write off these assets as it represents the BURNING of CASH.

For example, Marathon reported cash from operations of $1,487 million for Q3 2017.  However, it spent $1,305 million on CAPEX and $128 million on dividends for a total of $1,433 million.  Thus, Marathon actually enjoyed a small $53 million in positive free cash flow once dividends were deducted.  But, that is only part of the story.  If we go back to 2005 when the oil price as about the same as it is today, Marathon was reporting quarterly profits, not losses.

In the first quarter of 2005, Marathon earned a positive $324 million in net income.  It also reported a $258 million net income gain in 2004, even at a much lower oil price of $38 a barrel versus the $48-$50 during Q3 2017.  So, the Falling EROI – Energy Returned On Invested is killing the profitability of shale oil and gas companies today, whereas they were making profits just a decade ago.

Now, I didn’t provide any data on the other shale oil fields in the U.S., but production continues to increase in several regions, especially in the Permian.  However, one of the largest players in the Permian, Pioneer Resources, isn’t making any money either.  If we look at their financials, we can see that Pioneer continues to spend more money on CAPEX than they are receiving from cash from operations:

In all three quarters in 2017, Pioneer spent more money on capital expenditures than it made from its operating activities.  Pioneer spent $400 million more on CAPEX spending than from its operations for the first nine months of 2017 ending on Sept 30th.  So, here is just another example of a U.S. shale oil producer who partly responsible for the rising production in the Permian, but it still isn’t making any money.

Now, some investors or readers on my blog would say that the situation will get better when the oil price continues towards $60, $70 and then $80 a barrel.  Well, that would be nice, but I believe we are heading towards one hell of a market crash.  Even though some economic indicators are looking rosy, this market is being propped up by a massive amount of debt and the largest SHORT VIX trade in history.  When the markets start to go south as the massive VIX TRADE reverses… well, watch out below.

Thus, as the markets crash, the oil price will head down with it.  Unfortunately, this will be the final blow to the U.S. Shale Oil Ponzi Scheme and with it… the notion of Energy Independence forever.





More on money and the economy………

11 11 2017

Articles that, as far as I am concerned, confirm my desire to print local money are coming into my newsfeed thick and fast. This latest one, from the consciousness of sheep, claims the UK economy is as good as finished…….

I don’t agree with everything in it, but bear with me…..

This article also ties in with the looming oil problems. Of course, with the North Sea oil fields depleting in double digits figures, and the UK being as good as out of coal and gas, it’s no wonder an English website would be expressing concern. Make no mistake though, with Australia importing well over 90% of all its liquid fuel requirements, we are in no better shape, really….

“Inflation” says the author “results in the appearance of rising prices; but is actually the devaluation of money.” In my opinion, this is one of the biggest mistakes of economics. Money has no value. It’s for trading and spending. When we sold our house a couple of years ago, we were suddenly the owners of $400,000 instead of a house. Were we rich? I don’t think so…….  not until we spent it on a farm, a couple of utes, a bunch of tools, building materials, livestock, soil improvers, earthworks, concrete…… and now most of the money is gone, I feel richer than ever, because I have the things I need to face our uncertain future. No I’ll take that back, the future is certain, it will be bad…!

There are, however, other reasons for rising prices [than money printing].  And unlike monetary inflation, these are self-correcting.  For example, global oil prices have begun to break out of the $40-$60 “goldilocks” band in which consumers and energy companies can just about keep their heads above water.  Most economists believe this to be dangerously inflationary.  Indeed, almost all previous recessions are the result of monetary tightening (usually by raising interest rates) in response to an upward spike in oil prices.  Since oil is used to manufacture and/or transport every item that we buy, if the price of oil increases, then the price of everything else must increase too.

But the price of oil is not increasing in response to money printing.  Rather, it is the result of declining inventories which point to a global shortage of oil early in 2018 – traders are currently bidding up the price on futures contracts to guarantee access to sufficient oil to meet anticipated demand.  Since oil is considered “inelastic” (we have little choice but to pay for it) the assumption is that rising wholesale prices will be passed on to consumers, causing general inflation.  Frank Shostak from the Mises Institute challenges this assumption:

“Whether the asking price set by producers is going to be realized in the market place, however, hinges on whether or not consumers will accept those prices. Consumers dictate whether the price set by producers is ‘right’.  On this Mises wrote, ‘The consumers patronize those shops in which they can buy what they want at the cheapest price. Their buying and their abstention from buying decides who should own and run the plants and the farms. They determine precisely what should be produced, in what quality, and in what quantities.’

“If consumers don’t have the money to support the prices asked by producers then the prices asked cannot be realized.”

And the result is a recession/depression……. Shostak further argues that in this case:

“If the price of oil goes up and if people continue to use the same amount of oil as before, then this means that people are now forced to allocate more money for oil. If people’s money stock remains unchanged then this means that less money is available for other goods and services, all other things being equal. This of course implies that the average price of other goods and services must come off.”

Clearly there is a difference between something as ubiquitous as oil and those other goods and services that must fall in price unless more money is printed into existence.  The difference is this; each of us has a series of “non-discretionary” purchases that we have little or no choice but to make every month.  These include:

  • Rent/mortgage payments
  • Utility bills
  • Debt interest
  • Council tax
  • Food
  • Transport
  • Telephone/broadband

In addition, we make various “discretionary” purchases of goods and services that we want rather than need.  These include pretty much everything else that we buy, including:

  • TV subscriptions
  • Cinema
  • Eating out
  • Going to the pub
  • Music downloads/subscriptions
  • Electrical equipment
  • Clothes
  • Home furnishings

Oddly enough…..  I have nothing to do with that last list! Am I already out of discretionary spending power…?

If the cost of living rises without appropriate increases in people’s access to money, then we as individuals do what governments are trying to do to the economy as a whole – we cut back on everything that we consider discretionary.  In this way, the rising price of oil – and electricity -does not result in generalised inflation; it merely redistributes our spending across the economy. Just ask the retail sector how well it’s doing at the moment….. When I recently replaced my freezer for a bigger one, I went to Gumtree, not Hardly Normal, and the perfectly functioning small freezer will be sold to pay for it.

This is of course where ‘free money’ from the community, to only be spent in the community really comes in handy. It allows people to buy their essentials, when locally made, without spending the government money, thus allowing the real stuff to be spent on energy and taxes and other stuff created in the Matrix.

Make no mistake, one day soon, the ONLY economy left will be our local economies.

The articles continues…….

Another mistake made by economists and politicians is the belief that rising prices will generate political pressure for additional public spending and for wage increases across the economy.  Indeed, one of the greatest economic mysteries of our age is why apparently full employment has failed to translate into rising wages.  The obvious answer, of course, is that working people have traded employment for low wages.

There is good reason for this.  Since 2010, government attempts to run a budget surplus have sucked money out of the economy.  Public spending and social security payments (the two ways new government money enter the economy) have been savagely cut.  If government refuses to spend new money into the economy, only the banks can.  But since 2008 the banks have stubbornly refused to spend money into the “real economy,” preferring instead to pump up asset bubbles that add no new value to the wider economy.  Only those working people fortunate enough to get a foot on the housing ladder get to benefit from this; but even they can see the illusion – a house may have risen in price since it was bought… but it is still the same house; no commensurate additional value has been added.  The same is true for bubbles in bonds, shares, cryptocurrencies, luxury property, collectibles and fine art.

“Full employment”? The writer seems unaware of the manipulation of statistics regarding employment… don’t know if the UK suffers from the same problem, but here in Australia, anyone working just one hour a week is no longer considered unemployed! A remarkable nmber of people ‘on the dole’ actually work, they are merely underemployed, but not counted.

And the way governments have stopped spending in vain attempts to reach budget surpluses is truly baffling. As is of course the tsunami of privatizations going on all over the world. This wealth transfer is the biggest con the planet has ever seen…

Economically, people are responding to this in the only way they can.  The working poor – increasingly dependent upon in-work benefits and foodbanks – have not only cut their discretionary spending; they have been eating into their supposedly non-discretionary spending too.  As Jamie Doward in the Guardian reports:

“More than a third of people who earn less than the “real living wage” have reported regularly skipping meals to save money…  A poll carried out for the Living Wage Foundation also found that more than a third of people earning less than this had topped up their monthly income with a credit card or loan in the last year, while more than one in five reported using a payday loan to cover essentials. More than half – 55% – had declined a social invitation due to lack of money, and just over half had borrowed money from a friend or relative.”

As I’ve said in past posts on this issue, if you don’t have access to money, you simply have to borrow it. Credit card debt in Australia accounts for a full quarter of all private debt, and when you have to pay extortionary interest rates on those, it limits your spending power even more.

Things look grim in the UK it seems….

Cat Rutter Pooley in the Financial Times reports that:

“In-store sales of non-food items fell 2.9 per cent over the three months to October and 2.1 per cent in the past year — the worst performance since the BRC started compiling the data in January 2012. Clothing sales were particularly hard hit, according to the report, with unseasonably warm weather holding down purchases. Online sales growth was also lacklustre, at less than half the pace of the three- and 12-month averages.”

This latter point is particularly important because until now economists and politicians have peddled the myth that high street sales were falling because consumers were buying online.  The reality is that they are falling because – with the exception of food – we are not buying anymore.  The news of the fall in high street shopping comes just a day after the British Beer and Pub Association reported a massive fall in the sale of beer.  On the same day, energy company SSE threatened to shut down its energy supply business as a result of falling profits.  Back in December last year, we reported a similar shift in purchasing behaviour as people cut back on personal hygiene products.

You know things are bad when beer sales are falling…! If ever there was an argument to be made for self sufficiency, this does the job. I make 90% of the alcohol I drink (and it isn’t much, believe me… my wife gave me a bottle of Scotch when I left Queensland for good two years ago, and the bottle was only recently emptied..); and I am finally growing more and more of my own food, even selling excess produce I cannot eat fast enough myself…  Nicole Foss’ deflationary spiral sounds like it’s started, and while no one is saying so yet, I think it’s on in Australia too.

The one consolation is that when Britain’s poor have finally cut their spending to the bone, and a swathe of businesses have been forced into bankruptcy, it is the rich who are going to face the biggest losses.  The Positive Money campaign highlights the Bank of England/Treasury dilemma:

“The Bank of England faces its current predicament thanks to an ongoing failure to think beyond a limited, orthodox form of the central bank’s role. By keeping rates low, it risks inflating asset bubbles even further. But with incomes so weak, now is the wrong time to raise them.”

This lesson will only be learned retrospectively.  Once it becomes apparent that millions of British workers are not going to be repaying their debts, banks will crash.  Once it becomes apparent that British workers cannot provide the government with the tax income to pay back its borrowing, the bond market will crash.  Ironically, JPMorgan has already christened the coming collapse; as Joe Ciolli at Business Insider reported last month:

“JPMorgan has already coined a nickname for the next financial meltdown.  And while the firm isn’t sure exactly when the so-called Great Liquidity Crisis will strike, it figures that tensions will start to ratchet up in 2018…”

And I thought 2020 would be crunch time…….. how often can I be called an optimist..??

When the time comes, Britain will be particularly badly hit because our economy has been all but hollowed out.  The supposed “wealth” that makes up a large part of our GDP comes from the movement of precisely the asset classes that the coming Great Liquidity Crisis will render worthless.  The difference compared to 2008 is that this time around the banks are too big to save and individual central banks and governments are too small to save them.

Limits to growth, limits everywhere….. and nobody’s acknowledging it.

 





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.