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.

 

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

7 11 2017

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

Enjoy….

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THIS TIME IT COULD BE MONEY – NOT BANKS

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

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

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

Introduction – mistaken confidence

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unfinished business?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2008 – a loss of trust in banks

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

First, debt had escalated to unsustainable levels.

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

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

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

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

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

Coming next – a loss of trust in money?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An exercise in folly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The inflation delusion

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

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

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

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

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

Massive damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How will it happen?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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





Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (2)

6 09 2016

Raul is keeping Nicole Foss’ articles coming thick and fast, with this second part of the four part series published today on the Automatic Earth…… part 1 is here……

I find the looming war on cash rather worrisome myself…. a financial crisis happening right now would really put a spanner in my plans!

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Closing the Escape Routes

nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

History teaches us that central authorities dislike escape routes, at least for the majority, and are therefore prone to closing them, so that control of a limited money supply can remain in the hands of the very few. In the 1930s, gold was the escape route, so gold was confiscated. As Alan Greenspan wrote in 1966:

In the absence of the gold standard, there is no way to protect savings from confiscation through monetary inflation. There is no safe store of value. If there were, the government would have to make its holding illegal, as was done in the case of gold. If everyone decided, for example, to convert all his bank deposits to silver or copper or any other good, and thereafter declined to accept checks as payment for goods, bank deposits would lose their purchasing power and government-created bank credit would be worthless as a claim on goods.

The existence of escape routes for capital preservation undermines the viability of the banking system, which is already over-extended, over-leveraged and extremely fragile. This time cash serves that role:

Ironically, though the paper money standard that replaced the gold standard was originally meant to empower governments, it now seems that paper money is perceived as an obstacle to unlimited government power….While paper money isn’t as big impediment to government power as the gold standard was, it is nevertheless an impediment compared to a society with only electronic money. Because of this, the more ardent statists favor the abolition of paper money and a monetary system with only electronic money and electronic payments.

We can therefore expect cash to be increasingly disparaged in order to justify its intended elimination:

Every day, a situation that requires the use of physical cash, feels more and more like an anachronism. It’s like having to listen to music on a CD. John Maynard Keynes famously referred to gold (well, the gold standard specifically) as a “barbarous relic.” Well the new barbarous relic is physical cash. Like gold, cash is physical money. Like gold, cash is still fetishized. And like gold, cash is a costly drain on the economy. A study done at Tufts in 2013 estimated that cash costs the economy $200 billion. Their study included the nugget that consumers spend, on average, 28 minutes per month just traveling to the point where they obtain cash (ATM, etc.). But this is just first-order problem with cash. The real problem, which economists are starting to recognize, is that paper cash is an impediment to effective monetary policy, and therefore economic growth.

Holding cash is not risk free, but cash is nevertheless king in a period of deflation:

Conventional wisdom is that interest rates earned on investments are never less than zero because investors could alternatively hold currency. Yet currency is not costless to hold: It is subject to theft and physical destruction, is expensive to safeguard in large amounts, is difficult to use for large and remote transactions, and, in large quantities, may be monitored by governments.

The acknowledged risks of holding cash are understood and can be managed personally, whereas the substantial risk associated with a systemic banking crisis are entirely outside the control of ordinary depositors. The bank bail-in (rescuing the bank with the depositors’ funds) in Cyprus in early 2013 was a warning sign, to those who were paying attention, that holding money in a bank is not necessarily safe. The capital controls put in place in other locations, for instance Greece, also underline that cash in a bank may not be accessible when needed.

The majority of the developed world either already has, or is introducing, legislation to require depositor bail-ins in the event of bank failures, rather than taxpayer bailouts, in preparation for many more Cyprus-type events, but on a very much larger scale. People are waking up to the fact that a bank balance is not considered their money, but is actually an unsecured loan to the bank, which the bank may or may not repay, depending on its own circumstances.:

Your checking account balance is denominated in dollars, but it does not consist of actual dollars. It represents a promise by a private company (your bank) to pay dollars upon demand. If you write a check, your bank may or may not be able to honor that promise. The poor souls who kept their euros in the form of large balances in Cyprus banks have just learned this lesson the hard way. If they had been holding their euros in the form of currency, they would have not lost their wealth.

 

Even in relatively untroubled countries, like the UK, it is becoming more difficult to access physical cash in a bank account or to use it for larger purchases. Notice of intent to withdraw may be required, and withdrawal limits may be imposed ‘for your own protection’. Reasons for the withdrawal may be required, ostensibly to combat money laundering and the black economy:

It’s one thing to be required by law to ask bank customers or parties in a cash transaction to explain where their money came from; it’s quite another to ask them how they intend to use the money they wish to withdraw from their own bank accounts. As one Mr Cotton, a HSBC customer, complained to the BBC’s Money Box programme: “I’ve been banking in that bank for 28 years. They all know me in there. You shouldn’t have to explain to your bank why you want that money. It’s not theirs, it’s yours.”

In France, in the aftermath of terrorist attacks there, several anti-cash measures were passed, restricting the use of cash once obtained:

French Finance Minister Michel Sapin brazenly stated that it was necessary to “fight against the use of cash and anonymity in the French economy.” He then announced extreme and despotic measures to further restrict the use of cash by French residents and to spy on and pry into their financial affairs.

These measures…..include prohibiting French residents from making cash payments of more than 1,000 euros, down from the current limit of 3,000 euros….The threshold below which a French resident is free to convert euros into other currencies without having to show an identity card will be slashed from the current level of 8,000 euros to 1,000 euros. In addition any cash deposit or withdrawal of more than 10,000 euros during a single month will be reported to the French anti-fraud and money laundering agency Tracfin.

Tourists in France may also be caught in the net:

France passed another new Draconian law; from the summer of 2015, it will now impose cash requirements dramatically trying to eliminate cash by force. French citizens and tourists will only be allowed a limited amount of physical money. They have financial police searching people on trains just passing through France to see if they are transporting cash, which they will now seize.

This is essentially the Shock Doctrine in action. Central authorities rarely pass up an opportunity to use a crisis to add to their repertoire of repressive laws and practices.

However, even without a specific crisis to draw on as a justification, many other countries have also restricted the use of cash for purchases:

One way they are waging the War on Cash is to lower the threshold at which reporting a cash transaction is mandatory or at which paying in cash is simply illegal. In just the last few years.

  • Italy made cash transactions over €1,000 illegal;
  • Switzerland has proposed banning cash payments in excess of 100,000 francs;
  • Russia banned cash transactions over $10,000;
  • Spain banned cash transactions over €2,500;
  • Mexico made cash payments of more than 200,000 pesos illegal;
  • Uruguay banned cash transactions over $5,000

Other restrictions on the use of cash can be more subtle, but can have far-reaching effects, especially if the ideas catch on and are widely applied:

The State of Louisiana banned “secondhand dealers” from making more than one cash transaction per week. The term has a broad definition and includes Goodwill stores, specialty stores that sell collectibles like baseball cards, flea markets, garage sales and so on. Anyone deemed a “secondhand dealer” is forbidden to accept cash as payment. They are allowed to take only electronic means of payment or a check, and they must collect the name and other information about each customer and send it to the local police department electronically every day.

The increasing application of de facto capital controls, when combined with the prevailing low interest rates, already convince many to hold cash. The possibility of negative rates would greatly increase the likelihood. We are already in an environment of rapidly declining trust, and limited access to what we still perceive as our own funds only accelerates the process in a self-reinforcing feedback loop. More withdrawals lead to more controls, which increase fear and decrease trust, which leads to more withdrawals. This obviously undermines the perceived power of monetary policy to stimulate the economy, hence the escape route is already quietly closing.

In a deflationary spiral, where the money supply is crashing, very little money is in circulation and prices are consequently falling almost across the board, possessing purchasing power provides for the freedom to pursue opportunities as they present themselves, and to avoid being backed into a corner. The purchasing power of cash increases during deflation, even as electronic purchasing power evaporates. Hence cash represents freedom of action at a time when that will be the rarest of ‘commodities’.

Governments greatly dislike cash, and increasingly treat its use, or the desire to hold it, especially in large denominations, with great suspicion:

Why would a central bank want to eliminate cash? For the same reason as you want to flatten interest rates to zero: to force people to spend or invest their money in the risky activities that revive growth, rather than hoarding it in the safest place. Calls for the eradication of cash have been bolstered by evidence that high-value notes play a major role in crime, terrorism and tax evasion. In a study for the Harvard Business School last week, former bank boss Peter Sands called for global elimination of the high-value note.

Britain’s “monkey” — the £50 — is low-value compared with its foreign-currency equivalents, and constitutes a small proportion of the cash in circulation. By contrast, Japan’s ¥10,000 note (worth roughly £60) makes up a startling 92% of all cash in circulation; the Swiss 1,000-franc note (worth around £700) likewise. Sands wants an end to these notes plus the $100 bill, and the €500 note – known in underworld circles as the “Bin Laden”.

 

Cash is largely anonymous, untraceable and uncontrollable, hence it makes central authorities, in a system increasingly requiring total buy-in in order to function, extremely uncomfortable. They regard there being no legitimate reason to own more than a small amount of it in physical form, as its ownership or use raises the spectre of tax evasion or other illegal activities:

The insidious nature of the war on cash derives not just from the hurdles governments place in the way of those who use cash, but also from the aura of suspicion that has begun to pervade private cash transactions. In a normal market economy, businesses would welcome taking cash. After all, what business would willingly turn down customers? But in the war on cash that has developed in the thirty years since money laundering was declared a federal crime, businesses have had to walk a fine line between serving customers and serving the government. And since only one of those two parties has the power to shut down a business and throw business owners and employees into prison, guess whose wishes the business owner is going to follow more often?

The assumption on the part of government today is that possession of large amounts of cash is indicative of involvement in illegal activity. If you’re traveling with thousands of dollars in cash and get pulled over by the police, don’t be surprised when your money gets seized as “suspicious.” And if you want your money back, prepare to get into a long, drawn-out court case requiring you to prove that you came by that money legitimately, just because the courts have decided that carrying or using large amounts of cash is reasonable suspicion that you are engaging in illegal activity….

….Centuries-old legal protections have been turned on their head in the war on cash. Guilt is assumed, while the victims of the government’s depredations have to prove their innocence….Those fortunate enough to keep their cash away from the prying hands of government officials find it increasingly difficult to use for both business and personal purposes, as wads of cash always arouse suspicion of drug dealing or other black market activity. And so cash continues to be marginalized and pushed to the fringes.

Despite the supposed connection between crime and the holding of physical cash, the places where people are most inclined (and able) to store cash do not conform to the stereotype at all:

Are Japan and Switzerland havens for terrorists and drug lords? High-denomination bills are in high demand in both places, a trend that some politicians claim is a sign of nefarious behavior. Yet the two countries boast some of the lowest crime rates in the world. The cash hoarders are ordinary citizens responding rationally to monetary policy. The Swiss National Bank introduced negative interest rates in December 2014. The aim was to drive money out of banks and into the economy, but that only works to the extent that savers find attractive places to spend or invest their money. With economic growth an anemic 1%, many Swiss withdrew cash from the bank and stashed it at home or in safe-deposit boxes. High-denomination notes are naturally preferred for this purpose, so circulation of 1,000-franc notes (worth about $1,010) rose 17% last year. They now account for 60% of all bills in circulation and are worth almost as much as Serbia’s GDP.

Japan, where banks pay infinitesimally low interest on deposits, is a similar story. Demand for the highest-denomination ¥10,000 notes rose 6.2% last year, the largest jump since 2002. But 10,000 Yen notes are worth only about $88, so hiding places fill up fast. That explains why Japanese went on a safe-buying spree last month after the Bank of Japan announced negative interest rates on some reserves. Stores reported that sales of safes rose as much as 250%, and shares of safe-maker Secom spiked 5.3% in one week.

In Germany too, negative interest rates are considered intolerable, banks are increasingly being seen as risky prospects, and physical cash under one’s own control is coming to be seen as an essential part of a forward-thinking financial strategy:

First it was the news that Raiffeisen Gmund am Tegernsee, a German cooperative savings bank in the Bavarian village of Gmund am Tegernsee, with a population 5,767, finally gave in to the ECB’s monetary repression, and announced it’ll start charging retail customers to hold their cash. Then, just last week, Deutsche Bank’s CEO came about as close to shouting fire in a crowded negative rate theater, when, in a Handelsblatt Op-Ed, he warned of “fatal consequences” for savers in Germany and Europe — to be sure, being the CEO of the world’s most systemically risky bank did not help his cause.

That was the last straw, and having been patient long enough, the German public has started to move. According to the WSJ, German savers are leaving the “security of savings banks” for what many now consider an even safer place to park their cash: home safes. We wondered how many “fatal” warnings from the CEO of DB it would take, before this shift would finally take place. As it turns out, one was enough….

….“It doesn’t pay to keep money in the bank, and on top of that you’re being taxed on it,” said Uwe Wiese, an 82-year-old pensioner who recently bought a home safe to stash roughly €53,000 ($59,344), including part of his company pension that he took as a payout. Burg-Waechter KG, Germany’s biggest safe manufacturer, posted a 25% jump in sales of home safes in the first half of this year compared with the year earlier, said sales chief Dietmar Schake, citing “significantly higher demand for safes by private individuals, mainly in Germany.”….

….Unlike their more “hip” Scandinavian peers, roughly 80% of German retail transactions are in cash, almost double the 46% rate of cash use in the U.S., according to a 2014 Bundesbank survey….Germany’s love of cash is driven largely by its anonymity. One legacy of the Nazis and East Germany’s Stasi secret police is a fear of government snooping, and many Germans are spooked by proposals of banning cash transactions that exceed €5,000. Many Germans think the ECB’s plan to phase out the €500 bill is only the beginning of getting rid of cash altogether. And they are absolutely right; we can only wish more Americans showed the same foresight as the ordinary German….

….Until that moment, however, as a final reminder, in a fractional reserve banking system, only the first ten or so percent of those who “run” to the bank to obtain possession of their physical cash and park it in the safe will succeed. Everyone else, our condolences.

The internal stresses are building rapidly, stretching economy after economy to breaking point and prompting aware individuals to protect themselves proactively:

People react to these uncertainties by trying to protect themselves with cash and guns, and governments respond by trying to limit citizens’ ability to do so.

If this play has a third act, it will involve the abolition of cash in some major countries, the rise of various kinds of black markets (silver coins, private-label cash, cryptocurrencies like bitcoin) that bypass traditional banking systems, and a surge in civil unrest, as all those guns are put to use. The speed with which cash, safes and guns are being accumulated — and the simultaneous intensification of the war on cash — imply that the stress is building rapidly, and that the third act may be coming soon.

Despite growing acceptance of electronic payment systems, getting rid of cash altogether is likely to be very challenging, particularly as the fear and state of financial crisis that drives people into cash hoarding is very close to reasserting itself. Cash has a very long history, and enjoys greater trust than other abstract means for denominating value. It is likely to prove tenacious, and unable to be eliminated peacefully. That is not to suggest central authorities will not try. At the heart of financial crisis lies the problem of excess claims to underlying real wealth. The bursting of the global bubble will eliminate the vast majority of these, as the value of credit instruments, hitherto considered to be as good as money, will plummet on the realisation that nowhere near all financial promises made can possibly be kept.

Cash would then represent the a very much larger percentage of the remaining claims to limited actual resources — perhaps still in excess of the available resources and therefore subject to haircuts. Not only the quantity of outstanding cash, but also its distribution, may not be to central authorities liking. There are analogous precedents for altering legal currency in order to dispossess ordinary people trying to protect their stores of value, depriving them of the benefit of their foresight. During the Russian financial crisis of 1998, cash was not eliminated in favour of an electronic alternative, but the currency was reissued, which had a similar effect. People were required to convert their life savings (often held ‘under the mattress’) from the old currency to the new. This was then made very difficult, if not impossible, for ordinary people, and many lost the entirety of their life savings as a result.

A Cashless Society?

The greater the public’s desire to hold cash to protect themselves, the greater will be the incentive for central banks and governments to restrict its availability, reduce its value or perhaps eliminate it altogether in favour of electronic-only payment systems. In addition to commercial banks already complicating the process of making withdrawals, central banks are actively considering, as a first step, mechanisms to impose negative interest rates on physical cash, so as to make the escape route appear less attractive:

Last September, the Bank of England’s chief economist, Andy Haldane, openly pondered ways of imposing negative interest rates on cash — ie shrinking its value automatically. You could invalidate random banknotes, using their serial numbers. There are £63bn worth of notes in circulation in the UK: if you wanted to lop 1% off that, you could simply cancel half of all fivers without warning. A second solution would be to establish an exchange rate between paper money and the digital money in our bank accounts. A fiver deposited at the bank might buy you a £4.95 credit in your account.

 

To put it mildly, invalidating random banknotes would be highly likely to result in significant social blowback, and to accelerate the evaporation of trust in governing authorities of all kinds. It would be far more likely for financial authorities to move toward making official electronic money the standard by which all else is measured. People are already used to using electronic money in the form of credit and debit cards and mobile phone money transfers:

I can remember the moment I realised the era of cash could soon be over. It was Australia Day on Bondi Beach in 2014. In a busy liquor store, a man wearing only swimming shorts, carrying only a mobile phone and a plastic card, was delaying other people’s transactions while he moved 50 Australian dollars into his current account on his phone so that he could buy beer. The 30-odd youngsters in the queue behind him barely murmured; they’d all been in the same predicament. I doubt there was a banknote or coin between them….The possibility of a cashless society has come at us with a rush: contactless payment is so new that the little ping the machine makes can still feel magical. But in some shops, especially those that cater for the young, a customer reaching for a banknote already produces an automatic frown. Among central bankers, that frown has become a scowl.

In some states almost anything, no matter how small, can be purchased electronically. Everything down to, and including, a cup of coffee from a roadside stall can be purchased in New Zealand with an EFTPOS (debit) card, hence relatively few people carry cash. In Scandinavian countries, there are typically more electronic payment options than cash options:

Sweden became the first country to enlist its own citizens as largely willing guinea pigs in a dystopian economic experiment: negative interest rates in a cashless society. As Credit Suisse reports, no matter where you go or what you want to purchase, you will find a small ubiquitous sign saying “Vi hanterar ej kontanter” (“We don’t accept cash”)….A similar situation is unfolding in Denmark, where nearly 40% of the paying demographic use MobilePay, a Danske Bank app that allows all payments to be completed via smartphone.

Even street vendors selling “Situation Stockholm”, the local version of the UK’s “Big Issue” are also able to take payments by debit or credit card.

 

Ironically, cashlessness is also becoming entrenched in some African countries. One might think that electronic payments would not be possible in poor and unstable subsistence societies, but mobile phones are actually very common in such places, and means for electronic payments are rapidly becoming the norm:

While Sweden and Denmark may be the two nations that are closest to banning cash outright, the most important testing ground for cashless economics is half a world away, in sub-Saharan Africa. In many African countries, going cashless is not merely a matter of basic convenience (as it is in Scandinavia); it is a matter of basic survival. Less than 30% of the population have bank accounts, and even fewer have credit cards. But almost everyone has a mobile phone. Now, thanks to the massive surge in uptake of mobile communications as well as the huge numbers of unbanked citizens, Africa has become the perfect place for the world’s biggest social experiment with cashless living.

Western NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks, telecom companies and local authorities to replace cash with mobile money alternatives. The organizations involved include Citi Group, Mastercard, VISA, Vodafone, USAID, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In Kenya the funds transferred by the biggest mobile money operator, M-Pesa (a division of Vodafone), account for more than 25% of the country’s GDP. In Africa’s most populous nation, Nigeria, the government launched a Mastercard-branded biometric national ID card, which also doubles up as a payment card. The “service” provides Mastercard with direct access to over 170 million potential customers, not to mention all their personal and biometric data. The company also recently won a government contract to design the Huduma Card, which will be used for paying State services. For Mastercard these partnerships with government are essential for achieving its lofty vision of creating a “world beyond cash.”

Countries where electronic payment is already the norm would be expected to be among the first places to experiment with a fully cashless society as the transition would be relatively painless (at least initially). In Norway two major banks no longer issue cash from branch offices, and recently the largest bank, DNB, publicly called for the abolition of cash. In rich countries, the advent of a cashless society could be spun in the media in such a way as to appear progressive, innovative, convenient and advantageous to ordinary people. In poor countries, people would have no choice in any case.

Testing and developing the methods in societies with no alternatives and then tantalizing the inhabitants of richer countries with more of the convenience to which they have become addicted is the clear path towards extending the reach of electronic payment systems and the much greater financial control over individuals that they offer:

Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in its 2015 annual letter, adds a new twist. The technologies are all in place; it’s just a question of getting us to use them so we can all benefit from a crimeless, privacy-free world. What better place to conduct a massive social experiment than sub-Saharan Africa, where NGOs and GOs (Government Organizations) are working hand-in-hand with banks and telecom companies to replace cash with mobile money alternatives? So the annual letter explains: “(B)ecause there is strong demand for banking among the poor, and because the poor can in fact be a profitable customer base, entrepreneurs in developing countries are doing exciting work – some of which will “trickle up” to developed countries over time.”

What the Foundation doesn’t mention is that it is heavily invested in many of Africa’s mobile-money initiatives and in 2010 teamed up with the World Bank to “improve financial data collection” among Africa’s poor. One also wonders whether Microsoft might one day benefit from the Foundation’s front-line role in mobile money….As a result of technological advances and generational priorities, cash’s days may well be numbered. But there is a whole world of difference between a natural death and euthanasia. It is now clear that an extremely powerful, albeit loose, alliance of governments, banks, central banks, start-ups, large corporations, and NGOs are determined to pull the plug on cash — not for our benefit, but for theirs.

Whatever the superficially attractive media spin, joint initiatives like the Better Than Cash Alliance serve their founders, not the public. This should not come as a surprise, but it probably will as we sleepwalk into giving up very important freedoms:

As I warned in We Are Sleepwalking Towards a Cashless Society, we (or at least the vast majority of people in the vast majority of countries) are willing to entrust government and financial institutions — organizations that have already betrayed just about every possible notion of trust — with complete control over our every single daily transaction. And all for the sake of a few minor gains in convenience. The price we pay will be what remains of our individual freedom and privacy.

Part 3 is here





Negative Interest Rates and the War on Cash (1)

5 09 2016

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

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nicolefoss

Nicole Foss

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

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

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

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

From ZIRP to NIRP

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Experiences with Negative Interest Rates

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Zero Lower Bound and the Problem of Physical Cash

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 2 is here





A Market Collapse Is On The Horizon

18 02 2016

The bit that worries me the most is this……:
The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits.
I better spend that money quick smart.  Just had a quote for $17,000 for the blocks to go into the retaining wall.  By the time I’ve bought the double glazing and the roof, most of my big expenses, apart from the footings and slab, will have gone…..
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By

tverberg

Gail Tverberg

Posted on Sat, 13 February 2016

What is ahead for 2016? Most people don’t realize how tightly the following are linked:

1. Growth in debt
2. Growth in the economy
3. Growth in cheap-to-extract energy supplies
4. Inflation in the cost of producing commodities
5. Growth in asset prices, such as the price of shares of stock and of farmland
6. Growth in wages of non-elite workers
7. Population growth

It looks to me as though this linkage is about to cause a very substantial disruption to the economy, as oil limits, as well as other energy limits, cause a rapid shift from the benevolent version of the economic supercycle to the portion of the economic supercycle reflecting contraction. Many people have talked about Peak Oil, the Limits to Growth, and the Debt Supercycle without realizing that the underlying problem is really the same–the fact the we are reaching the limits of a finite world.

There are actually a number of different kinds of limits to a finite world, all leading toward the rising cost of commodity production. I will discuss these in more detail later. In the past, the contraction phase of the supercycle seems to have been caused primarily by too high a population relative to resources. This time, depleting fossil fuels–particularly oil–plays a major role. Other limits contributing to the end of the current debt supercycle include rising pollution and depletion of resources other than fossil fuels.

The problem of reaching limits in a finite world manifests itself in an unexpected way: slowing wage growth for non-elite workers. Lower wages mean that these workers become less able to afford the output of the system. These problems first lead to commodity oversupply and very low commodity prices. Eventually these problems lead to falling asset prices and widespread debt defaults. These problems are the opposite of what many expect, namely oil shortages and high prices. This strange situation exists because the economy is a networked system. Feedback loops in a networked system don’t necessarily work in the way people expect.

I expect that the particular problem we are likely to reach in 2016 is limits to oil storage. This may happen at different times for crude oil and the various types of refined products. As storage fills, prices can be expected to drop to a very low level–less than $10 per barrel for crude oil, and correspondingly low prices for the various types of oil products, such as gasoline, diesel, and asphalt. We can then expect to face a problem with debt defaults, failing banks, and failing governments (especially of oil exporters).

The idea of a bounce back to new higher oil prices seems exceedingly unlikely, in part because of the huge overhang of supply in storage, which owners will want to sell, keeping supply high for a long time. Furthermore, the underlying cause of the problem is the failure of wages of non-elite workers to rise rapidly enough to keep up with the rising cost of commodity production, particularly oil production. Because of falling inflation-adjusted wages, non-elite workers are becoming increasingly unable to afford the output of the economic system. As non-elite workers cut back on their purchases of goods, the economy tends to contract rather than expand. Efficiencies of scale are lost, and debt becomes increasingly difficult to repay with interest. The whole system tends to collapse.

How the Economic Growth Supercycle Works, in an Ideal Situation

In an ideal situation, growth in debt tends to stimulate the economy. The availability of debt makes the purchase of high-priced goods such as factories, homes, cars, and trucks more affordable. All of these high-priced goods require the use of commodities, including energy products and metals. Thus, growing debt tends to add to the demand for commodities, and helps keep their prices higher than the cost of production, making it profitable to produce these commodities. The availability of profits encourages the extraction of an ever-greater quantity of energy supplies and other commodities.

The growing quantity of energy supplies made possible by this profitability can be used to leverage human labor to an ever-greater extent, so that workers become increasingly productive. For example, energy supplies help build roads, trucks, and machines used in factories, making workers more productive. As a result, wages tend to rise, reflecting the greater productivity of workers in the context of these new investments. Businesses find that demand for their goods and services grows because of the growing wages of workers, and governments find that they can collect increasing tax revenue. The arrangement of repaying debt with interest tends to work well in this situation. GDP grows sufficiently rapidly that the ratio of debt to GDP stays relatively flat.

Over time, the cost of commodity production tends to rise for several reasons:

1. Population tends to grow over time, so the quantity of agricultural land available per person tends to fall. Higher-priced techniques (such as irrigation, better seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, herbicides) are required to increase production per acre. Similarly, rising population gives rise to a need to produce fresh water using increasingly high-priced techniques, such as desalination.

2. Businesses tend to extract the least expensive fuels such as oil, coal, natural gas, and uranium first. They later move on to more expensive to extract fuels, when the less-expensive fuels are depleted. For example, Figure 1 shows the sharp increase in the cost of oil extraction that took place about 1999.

Figure 1. Figure by Steve Kopits of Westwood Douglas showing the trend in per-barrel capital expenditures for oil exploration and production. CAGR is “Compound Annual Growth Rate.”

3. Pollution tends to become an increasing problem because the least polluting commodity sources are used first. When mitigations such as substituting renewables for fossil fuels are used, they tend to be more expensive than the products they are replacing. The leads to the higher cost of final products.

Related: The Hidden Agenda Behind Saudi Arabia’s Market Share Strategy

4. Overuse of resources other than fuels becomes a problem, leading to problems such as the higher cost of producing metals, deforestation, depleted fish stocks, and eroded topsoil. Some workarounds are available, but these tend to add costs as well.

As long as the cost of commodity production is rising only slowly, its increasing cost is benevolent. This increase in cost adds to inflation in the price of goods and helps inflate away prior debt, so that debt is easier to pay. It also leads to asset inflation, making the use of debt seem to be a worthwhile approach to finance future economic growth, including the growth of energy supplies. The whole system seems to work as an economic growth pump, with the rising wages of non-elite workers pushing the growth pump along.

The Big “Oops” Comes when the Price of Commodities Starts Rising Faster than Wages of Non-Elite Workers

Clearly the wages of non-elite workers need to be rising faster than commodity prices in order to push the economic growth pump along. The economic pump effect is lost when the wages of non-elite workers start falling, relative to the price of commodities. This tends to happen when the cost of commodity production begins rising rapidly, as it did for oil after 1999 (Figure 1).

The loss of the economic pump effect occurs because the rising cost of oil (or electricity, or food, or other energy products) forces workers to cut back on discretionary expenditures. This is what happened in the 2003 to 2008 period as oil prices spiked and other energy prices rose sharply. (See my article Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis.) Non-elite workers found it increasingly difficult to afford expensive products such as homes, cars, and washing machines. Housing prices dropped. Debt growth slowed, leading to a sharp drop in oil prices and other commodity prices.

Figure 2. World oil supply and prices based on EIA data.

It was somewhat possible to “fix” low oil prices through the use of Quantitative Easing (QE) and the growth of debt at very low interest rates, after 2008. In fact, these very low interest rates are what encouraged the very rapid growth in the production of US crude oil, natural gas liquids, and biofuels.

Now, debt is reaching limits. Both the US and China have (in a sense) “taken their foot off the economic debt accelerator.” It doesn’t seem to make sense to encourage more use of debt, because recent very low interest rates have encouraged unwise investments. In China, more factories and homes have been built than the market can absorb. In the US, oil “liquids” production rose faster than it could be absorbed by the world market when prices were over $100 per barrel. This led to the big price drop. If it were possible to produce the additional oil for a very low price, say $20 per barrel, the world economy could probably absorb it. Such a low selling price doesn’t really “work” because of the high cost of production.

Debt is important because it can help an economy grow, as long as the total amount of debt does not become unmanageable. Thus, for a time, growing debt can offset the adverse impact of the rising cost of energy products. We know that oil prices began to rise sharply in the 1970s, and in fact other energy prices rose as well.

Figure 3. Historical World Energy Price in 2014$, from BP Statistical Review of World History 2015.

Looking at debt growth, we find that it rose rapidly, starting about the time oil prices started spiking. Former Director of the Office of Management and Budget, David Stockman, talks about “The Distastrous 40-Year Debt Supercycle,” which he believes is now ending.

Figure 4. Worldwide average inflation-adjusted annual growth rates in debt and GDP, for selected time periods. See post on debt for explanation of methodology.

In recent years, we have been reaching a situation where commodity prices have been rising faster than the wages of non-elite workers. Jobs that are available tend to be low-paid service jobs. Young people find it necessary to stay in school longer. They also find it necessary to delay marriage and postpone buying a car and home. All of these issues contribute to the falling wages of non-elite workers. Some of these individuals are, in fact, getting zero wages, because they are in school longer. Individuals who retire or voluntarily leave the work force further add to the problem of wages no longer rising sufficiently to afford the output of the system.

The US government has recently decided to raise interest rates. This further reduces the buying power of non-elite workers. We have a situation where the “economic growth pump,” created through the use of a rising quantity of cheap energy products plus rising debt, is disappearing. While homes, cars, and vacation travel are available, an increasing share of the population cannot afford them. This tends to lead to a situation where commodity prices fall below the cost of production for a wide range of types of commodities, making the production of commodities unprofitable. In such a situation, a person expects companies to cut back on production. Many defaults may occur.

China has acted as a major growth pump for the world for the last 15 years, since it joined the World Trade Organization in 2001. China’s growth is now slowing, and can be expected to slow further. Its growth was financed by a huge increase in debt. Paying back this debt is likely to be a problem.

Figure 5. Author’s illustration of problem we are now encountering.

Thus, we seem to be coming to the contraction portion of the debt supercycle. This is frightening, because if debt is contracting, asset prices (such as stock prices and the price of land) are likely to fall. Banks are likely to fail, unless they can transfer their problems to others–owners of the bank or even those with bank deposits. Governments will be affected as well, because it will become more expensive to borrow money, and because it becomes more difficult to obtain revenue through taxation. Many governments may fail as well for that reason.

The U. S. Oil Storage Problem

Oil prices began falling in the middle of 2014, so we might expect oil storage problems to start about that time, but this is not exactly the case. Supplies of US crude oil in storage didn’t start rising until about the end of 2014.

Related: Why Today’s Oil Bust Pales In Comparison To The 80’s

Figure 6. US crude oil in storage, excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve, based on EIA data.

Cushing, Oklahoma, is the largest storage area for crude oil. According to the EIA, maximum working storage for the facility is 73 million barrels. Oil storage at Cushing since oil prices started declining is shown in Figure 7.

Figure 7. Quantity of crude oil stored at Cushing between June 27, 2014, and June 1, 2016, based on EIA data.

Clearly the same kind of run up in oil storage that occurred between December and April one year ago cannot all be stored at Cushing, if maximum working capacity is only 73 million barrels, and the amount currently in storage is 64 million barrels.

Another way of storing oil is as finished products. Here, the run-up in storage began earlier (starting in mid-2014) and stabilized at about 65 million barrels per day above the prior year, by January 2015. Clearly, if companies can do some pre-planning, they would prefer not to refine products for which there is little market. They would rather store unneeded oil as crude, rather than as refined products.

Figure 8. Total Oil Products in Storage, based on EIA data.

EIA indicates that the total capacity for oil products is 1,549 million barrels. Thus, in theory, the amount of oil products stored can be increased by as much as 700 million barrels, assuming that the products needing to be stored and the locations where storage are available match up exactly. In practice, the amount of additional storage available is probably quite a bit less than 700 million barrels because of mismatch problems.

In theory, if companies can be persuaded to refine more products than they can sell, the amount of products that can be stored can rise significantly. Even in this case, the amount of storage is not unlimited. Even if the full 700 million barrels of storage for crude oil products is available, this corresponds to less than one million barrels a day for two years, or two million barrels a day for one year. Thus, products storage could easily be filled as well, if demand remains low.

At this point, we don’t have the mismatch between oil production and consumption fixed. In fact, both Iraq and Iran would like to increase their production, adding to the production/consumption mismatch. China’s economy seems to be stalling, keeping its oil consumption from rising as quickly as in the past, and further adding to the supply/demand mismatch problem. Figure 9 shows an approximation to our mismatch problem. As far as I can tell, the problem is still getting worse, not better.

Figure 9. Total liquids oil production and consumption, based on a combination of BP and EIA data.

There has been a lot of talk about the United States reducing its production, but the impact so far has been small, based on data from EIA’s International Energy Statistics and its December 2015 Monthly Energy Review.

Figure 10. US quarterly oil liquids production data, based on EIA’s International Energy Statistics and Monthly Energy Review.

Based on information through November from EIA’s Monthly Energy Review, total liquids production for the US for the year 2015 will be about 700,000 barrels per day higher than it was for 2014. This increase is likely greater than the increase in production by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq. Perhaps in 2016, oil production of the US will start decreasing, but so far, increases in biofuels and natural gas liquids are partly offsetting recent reductions in crude oil production. Also, even when companies are forced into bankruptcy, oil production does not necessarily stop because of the potential value of the oil to new owners.

Figure 11 shows that very high stocks of oil were a problem, way back in the 1920s. There were other similarities to today’s problems as well, including a deflating debt bubble and low commodity prices. Thus, we should not be too surprised by high oil stocks now, when oil prices are low.

(Click to enlarge)

Figure 11. US ending stock of crude oil, excluding the strategic petroleum reserve. Figure by EIA.

Many people overlook the problems today because the US economy tends to be doing better than that of the rest of the world. The oil storage problem is really a world problem, however, reflecting a combination of low demand growth (caused by low wage growth and lack of debt growth, as the world economy hits limits) continuing supply growth (related to very low interest rates making all kinds of investment appear profitable and new production from Iraq and, in the near future, Iran). Storage on ships is increasingly being filled up and storage in Western Europe is 97% filled. Thus, the US is quite likely to see a growing need for oil storage in the year ahead, partly because there are few other places to put the oil, and partly because the gap between supply and demand has not yet been fixed.

What is Ahead for 2016?

1. Problems with a slowing world economy are likely to become more pronounced, as China’s growth problems continue, and as other commodity-producing countries such as Brazil, South Africa, and Australia experience recession. There may be rapid shifts in currencies, as countries attempt to devalue their currencies, to try to gain an advantage in world markets. Saudi Arabia may decide to devalue its currency, to get more benefit from the oil it sells.

Related: OPEC-Russia Rumors Persist After Comments From Rosneft Chief

2. Oil storage seems likely to become a problem sometime in 2016. In fact, if the run-up in oil supply is heavily front-ended to the December to April period, similar to what happened a year ago, lack of crude oil storage space could become a problem within the next three months. Oil prices could fall to $10 or below. We know that for natural gas and electricity, prices often fall below zero when the ability of the system to absorb more supply disappears. It is not clear the oil prices can fall below zero, but they can certainly fall very low. Even if we can somehow manage to escape the problem of running out of crude oil storage capacity in 2016, we could encounter storage problems of some type in 2017 or 2018.

3. Falling oil prices are likely to cause numerous problems. One is debt defaults, both for oil companies and for companies making products used by the oil industry. Another is layoffs in the oil industry. Another problem is negative inflation rates, making debt harder to repay. Still another issue is falling asset prices, such as stock prices and prices of land used to produce commodities. Part of the reason for the fall in price has to do with the falling price of the commodities produced. Also, sovereign wealth funds will need to sell securities, to have money to keep their economies going. The sale of these securities will put downward pressure on stock and bond prices.

4. Debt defaults are likely to cause major problems in 2016. As noted in the introduction, we seem to be approaching the unwinding of a debt supercycle. We can expect one company after another to fail because of low commodity prices. The problems of these failing companies can be expected to spread to the economy as a whole. Failing companies will lay off workers, reducing the quantity of wages available to buy goods made with commodities. Debt will not be fully repaid, causing problems for banks, insurance companies, and pension funds. Even electricity companies may be affected, if their suppliers go bankrupt and their customers become less able to pay their bills.
5. Governments of some oil exporters may collapse or be overthrown, if prices fall to a low level. The resulting disruption of oil exports may be welcomed, if storage is becoming an increased problem.

6. It is not clear that the complete unwind will take place in 2016, but a major piece of this unwind could take place in 2016, especially if crude oil storage fills up, pushing oil prices to less than $10 per barrel.

7. Whether or not oil storage fills up, oil prices are likely to remain very low, as the result of rising supply, barely rising demand, and no one willing to take steps to try to fix the problem. Everyone seems to think that someone else (Saudi Arabia?) can or should fix the problem. In fact, the problem is too large for Saudi Arabia to fix. The United States could in theory fix the current oil supply problem by taxing its own oil production at a confiscatory tax rate, but this seems exceedingly unlikely. Closing existing oil production before it is forced to close would guarantee future dependency on oil imports. A more likely approach would be to tax imported oil, to keep the amount imported down to a manageable level. This approach would likely cause the ire of oil exporters.

8. The many problems of 2016 (including rapid moves in currencies, falling commodity prices, and loan defaults) are likely to cause large payouts of derivatives, potentially leading to the bankruptcies of financial institutions, as they did in 2008. To prevent such bankruptcies, most governments plan to move as much of the losses related to derivatives and debt defaults to private parties as possible. It is possible that this approach will lead to depositors losing what appear to be insured bank deposits. At first, any such losses will likely be limited to amounts in excess of FDIC insurance limits. As the crisis spreads, losses could spread to other deposits. Deposits of employers may be affected as well, leading to difficulty in paying employees.

9. All in all, 2016 looks likely to be a much worse year than 2008 from a financial perspective. The problems will look similar to those that might have happened in 2008, but didn’t thanks to government intervention. This time, governments appear to be mostly out of approaches to fix the problems.

10. Two years ago, I put together the chart shown as Figure 12. It shows the production of all energy products declining rapidly after 2015. I see no reason why this forecast should be changed. Once the debt supercycle starts its contraction phase, we can expect a major reduction in both the demand and supply of all kinds of energy products.

Figure 12. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Conclusion

We are certainly entering a worrying period. We have not really understood how the economy works, so we have tended to assume we could fix one or another part of the problem. The underlying problem seems to be a problem of physics. The economy is a dissipative structure, a type of self-organizing system that forms in thermodynamically open systems. As such, it requires energy to grow. Ultimately, diminishing returns with respect to human labor–what some of us would call falling inflation-adjusted wages of non-elite workers–tends to bring economies down. Thus all economies have finite lifetimes, just as humans, animals, plants, and hurricanes do. We are in the unfortunate position of observing the end of our economy’s lifetime.

Most energy research to date has focused on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. While this is a contributing problem, this is really not the proximate cause of the impending collapse. The Second Law of Thermodynamics operates in thermodynamically closed systems, which is not precisely the issue here.

We know that historically collapses have tended to take many years. This collapse may take place more rapidly because today’s economy is dependent on international supply chains, electricity, and liquid fuels–things that previous economies were not dependent on.





Raul Ilargi at his best……

23 01 2016

Square Holes and Currency Pegs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re about to find out.





This is bigger…….

17 01 2016

That was big………  but this is bigger.

Whilst I admit to not hearing it for some time, the MSM has been spreading its usual nonsense in the form of “the fundamentals” [of the economy] are spot on, there’s nothing to worry about. Which I’ve been calling for years as crap, and now there’s a chart that explains everything regarding why I feel this way.

chart says it all

(Richard Koo: The ‘struggle between markets and central banks has only just begun’, Business Insider)

Why is the economy barely growing after seven years of zero rates and easy money? Why are wages and incomes sagging when stock and bond prices have gone through the roof? Why are stocks experiencing such extreme volatility when the Fed increased rates by a mere quarter of a percent?

It’s the policy, stupid. And here’s the chart that explains exactly what the policy is.

What this chart clearly shows is that the monumental increase in money printing had almost zero effect on lending, nor did it trigger the credit expansion the Fed were hoping for…… In other words, the Fed’s insane pump-priming of the economy experiment (aka– QE) both failed to stimulate growth and put the economy back on the so called ‘path to recovery’ we’ve been told was on, but everyone else has been saying for years never happened. For all intents and purposes, the policy was a complete flop.

Mind you, had it worked, I think we would have seen massive inflation. Basically, the fundamentals went AWOL way back in 2008. And no one wants to admit to it.lifestyle_banksy-500x332

The latest news from the US is that Walmart are closing 269 stores, which will probably leave some small towns with nowhere to buy anything,  and thousands of people out of work. If you need signs that economic collapse is now well underway, look no further than that little curler…..

The upside is that we might even see CO2 emissions starting to fall.