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.

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More signs the deflationary spiral is upon us

11 11 2015

I’m feeling poorly this morning, the victim of some bug apparently doing the rounds in my neck of the woods. Ute I is having minor repairs done to pass the safety certificate it needs to have its new shiny Tassie plates screwed to its bumper bars, so I’m taking the time to do a bit more blogging.

This scary item from Zerohedge turned up in my inbox the other day, and it really rattled my cage…….  All the ducks are lining up on the wall… I better start spending the proceeds from selling Mon Abri quick smart.

It’s no secret that Beijing has an excess capacity problem.

Indeed, the idea that a yearslong industrial buildup intended to support

i) the expansion of the smokestack economy,

ii) a real estate boom, and

iii) robust worldwide demand ultimately served to create a supply glut in China is one of the key narratives when it comes to analyzing the global macro picture.

That, combined with ZIRP’s uncanny ability to keep uneconomic producers in business, has served to drive down commodity prices the world over, imperiling many an emerging market and driving a bevy of drillers, diggers, and pumpers to the brink of insolvency.

As we noted late last month, if you want to get a read on just how acute the situation truly is, look no further than China’s “ghost cities”…

Here’s the simple, straightforward assessment from the deputy head of the China Iron & Steel Association:

“Production cuts are slower than the contraction in demand, therefore oversupply is worsening. Although China has cut interest rates many times recently, steel mills said their funding costs have actually gone up.”

To which we said, “meet the deflationary commodity cycle in all its glory”:

China’s mills — which produce about half of worldwide output — are battling against oversupply and sinking prices as local consumption shrinks for the first time in a generation amid a property-led slowdown. The fallout from the steelmakers’ struggles is hurting iron ore prices and boosting trade tensions as mills seek to sell their surplus overseas.Shanghai Baosteel Group Corp. forecast last week that China’s steel production may eventually shrink 20 percent, matching the experience seen in the U.S. and elsewhere.

“China’s steel demand evaporated at unprecedented speed as the nation’s economic growth slowed,” Zhu said. “As demand quickly contracted, steel mills are lowering prices in competition to get contracts.”

Right. Well actually there’s that, and the fact that they can’t get loans despite multiple RRR cuts and attempts on Beijing’s part to boost China’s credit impulse. In fact, over half the debtors in China’s commodity space are generating so little cash, they can’t even cover their interest payments.

So, considering all of the above, the obvious implication is that China will simply export its deflation…

Given that, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that on Friday, the world’s biggest steelmaker suspended its dividend and cut its outlook.

Here’s more from Bloomberg:

The world’s biggest steelmaker on Friday cut its full-year profit target and suspended its dividend, putting the blame on the flood of cheap steel from China’s loss-making mills. The market is being overwhelmed with material coming from the nation’s state-owned and state-supported producers, a collection of industry associations said Thursday.

“It is obvious that we are operating in a very challenging market,” Chief Financial Officer Aditya Mittal said on a call with reporters. “This is essentially the result of very low export prices out of China that are impacting prices worldwide.”

The steel industry has been roiled by the slowest economic growth in two decades in China, the biggest consumer.

The flood of cheap exports from the nation has drawn complaints from Europe and the U.S. that the shipments are unfair. Bloomberg Intelligence estimates Chinese steel shipments overseas will exceed 100 million metric tons this year, more than the combined output of Europe’s top four producing countries.

While demand for steel in the company’s largest markets of the U.S. and Europe is recovering, producers’ profits are being hit by slumping prices because China has been pushing excess supply onto the world market as its economy slows.

So again, we’re seeing disinflation (the exact opposite of what DM central bankers intended when they decided to expand their balance sheets into the trillions) as global growth and trade enters a new era, characterized by a systemic slump in demand. Here’s the damage in terms of the Arcelor’s equity:

And here’s more from The New York Times on the impact of Chinese “dumping:

“The Chinese are dumping in our core markets,” Mr. Mittal said. “The question is how long the Chinese will continue to export below their cost.”

The company’s loss for the period compared with a $22 million profit for last year’s third quarter.

ArcelorMittal, which is based in Luxembourg, also sharply cut its projection for 2015 earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization — the main measure of a steel company’s finances. The new estimate is $5.2 billion to $5.4 billion, down from the previous projection of $6 billion to $7 billion.

On a call with reporters, Aditya Mittal, Mr. Mittal’s son and the company’s chief financial officer, said that a flood of low-price Chinese exports was the biggest challenge for ArcelorMittal in the European and North American markets.

The company estimates that Chinese steel exports this year will reach 110 million metric tons, compared with 94 million tons last year and 63 million tons in 2013. ArcelorMittal produced 93 million metric tons of steel in 2014.

Of course when the standing government policy is to roll over bad debt and avoid SOE defaults at all costs, uneconomic producers can and will continue to produce. This means the deflationary impulse ArcelorMittal cites isn’t likely to dissipate anytime soon, and on that note we close with what we said just a week ago:

The cherry on top is that China itself is now trapped: it simply can’t afford to let anyone default, as one bankruptcy would cascade across the entire bond market and wipe out countless corporations leaving millions of angry Chinese workers unemployed, and is therefore forced to keep bailing out insolvent companies over and over. By doing so, it is adding even more deflationary capacity and even more production into the market, which leads to even lower prices, and even greater bailouts! In short: this is a deflationary toxic spiral.





“It couldn’t happen here”

6 07 2015

This fantastic article explaining the Greek Tragedy unfolding today comes from Tim Morgan’s terrific surplus energy economics blog.  All followers of DTM should follow this one too….

 GREECE AND THE WHITE SWANS

It has become customary for investors and commentators to worry about unforeseeable “black swan events”. They might be better advised to note the number of perfectly normal, eminently visible white swans  that are circling over us right now. The idea that what has happened in Greece is some kind of freak event that “couldn’t happen here” is simply nonsense.

It could happen here, and, indeed, it probably will.

In a 1968 episode of the radio comedy Round the Horne, a misunderstanding takes place between the Emperor Nero (Kenneth Williams) and a messenger (Hugh Paddick). The messenger arrives with urgent news of Greece – but it turns out to be grease, and it has all been stolen.

It’s a terrible pun, of course, but in today’s context it’s also a terrible fact. Pretty much however you look at it, the wealth and prosperity of Greece have gone. Apportioning blame for this state of affairs, though not wholly pointless, is less important than looking at what might happen next, and at where it might happen.

In my previous article, I looked at whether the Greek crisis was the forerunner of a broader crash, which I’m convinced that it is. Here I take this theme somewhat further, looking at the dynamics of collapse, and at what warning signs we might be able to detect ahead of the event.

Though (at time of writing) we still await the outcome of the referendum called by Alexis Tsipras, it is clear that the choice before the electorate is between bad and worse. Though the most recent offer from creditors is no longer on the table, it’s pretty clear that it will be (in some shape or form) if the Greeks vote to succumb. If they vote no, however, Greece is likely to be a failed state, certainly within weeks and possibly within days. What does this really mean?

An economy in ruins

In the absence of emergency liquidity from the European Central Bank (ECB), the Greek banking system has all but ceased to function. Individuals can draw up to €60 per day from their accounts, but even this may stop within days, as there is reckoned to be only €500m of liquidity in the system (which is less than €50 per Greek citizen). Once this liquidity runs out, no-one will have any money to spend. In reality, that point has now been reached.

Already, the government cannot pay pensions or public sector salaries, but the biggest problem of the lot is that businesses cannot pay their suppliers. This means that the supply chain has snapped.

Once that happens, an economy is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, latest research from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows that, over the coming three years, Greece will need further loans of €50bn, in addition to the currently-suspended €7.2bn final tranche of the current bailout programme. Even this estimate looks optimistic, as it assumes Greek compliance with the agreement with its creditors, only modest shrinkage in real GDP, and the availability of funds at extremely favourable rates of interest. As a creditor, of course, the IMF might be scare-mongering, but I doubt it – the calculations used in the report look pretty solid.

Please note – especially when looking at other potential crises – is that what really matters isn’t aggregate debt (of €330bn) but the smaller, but critical, €57bn liquidity imperative.

The choice facing Greece is thus between immediate economic collapse or a long period convalescing in what amounts to a secure hospital, with bars on the doors and guards at the gate.

As of the most recent (2012) census, the Greek population was 10.8 million, so further loans of €57bn equate to almost €5,300 for each man, woman and child in the country, just to keep things ticking over. For comparison, per capita GDP is of the order of €15,000. As a rough equivalent, we are talking about Britain’s 63 million citizens needing to borrow about £560bn just to keep going until the end of 2018.

As we shall see, that figure is well worth bearing in mind.

The anatomy of collapse

The immediate issue, however, is that Greece is at the point of collapse.
You might think that the problem is simply a financial one, and that the “real economy” of goods and services should continue to function even if Greece has debts that it cannot repay.

The reality, however, is that the entire economy is already ceasing to function. With Greek banks effectively bust, money cannot circulate in the economy – workers and pensioners cannot be paid, and neither can suppliers, so there will be nothing in the shops even if you happen to have stored some Euro banknotes in a safe or a mattress.

(In parenthesis, I am amused by the British authorities’ brilliant advice to those holidaying in Greece, which is that everything should be fine if they take enough cash with them. I will be interested to see how far that cash gets them when there is nothing in the shops, no food or staff in restaurants, bars or hotels, and no petrol in buses or taxis. But I digress).

In his book The Five Stages of Collapse, Dmitri Orlov explains that finance will collapse first because it is a house of cards predicated on the assumption of perpetual growth. He also demonstrates, mathematically, that the cost of debt service will always outgrow the economy – something that we can all observe by looking at the ratios of debt to GDP across the world over the last three decades.

What happens next, Orlov explains, is that the collapse of finance is followed by the collapse of commerce. What Greece is showing us, however, is that these collapses are virtually simultaneous. If the banking system ceases to function, so do all commercial transactions, because the supply chain is severed in real time. How, without cash, can Greek businesses pay their staff, pay their suppliers or receive payment from customers? How, without tax income, can the state pay salaries or pensions? Would you, as a supplier, provide goods to a customer who you know has no access to money? Would you supply drugs to a hospital which cannot pay you for them? And, as a foreign supplier, would you export food or energy to a bankrupt customer?

Three sources of false comfort

Of course, there are three reflections that might comfort outsiders that what has happened in Greece “cannot happen here”.

First, there is the patronising belief that the Greeks have somehow behaved extremely stupidly.

Second, there is the observation that Greek debt, at some €330bn, is pretty small stuff in the global scale of things.

Third, of course, we can comfort ourselves that a Eurozone with a GDP of about €15 trillion ought to be able to cope with debt of this magnitude.

If you did draw comfort from these observations, you would be wrong on all three counts.

To be sure, Greeks and their governments have behaved fecklessly, but are we really much different? The Greeks may have been poor men living like rich ones, but walk down any seemingly-prosperous street in Britain or America and ask yourself quite how much debt is represented by the smart houses and expensive cars that you see there. The days when possessions indicated affluence are long gone, and the far greater likelihood today is that possessions indicate indebtedness. Look, next, at how much debt the British and American governments have, how much they are still adding to their debt piles, and how much they have taken on in off-balance-sheet obligations such as public sector pension promises.

If you tot that lot up, and, even before you include unprecedented levels of household debt, you will realise quite how hypocritical it is when Britons or Americans accuse Greeks of fecklessness. In Britain, for example, I confidently expect the Chancellor to find more money for the National Health Service (NHS) whilst further cutting already-inadequate defence expenditures at the outset of what the Prime Minister himself has called an “existential” war.

Feckless is as feckless does.

The second source of comfort – which is the modest scale of Greek debt – is also gravely misplaced. As Zac Tate has explained in an excellent article at CapX, the global banking system is owed $17 by China for each $1 owed by Greece, largely because Chinese household debt has soared from 60% to 200% of GDP in just five years. That, as Tate explains, is a vastly larger debt increase than the subprime madness that crippled the American financial system and triggered the 2008 banking crisis.

Within the Chinese debt mountain, it seems that somewhere between $2 and $3 trillion is already mired in “problem loans”, even before excess debt starts to exert its inevitable downwards pressure on broader debt viability. Again, the scale of British and American debt should reinforce what the Chinese numbers are telling us about the true scale of the problem.

The third comforting illusion – which is that Greece can probably be rescued by someone – is true, but only of Greece. The Eurozone or the IMF might be able to bail out Greece, but no institution exists capable of rescuing, say, America, Britain or China. For the world’s really big debt junkies, there will be no Seventh Cavalry riding to the rescue, not even with General Custer in charge.

The caravan of collapse moves on

As Richard Vague has pointed out, the ramping up of debt in China parallels the situation in Japan in 1991 and the United States in 2007. Far from being an unpredictable, “black swan” event, the crashes that followed in Japan and America were eminently predictable, flagged well in advance (for anyone willing to see the warning signals) in the rapid rise of household debt.

Earlier, I commented that the Greek scale of illiquidity – the need to find €57bn just to keep the system ticking over – equated to about £560bn in the context of the British population and GDP. Actually, this sum is exceeded by property debt downside in the UK. So, in terms of where such a cataclysmic loss could actually show up, we surely need look no further than the bloated housing market, where a one-third fall in paper values would easily wipe that much and more off the balance sheets of mortgage lenders.

Housing values have been ramped up by the stimulus of ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) which was itself taken on to cope with the previous asset bubble crisis. Therefore, even the most modest rise in interest rates could torpedo property values and, by setting off a full-blown crisis in the banking system, could cripple the economy, causing liquidity to dry up almost overnight.

That such a thing could happen is itself made more likely by ZIRP because, whilst making reckless property borrowing affordable, ZIRP has also ushered in the contradiction of a supposedly “capitalist” economic system operating without returns on capital.

So we need to stop worrying about “black swans”, taking note instead of the white ones.

We also need to stop thinking that Greece is some kind of “strange bird” experiencing something that “couldn’t happen here”.

Rather, Greece is the canary in the coal mine.





Dmitry Orlov at his very best

26 03 2015

I suppose many (most?) of you already follow Orlov’s great blog and have already read this piece.  As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of the very best analyses of the predicaments we face all wrapped up in a concise and easy to understand piece of journalism.
 Originally published here.

Financial Feudalism

Once upon a time—and a fairly long time it was—most of the thickly settled parts of the world had something called feudalism. It was a way of organizing society hierarchically. Typically, at the very top there was a sovereign (king, prince, emperor, pharaoh, along with some high priests). Below the sovereign were several ranks of noblemen, with hereditary titles. Below the noblemen were commoners, who likewise inherited their stations in life, be it by being bound to a piece of land upon which they toiled, or by being granted the right to engage in a certain type of production or trade, in case of craftsmen and merchants. Everybody was locked into position through permanent relationships of allegiance, tribute and customary duties: tribute and customary duties flowed up through the ranks, while favours, privileges and protection flowed down.

It was a remarkably resilient, self-perpetuating system, based largely on the use of land and other renewable resources, all ultimately powered by sunlight. Wealth was primarily derived from land and the various uses of land. Here is a simplified org chart showing the pecking order of a medieval society.

Feudalism was essentially a steady-state system. Population pressures were relieved primarily through emigration, war, pestilence and, failing all of the above, periodic famine. Wars of conquest sometimes opened up temporary new venues for economic growth, but since land and sunlight are finite, this amounted to a zero-sum game.

But all of that changed when feudalism was replaced with capitalism. What made the change possible was the exploitation of nonrenewable resources, the most important of which was energy from burning fossilized hydrocarbons: first peat and coal, then oil and natural gas. Suddenly, productive capacity was decoupled from the availability of land and sunlight, and could be ramped up almost, but not quite, ad infinitum, simply by burning more hydrocarbons. Energy use, industry and population all started going up exponentially. A new system of economic relations was brought into being, based on money that could be generated at will, in the form of debt, which could be repaid with interest using the products of ever-increasing future production. Compared with the previous, steady-state system, the change amounted to a new assumption: that the future will always be bigger and richer—rich enough to afford to pay back both principal and interest.

With this new, capitalistic arrangement, the old, feudal relationships and customs fell into disuse, replaced by a new system in which the ever-richer owners of capital squared off against increasingly dispossessed labour. The trade union movement and collective bargaining allowed labour to hold its own for a while, but eventually a number of factors, such as automation and globalization, undermined the labour movement, leaving the owners of capital with all the leverage they could want over a demoralized surplus population of former industrial workers. In the meantime, the owners of capital formed their own pseudo-aristocracy, but without the titles or the hereditary duties and privileges. Their new pecking order was predicated on just one thing: net worth. How many dollar signs people have next to their name is all that’s necessary to determine their position in society.

But eventually almost all the good, local sources of hydrocarbon-based energy became depleted, and had to be replaced using lower-quality, more remote, harder-to-produce, more expensive ones. This took a big bite out of economic growth, because with each passing year more and more of it had to be plowed right back into producing the energy needed to simply sustain, never mind grow, the system. At the same time, industry produced a lot of unpleasant byproducts: environmental pollution and degradation, climate destabilization and other externalities. Eventually these started showing up as high insurance premiums and remediation costs for natural and man-made disasters, and these too put a damper on economic growth.

Population growth has its penalties too. You see, bigger populations translate to bigger population centers, and research results show that the bigger the city, the higher is its energy use per capita. Unlike biological organisms, where the larger the animal, the slower is its metabolism, the intensity of activity needed to sustain a population center increases along with population. Observe that in big cities people talk faster, walk faster, and generally have to live more intensely and operate on a tighter schedule just to stay alive. All of this hectic activity takes energy away from constructing a bigger, richer future. Yes, the future may be ever more populous (for now) but the fastest-growing form of human settlement on the planet is the urban slum—lacking in social services, sanitation, rife with crime and generally unsafe.

What all of this means is that growth is self-limiting. Next, observe that we have already reached these limits, and have in some cases gone far beyond them. The currently failing fad of hydraulic fracturing of shale deposits and steaming oil out of tar sands is indicative of the advanced state of depletion of fossil fuel sources. Climate destabilization is producing ever more violent storms, ever more severe droughts (California now has just a year’s worth of water left) and is predicted to wipe out entire countries because of rising ocean levels, failing monsoon seasons and dwindling irrigation water from glacial melt. Pollution has likewise reached its limits in many areas: urban smog, be it in Paris, Beijing, Moscow or Teheran, has become so bad that industrial activities are being curtailed simply so that people can breathe. Radioactivity from the melted-down nuclear reactors at Fukushima in Japan is showing up in fish caught on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

All of these problems are causing a very strange thing to happen to money. In the previous, growth phase of capitalism, money was borrowed into existence in order to bring consumption forward and by so doing to stimulate economic growth. But a few years ago a threshold was reached in the US, which was at the time still the epicenter of global economic activity (since eclipsed by China), where a unit of new debt produced less than one unit of economic growth. This made borrowing from the future with interest no longer possible.

Whereas before money was borrowed in order to produce growth, now it had to be borrowed, in ever-larger amounts, simply to prevent financial and industrial collapse. Consequently, interest rates on new debt were reduced all the way to zero, in something that came to be known as ZIRP, for Zero Interest Rate Policy. To make it even sweeter, central banks accepted the money they loaned out at 0% interest as deposits, which earned a tiny bit of interest, allowing banks to make a profit by doing absolutely nothing.

glutUnsurprisingly, doing absolutely nothing proved to be rather ineffective, and around the world economies started to shrink. Many countries resorted to forging their statistics to paint a rosier picture, but one statistic that doesn’t lie is energy consumption. It is indicative of the overall level of economic activity, and it is down across the entire world. A glut of oil, and a much lower oil price, is what we are currently witnessing as a result. Another indicator that doesn’t lie is the Baltic Dry Index, which tracks the level of shipping activity, and it has plummeted too.

And so ZIRP set the stage for the latest, most queer development: interest rates have started to go negative, both on loans and deposits. Good bye, ZIRP, hello, NIRP! Central banks around the world are starting to make loans at small negative rates of interest. That’s right, certain central banks now pay certain financial institutions to borrow money! In the meantime, interest rates on bank deposits have gone negative as well: keeping your money in the bank is now a privilege, for which one must pay.

But interest rates are certainly not negative for everyone. Access to free money is a privilege, and those who are privileged are the bankers, and the industrialists they fund. Those who have to borrow to finance housing are less privileged; those who borrow to pay for education even less so. Those not privileged at all are those who are forced to buy food using credit cards, or take out payday loans to pay rent.

The functions which borrowing once played in capitalist economies have been all but abandoned. Once upon a time, the idea was that access to capital could be obtained based on a good business plan, and that this allowed entrepreneurship to flourish and many new businesses to be formed. Since anybody, and not just the privileged, could take out a loan and start a business, this meant that economic success depended, at least to some extent, on merit. But now business formation has gone in reverse, with many more enterprises going out of business than are being formed, and social mobility has become largely a thing of the past. What is left is a rigidly stratified society, with privileges dispensed based on hereditary wealth: those at the top get paid to borrow, and get to surf on a wave of free money, while those at the bottom are driven ever further into debt servitude and destitution.

Can NIRP underpin a new feudalism? It certainly cannot reverse the downward slide, because the factors that are putting limits on growth are not amenable to financial manipulation, being physical in nature. You see, no amount of free money can make new natural resources spring into existence. What it can do, however, is freeze the social hierarchy among the owners of capital—for a while, but not forever.

Everywhere you care to look, the ever-shrinking economy eventually results in populist revolt, war and national bankruptcy, and these cause money to stop working in a number of ways. There is usually devaluation, bank failures, inability to finance imports, and the demise of pensions and of the public sector. The desire to survive causes people to focus on getting direct access to physical resources, distributing them among friends and family.

In turn, this causes market mechanisms to become extremely opaque and distorted, and often to stop functioning altogether. Under these circumstances, how many dollar signs someone has next to their name becomes rather a moot point, and we should expect the social hierarchy among the owners of capital to become unstable and capsize. A few among them have the talents to become warlords, and these few fleece the rest out of existence. But overall, in a situation where financial institutions have failed, where factories and other enterprises are no longer functioning, and where real estate holdings have been overrun by marauding mobs and/or invaded by squatters, one’s net worth becomes rather difficult to compute. And so we should expect the org chart of the post-capitalist society, in spreadsheet terms, to look like this. (“#REF!” is what Excel displays when it encounters an invalid cell reference in a formula.)

A good, precise term for this state of affairs is “anarchy.” Once a new, low level of steady-state subsistence is reached, the process of aristocratic formation can begin anew. But unless a new source of cheap fossil fuels is somehow magically discovered, this process would have to proceed along the traditional, feudal lines.