Oct 072016
 
 October 7, 2016  Posted by at 6:34 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  


Andre Kertesz Bumper cars at amusement park in Neuilly-sur-Seine, near Paris 1930

I read a lot, been doing it for years, about finance and affiliated topics (a wide horizon of them), which means I’ve inevitably seen a wholesale lot of nonsense fly by. But for some reason, and I think I know why, Q3 2016 has been gunning for a top -or bottom- seat in that regard, and Q4 is looking to do it one better/worse.

Apart from the fast increasingly brainless political ‘discussions’ that don’t deserve the name, in the US and UK and beyond, there are the transnational organizations, NATO, IMF, EU and all those things, all suffocating in their own hubris, things I’ve dealt with before in for instance Globalization Is Dead, But The Idea Is Not and Why There is Trump. But none of it still seems to have trickled through anywhere that I can see.

The end of growth exposes the stupidity and ignorance of all but (and even that’s a maybe) a precious few (of our) ‘leaders’. There is no other way this could have run, because an era of growth simply selects for different people to float to the top of the pond than a period of contraction does. Can we agree on that?

‘Growth leaders’ only have to seduce voters into believing that they can keep growth going, and create more of it (though in reality they have no control over it at all). Anyone can do that. So ‘anyone’ who’s sufficiently hooked on power games will apply.

‘Contraction leaders’ have a much harder time; they must convince voters that they can minimize the ‘suffering of the herd’. Which is invariably a herd that no-one wants to belong to. A tough sell.

Any end to growth will and must therefore inevitably change the structure of a democracy, any democracy, any society for that matter. It will lead to new leaders, and new parties, coming to the front. And it should not surprise anyone that some of these new leaders and parties will question the very structure of the democracy they are part of, if only because that structure is already undergoing change anyway.

The tight connection between an era of economic growth (and/or contraction) and the politicians that ‘rule’ during that era is reflected in Hazel Henderson’s“economics is nothing but politics in disguise”.

 

On the one hand you have the incumbent class seeking to hold on to their waning power, churning out false positive numbers and claiming that theirs is the only way to go (just more of it), and on the other hand you have a loose affiliation – to the extent there’s any affiliation at all- of left and right, individuals and parties, who smell change that they can use to their own benefit.

They just mostly don’t know how to use it yet. But they’ll find out, or some of them will. Blaming people and groups of people for what’s gone wrong will be a major way forward, because it’s just so easy. It’s another reason why the incumbents class, the traditional parties, will go the way of the dodo: they will be blamed, and rightly so in most cases, for the fall of the economic system.

That’ll be the number one criteria: if you’re -perceived as- part of the old guard, you’re out. Not at the flick of a switch, but nevertheless the rise of Trump and Farage and all those folks has been much faster than just about anyone would have thought possible until very recently.

They feed on discontent, but they can do so only because that discontent has been completely ignored by the ruling classes everywhere. Which has a lot to do with the rulers in all these instances we see pop up now still being well-off, while the lower rungs of societies definitely are not.

Moreover, if most people still had comfortable middle-class lives, the dislike of immigrants and refugees would have been so much less that Trump and Wilders and Le Pen and Alternative for Deutschland could never have ‘struck gold’. It’s the perception that the ‘new’ people are somehow to blame for one’s deteriorating living conditions that makes it fertile ground for whoever wants to use it.

And since the far left can’t go there, the right takes over by default. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have brave ideas on redistribution of wealth, but there is still too much resistance, at the moment, to that, from the incumbent class and their voters, to have much chance of getting anywhere.

Of course the traditional right wing smells the opportunity too, so Hillary (yeah, she’s right wing) and Theresa May and Sarkozy and Merkel are all orchestrating sharp turns to the right, away from their once comfortable seats in the center. They all sense that power will not be emanating from the center going forward, and it’s power, much more than principles, that they are after.

 

But enough about politicians and their parties, who can and will all be voted out of power. Much harder to get rid of will be the transnational organizations, like the EU and IMF (there are many more), though they represent the ‘doomed construction’ perhaps even more than mere local or national power-hungries. The leading principle is simple: What has all the centralization led to? To today’s contracting economies.

To that end, let’s just tear into a recent random Bloomberg piece on this week’s IMF meeting, and the ‘expert opinions’ on it:

Existential Threat To World Order Confronts Elite At IMF Meeting

Policy-making elites converge on Washington this week for meetings that epitomize a faith in globalization that’s at odds with the growing backlash against the inequities it creates. From Britain’s vote to leave the EU to Donald Trump’s championing of “America First,” pressures are mounting to roll back the economic integration that has been a hallmark of gatherings of the IMF and World Bank for more than 70 years. Fed by stagnant wages and diminishing job security, the populist uprising threatens to depress a world economy that IMF Managing Director Christine Lagarde says is already “weak and fragile.”

The calls for less integration and more trade barriers also pose risks for elevated financial markets that remain susceptible to sudden swings in investor sentiment , as underscored by recent jitters over Deutsche Bank’s financial health. “The backlash against globalization is manifesting itself in increased nationalistic sentiment, against the outside world and in favor of increasing isolation,” said Louis Kuijs at Oxford Economics in Hong Kong, a former IMF official. “If we lose consensus on what kind of a world we want to have, the world will probably be worse off.”

Oh, but we do have consensus, Louis: Ever more people don’t want what they have now. That too is consensus. And since you said that what it takes is consensus, we should be fine then, right?!

Also, I find the term ‘elevated markets’ interesting, even if I don’t know what it’s supposed to mean. I can only guess.

In its latest World Economic Outlook released Tuesday, the fund highlighted the threats from the anti-trade movement to an already subdued global expansion. After growth of 3.2% in 2015, the world economy’s expansion will slow to 3.1% this year before rebounding to 3.4% in 2017, according to the report, keeping those estimates unchanged from July projections. The forecasts for U.S. growth were cut to 1.6% this year and 2.2% in 2017.

“We’d like to see an end to the creeping protectionism in the world and more progress on moving ahead with free-trade agreements and other trade-creating measures,” Maurice Obstfeld, director of the IMF’s research department, said in a Bloomberg Television interview with Tom Keene. Lagarde said last week that policy makers attending the Oct. 7-9 annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank have two tasks. First, do no harm, which above all means resisting the temptation to throw up protectionist barriers to trade. And second, take action to boost lackluster global growth and make it more inclusive.

I can see how a vote against the likes of Hollande, Hillary or Cameron constitutes a “the backlash against globalization”. What I don’t see is how that has now become the same as the anti-trade movement. When did Trump express any feelings against trade? Against international trade deals as they exist and are further prepared, yes.

But those deals don’t define ‘trade’ to the exclusion of all other definitions. As for ‘protectionism’, that’s just a term designed to make something perfectly fine and normal look bad. Every single society on the planet should protect its basic necessities from being controlled by foreigners, either for money or for power.

Nothing good can come of relinquishing that control for any society, ever. There‘s not a thing wrong with protecting your control of your own water and food and shelter, and these are indeed things that should never be traded or negotiated in global markets.

So claiming that ‘do no harm’ equals NOT protecting your basics is nothing but a self-serving and dangerous kind of baloney coming your way courtesy of those people whose sociopathic plush seats and plusher bank accounts depend on your ongoing personal loss of control over what you need to survive.

It’s what any ‘body’ does that has reached the limits of its growth: it starts feeding on its host. Be it a cancerous tumor, the Roman Empire or our present perennial-growth driven economic models, they’re all the same same thing because they are fueled by the same -thoughtless- principle.


Ilargi: See that upward line at the end? Well, it’s an IMF growth ‘forecast’. Which are always so wrong, and always revised downward, that you must wonder if the term ‘forecast’ is even appropriate

 

Achieving even those modest objectives may prove elusive. Free trade has become polling poison in the U.S. presidential campaign, with Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton now criticizing a trade deal with Pacific nations, which isn’t yet ratified in the U.S., that she had praised when it was being negotiated. Republican challenger Trump has lashed out at Mexico and China, threatening to slap big tariffs on imports from both nations. Rattled by the U.K.’s June vote to leave the EU, European leaders know it may just be the start of a political earthquake that’s threatening the continent’s old certainties.

In case you didn’t catch it, “..the continent’s old certainties” is a goal-seeked term. Old in this case means not older than, say, 1950, if that. Look back 100 years and “the continent’s old certainties” dress in a whole other meaning.

Next year sees elections in Germany and France, the euro area’s two largest economies, and in the Netherlands. In all three countries anti-establishment forces are gaining ground. With growing resentment of the EU from Budapest to Madrid, policy makers have described the current surge in populism as the greatest threat to the bloc since its creation out of the ashes of World War II. There are also growing signs that the union and Britain are heading for a so-called “hard exit” that would sharply reduce the bloc’s trade and financial ties with the island nation. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May said on Oct. 2 that she’ll begin her country’s withdrawal from the EU in the first quarter of next year.

I have addressed the misleading use of the term ‘populism’ before. In its core, it simple means something like: for, and by, the people. How that can be presented as somehow being a threat to democracy is a mystery to me. They should have picked another term, but settled on this one.

And in the western media consensus, it comprises anything from Trump to Beppe Grillo, via Hungary’s Orban and Nigel Farage, Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza and Germany’s AfD. All these completely different movements have one thing only in common: they protest the failed and fast deteriorating status quo, and receive a lot of support from their people for doing that.

Because it’s the people that bear the brunt of the failure, not the leadership; even Greece’s politicians still pay themselves a comparatively lush salary.

As for Britain, it’s the textbook example of utter blindness. Those who were/are well provided for, be they politically left or right, missed out on what was happening around them so much they had no idea Brexit was a real option. And in the 15 weeks since the Brexit vote, all anyone has done in the UK is seeking to blame someone, anyone but themselves for what they all failed to see coming.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of free trade over the past generation, China, still restricts access to many of its key industries, with economists worried about increasingly mercantilist policies. It’s also seeking a larger role in the existing global framework, with entry of the yuan into the IMF’s basket of reserve currencies on Oct. 1 the most recent example. An all-out trade war would be a disaster for China’s economy, with Trump’s threatened tariff potentially wiping off almost 5% of its GDP, according to a calculation by Daiwa Capital Markets.

John Williamson, whose Washington Consensus of open trade and deregulation was effectively the governing ethos for the IMF and World Bank for decades, said the 2008-09 financial meltdown had undercut support for economic integration. “There was agreement on globalization before the crisis and that’s one thing that’s been lost since the financial crisis,” said Williamson, a former senior fellow at Peterson Institute for International Economics who is now retired.

The growing opposition to economic integration has been fueled by a sub-par global recovery. “Perhaps the most striking macroeconomic fact about advanced economies today is how anemic demand remains in the face of zero interest rates,” former IMF chief economist Olivier Blanchard wrote last week in a policy brief for the Peterson Institute.

These ‘experts’ seem to have an idea there’s something amiss, but they don’t have the answers. Which is impossible to come and say out loud if you’re an expert. Experts must pretend to know it all, or at least know why they don’t know. “There was agreement on globalization before the crisis”, and now it’s no longer there. That they see.

That they ain’t coming back, neither the agreement on it nor globalization itself, is a step too far for them. To publicly acknowledge, at least. That Blanchard expresses surprise about ‘anemic demand’ at the same time that interest rates are equally anemic is something else.

That both are two sides of the same coin, or at least may be, is something he should at least mention. That is to say, low rates induce deflation, though they are allegedly supposed to induce the opposite. Economists are mostly very misguided people.

 

The world economy is getting some lift after rising at an annual rate just shy of 3% in the first half of this year, according to David Hensley, director of global economics for JPMorgan. But much of the boost will come from a lessening of drags rather than from a big burst of fresh growth, said Peter Hooper at Deutsche Bank Securities, a former Federal Reserve official. Recessions in Brazil and Russia are set to come to an end, while in the U.S. cutbacks in inventories and in oil and gas drilling will wane.

Please allow me to chip in here. ‘Lessening of drags’ in a nonsense term. And so is the idea that “..recessions in Brazil and Russia are set to come to an end”. That’s all goal-seeked day-dreaming. Smoke or drink something nice with it and you’ll feel good for a few hours, but that doesn’t make it real.

“I’m characterizing the global economy as something akin to a driverless car that’s stuck in the slow lane,” said David Stockton, a former Fed official and now chief economist at consultants LH Meyer. “Everybody feels like they’re being taken for a ride but they’re pretty nervous because they can’t see anybody in control.”

I really like this one, because off the bat I thought Stockton had it all wrong. What I think is the appropriate metaphor, is not “a driverless car that’s stuck in the slow lane”, but one of those cars in a carousel at a carnival, a merry-go-round, where you can sit in it forever and you always end up in the same spot. And the only one who’s in control in the boss who hollers that you need to pay another quarter if you want to keep on riding.

Or, alternatively, and to stay at the carnival, it’s a bumper car, which allows you to hit other cars and get hit, but never to leave the rink. That’s the global economy. Not getting anywhere, and running out of quarters fast.

Still, for the first time in the past few years, Stockton said he sees a real upside risk to his forecast of continued global growth of around 3% next year. And that’s coming from the possibility of looser fiscal policy in the U.S. and Europe. In the U.S., both Clinton and Trump have pledged to boost infrastructure spending on roads, bridges and the like. In Europe, rising populism provides a powerful incentive for governments to abandon austerity ahead of the elections next year – and perhaps beyond. Whether such a shift will be enough to mollify those who have been on the losing side of globalization for decades is debatable, however.

“The consensus in policy-making circles was that more trade meant better economic growth,” said Standard Chartered head of Greater China economic research Ding Shuang, who worked at the IMF from 1997 to 2010. “But the benefits weren’t shared equitably, so now we see a round of anti-globalization, anti-free trade. “Globalization will stall for the moment, until we can find a way to share those benefits,” he added.

Globalization is done. And while we can discuss whether that’s of necessity or not, and I continue to contend that the end of growth equals the end of all centralization including globalization, fact is that globalization was never designed to share anything at all, other than perhaps wealth among elites, and low wages among everyone else.

The EU and IMF have not delivered on what they promised, in the same way that traditional parties have not, from the US to UK to basically all of Europe. They promised growth, and growth is gone. They may have delivered for their pay masters, but they lost the rest of the world.

Anything else is just hot air. But that doesn’t mean they will hesitate to use their control of the military and police to hold on to what they got. In fact, that’s guaranteed. But it would only be viable in a dictatorial society, and even then.

We are transcending into an entirely different stage of our lives, our economies, our societies. Growth is gone, it went out the window long ago only to be replaced with debt. And that’s going to take a lot of getting used to. But there’s nothing that says we couldn’t see it coming.

Aug 202015
 
 August 20, 2015  Posted by at 3:56 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Gustave Doré Dream of the Eagle (from Dante’s Purgatory) 1868

We’ve come to the end of our little ‘chapters experiment’, using Nicole’s long article. Do let us whether you like things this way, posted in shorter parts rather than one long article. And by all means read through the whole thing one more time. It’s not going to hurt you.

This is the entire article. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
Part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity
Part 4 is here:
Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies
and part 5 is here:
Solution Space


Intro

A great deal of intelligence is invested in ignorance when the need for illusion is deep.
Saul Bellow, 1976

More and more people (although not nearly enough) are coming to recognise that humanity cannot continue on its current trajectory, as the limits we face become ever more obvious, and their implications starker. There is a growing realisation that the future must be different, and much thought is therefore being applied to devising supposed solutions for that future.

These are generally attempts to reconcile our need to make changes with our desire to continue something very much resembling our current industrial-world lifestyle, with a view to making a seamless transition between the now and a comfortably familiar future. The presumption is that it is possible, but this rests on foundational assumptions which vary between the improbable and the outright impossible. It is a presumption grounded in a comprehensive failure to understand the nature and extent of our predicament.

We are facing limits in many ways simultaneously – not surprising since exponential growth curves for so many parameters have gone critical in recent decades, and of course even more so in recent years. Some of these limits lie in human systems, while others are ecological or geophysical. They will all interact with each other, over different timeframes, in extremely complex ways as our state of overshoot resolves itself (to our dissatisfaction, to put it mildly) over many decades, if not centuries. Some of these limits are completely non-negotiable, while others can be at least partially mutable, and it is vital that we know the difference if we are to be able to mitigate our situation at all. Otherwise we are attempting to bargain with the future without understanding our negotiating position.

The vast majority has no conception of the extent to which our modernity is an artifact of our discovery and pervasive exploitation of fossil fuels as an energy source. No species in history has had easy, long term access to a comparable energy source. This unprecedented circumstance has facilitated the creation of turbo-charged civilization.

Huge energy throughput, in line with the Maximum Power Principle, has led to tremendous complexity, far greater extractive capacity (with huge ‘environmental externalities’ as a result), far greater potential to concentrate enormous power in the hands of the few with destructive political consequences), a far higher population, far greater burden on global carrying capacity, and the ability to borrow from the future to satisfy the insatiable greed of the present. The fact that we are now approaching so many limits has very significant implications for our ability to continue with any of these aspects of modern life. Therefore, any expectation that a future in the era of limits is likely to resemble the present (with a green gloss) are ill-founded and highly implausible.

The majority of the Big Ideas with which we propose to bargain with our future of limits to growth rests on the notion that we can retain our modern comforts and conveniences, but that somehow we will do so with far less resource use, and with a fraction of the energy we currently employ. The most mainstream discussions revolve around ‘green growth’, where it is suggested that eternal economic growth can occur on a finite planet, and that we will magically decouple of that growth from the physical basis upon which it rests. Proponents argue that we have already accomplished this to an extent, as the apparent energy intensity of developed state economies has fallen.

In actuality, all that has happened is that the energy deployed to provide developed world comforts has been used in the emerging markets where goods destined for our markets are manufactured, so that the consumption falls within someone else’s energy budget. In reality there has been no decoupling at all. Economic growth requires energy, and there is an exceptionally high correlation between the two. Even the phantom growth of the bubble era, based on the expansion of virtual wealth, requires energy in order to maintain the complexity of the system that generates it.

It is crucial that we understand the boundaries of solution space, in order to be able to focus our finite resources (in every sense of the word) on that which is inherently workable, at least in theory. ‘Workable In theory’ implies that, while there is no guarantee of success given a large number of unpredictable factors, there is also no obvious prima facie barrier to success. If, however, we throw our resources at ideas that are subject to such barriers, and therefore lie beyond solution space, we guarantee that those initiatives will fail and that the resources so committed will have been wasted. It is important to note that ‘success’ does not mean being able to maintain anything remotely resembling business as usual. It refers to being able to achieve the best possible outcome under the circumstances.

Sculptors work by carving away excess material in order to reveal the figure within the block they are working with. Similarly, we can carve away from the featureless monolith of conceivable approaches those that we can see in advance are doomed to fail, leaving us with a figuratively coherent group of potentially workable ideas.

In order to carve away the waste material and get closer to a much smaller set of viable possibilities, we need to understand some of the non-negotiable factors we will be facing, each of which has implications restrictive of viable solution space. Many of these issues are the fundamental substance of the message we have been propagating at the Automatic Earth since its inception and will therefore constitute a review for our regular readership. For more detail on these topics, check out our primers section.


Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression

As we have maintained since the Automatic Earth’s launch in early 2008, we have lived through a gigantic monetary expansion over the last 30 years or so –  the largest financial departure from reality in human history. In doing so we have created a crisis of under-collateralization. This period was highly inflationary, as we saw a vast increase in the supply of money and credit versus available goods and services. Both currency printing and credit hyper-expansion constitute inflation, but the outcome, and therefore prescription, for each is very different. While currency printing cuts the real wealth pie into many more pieces, each of which will be very small, credit expansions such as this one create multiple and mutually exclusive claims to the same pieces of pie, hence we have generated a vast quantity of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

In other words, we have created a bubble of virtual wealth, with no substance to back up the pile of promises to repay that it rests upon. As we have said before, this amounts to playing a giant game of musical chairs where there is perhaps one chair for every hundred people playing the game. When the music stops, those best positioned to understand the rules of the game will grab a chair as quickly as possible. Everyone else will be out of the game. The endgame of credit expansion is always a credit implosion, where the excess claims are rapidly and messily extinguished. This is, of course, deflation by definition – a contraction in the supply of money and credit relative to available goods and services – through the collapse of the credit supply, where credit is of the order of 99% of the effective money supply.

A credit implosion crashes both the money supply and the velocity of money – the rate at which money circulates in the economy. Together these factors determine how much economic activity can be sustained. With both the money supply and the velocity of money very low, a state of liquidity crunch exists, where there is insufficient liquidity in the economy to connect buyers and sellers, or producers and consumers. Nothing moves, so there is little or no economic activity. Note that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for, so with little purchasing power available, demand will be very low under such circumstances.

During the expansion, both the money supply and the velocity of money increased dramatically, and the resulting artificial stimulation of demand led to an increase in supply, with the ability to sustain a much larger than normal amount of economic activity. But once the limit is reached, where all the income streams of the productive economy can no longer service the debt created, and there are no more willing borrowers or lenders, the demand stimulation disappears, leaving a great deal of supply without a market. The demand that had been effectively borrowed from the future, must be ‘repaid’ once the bubble bursts, leading to a prolonged period of low demand. The supply that had arisen to service it no longer has a reason to exist and cannot be maintained.

The economy moves into a period of seizure under such cIrcumstances. We have frequently compared attempting to run an economy with too small a money supply in circulation to trying to run an automobile with the oil warning light on, indicating too little lubricant. Engines seize up when run with too little lubricant, a role played by money in the case of the engine of the economy. The situation created can also be compared to a computer operating system crash, where nothing functions until the system has been rebooted. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, people noted that they had plenty of everything except money. Liquidity crunch creates a condition of artificial scarcity, where even being surrounded by resources is of little use for a period of time once the operating system has crashed and has yet to be ‘rebooted’.

We will be looking at a period of acute liquidity crunch followed by a long period of chronic financial instability. The initial contraction will be driven by fear and that fear will persist for a long time. This will result in little credit being made available, and only at high cost. In other words, interest rates, which are a risk premium, will be very high as we move beyond the initial phase of contraction and fear is in the drivers seat. Deflation and economic depression are mutually reinforcing, hence once that downward spiral, or vicious circle, dynamic has taken hold, we will remain in its grip for many years.

Given that the cost of capital will be very high, and there will be little purchasing power, proposed solutions which are capital-intensive will lie outside solution space.


The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

The collective mood shifts rapidly from optimism and greed to pessimism and fear as the bubble bursts, and as it does so, the financial system moves from expansion to contraction. Financial contraction involves the breaking of promises right left and centre, with credit instruments drastically revalued downwards in the process. As the promises that back them cease to be credible, value disappears extremely rapidly. This is deflation and the elimination of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

Instruments once regarded as money equivalents will lose that status through the loss of confidence in them, causing the supply of what retains sufficient confidence to still be regarded as money to collapse. The more instruments lose the confidence that confers value upon them, the smaller the effective money supply will be, and the more confidence will become a rare ‘commodity’. Being grounded in psychology is the primary reason that deflation cannot be overcome through policy adaptations which are inherently too little and too late. Nothing moves as quickly as a collective loss of confidence in human promises, and nothing destroys value as comprehensively.

The same abrupt change in collective mood will also drive contraction in the real economy, but more slowly, since the time constant for change in the real world is much slower than in the virtual world of finance. This process will also result in broken promises as structural dependencies fracture when there is no longer enough to go around. There will be wage and benefit cuts, layoffs, strikes, strike-breaking, breaches of contract, business failures and more on a huge scale, and these will fuel further fear, anger and the destruction of trust.

In the political realm, trust, such as it is, will be an early casualty. Political promises have been regarded as highly suspect for a long time in any case, but considering that the electorate tends consistently to vote for whomever tells them the largest number of comforting lies, this is not particularly surprising. Our political system selects for mendaciousness by design, since no party is normally elected by telling the truth, yet we have still collectively retained some faith in the concept of democracy until relatively recently. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the political institutions in supposedly democratic nations have largely been bought by big capital. More often than not, and more blatantly than ever, the political machinery has come to serve those special interests, not the public interest.

The public is increasingly realizing that ‘representative democracy’ leaves them unrepresented, as they see more and more examples of austerity for the masses combined with enormous bailouts guaranteeing that the large scale gamblers of casino capitalism will not take losses on the reckless bets they made gambling with other people’s money. In the countries subjected to austerity, where the contrast is the most stark, a wave of public anger is already depriving national governments, or supranational governance institutions where applicable (ie Europe), of political legitimacy. As more and more states slide into the austerity trap as a result of their unsustainable debt burdens, this polarization process will continue, driving wedges between the governors and the governed which will make governance far more difficult.

Governments struggling with the loss of political legitimacy are going to find that people will no longer follow rules once they feel that the social contract has been violated, and that rules no longer represent the public interest. When the governed broadly accept that society functions under the rule of law, in other words that all are equally subject to the same rules, then they tend to internalize those rules and follow them without the need for negative incentives or outright enforcement. However, once the dominant perception becomes that rules are imposed only on the powerless, to their detriment and for the benefit of the powerful, while the well connected can do as they please, then general compliance can cease very quickly.

Without compliance, force would become necessary, and we are indeed likely to see this occur as a transitional phase as social polarization increases in a climate of increasing anger. The transitional element arises from the fact that force, especially as exercised technologically at large scale, requires substantial resources which are unlikely to remain available. Force produces reaction, straining the fabric of society, quite possibly to breaking point.

As contagion propagates the impact of financial and economic contraction, we will rapidly be moving from a long era of high trust in the value of promises to one of low trust. The trust horizon will contract sharply, leaving supranational and national governments lying beyond its reach, as stranded assets from a trust perspective. Trust determines effective organizational scale, so when the trust horizon draws in, withdrawing political legitimacy in its wake, larger scale entities, whether public or private, are going to find it extremely difficult to function. Effective organizational scale had been increasing for the duration of our long economic expansion, forcing an across the board scaling up of all manner of organizations by increasing the competitiveness accruing to large scale. As we scaled up, we formed structural dependencies on these larger scale entities’ ability to function.

While the scaling-up process was reasonable smooth and seamless, the scaling-down process will not be, as the lower rungs of the figurative ladder we climbed to reach this pinnacle have been kicked out as we ascended. Structural dependencies are going to fail very painfully as large scale ceases to be effective and competitive, leading to abrupt dislocations with ricocheting impacts.

Proposed solutions to our predicament that depend on the functioning of large-scale organizations operating in a top-down manner do not lie within viable solution space.


Instability and the ‘Discount Rate’

The pessimism-and-fear-driven psychology of contraction differs dramatically from the optimism-and-greed-driven psychology of expansion. The extreme complacency as to systemic risk of recent years will be replaced by an equally extreme risk aversion, as we move from overshoot in one direction to undershoot in the other. The perception of economic visibility is gong to change substantially, as we move from a period where people thought they knew where things were headed into an era where fear and confusion reign, and the sense of predictability evaporates abruptly.

This is an important psychological shift, as it affects an aspect known as the ‘discount rate’, which reflects the extent to which we think in the short term rather than the long term, or the extent to which we value the present over the future. The perceived rate of change is an important factor in determining the discount rate, and fear, being a very sharp emotion, causes the rate of change to accelerate markedly, driving the discount rate sharply higher in contractionary times.

True long term thinking is relatively rare. We manage an approximation of it at times when all immediate needs, along with many mere ‘wants’, are met and we are not concerned about this condition changing, in other words at times when we take a comfortable situation for granted. At such times, the longer term view is a luxury we can afford, and we find it relatively simple to summon the presence of mind to think abstractly and constructively, and to ponder circumstances which are are neither personal nor immediate. Even at such times, however, it is not particularly common for humans to transcend mere contemplation and actually act in the interests of the long term, especially if it involves aspects beyond the personal, or perhaps familial.

As the financial bubble bursts, and we rapidly begin to pick up on the fear of others and feel the consequences of contagion in our own lives, our collective discount rates are going to sky-rocket. In a relatively short period of time, a large percentage of the population is going to begin worry about immediate needs, let alone wants, not being met. A short time later those worries are likely to transition into reality, as has already happened in the countries, like Greece, in the forefront of the bursting bubble. As discount rates go through the roof, the luxury of the longer term view, which is always quite ephemeral, is likely to disappear altogether.

Where people have no supply cushions and find themselves abruptly penniless, cold, thirsty, hungry or homeless, the likelihood of them considering anything much beyond the needs of the day at hand is very low. Under such circumstances, the present becomes the only reality that matters, and societies are abruptly pitched into a panicked state of short term crisis management. This of course underlines the need to develop supply cushions and contingency plans in advance of a bubble bursting, so that a greater percentage of people might be able to retain a clear head and the ability to plan more than one day at a time. Unfortunately, few are likely to heed advance warnings and we can expect society to shift rapidly into a state of short-termism.

Given the coming rise in collective discount rates, if proposed solutions depend on the ability for societies to engage in rational planning for longer term goals, then those solutions are not part of solution space.


The Psychology of Contraction and Social Context

Expansionary times are times of relative peace and prosperity. If those conditions persist for a relatively long time, trust builds slowly and societies become more inclusive and cooperative, tending to perceive common humanity and focus on similarities rather than differences. In such times we reach out and interact with distant people, even if we have no relationship of personal trust with them, as we have, over time, vested our trust in stable institutional frameworks for managing our affairs. This institutional trust replaces the need for trust at a personal level and is a key factor in our ability to scale up our economies and their governance structures. Individuals raised in such an environment tend to show a presumption of trust towards others, and their inclination is generally to act cooperatively.

There is a sharp contrast between this stable state of affairs and the circumstances which pertain when suddenly the pie is shrinking and there is not enough to go around. As difficult as it can be to share gains in a way perceived to be fair, it is infinitely more difficult to share losses in a way that is not extremely divisive. As elucidated above, a deflationary credit implosion involved the wholesale destruction of excess claims to underlying real wealth, meaning that a majority of people who thought they had a valid claim to something of tangible value are going to find that they do not. The losses will be very widespread, but uneven, and the perception of unfairness will be almost universal.

Under such circumstances a sense of common humanity is much less prevalent, and the focus shifts from similarities to the differences upon which social divisions are founded and then inflamed. An ‘us versus them’ dynamic is prone to take hold, where ‘us’ becomes ever more tightly defined and ‘them’ becomes an ever more pejorative term. People build literal and figurative walls and peer suspiciously at each other over them. Rather than working together in the attempt to address concerns common to all, division shifts the focus from cooperation to competition. A collectively constructive mindset can easily morph into something far more motivated by negative emotions such as jealousy and revenge and therefore far more destructive of perceived commonality.

The kind of initiatives which capture the public imagination in expansionary times are not at all the type which get traction once a contractionary dynamic takes hold. Attempts to build cooperative projects are going to be facing a rising tide of negative social mood, and will struggle to get off the ground. Sadly, negative ideas are far more likely to go viral than positive ones. Novel movements grounded in anger and fear may arise to feed on this new emotional context and thereby be empowered to wreak havoc on the fabric of society, notably through providing a political mandate to extremists with an agenda of focusing blame on to some identifiable, and marginalizable, social group.

While it will not be the case that cooperative endeavours will be impossible to achieve, they will require additional effort, and are likely to succeed only at a much smaller scale in a newly fractured society than might previously have been expected. It is very much a worthwhile effort, and will be far simpler if begun prior to the end of the period of cooperative presumption. All the more reason to adapt to a major trend change adapt in advance. There is nothing so dangerous as collectively dashed expectations.

If proposed solutions depend on a cooperative social context at large scale, they will not be part of solution space.


Energy – Demand Collapse Followed by Supply Collapse

As we have noted many times, energy is the master resource, and has been the primary driver of an expansion dating back to the beginning of the industrial revolution. In fossil fuels humanity discovered the ‘holy grail’ of energy sources – highly concentrated, reasonably easy to obtain, transportable and processable into many useful forms. Without this discovery, it is unlikely that any human empire would have exceeded the scale and technological sophistication of Rome at its height, but with it we incrementally developed the capacity to reach for the stars along an exponential growth curve.

We increased production year after year, developed uses for our energy surplus, and then embedded layer upon successive layer of structural dependency on those uses within our societies. We were living in an era of a most unusual circumstance – energy surplus on an unprecedented scale. We have come to think this is normal as it has been our experience for our whole lives, and we therefore take it for granted, but it is a profoundly anomalous and temporary state of affairs.

We have arguably reached peak production, despite a great deal of propaganda to the contrary. We still rely on the giant oil fields discovered decades ago for the majority of the oil we use today, but these fields are reaching the end of their lives and new discoveries are very small in comparison. We are producing from previous finds on a grand scale, but failing to replace them, not through lack of effort, but from a fundamental lack of availability. Our dependence on oil in particular is tremendous, given that it underpins both the structure and function of industrial society in a myriad different ways.

An inability to grow production, or even maintain it at current levels past peak, means that our oil supply will be constricted, and with it both the scope of society’s functions and our ability to maintain what we have built. Production from the remaining giant fields could collapse, either as they finally water out or as production is hit by ‘above ground factors’, meaning that it could be impacted by rapidly developing human events having nothing to do with the underlying geology. Above ground factors make for unpredictable wildcards.

Financial crisis, for instance, will be profoundly destabilizing, and is going to precipitate very significant, and very negative, social consequences that are likely to impact on the functioning of the energy industry. A liquidity crunch will cause purchasing power to collapse, greatly reducing demand at personal, industrial and national scales. With production geared to previous levels of demand, it will feel like a supply glut, meaning that prices will plummet.

This has already begun, as we have recently described. The effect is exacerbated by the (false) propaganda over recent years regarding unconventional supplies from fracking and horizontal drilling that are supposedly going to result in limitless supply. As far as price goes, it is not reality by which it is determined, but perception, even if that perception is completely unfounded.

The combination of perception that oil is plentiful, falling actual demand on economic contraction, and an acute liquidity crunch is a recipe for very low prices, at least temporarily. Low prices, as we are already seeing, suck the investment out of the sector because the business case evaporates in the short term, economic visibility disappears for what are inherently long term projects, and risk aversion becomes acute in a climate of fear.

Exploration will cease, and production projects will be mothballed or cancelled. It is unlikely that critical infrastructure will be maintained when no revenue is being generated and money is very scarce, meaning that reviving mothballed projects down the line may be either impossible, or at least economically non-viable.

The initial demand collapse may buy us time in terms of global oil depletion, but at the expense of aggravating the situation considerably in the longer term. The lack of investment over many years will see potential supply collapse as well, so that the projects we may have thought would cushion the downslope of Hubbert’s curve are unlikely to materialize, even if demand eventually begins to recover.

In addition, various factions of humanity are very likely to come to blows over the remaining sources, which, after all, confer upon the owner liquid hegemonic power. We are already seeing a new three-way Cold War shaping up between the US, Russia and China, with nasty proxy wars being fought in the imperial periphery where reserves or strategic transport routes are located. Resource wars will probably do more than anything else to destroy with infrastructure and supplies that might otherwise have fuelled the future.

Given that the energy supply will be falling, and that there will, over time, be competition for increasingly scarce energy resources that we can no longer take for granted, proposed solutions which are energy-intensive will lie outside of solution space.


Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity

It is not simply the case that energy production will be falling past the peak. That is only half the story as to why energy available to society will be drastically less in the future in comparison with the present. The energy surplus delivered to society by any energy source critically depends on the energy profit ratio of production, or energy returned on energy invested (EROEI).

The energy profit ratio is the comparison between the energy deployed in order to produce energy from any given source, and the resulting energy output. Naturally, if it were not possible to produce more than than the energy required upfront to do so (an EROEI equal to one), the exercise would be pointless, and ideally one would want to produce a multiple of the input energy, and the higher the better.

In the early years of the oil fuel era, one could expect a hundred-fold return on energy invested, but that ratio has fallen by something approximating a factor of ten in the intervening years. If the energy profit ratio falls by a factor of ten, gross production must rise by a factor ten just for the energy available to society to remain the same. During the oil century, that, and more, is precisely what happened. Gross production sky-rocketed and with it the energy surplus available to society.

However, we have now produced and consumed the lions’s share of the high energy profit ratio energy sources, and are depending on lower and lower EROEI sources for the foreseeable future. The energy profit ratio is set to fall by a further factor of ten, but this time, being past the global peak of production, we will not be able to raise gross production. In fact both gross production and the energy profit ratio will be falling at the same time, meaning that the energy surplus available to society is going to be very sharply curtailed. This will compound the energy crisis we unwittingly face going forward.

The only rationale for supposedly ‘producing energy’ from an ‘energy source’ with an energy profit ratio near, or even below, one, would be if one can nevertheless make money at it temporarily, despite not producing an energy return at all. This is more often the case at the moment than one might suppose. In our era of money created from nothing being thrown at all manner of losing propositions, as it always is at the peak of a financial bubble, a great deal of that virtual wealth has been pursuing energy sources and energy technologies.

Prior to the topping of the financial bubble, commodities of all kinds had been showing exponential price rises on fear of impending scarcity, thanks to the human propensity to extrapolate current trends, in this case commodity demand, forward to infinity. In addition technology investments of all kinds were highly fashionable, and able to attract investment without the inconvenient need to answer difficult questions. The combination of energy and technology was apparently irresistible, inspiring investors to dream of outsized profits for years to come. This was a very clear example of on-going dynamics in finance and energy intertwining and acting as mutually reinforcing drivers.

Both unconventional fossil fuels and renewable energy technologies became focii for huge amounts of inward investment. These are both relatively low energy profit energy sources, on average, although the EROEI varies considerably. Unconventional fossil fuels are a very poor prospect, often with an EROEI of less than one due to the technological complexity, drilling guesswork and very rapid well depletion rates.

However, the propagandistic hype that surrounded them for a number of years, until reality began to dawn, was sufficient to allow them to generate large quantities of money for those who ran the companies involved. Ironically, much of this, at least in the United states where most of the hype was centred, came from flipping land leases rather than from actual energy production, meaning that much of this industry was essentially nothing more than an elaborate real estate ponzi scheme.

Renewables, as we currently envisage them, unfortunately suffer from a relatively low energy profit ratio (on average), a dependence on fossil fuels for both their construction and distribution infrastructure, and a dependence on a wide array of non-renewable components.

We typically insist on deploying them in the most large-scale, technologically complex manner possible, thereby minimising the EROEI, and quite likely knocking it below one in a number of cases. This maximises monetary profits for large companies, thanks to both investor gullibility and greed and also to generous government subsidy regimes, but generally renders the exercise somewhere between pointless and counter-productive in long term energy supply terms.

For every given society, there will be a minimum energy profit ratio required to support it in its current form, that minimum being dependent on the scale and complexity involved. Traditional agrarian societies were based on an energy profit ratio of about 5, derived from their food production methods, with additional energy from firewood at a variable energy profit ratio depending on the environment. Modern society, with its much larger scale and vastly greater complexity, naturally has a far higher energy profit ratio requirement, probably not much lower than that at which we currently operate.

We are moving into a lower energy profit ratio era, but lower EROEI energy sources will not be able to maintain our current level of socioeconomic complexity, hence our society will be forced to simplify. However, a simpler society will not be able to engage in the complex activities necessary to produce energy from these low EROEI sources. In other words, low energy profit ratio energy sources cannot sustain a level of complexity necessary to produce them. They will not fuel the simpler future which awaits us.

Proposed solutions dependent on the current level of socioeconomic complexity do not lie within solution space.


Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies

The majority of proposals made by those who acknowledge limits fail on at least one of the previous criteria, and often several, if not all of them. Solution space is smaller than we typically think. The most common approach is to insist on government policies intended to implement meaningful change by fiat. Even in the best of times, government policy is a blunt instrument which all too often achieves the opposite of its stated intention, and in contractionary times the likelihood of this increases enormously.

Governments are reactive – and slowly – not proactive. Policies typically reflect the realities of the past, not the future, and are therefore particularly maladaptive at times of large scale trend change, particularly when that change unfolds rapidly. Those focusing on government policy are mostly not thinking in terms of crisis, however, but of seamless proactive adjustment – the kind of which humanity is congenitally incapable.

There is a common perception that government policy and its effect on society depends critically on who holds the seat of power and what policies they impose. The assumption is that elected leaders do, in fact, wield the power to determine and implement their chosen policies, but this has become less and less the case over time. Elected leaders are the public face of a system which they do not control, and increasingly act merely as salesmen for policies determined behind the scenes, mostly at the behest of special interest groups with privileged political access.

It actually matters little who is the figure-head at any given time, as their actions are constrained by the system in which they are embedded. Even if leaders fully understood the situation we face, which is highly unlikely given the nature of the leadership selection process, they would be unable to change the direction of a system so much larger than themselves.

Where public pressure on elected governments develops around a specific issue, for whatever reason, the political response is generally to act in such a way as to appear to do something meaningful, while actually making no substantive change at all. Often the appearance of action is nothing more than vacuous political spin, assuaging public opinion while doing nothing to threaten the extractive interests driving the system in the same direction as always. We cannot expect truly adaptive initiatives to emerge from a system hostage to powerful vested interests and therefore locked into a given direction.

Public understanding of the issues agitated for or against tends, unfortunately, to be limited and one-dimensional, meaning that it is essentially impossible to create public pressure for truly informed policy changes, and it is relatively simple to claim that the appearance of action constitutes actual action. A short public attention span makes this even simpler. People are also extremely unlikely to vote for policies which, if they were to make a meaningful difference, would amount to depriving those same people of the outsized consumption habits to which they have become accustomed. The insurmountable obstacles to achieving change through government policy become obvious.

Planned degrowth assumes the possibility of a smooth progression towards a lower consumption future, but this is not how contractions unfold following the bursting of a bubble. What we can expect is a series of abrupt dislocations that are going to wreak havoc with our collective ability to plan anything at all for many years, by which time we will already be living in a lower consumption future arrived at chaotically. Effective planning for an epochal shift requires the capacity for top-down policy implementation at large scale, combined with social cohesion, the ability to maintain complexity, and the energy to maintain control over a myriad distinct aspects simultaneously. It is simply not going to happen in the manner that proponents envisage.

Similarly, a steady state economy is not a realistic construct in light of many non-negotiable realities. Human history, and in fact the non-human evolution which preceded it, is a dynamic history of boom and bust, of niches opening up, being exploited, being over-exploited and collapsing. It is a history of opportunism and the consequences following from it. In the human experience, boom and bust in the form of the rise and fall of empire is an emergent property of civilizational scale. A steady state at this scale is prima facie impossible.

An approximation of steady state can exist under certain circumstances, where a population well below ecological carrying capacity, and surrounded by abundance, is left in isolation for a very long period of time. The Australian aboriginal existence prior to the European invasion is probably the best example, having persisted for tens of thousands of years. The circumstances which permitted it were, however, diametrically opposite to those we currently face.

Proponents of the steady state economy do not seem to appreciate the extent to which we have long since transgressed the point of no return from the perspective of being able to maintain what we have built. Even if we were merely approaching limits, instead of having moved substantially into overshoot, we would not be able to hold society in stasis just below those limitations.

Populations grow and expansion proceeds with it. Intentionally preventing population growth globally is unrealistic. Even China, as a single country, has struggled with population control policies, and has had to take drastic and dictatorial measures in order to slow population growth. This clearly relies on strong top-down control, which is only barely possible at a national level and will never be possible at a global level.

In China we are also going to see that the outcome of population control has challenging consequences, and that a policy supposedly designed to foster stability can have the opposite effect. The desire for a male child has dangerously distorted the gender ratio in ways which will leave the country with a large excess of young men with no prospects for either work or marriage. That is a guarantee of trouble, either at home or abroad, or possibly both. There will also be far too few employed young people to look after a burgeoning elderly population, meaning a rapid die-off of the elderly cohort at some point.

Even then China is unlikely to have managed to get itself back below the carrying capacity it has done so much to destroy during its frantic dash for growth. The tremendous modernity drive China has engaged in essentially undone any benefit curbing population growth might have had, by increasing energy and resource consumption per capita by an enormous margin. It is population times consumption which determines impact, and in China the ecological impact has in many ways been catastrophic. That has to some extent been compensated for by obtaining access to a great deal of land in other countries, but economic colonialism has done nothing for global stability.

While it is possible to conceive, as some steady-state and degrowth proponents do, of a world in which civilization and large-scale urbanism have been dismantled in favour of autonomous, yet networked, village-scale settlements, that does not make it even remotely realistic. Humanity may, in the distant future, after the overshoot condition has been resolved by nature, as it will eventually be, find itself living in villages once again, but they would not be networked in the modern, technological sense, and the population they housed would be very smaller smaller than at present.

If it is below carrying capacity, then it will grow again, restarting the cycle of expansion and contraction rather than settling for a steady-state. Reaching for the stars again would not be possible however, as the necessary energy and resources have already been consumed or dissipated.

People are often inclined to think that a different trajectory is a matter of choice – for instance that we must collectively choose to live differently in order to prevent an ecological catastrophe. In fact it is not a matter of choice at all. There is no basis for top-down control capable of delivering meaningful change, nor would humanity ever collectively choose to scale back its consumption pattern, although individuals can and do. Given opportunities as a species, we take them, as evolution has shaped us to do.

Groups which made a habit of forgoing opportunities in the past would quickly have been out-competed by those who did not. We are the descendants of a long long line of opportunists, selected over millennia for our flexibility in turning an incredibly wide range of circumstances to our advantage. But, in this instance we will have no choice – the shift to lower consumption will be imposed on us by circumstance. The element of choice will be only in how we choose to face that which we cannot change.

Another class of ideas for ways forward is grounded in techno-optimism, suggesting that because human beings are clever and creative, and have tended to push back apparent limits before, that we will be able to do so indefinitely. The notion is that changing our trajectory is unnecessary because limits can always be circumvented. Needless to say, such a view is not grounded in physical reality. These ‘solutions’ are entrepreneurial rather than policy-driven, although they may expect to be facilitated through policy.

Ideas in this category would include such things as smart renewables-based power grids, high-performance electric cars, high-tech energy storage systems, thorium reactors, fusion reactors, biofuels, genetically modified (pseudo)foodstuffs, geoengineering, enhanced automation, high-tech carbon sequestration, global carbon trading platforms, electronic crypto-currencies, clean-tech, vertical farming skyscrapers and many other notions.

Notice that all of these presume the ready availability of cheap energy and resources, along with large quantities of capital, and all assume that technological complexity can be maintained or even increased. Options such as these also have a substantial dependence on the continuation of globalized trade in both goods and services in order to satisfy their complex supply chains. However, globalization depends on the ability to operate at large scale in extremely complex ways, it depends on cheap energy, it depends on maintaining trust in trading partners, and it depends on the ability to travel without facing unacceptable levels of physical risk from piracy or conflict.

Trade does very poorly in times of financial and economic contraction. In the Great Depression of the 1930s, trade fell by 66% in two years. Trust collapses, and with it the contractual ability to agree on risk-sharing arrangements. Letters of credit become impossible to obtain in a credit crunch, and without them goods do not move.

Many goods will in any case have no market, as there will be little purchasing power for anything but essentials, and possibly not even sufficient for those. As we move from the peak of globalized trade, there will be an enormous excess of transport capacity, which will drive prices down relentlessly to the point where transporting goods becomes uneconomic. Much transport capacity will be scrapped. Without credit to oil the wheels of trade, our highly leveraged economic system will grind to a halt.

It is natural that we regard our current situation as being normal, and take for granted that the march of technological progress – the only reality most of us have known – will continue. Few question very deeply the foundations of our societies, and even those who do recognize that change must occur rarely realize the extent to which that change will inevitably strike at the fundamental basis of modern existence. Globalization has peaked and will shortly be moving into reverse. The world will be a very different place as a result.


Solution Space

To use the word ‘solution’ is perhaps misleading, since it could be said to imply that circumstances exist which could allow us to continue business as usual, and this is not, in fact, the case. A crunch period cannot be avoided. We face an intractable predicament, and the consequences of overshoot are going to manifest no matter what we do. However, while we may not be able to prevent this from occurring, we can mitigate the impact and lay the foundation for a fundamentally different and more workable way of being in the world.

Acknowledging the non-negotiable allows us to avoid beating our heads against a brick wall, freeing us to focus on that which we can either influence or change, and acknowledging the limits within which we must operate, even in these areas, allows us to act far more effectively without wasting scarce resources on fantasies. There are plenty of actions which can be taken, but those with potential for building a viable future will be inexpensive, small-scale, simple, low-energy, community-based initiatives. It will be important to work with natural systems in accordance with permaculture principles, rather than in opposition to them as currently do so comprehensively.

We require viable ways forward across different timeframes, first to navigate the rapid-onset acute crisis which the bursting of a financial bubble will pitch us into, and then to reboot our global operating system into a form less reminiscent of a planet-killing ponzi scheme. The various limits we face do not manifest all at the same time, and so to some extent can be navigated sequentially. The first phase of our constrained future, which will be primarily financial and social, will occur before the onset of energy supply difficulties for instance. Some initiatives are of particular value at specific times, and other have general value across timescales.

Moving into financial contraction is going to feel like having the rug pulled out from under our feet, and all the assumptions upon which we have based our lives invalidated all at once. Preparing in advance can make all the difference to the impact of such an event. At an individual level, it is important to avoid holding debt and to hold cash on hand. It is also very useful to have prepared in advance by developing practical skills, obtaining control over the essentials of one’s own existence where possible and being located in an auspicious place. Human skills such as mediation and organizational ability will be very useful for calming inevitable social tensions.

However, community initiatives will have far greater impact than individual actions. The most effective paths will be those we choose to walk with others, as even in times when effective organizational scale is falling, it does not fall far enough to make acting individually the most adaptive strategy. Even in contractionary times, cooperation is not only possible, but vital. In the absence of lost institutional trust, it must occur within networks of genuine interpersonal trust, and these are of necessity small. Building such networks in advance of crisis is exceptionally important, as they are very much more difficult to construct after the fact, when we will be facing an unforgiving social atmosphere.

Cohesive communities will act together in times of crisis, and will be able to offer significant support to each other. The path dependency aspect is important – the state we find ourselves in when crisis hits will be an major determinant of how it plays out in a given area. Anything people come together to do will build social capital and relationships of trust, which are the foundation of society. Community gardens, perma-blitzes (permaculture garden make-overs), maker-spaces, time-banks, savings pools, local currency initiatives, community hub developments, skills training programmes, asset mapping and contingency planning are but a few of the possibilities for bringing people together.

Essential functions can be reclaimed locally, providing for far greater local self-sufficiency potential. The existence of locally-focused businesses, with local supply chains and local distribution networks for supplying essential goods and services will be a major advantage, hence establishing these in advance will be highly adaptive. Choosing to form them as cooperatives is likely to increase their resilience to external shocks as risks are shared. Where they can function at least partially through alternative trading arrangements, or as part of a local currency network, they can be even more beneficial.

Alternative trading arrangements are a particularly important component of local self-sufficiency during times of financial crisis, as they are able to mitigate the acute state of liquidity crunch which will be creating artificial scarcity. Implementing alternative means of trading will allow a much larger proportion of economic activity to survive, and this will allow many more people to be able to provide for themselves and their families. This in turn creates much greater social stability. Alternative currencies in particular are already being relied on in the countries at the forefront of financial crisis, which already find themselves facing liquidity shortage.

It is by no means necessary to wait until crisis hits before establishing such systems. Indeed they can have considerable value locally even in stable times. Since they only constitute money in one area, and, being fiat currencies, must necessarily operate within the trust horizon, they help to retain purchasing power locally, rather than allowing it to drain away continually. Once well established, alternative currencies can go from being parallel systems to being the major form of liquidity available locally.

Beyond a close-knit community, it will be very helpful to have an informed layer of local government, as this confers the potential for a top-down/bottom-up partnership between local government and the grass roots. Local government is capable of removing barriers to people looking after themselves, assisting with the propagation of successful grass roots initiatives and acting facilitate adaptive responses with the resources at its disposal, even though these will be for more limited than currently.

Contingency planning in advance for the distribution of scarce local resources would be wise. With the trust horizons drawing inwards, local government may be the largest scale of governance still lying within it, and therefore still effective. It operates at a far more human scale than larger political structures, and is far more likely to have the potential for transparency, accountability and reflexive learning.

That is not to say local government is necessarily endowed with these qualities at present. The odds of it becoming so will increase if informed and public spirited individuals get involved in local government as soon as possible, rather than setting their sights on regional or national government. Presiding over contraction will, however, be a thankless task, as constituents will tend to blame those in power for the fact that the pie is shrinking. The job will be a delicate balancing act under very trying circumstances as the fabric os society becomes tattered and torn, but as difficult as it will be, it will remain essential, and getting it right can make a very substantial difference.

Higher levels of government may currently appear to be the relevant seats of power, but are far less likely to be as important in a period of crisis as their response time is far too slow. It is possible that higher levels of government may temporarily be involved in useful rationing programmes, but beyond a certain point, the most important initiatives in practice are likely to be those profoundly local. National governments are more likely to generate additional problems rather than solutions, as they crack down on angry populations during an on-going loss of political legitimacy.

Given the fragility of trade in the future we are facing, programmes of import substitution could be useful, if there would be time to implement them before financial crisis deepens too substantially for the necessary larger-scale organizational capacity to fucntion. Being able to provide for the essentials, without having to rely on vulnerable international supply chains, is extremely beneficial, and food sovereignty in particular is critical.

Once trade withers, we will once again see tremendous regional disparities of fortune, based on differing local circumstances. It would be wise to research in advance what one’s own local circumstances are likely to be, in order to work out in advance how one might live within local limits. Getting expectations aligned with what reality can hope to deliver is a major part of adaptation without unnecessary stress.

In the longer term, we can expect to move through economic depression into some form of relative recovery, although we may see large scale conflict first, and will not, in any case, see a return to present circumstances. We will instead be adapting to the age of limits, mostly in an ad hoc manner due to on-going instability and consequent inability to plan for the long term. The bursting of a bubble on the scale of the one we have experienced has far reaching consequences that are likely to be felt for decades at least. In addition, our current condition of extreme carrying capacity overshoot means that we will actively be tightening our own limits, even as the population declines, by further cannibalizing remaining natural capital.

The operating system reboot which could lead to relative recovery would involve the restoration of some level of trust in the financial system, following the elimination of the huge mass of excess claims to underlying real wealth, and very likely the subsequent destabliization of a currency hyperinflation some years later (timeframe location dependent). We are very likely to see financial innovation, which is nothing more than another name for ponzi scheme, banned for a very long time, and likely the creation of money as interest bearing debt as well.

Humanity is in the habit of locking the door after the horse has bolted, so to speak, only restoring financial regulatory controls once it is too late. Once restored, regulations requiring plain vanilla finance will probably persist until  we have once again had time to forget the inevitable consequences of laissez faire. This will be measured in generations.

The small-scale initiatives which we need to navigate the crunch period could be scaled up as trust is slowly re-established. The speed at which this might happen, and the scale that might eventually be workable, are unclear, but it is not likely to be a rapid process, and scale is likely to remain small relative to today. Society will be lower-energy and therefore significantly simpler by then, with far smaller concentrations of population.

While some fossil fuels will no doubt be used for essential functions for quite some time to come, the majority of society will be excluded from what remains of the hydrocarbon age. We will likely have renewable energy systems, but not in the form of photovoltaic panels and high-tech electricity systems. Diffuse renewable energy can give us thermal energy, or motive power, or the ability to store energy as compressed air, all relatively simply, but at that point it will not be a technological civilization.

We are heading for a profoundly humbling experience, to put it mildly. Technological man is not the demigod he supposed himself to be, but merely the beneficiary of a fortuitous energy bonanza which temporarily allowed him to turn dreams into reality. We would do well, if we could summon up sufficient humility in advance, to learn from the simple and elegant technologies of the distant past, which we have largely discarded or forgotten.

We could also learn from present day places already constrained by limits – places which already operate simply and on a shoe-string budget both in terms of money and energy. It takes practice to learn to function without the structural dependencies we have constructed for ourselves, and the sooner we begin the learning curve, the better off we will be. Focusing on solution space for our ways forward would save us from countless blind alleys in the meantime.

This is the entire article. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
Part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity
Part 4 is here:
Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies
and part 5 is here:
Solution Space

Aug 192015
 
 August 19, 2015  Posted by at 1:13 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  


Gustave Doré Dante looks upon the negligent rulers 1868

In case you missed it, we’re doing something a little different. Nicole wrote a very lenghty article and we decided to publish it in chapters. Over five days we are posting five different chapters of the article, one on each day, and then on day six the whole thing. Just so there’s no confusion: the article, all five chapters of it, was written by Nicole Foss.

This is part 5. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
Part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity
and part 4 is here:
Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies


Solution Space

To use the word ‘solution’ is perhaps misleading, since it could be said to imply that circumstances exist which could allow us to continue business as usual, and this is not, in fact, the case. A crunch period cannot be avoided. We face an intractable predicament, and the consequences of overshoot are going to manifest no matter what we do. However, while we may not be able to prevent this from occurring, we can mitigate the impact and lay the foundation for a fundamentally different and more workable way of being in the world.

Acknowledging the non-negotiable allows us to avoid beating our heads against a brick wall, freeing us to focus on that which we can either influence or change, and acknowledging the limits within which we must operate, even in these areas, allows us to act far more effectively without wasting scarce resources on fantasies. There are plenty of actions which can be taken, but those with potential for building a viable future will be inexpensive, small-scale, simple, low-energy, community-based initiatives. It will be important to work with natural systems in accordance with permaculture principles, rather than in opposition to them as currently do so comprehensively.

We require viable ways forward across different timeframes, first to navigate the rapid-onset acute crisis which the bursting of a financial bubble will pitch us into, and then to reboot our global operating system into a form less reminiscent of a planet-killing ponzi scheme. The various limits we face do not manifest all at the same time, and so to some extent can be navigated sequentially. The first phase of our constrained future, which will be primarily financial and social, will occur before the onset of energy supply difficulties for instance. Some initiatives are of particular value at specific times, and other have general value across timescales.

Moving into financial contraction is going to feel like having the rug pulled out from under our feet, and all the assumptions upon which we have based our lives invalidated all at once. Preparing in advance can make all the difference to the impact of such an event. At an individual level, it is important to avoid holding debt and to hold cash on hand. It is also very useful to have prepared in advance by developing practical skills, obtaining control over the essentials of one’s own existence where possible and being located in an auspicious place. Human skills such as mediation and organizational ability will be very useful for calming inevitable social tensions.

However, community initiatives will have far greater impact than individual actions. The most effective paths will be those we choose to walk with others, as even in times when effective organizational scale is falling, it does not fall far enough to make acting individually the most adaptive strategy. Even in contractionary times, cooperation is not only possible, but vital. In the absence of lost institutional trust, it must occur within networks of genuine interpersonal trust, and these are of necessity small. Building such networks in advance of crisis is exceptionally important, as they are very much more difficult to construct after the fact, when we will be facing an unforgiving social atmosphere.

Cohesive communities will act together in times of crisis, and will be able to offer significant support to each other. The path dependency aspect is important – the state we find ourselves in when crisis hits will be an major determinant of how it plays out in a given area. Anything people come together to do will build social capital and relationships of trust, which are the foundation of society. Community gardens, perma-blitzes (permaculture garden make-overs), maker-spaces, time-banks, savings pools, local currency initiatives, community hub developments, skills training programmes, asset mapping and contingency planning are but a few of the possibilities for bringing people together.

Essential functions can be reclaimed locally, providing for far greater local self-sufficiency potential. The existence of locally-focused businesses, with local supply chains and local distribution networks for supplying essential goods and services will be a major advantage, hence establishing these in advance will be highly adaptive. Choosing to form them as cooperatives is likely to increase their resilience to external shocks as risks are shared. Where they can function at least partially through alternative trading arrangements, or as part of a local currency network, they can be even more beneficial.

Alternative trading arrangements are a particularly important component of local self-sufficiency during times of financial crisis, as they are able to mitigate the acute state of liquidity crunch which will be creating artificial scarcity. Implementing alternative means of trading will allow a much larger proportion of economic activity to survive, and this will allow many more people to be able to provide for themselves and their families. This in turn creates much greater social stability. Alternative currencies in particular are already being relied on in the countries at the forefront of financial crisis, which already find themselves facing liquidity shortage.

It is by no means necessary to wait until crisis hits before establishing such systems. Indeed they can have considerable value locally even in stable times. Since they only constitute money in one area, and, being fiat currencies, must necessarily operate within the trust horizon, they help to retain purchasing power locally, rather than allowing it to drain away continually. Once well established, alternative currencies can go from being parallel systems to being the major form of liquidity available locally.

Beyond a close-knit community, it will be very helpful to have an informed layer of local government, as this confers the potential for a top-down/bottom-up partnership between local government and the grass roots. Local government is capable of removing barriers to people looking after themselves, assisting with the propagation of successful grass roots initiatives and acting facilitate adaptive responses with the resources at its disposal, even though these will be for more limited than currently.

Contingency planning in advance for the distribution of scarce local resources would be wise. With the trust horizons drawing inwards, local government may be the largest scale of governance still lying within it, and therefore still effective. It operates at a far more human scale than larger political structures, and is far more likely to have the potential for transparency, accountability and reflexive learning.

That is not to say local government is necessarily endowed with these qualities at present. The odds of it becoming so will increase if informed and public spirited individuals get involved in local government as soon as possible, rather than setting their sights on regional or national government. Presiding over contraction will, however, be a thankless task, as constituents will tend to blame those in power for the fact that the pie is shrinking. The job will be a delicate balancing act under very trying circumstances as the fabric os society becomes tattered and torn, but as difficult as it will be, it will remain essential, and getting it right can make a very substantial difference.

Higher levels of government may currently appear to be the relevant seats of power, but are far less likely to be as important in a period of crisis as their response time is far too slow. It is possible that higher levels of government may temporarily be involved in useful rationing programmes, but beyond a certain point, the most important initiatives in practice are likely to be those profoundly local. National governments are more likely to generate additional problems rather than solutions, as they crack down on angry populations during an on-going loss of political legitimacy.

Given the fragility of trade in the future we are facing, programmes of import substitution could be useful, if there would be time to implement them before financial crisis deepens too substantially for the necessary larger-scale organizational capacity to fucntion. Being able to provide for the essentials, without having to rely on vulnerable international supply chains, is extremely beneficial, and food sovereignty in particular is critical.

Once trade withers, we will once again see tremendous regional disparities of fortune, based on differing local circumstances. It would be wise to research in advance what one’s own local circumstances are likely to be, in order to work out in advance how one might live within local limits. Getting expectations aligned with what reality can hope to deliver is a major part of adaptation without unnecessary stress.

In the longer term, we can expect to move through economic depression into some form of relative recovery, although we may see large scale conflict first, and will not, in any case, see a return to present circumstances. We will instead be adapting to the age of limits, mostly in an ad hoc manner due to on-going instability and consequent inability to plan for the long term. The bursting of a bubble on the scale of the one we have experienced has far reaching consequences that are likely to be felt for decades at least. In addition, our current condition of extreme carrying capacity overshoot means that we will actively be tightening our own limits, even as the population declines, by further cannibalizing remaining natural capital.

The operating system reboot which could lead to relative recovery would involve the restoration of some level of trust in the financial system, following the elimination of the huge mass of excess claims to underlying real wealth, and very likely the subsequent destabliization of a currency hyperinflation some years later (timeframe location dependent). We are very likely to see financial innovation, which is nothing more than another name for ponzi scheme, banned for a very long time, and likely the creation of money as interest bearing debt as well.

Humanity is in the habit of locking the door after the horse has bolted, so to speak, only restoring financial regulatory controls once it is too late. Once restored, regulations requiring plain vanilla finance will probably persist until  we have once again had time to forget the inevitable consequences of laissez faire. This will be measured in generations.

The small-scale initiatives which we need to navigate the crunch period could be scaled up as trust is slowly re-established. The speed at which this might happen, and the scale that might eventually be workable, are unclear, but it is not likely to be a rapid process, and scale is likely to remain small relative to today. Society will be lower-energy and therefore significantly simpler by then, with far smaller concentrations of population.

While some fossil fuels will no doubt be used for essential functions for quite some time to come, the majority of society will be excluded from what remains of the hydrocarbon age. We will likely have renewable energy systems, but not in the form of photovoltaic panels and high-tech electricity systems. Diffuse renewable energy can give us thermal energy, or motive power, or the ability to store energy as compressed air, all relatively simply, but at that point it will not be a technological civilization.

We are heading for a profoundly humbling experience, to put it mildly. Technological man is not the demigod he supposed himself to be, but merely the beneficiary of a fortuitous energy bonanza which temporarily allowed him to turn dreams into reality. We would do well, if we could summon up sufficient humility in advance, to learn from the simple and elegant technologies of the distant past, which we have largely discarded or forgotten.

We could also learn from present day places already constrained by limits – places which already operate simply and on a shoe-sting budget both in terms of money and energy. It takes practice to learn to function without the structural dependencies we have constructed for ourselves, and the sooner we begin the learning curve, the better off we will be. Focusing on solution space for our ways forward would save us from countless blind alleys in the meantime.

This is part 5. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
Part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon
Part 3 is here:
Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity
and part 4 is here:
Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies

Tune back in tomorrow for the article in its entirety.

Aug 162015
 
 August 16, 2015  Posted by at 1:11 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , ,  


Gustave Doré Dante and Virgil among the late penitents 1868

We’re doing something a little different. Nicole wrote another very long article and I suggested publishing it in chapters; this time she said yes. Over five days we will post five different chapters of the article, one on each day, and then on day six the whole thing. Just so there’s no confusion: the article, all five chapters of it, was written by Nicole Foss. Not by Ilargi.

This is part 2. Part 1 is here: Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression


The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

The collective mood shifts rapidly from optimism and greed to pessimism and fear as the bubble bursts, and as it does so, the financial system moves from expansion to contraction. Financial contraction involves the breaking of promises right left and centre, with credit instruments drastically revalued downwards in the process. As the promises that back them cease to be credible, value disappears extremely rapidly. This is deflation and the elimination of excess claims to underlying real wealth.

Instruments once regarded as money equivalents will lose that status through the loss of confidence in them, causing the supply of what retains sufficient confidence to still be regarded as money to collapse. The more instruments lose the confidence that confers value upon them, the smaller the effective money supply will be, and the more confidence will become a rare ‘commodity’. Being grounded in psychology is the primary reason that deflation cannot be overcome through policy adaptations which are inherently too little and too late. Nothing moves as quickly as a collective loss of confidence in human promises, and nothing destroys value as comprehensively.

The same abrupt change in collective mood will also drive contraction in the real economy, but more slowly, since the time constant for change in the real world is much slower than in the virtual world of finance. This process will also result in broken promises as structural dependencies fracture when there is no longer enough to go around. There will be wage and benefit cuts, layoffs, strikes, strike-breaking, breaches of contract, business failures and more on a huge scale, and these will fuel further fear, anger and the destruction of trust.

In the political realm, trust, such as it is, will be an early casualty. Political promises have been regarded as highly suspect for a long time in any case, but considering that the electorate tends consistently to vote for whomever tells them the largest number of comforting lies, this is not particularly surprising. Our political system selects for mendaciousness by design, since no party is normally elected by telling the truth, yet we have still collectively retained some faith in the concept of democracy until relatively recently. In recent years, however, it has become increasingly clear that the political institutions in supposedly democratic nations have largely been bought by big capital. More often than not, and more blatantly than ever, the political machinery has come to serve those special interests, not the public interest.

The public is increasingly realizing that ‘representative democracy’ leaves them unrepresented, as they see more and more examples of austerity for the masses combined with enormous bailouts guaranteeing that the large scale gamblers of casino capitalism will not take losses on the reckless bets they made gambling with other people’s money. In the countries subjected to austerity, where the contrast is the most stark, a wave of public anger is is already depriving national governments, or supranational governance institutions where applicable (ie Europe), of political legitimacy. As more and more states slide into the austerity trap as a result of their unsustainable debt burdens, this polarization process will continue, driving wedges between the governors and the governed which will make governance far more difficult.

Governments struggling with the loss of political legitimacy are going to find that people will no longer follow rules once they feel that the social contract has been violated, and that rules no longer represent the public interest. When the governed broadly accept that society functions under the rule of law, in other words that all are equally subject to the same rules, then they tend to internalize those rules and follow them without the need for negative incentives or outright enforcement. However, once the dominant perception becomes that rules are imposed only on the powerless, to their detriment and for the benefit of the powerful, while the well connected can do as they please, then general compliance can cease very quickly.

Without compliance, force would become necessary, and we are indeed likely to see this occur as a transitional phase as social polarization increases in a climate of increasing anger. The transitional element arises from the fact that force, especially as exercised technologically at large scale, requires substantial resources which are unlikely to remain available. Force produces reaction, straining the fabric of society, quite possibly to breaking point.

As contagion propagates the impact of financial and economic contraction, we will rapidly be moving from a long era of high trust in the value of promises to one of low trust. The trust horizon will contract sharply, leaving supranational and national governments lying beyond its reach, as stranded assets from a trust perspective. Trust determines effective organizational scale, so when the trust horizon draws in, withdrawing political legitimacy in its wake, larger scale entities, whether public or private, are going to find it extremely difficult to function. Effective organizational scale had been increasing for the duration of our long economic expansion, forcing an across the board scaling up of all manner of organizations by increasing the competitiveness accruing to large scale. As we scaled up, we formed structural dependencies on these larger scale entities’ ability to function.

While the scaling-up process was reasonable smooth and seamless, the scaling-down process will not be, as the lower rungs of the figurative ladder we climbed to reach this pinnacle have been kicked out as we ascended. Structural dependencies are going to fail very painfully as large scale ceases to be effective and competitive, leading to abrupt dislocations with ricocheting impacts.

Proposed solutions to our predicament that depend on the functioning of large-scale organizations operating in a top-down manner do not lie within viable solution space.


Instability and the ‘Discount Rate’

The pessimism-and-fear-driven psychology of contraction differs dramatically from the optimism-and-greed-driven psychology of expansion. The extreme complacency as to systemic risk of recent years will be replaced by an equally extreme risk aversion, as we move from overshoot in one direction to undershoot in the other. The perception of economic visibility is gong to change substantially, as we move from a period where people thought they knew where things were headed into an era where fear and confusion reign, and the sense of predictability evaporates abruptly.

This is an important psychological shift, as it affects an aspect known as the ‘discount rate’, which reflects the extent to which we think in the short term rather than the long term, or the extent to which we value the present over the future. The perceived rate of change is an important factor in determining the discount rate, and fear, being a very sharp emotion, causes the rate of change to accelerate markedly, driving the discount rate sharply higher in contractionary times.

True long term thinking is relatively rare. We manage an approximation of it at times when all immediate needs, along with many mere ‘wants’, are met and we are not concerned about this condition changing, in other words at times when we take a comfortable situation for granted. At such times, the longer term view is a luxury we can afford, and we find it relatively simple to summon the presence of mind to think abstractly and constructively, and to ponder circumstances which are are neither personal nor immediate. Even at such times, however, it is not particularly common for humans to transcend mere contemplation and actually act in the interests of the long term, especially if it involves aspects beyond the personal, or perhaps familial.

As the financial bubble bursts, and we rapidly begin to pick up on the fear of others and feel the consequences of contagion in our own lives, our collective discount rates are going to sky-rocket. In a relatively short period of time, a large percentage of the population is going to begin worry about immediate needs, let alone wants, not being met. A short time later those worries are likely to transition into reality, as has already happened in the countries, like Greece, in the forefront of the bursting bubble. As discount rates go through the roof, the luxury of the longer term view, which is always quite ephemeral, is likely to disappear altogether.

Where people have no supply cushions and find themselves abruptly penniless, cold, thirsty, hungry or homeless, the likelihood of them considering anything much beyond the needs of the day at hand is very low. Under such circumstances, the present becomes the only reality that matters, and societies are abruptly pitched into a panicked state of short term crisis management. This of course underlines the need to develop supply cushions and contingency plans in advance of a bubble bursting, so that a greater percentage of people might be able to retain a clear head and the ability to plan more than one day at a time. Unfortunately, few are likely to heed advance warnings and we can expect society to shift rapidly into a state of short-termism.

Given the coming rise in collective discount rates, if proposed solutions depend on the ability for societies to engage in rational planning for longer term goals, then those solutions are not part of solution space.


The Psychology of Contraction and Social Context

Expansionary times are times of relative peace and prosperity. If those conditions persist for a relatively long time, trust builds slowly and societies become more inclusive and cooperative, tending to perceive common humanity and focus on similarities rather than differences. In such times we reach out and interact with distant people, even if we have no relationship of personal trust with them, as we have, over time, vested our trust in stable institutional frameworks for managing our affairs. This institutional trust replaces the need for trust at a personal level and is a key factor in our ability to scale up our economies and their governance structures. Individuals raised in such an environment tend to show a presumption of trust towards others, and their inclination is generally to act cooperatively.

There is a sharp contrast between this stable state of affairs and the circumstances which pertain when suddenly the pie is shrinking and there is not enough to go around. As difficult as it can be share gains in a way perceived to be fair, it is infinitely more difficult to share losses in a way that is not extremely divisive. As elucidated above, a deflationary credit implosion involved the wholesale destruction of excess claims to underlying real wealth, meaning that a majority of people who thought they had a valid claim to something of tangible value are going to find that they do not. The losses will be very widespread, but uneven, and the perception of unfairness will be almost universal.

Under such circumstances a sense of common humanity is much less prevalent, and the focus shifts from similarities to the differences upon which social divisions are founded and then inflamed. An ‘us versus them’ dynamic is prone to take hold, where ‘us’ becomes ever more tightly defined and ‘them’ becomes an ever more pejorative term. People build literal and figurative walls and peer suspiciously at each other over them. Rather than working together in the attempt to address concerns common to all, division shifts the focus from cooperation to competition. A collectively constructive mindset can easily morph into something far more motivated by negative emotions such as jealousy and revenge and therefore far more destructive of perceived commonality.

The kind of initiatives which capture the public imagination in expansionary times are not at all the type which get traction once a contractionary dynamic takes hold. Attempts to build cooperative projects are going to be facing a rising tide of negative social mood, and will struggle to get off the ground. Sadly, negative ideas are far more likely to go viral than positive ones. Novel movements grounded in anger and fear may arise to feed on this new emotional context and thereby be empowered to wreak havoc on the fabric of society, notably through providing a political mandate to extremists with an agenda of focusing blame on to some identifiable, and marginalizable, social group.

While it will not be the case that cooperative endeavours will be impossible to achieve, they will require additional effort, and are likely to succeed only at a much smaller scale in a newly fractured society than might previously have been expected. It is very much a worthwhile effort, and will be far simpler if begun prior to the end of the period of cooperative presumption. All the more reason to adapt to a major trend change adapt in advance. There is nothing so dangerous as collectively dashed expectations.

If proposed solutions depend on a cooperative social context at large scale, they will not be part of solution space.

Part 1 is here: Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression

Tune back in tomorrow for part 3: Declining Energy Profit Ratio and Socioeconomic Complexity

Feb 202015
 
 February 20, 2015  Posted by at 2:21 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , ,  


Wyland Stanley Boeing 314 flying boat Honolulu Clipper. 1939

A few days before I arrived in Melbourne, The Automatic Earth’s Nicole Foss was one of the key speakers in The Great Debate, which this year took place on February 13. It’s sort of the main event in Melbourne’s annual Sustainable Living Festival, which in 2015 runs from February 7 to March 1. Apart from Nicole, other speakers included George Monbiot and David Holmgren.

In an impressive ‘take no prisoners’ speech, Nicole makes short shrift of the vast majority of idea(l)s about ‘softly transitioning’ into the world that lies beyond the dual credit ponzi and cheap energy bubbles. Everybody who harbors such idea(l)s should take note, lest they end up finding themselves in any one of a large variety of dead end alleyways.

Something along the vein of what my buddy Scott used to say: ‘it’s a good idea but it’s wrong’. People need to think about how much energy use and how much complexity is involved in what they would like to see as their way forward. If there’s too much of either, let alone of both, that way is simply not viable, and it’s back to the drawing board.

I’m not going to transcribe too much of her talk, it’s well worth watching the few minutes she talks. Still, here’s one quote from Nicole:

Our society will be forced to simplify. The paradox with low-energy-profit-ratio energy sources is they cannot sustain the level of complexity necessary to produce them. [..] If your solution rests on complexity, it’s not going to work. We’re going to contract and simplify, like it or not.

The Great Debate – SLF 2015 from SLF on Vimeo.

Start at about the 33-minute mark for Nicole’s talk. She speaks for just over 10 minutes. ‘Enjoy’!

Dec 012014
 
 December 1, 2014  Posted by at 12:10 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


Arthur Rothstein Family leaving South Dakota drought for Oregon Jul 1936

US Consumers Reduce Spending By 11% Over Thanksgiving Weekend (Bloomberg)
Stocks Have Been More Overvalued Only ONCE in the Last 100 Years (Phoenix)
The Imploding Energy Sector Is Responsible For A Third Of S&P 500 Capex (ZH)
Good Money After Bad: The Big Sell-Off of 2015 (Steen Jakobsen)
Can Oil Fall All The Way To $40? (CNBC)
Oil at $40 Possible as Market Transforms Caracas to Iran (Bloomberg)
‘We Are Entering A New Oil Normal’ (Jawad Mian)
Saudis Risk Playing With Fire In Shale-Price Showdown As Crude Crashes (AEP)
China Plays Big Role In Oil’s Slide (MarketWatch)
China Factory Gauge Drops as Shutdowns Add to Slowdown (Bloomberg)
China’s Slowdown Hits Iron-Ore Prices (MarketWatch)
China Winning in OPEC Price War as Hoarding Accelerates (Bloomberg)
Swiss Vote Against Gold Deals Blow to Investors Hurt by Slump (Bloomberg)
Swiss Headache To Continue Beyond Gold Vote (WSJ)
Moody’s Downgrades Japan As Concerns Grow (CNBC)
In Fading Japan Hinterland, Skeptics Doubt “Abenomics” Will Cure Ills (Reuters)
Eurozone Manufacturing Falls As Germany Contracts (CNBC)
So Banks Are Too Big To Fail. Are They Also Too Big To Regulate? (Guardian)
Tired’ Grillo Overhauls Leadership Of Italy’s 5-Star Movement (Reuters)
Commercial Seafood Set to Disappear from Oceans in 2048 (Alternet)
Ebola Death Toll in 3 West African Countries Most Affected Nears 7,000 (WSJ)

Shoppers are confident enough to not shop. Absolutely brilliant spin attempts, but the whole thing oozes desperation.

US Consumers Reduce Spending By 11% Over Thanksgiving Weekend (Bloomberg)

Even after doling out discounts on electronics and clothes, retailers struggled to entice shoppers to Black Friday sales events, putting pressure on the industry as it heads into the final weeks of the holiday season. Spending tumbled an estimated 11% over the weekend, the Washington-based National Retail Federation said yesterday. And more than 6 million shoppers who had been expected to hit stores never showed up. Consumers were unmoved by retailers’ aggressive discounts and longer Thanksgiving hours, raising concern that signs of recovery in recent months won’t endure.

The NRF had predicted a 4.1% sales gain for November and December – the best performance since 2011. Still, the trade group cast the latest numbers in a positive light, saying it showed shoppers were confident enough to skip the initial rush for discounts. “The holiday season and the weekend are a marathon, not a sprint,” NRF Chief Executive Officer Matthew Shay said on a conference call. “This is going to continue to be a very competitive season.” Consumer spending fell to $50.9 billion over the past four days, down from $57.4 billion in 2013, according to the NRF. It was the second year in a row that sales declined during the post-Thanksgiving Black Friday weekend, which had long been famous for long lines and frenzied crowds.

Read more …

How about them apples?

Stocks Have Been More Overvalued Only ONCE in the Last 100 Years (Phoenix)

Stocks today are overvalued by any reasonable valuation metric. If you look at the CAPE (cyclical adjusted price to earnings) the market is registers a reading of 27 (anything over 15 is overvalued). We’re now as overvalued as we were in 2007. The only times in history that the market has been more overvalued was during the 1929 bubble and the Tech bubble. Please note that both occasions were “bubbles” that were followed by massive collapses in stock prices.


Source: https://www.multpl.com/shiller-pe/

Then there is total stock market cap to GDP, a metric that Warren Buffett’s calls tge “single best measure” of stock market value. Today this metric stands at roughly 130%. It’s the highest reading since the DOTCOM bubble (which was 153%). Put another way, stocks are even more overvalued than they were in 2007 and have only been more overvalued during the Tech Bubble: the single biggest stock market bubble in 100 years.


Source: Advisorperspectives.com

1) Investor sentiment is back to super bullish autumn 2007 levels.
2) Insider selling to buying ratios are back to autumn 2007 levels (insiders are selling the farm).
3) Money market fund assets are at 2007 levels (indicating that investors have gone “all in” with stocks).
4) Mutual fund cash levels are at a historic low (again investors are “all in” with stocks).
5) Margin debt (money borrowed to buy stocks) is near record highs.

In plain terms, the market is overvalued, overbought, overextended, and over leveraged. This is a recipe for a correction if not a collapse.

Read more …

This is exactly what I’ve been warning about for more than a week now. Oil is big enough as an industry to drag the whole market down.

The Imploding Energy Sector Is Responsible For A Third Of S&P 500 Capex (ZH)

We have previously discussed the implications that tumbling crude oil prices will have not only on some of the most levered companies with exposure to Brent prices, namely the vast majority of the US energy space with outstanding junk bonds which, as we explained before, should WTI drop to $60, it would “Trigger A Broader HY Market Default Cycle” (based on a Deutsche Bank analysis) leading to pain across the entire credit market (and in the process impairing the stock-buyback machinery which companies aggressively use to artificially boost their stock price), as well as on oil-exporting nations, whose economies are assured to grind to a halt leading to broad social unrest or worse, and lastly, on global asset liquidity, which is set to contract even more now that for the first time in over a decade, the net flow of Petrodollars will be an outflow (as explained in How The Petrodollar Quietly Died, And Nobody Noticed).

And while much has been said about the “benefits” the US economy is poised to reap as a result of the plunge in gas prices, which has been compared to a major tax cut (whatever happened to the core Keynesian tenet that “deflation” is the worst thing that can possibly happen) on the US consumer, almost nothing has been said about the adverse impact on US GDP as a result of tumbling fixed investment spending and CapEx. The reason, clearly, is that the collapse in new investment will more than offset the boost from incremental household spending. Here are the facts, per Deutsche Bank:

US private investment spending is usually ~15% of US GDP or $2.8trn now. This investment consists of $1.6trn spent annually on equipment and software, $700bn on non-residential construction and a bit over $500bn on residential. Equipment and software is 35% technology and communications, 25-30% is industrial equipment for energy, utilities and agriculture, 15% is transportation equipment, with remaining 20-25% related to other industries or intangibles. Non-residential construction is 20% oil and gas producing structures and 30% is energy related in total. We estimate global investment spending is 20% of S&P EPS or 12% from US. The Energy sector is responsible for a third of S&P 500 capex. 35% of S&P EPS from investment and commodity spend, 15-20% US.

In short, while nobody knows just how many tens of billions in US economic “growth”, i.e., GDP, will be eliminated now that energy companies are not only not investing in growth spending or even maintenance, being forced to shut down unprofitable drilling operations and entering spending hibernation territory, the guaranteed outcome is that US GDP is set to slide as the CapEx cliff resulting from Brent prices dropping below the $75/bbl red line under which shale is broadly no longer profitable will offset any GDP benefit unleashed from the “supposed” increase in consumer spending (supposed because according to the latest NRF numbers, Thanksgiving spending was not only well below last year (with the average consumer spending $380.95 over Thanksgiving compared to $407.02 a year ago) but below even our worst case forecasts. So just where are all those external benefits to US retailers as a result of crashing gas prices?

Rhetorical questions aside, the real question is just how much will said GDP slide ultimately be? Sadly, this too will be one question the BEA will never answer, as instead the upcoming GDP plunge will be blamed once again on inclement weather as opposed to actually analyzing what is truly happening as America’s transformation to an oil-producing (and maybe exporting) powerhouse, is so rudely interrupted.

Read more …

The doomiest view of all made me also laugh out loud.

Good Money After Bad: The Big Sell-Off of 2015 (Steen Jakobsen)

The big selloff in 2015 will come from housing and housing-related investments as the marginal cost of capital rises through regulation and through “margin calls” on banks as their profit-to-GDP ratios grow too high for the economy to function properly. The dividend society is here and the true manifestation of Japanisation is not a future event but a thing we are living in right now… From a tactical point of view, I live in a very simple world:

[..] No, if there is any reality left in the world the market will realize — by its mistaken support for long USDJPY positions — that productivity gains and competitive edges are driven by the “need” to change… not from isolation but from cause and effect (but that’s also a 2015 story). In closing I have very little positions — the stock market is on a mission to kill the shorts (which will probably succeed), the FX market believes in Santa Japan and the ECB continues to do nothing but talk… but for now it’s enough to sell the product, which is risk-on at all costs.

The correction will be deeper and deeper as the market is dislocated through zero interest rates and an investing crowd that is rewarded for throwing all conservative risk rules overboard in a year where we again have double digit gains on… low interest rates. Let’s hope the ECB plays ball for the market to buy some more time; for now we are playing musical chairs, and when the music stops, more than one chair will be missing… How bad are things? Well, let me give you my starting slide from a presentation done in November:

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“”We’re seeing a lot of traders being forced into the market, a lot of hedges, because the prices have been so volatile toward the downside .. ”

Can Oil Fall All The Way To $40? (CNBC)

As oil prices drop to more than four-year lows, analysts are slashing their forecasts, with some predicting it could plunge as much as 40% to around $40 a barrel. “There is a possibility that if this price war becomes unmanageable, [we could] see prices down to about $40 a barrel [for WTI],” Jonathan Barratt, chief investment officer of Ayers Alliance Securities, told CNBC. But for oil to get all the way down to $40 a barrel would take “a massive lack of confidence in the economies, also a lack of pricing power,” Barratt said. Brent and WTI crude each fell more than 2% to as low as $67.90 and $64.10 a barrel respectively during Asian trade on Monday, levels last seen in 2010, as the European credit crisis was heating up. Global oil prices have plunged since peaking in June.

From around $115 a barrel, Brent crude has lost around a third of its price. Weak demand, a strong U.S. dollar and booming U.S. oil production are the three main reasons behind the fall, according to the IEA, which warned of a “new chapter” for oil markets, which could even affect the social stability of some countries. Saudi Arabia sparked talk of an oil price war as it has cut its official selling prices for some customers for four consecutive months through November. Part of oil’s drop has to do with supply conditions. Increased U.S. oil production has added to a glut in the world oil market. The U.S. now produces about 8.9 million barrels a day, while Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest producer, pumps about 9.6 million barrels a day.

But Barratt believes much of the price drop has to do with financial traders, citing the speed of the drop over the past few trading sessions amid relatively low volumes during the holiday period. “We’re seeing a lot of traders being forced into the market, a lot of hedges, because the prices have been so volatile toward the downside,” Barratt said. He isn’t alone in predicting oil could plunge to $40 a barrel – levels not seen in more than 10 years. Murray Edwards, chairman of Canadian Natural Resources, one of Canada’s biggest oil investors, predicted oil could fall as low as $30 a barrel before stabilizing at around $70-$75, according to a Financial Post article. While Forbes contributor Jesse Colombo, admittedly a perma-bear, said in an article that technical analysis suggests that if oil prices fall below $60 a barrel, $40 is the next major support.

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OPEC have turned into the proverbial cats in a sack.

Oil at $40 Possible as Market Transforms Caracas to Iran (Bloomberg)

Oil’s decline is proving to be the worst since the collapse of the financial system in 2008 and threatening to have the same global impact of falling prices three decades ago that led to the Mexican debt crisis and the end of the Soviet Union. Russia, the world’s largest producer, can no longer rely on the same oil revenues to rescue an economy suffering from European and U.S. sanctions. Iran, also reeling from similar sanctions, will need to reduce subsidies that have partly insulated its growing population. Nigeria, fighting an Islamic insurgency, and Venezuela, crippled by failing political and economic policies, also rank among the biggest losers from the decision by the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries last week to let the force of the market determine what some experts say will be the first free-fall in decades.

“This is a big shock in Caracas, it’s a shock in Tehran, it’s a shock in Abuja,” Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of Englewood, Colorado-based consultant IHS Inc. and author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning history of oil, told Bloomberg Radio. “There’s a change in psychology. There’s going to be a higher degree of uncertainty.” A world already unsettled by Russian-inspired insurrection in Ukraine to the onslaught of Islamic State in the Middle East is about be roiled further as crude prices plunge. Global energy markets have been upended by an unprecedented North American oil boom brought on by hydraulic fracturing, the process of blasting shale rocks to release oil and gas.

Few expected the extent or speed of the U.S. oil resurgence. As wildcatters unlocked new energy supplies, some oil exporters abroad failed to invest in diversifying their economies. Coddled by years of $100 crude, governments instead spent that windfall subsidizing everything from 5 cents-per-gallon gasoline to cheap housing that kept a growing population of underemployed citizens content. Those handouts are now at risk. “If the governments aren’t able to spend to keep the kids off the streets they will go back to the streets, and we could start to see political disruption and upheaval,” said Paul Stevens, distinguished fellow for energy, environment and resources at Chatham House in London, a U.K. policy group. “The majority of members of OPEC need well over $100 a barrel to balance their budgets. If they start cutting expenditure, this is likely to cause problems.”

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” The International Energy Agency says we could soon hit “peak oil demand”, due to cheaper fuel alternatives, environmental concerns, and improving oil efficiency.” But no slowdown anywhere!

‘We Are Entering A New Oil Normal’ (Jawad Mian)

Everyone believes that the oil-price decline is temporary. It is assumed that once oil prices plummet, the process is much more likely to be self-stabilizing than destabilizing. As the theory goes, once demand drops, price follows, and leveraged high-cost producers shut production. Eventually, supply falls to match demand and price stabilizes. When demand recovers, so does price, and marginal production returns to meet rising demand. Prices then stabilize at a higher level as supply and demand become more balanced. For the classic model to hold true in oil’s case, the market must correctly anticipate the equilibrating role of price in the presence of supply/demand imbalances.

By 2020, we see oil demand realistically rising to no more than 96 million barrels a day. North American oil consumption has been in a structural decline, whereas the European economy is expected to remain lacklustre. Risks to the Chinese economy are tilted to the downside and we find no reason to anticipate a positive growth surprise. This limits the potential for growth in oil demand and leads us to believe global oil prices will struggle to rebound to their previous levels. The International Energy Agency says we could soon hit “peak oil demand”, due to cheaper fuel alternatives, environmental concerns, and improving oil efficiency. The oil market will remain well supplied, even at lower prices. We believe incremental oil demand through 2020 can be met with rising output in Libya, Iraq and Iran.

We expect production in Libya to return to the level prior to the civil war, adding at least 600,000 barrels a day to world supply. Big investments in Iraq’s oil industry should pay-off too with production rising an extra 1.5-2 million barrels a day over the next five years. We also believe the American-Iranian détente is serious, and that sooner or later both parties will agree to terms and reach a definitive agreement. This will eventually lead to more oil supply coming to the market from Iran, further depressing prices in the “new oil normal”. [..] Our analysis leads us to conclude that the price of oil is unlikely to average $100 again for the remaining decade. We will use an oil rebound to gradually adjust our portfolio to reflect this new reality.

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Ambrose in July 2014: “A large chunk of US investment is going into shale gas ventures that are either underwater or barely breaking even, victims of their own success in creating a supply glut. One chief executive acidly told the TPH Global Shale conference that the only time his shale company ever had cash-flow above zero was the day he sold it – to a gullible foreigner. [..] … the low-hanging fruit has been picked and the costs are ratcheting up. Three Forks McKenzie in Montana has a break-even price of $91. [..]”

And today: “The International Energy Agency said most of North Dakota’s vast Bakken field “remains profitable at or below $42 per barrel. The break-even price in McKenzie County, the most productive county in the state, is only $28 per barrel.“

Saudis Risk Playing With Fire In Shale-Price Showdown As Crude Crashes (AEP)

Saudi Arabia and the core OPEC states are taking an immense political gamble by letting crude oil prices crash to $66 a barrel, if their aim is to shake out the weakest shale producers in the US. A deep slump in prices might equally heighten geostrategic turmoil across the broader Middle East and boomerang against the Gulf’s petro-sheikhdoms before it inflicts a knock-out blow on US rivals. Caliphate leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has already opened a “second front” in North Africa, targeting Algeria and Libya – two states that live off energy exports – as well as Egypt and the Sahel as far as northern Nigeria. “The resilience of US shale may prove greater than the resilience of OPEC,” said Alistair Newton, head of political risk at Nomura. Chris Skrebowski, former editor of Petroleum Review, said the Saudis want to cut the annual growth rate of US shale output from 1m barrels per day (bpd) to 500,000 bpd to bring the market closer to balance. “They want to unnerve the shale oil model and undermine financial confidence, but they won’t stop the growth altogether,” he said.

There is no question that the US has entirely changed the global energy landscape and poses an existential threat to OPEC. America has cut its net oil imports by 8.7m bpd since 2006, equal to the combined oil exports of Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. The country had a trade deficit of $354bn in oil and gas as recently as 2011. Citigroup said this will return to balance by 2018, one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in modern economic history. “When it comes to crude and other hydrocarbons, the US is bursting at the seams,” said Edward Morse, Citigroup’s commodities chief. “This situation is unlikely to stop, even if prevailing prices for oil fall significantly. The US should become a net exporter of crude oil and petroleum products combined by 2019, if not 2018.” OPEC has misjudged the threat. As late as last year, it was dismissing US shale as a flash in the pan. Abdalla El-Badri, the group’s secretary-general, still insists that half of all US shale output is vulnerable below $85.

This is bravado. US producers have locked in higher prices through derivatives contracts. Noble Energy and Devon Energy have both hedged over three-quarters of their output for 2015. Pioneer Natural Resources said it has options through 2016 covering two- thirds of its likely production. “We can produce down to $50 a barrel,” said Harold Hamm, from Continental Resources. The International Energy Agency said most of North Dakota’s vast Bakken field “remains profitable at or below $42 per barrel. The break-even price in McKenzie County, the most productive county in the state, is only $28 per barrel.”

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” .. if the industrial commodities that have fed China’s prodigious economic rise are taken as a guide, there is little need for debate: There has already been a hard landing ..”

China Plays Big Role In Oil’s Slide (MarketWatch)

All eyes have been on OPEC after its failure to agree to a production cut triggered the latest dramatic slide in the price of crude oil. But if you want to understand why the demand side of oil has been unraveling — and why it could continue — look no further than China. Opinion over the state of the world’s second-largest economy is typically divided between whether it is merely undergoing a rebalancing or a more painful slowdown after years of excessive credit growth. But if the industrial commodities that have fed China’s prodigious economic rise are taken as a guide, there is little need for debate: There has already been a hard landing, as all the prices of these resources have collapsed to multi-year lows. Now oil is falling in line as it too adjusts to a world where China is no longer bidding prices ever higher. Granted, oil is different from steel, iron ore and coal, where China is the world’s largest consumer (The U.S. still consumes almost twice as much oil as China). Yet Chinese demand is still pivotal.

China became the dominant source of growth in crude-oil demand as it joined the world economy in recent decades. Indeed, Société Générale comments China’s opening to world trade was responsible for lifting the oil price from around $20 a barrel to around $100. This price move approximately correlates with China joining the World Trade Organization at the beginning of the last decade, a period in which the nation, by itself, added the equivalent of Japanese and U.K. total oil consumption. The oil market is unlikely to find another country, or even a continent, that can take over this degree of heavy lifting in demand growth. Meanwhile, longer-term forecasts that China can maintain anything close to its recent pace of growth increasingly look misplaced. Until recently, many economists had assumed that it was only a matter of time before China’s appetite for oil would surpass that of the U.S. But there are a number of reasons to question such bullish forecasts. For one, we can expect the Chinese investment cycle to be in for a prolonged adjustment as it digests past excesses.

There is widespread evidence of industrial overcapacity, and last week researchers at China’s National Development Commission became the latest to highlight this issue. In a new report, they estimated $6.8 trillion of “ineffective investment” had been wasted. There are other signs that China’s thirst for oil is coming up against capacity constraints. After surpassing the U.S. as the biggest automobile market in the world in 2010, recent years have seen traffic jams and pollution become recurring problems. This has forced authorities to use administrative measures to rein in growth. We should also expect China’s future demand for oil to be more price-sensitive. In the past, demand appeared inelastic as growth continued even as crude prices reached triple-digits. But this period coincided with state-funded industry being the dominant driver, whereas demand for gasoline for cars can be expected to be dependent on the income growth of the middle class.

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It’s close to contraction, and that’s a a long way away from 7.5% growth.

China Factory Gauge Drops as Shutdowns Add to Slowdown (Bloomberg)

A Chinese manufacturing gauge fell as factory shutdowns aggravated a pullback in the economy, raising pressure on the central bank to ease policy further after it lowered interest rates for the first time in two years. The government’s Purchasing Managers’ Index (PMI) fell to an eight-month low of 50.3 in November, compared with the 50.5 median estimate of analysts in a Bloomberg survey and October’s 50.8. Readings above 50 indicate expansion. The government ordered factories in Beijing and surrounding regions to shut down during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum to curb pollution. China’s central bank cut interest rates last month as the economy heads for its slowest full-year expansion since 1990.

“Today’s official PMI reading points to continued downward pressure on manufacturing activity,” said Julian Evans-Pritchard, China analyst in Singapore at Capital Economics Ltd. “The recent cut in the benchmark rate will do little to boost economic activity unless followed by a loosening of quantitative controls on lending, which policymakers will remain cautious about given concerns over mounting credit risk.” The official PMI is released by the National Bureau of Statistics and China Federation of Logistics and Purchasing in Beijing. The index is based on responses to surveys sent to purchasing executives at 3,000 companies. The final reading of another manufacturing PMI for November from HSBC Holdings Plc and Markit Economics was 50.0. It was unchanged from a preliminary reading.

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Iron, steel, oil, it’s all under huge pressure. All the producers have gambled on continuing growth. And there’s more: “Meanwhile, the biggest mining companies say they are still committed to plans to keep topping production records.”

China’s Slowdown Hits Iron-Ore Prices (MarketWatch)

China’s hunger for minerals to build skyscrapers, cars and bridges produced a decadelong surge in the price and production of key commodities. Now, exporting nations are feeling the hit as the China-fueled boom slows. Topping the list are big commodity players Australia and Brazil, but also smaller resource-rich countries, such as Guinea, Indonesia and Mongolia, where minerals make up a disproportionate share of the economy and employment. In countries specializing in crucial commodities, such as iron ore and coal, sluggish demand and falling commodity prices are reducing government tax revenue, increasing trade deficits and affecting currency values. The Australian dollar reached a four-year low in November against the U.S. dollar due in part to sliding raw-material prices and slowing Chinese demand growth for those commodities. J.P. Morgan this month cut its forecast for 2015 Australian economic growth to 2.8% from 3.3%, and Brazil recently halved its own growth forecast for 2014 to 0.9% from 1.8%.

Mining profits as a share of the economy in both countries more than doubled during the past 15 years, according to the World Bank. The longer-term impact of a collapse in commodity prices could be even more profound, hurting the economies of producing countries and boosting buying power in Western consumer economies. “The impact of oversupply could be a mess,” says Lourenco Goncalves, CEO of Cliffs Natural Resources, a midsize miner that laid off workers in Australia. Meanwhile, the biggest mining companies say they are still committed to plans to keep topping production records. Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton have been shipping cargoes from Australia’s remote northwest at record rates. For smaller countries, the growing dependence on mining is even more apparent. In Guinea, the share of mining profits as a percentage of GDP more than tripled to 18.3% between 2000 and 2012, the latest data available, according to the World Bank. And in Mongolia, it nearly doubled to 11.9%.

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All the news about a China slowdown, and then this?! I don’t believe the numbers presented here for a minute.

China Winning in OPEC Price War as Hoarding Accelerates (Bloomberg)

China is emerging as the winner from OPEC’s battle with rival oil producers as the world’s biggest energy consumer stockpiles crude. The nation’s efforts to boost reserves may increase its imports by as much as 700,000 barrels a day in 2015, according to London-based Energy Aspects. That’s more than half the global glut forecast by Citigroup Inc. after the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries refrained from cutting output at its meeting last week. Brent crude has slumped 41% from its peak in June. The dwindling number of investors still betting on a rebound in prices can at least count on Chinese demand.

OPEC decided to maintain output targets even as a shale boom boosts U.S. production to the highest in more than three decades and causes a global supply glut. As crude extends its slump to the lowest level in more than four years, China is seeking to build a strategic petroleum reserve. “This is a golden time window to acquire more strategic oil stockpiles at lower costs,” Gordon Kwan, the Hong Kong-based head of regional oil and gas research at Nomura Holdings Inc., wrote in an e-mail Nov. 28. China will be “a big beneficiary” from the OPEC decision, he said.

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“We’ll get more pressure on gold. The overall outlook is not looking great.”

Swiss Vote Against Gold Deals Blow to Investors Hurt by Slump (Bloomberg)

With no chance that the Swiss central bank will be the next big buyer of gold, it’s one more reason for investors to be bearish. Voters today rejected a referendum requiring the Swiss National Bank hold at least 20% of its 520-billion-franc ($540 billion) balance sheet in gold. Had it been approved, it would have led to purchases of at least 1,500 metric tons over five years. With lower oil prices reducing costs for consumers and the U.S. considering raising interest rates, demand is fading for hedges against inflation such as gold. Gold has lost 16% since peaking in March and investor holdings of exchange-traded products are near a five-year low. While prices probably won’t be affected too much by the “no” vote of the initiative called “Save Our Swiss Gold,” approval would have improved sentiment and increased prices by as much as $50 an ounce, HSBC estimated in November.

“Gold had received some support in the last couple of weeks” before the vote, Georgette Boele, an analyst at ABN Amro Bank, said by phone. “We’ll get more pressure on gold. The overall outlook is not looking great.” The proposal stipulating the SNB raise the portion of its assets held in gold from about 8% now was voted down by 77% to 23%. The initiative would have also prohibited the SNB from ever selling any of its bullion and required the 30% currently stored in Canada and the U.K. to be repatriated. Polls forecast the initiative’s rejection. Approval would have probably made Switzerland the world’s third-biggest holder by country of the metal. Analysts had said purchases would have been at least 1,500 tons over five years. Adding 300 tons a year would equal about 7% of annual global consumption. SNB policy makers had a higher estimate, forecasting 70 billion francs worth of gold, or about 1,932 tons.

Proponents of the initiative said boosting bullion holdings would help preserve national wealth. The SNB and national government had argued that approving the measure could undermine efforts to prevent the franc from surging against the euro and erode the bank’s annual dividend distribution to regional governments.

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“The starting point is that the SNB cannot let the floor go. They will fight for it. They will do whatever it takes to defend the floor ..”

Swiss Headache To Continue Beyond Gold Vote (WSJ)

A Swiss vote on whether the country’s central bank should drastically ramp up its gold holdings — forever– happens this Sunday. The result is likely to be a no if the latest polls are accurate. But even in case of a negative outcome the pressure on the Swiss National Bank to cut interest rates below zero will not go away. The franc has been flying high of late, in part because the market has sniffed the possibility that forcing the SNB to buy lots and lots of gold (that’s what the vote’s all about) could cause problems for the central bank’s efforts to hold the currency down. The Swiss central bank keeps a floor on the currency, which controls how strong it gets against the euro, to protect the country’s exporters from an overly strong franc, which would damage them at international level. In order to do this, it buys euros which are added to its balance sheet.

With the new requirement in place, the SNB would have to match euro purchases with equal amounts of gold, which would not only be costly, but also permanent as it would be banned from selling it. Many have suggested that negative interest rates might be a useful tool for the central bank to deflect buying of the franc in the case the Swiss vote for the bank to ramp up its gold holdings to 20% by buying 1500 tons of gold over a period of five years. After all, the SNB has repeatedly said it’s open to the idea of negative rates. Since opinion polls started to point more clearly to a no vote, the franc has backed down a little. But the market’s bet on negative rates has not subsided.

Libor three month futures on the Swiss franc suggest that the market is pricing 0.11 percentage point in cuts by the end of next year, or a 45% probability of a 0.25 percentage point cut by the end of 2015, said a trader at SocGen. “The market is expecting rate cuts in the future and in the Swiss case, negative rates, to follow in the ECB footsteps. ”That’s the rub: the European Central Bank cut its deposit rate below zero in June, and it’s still firmly in easing mode. This has weakened the euro against all currencies, including against the franc, with the euro trading just above the level set by the central bank. “The starting point is that the SNB cannot let the floor go. They will fight for it. They will do whatever it takes to defend the floor,” said Samy Char, investment strategist at Swiss asset manager Lombard Odier. Negative rates may be part of that mix, investors and analysts add.

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Abenomics is a colossal failure that was entirely foreseeable. And still the Krugmans of the world call for Europe to do what Japan did.

Moody’s Downgrades Japan As Concerns Grow (CNBC)

Fears over the future of Japan’s economy are growing – and Moody’s, the credit ratings agency, reflected this on Monday by cutting its credit rating to A1 from AA3. The news came just after the country’s main stock market, the Nikkei, closed at a seven-year high. Increased “uncertainty” over whether Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can achieve his deficit-cutting goals, and “the timing and effectiveness of growth enhancing policy measures” have made Japanese government debt riskier in the medium term, analysts at Moody’s said in a release. They added that the outlook for the rating was stable.

Abe swept into power two years ago, and was hailed as a savior because of his plan to reinvigorate Japan’s moribund economy – known as “Abenomics”. The three main pillars of Abenomics are: a large fiscal stimulus, more aggressive monetary easing from the Bank of Japan, and structural reforms to the country’s economy. Japan has been in a deflationary spiral for two decades, and it remains to be seen whether Abenomics can shake it out. Abe has called a snap election for December 14, in an effort to secure another four years to see his policies through. However, his popularity seems to be in decline. Japan’s economy is now back in recession after GDP shrank by 0.4% in the third three months of the year, on a quarter-on-quarter basis.

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How crazy is it that Abe is still set to win the December 14 snap election?

In Fading Japan Hinterland, Skeptics Doubt “Abenomics” Will Cure Ills (Reuters)

Mihoko Asaka wants to know how candidates in this month’s election in Japan will create jobs and halt the drastic population decline that is bleeding her home region of youth and vitality, but has little hope they will offer real solutions. Like many of his age group, her 25-year-old son left the largely rural prefecture of Akita in northeastern Japan to find work after graduating from college. “I’m interested to see how much they are listening to the voices from this region,” said Asaka, 57, waiting for a bus in Akita City, the prefecture’s capital. “But I don’t think our voices are being heard. They talk about money being thrown around, but we can’t see where it goes.” Critics say Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s policies to end deflation and generate growth have helped mainly big cities, large companies and the rich by boosting share prices and exporters’ profits with a hyper-easy monetary policy that has slashed the value of the yen and sent asset prices higher.

All too aware of the criticism, Abe has made spreading the benefits of his “Abenomics” agenda to “every nook and cranny” of Japan a key plank of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) platform for the Dec. 14 lower house election. The LDP-led ruling coalition is expected to keep its lower house majority, so interest is focused on whether and to what extent its grip on two-thirds of the chamber erodes. Akita prefecture, with the dubious distinction of having Japan’s highest suicide rate and fastest-shrinking population, definitely needs a boost. Already, about 30% of its population is aged 65 and over compared to 25% nationwide, with the ratio predicted to rise to more than 40% by 2040, when Akita’s total population will have fallen by more than a third to 700,000.

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TEXT

Eurozone Manufacturing Falls As Germany Contracts (CNBC)

Euro zone manufacturing activity missed forecasts and slowed in November, with German activity contracting — hitting hopes of a pick-up in the bloc’s largest economy. Markit’s euro zone manufacturing PMI was nearly flat at 50.1 in November, missing analysts’ forecasts of 50.4. This was a fall from the 50.6 recorded in October. The latest figures will raise concerns among policymakers at the European Central Bank (ECB) who are battling extremely low inflation in the single currency bloc. Three of the euro zone’s largest economies – Germany, France and Italy – saw manufacturing activity contract in October. Germany’s November manufacturing PMI came in at 49.5, France’s reading was 48.4, and Italy’s figure was at 49, all below the 50 mark that signifies growth.

“With the final PMI coming in below the flash reading, the situation in euro area manufacturing is worse than previously thought. Not only is the performance of the sector the worst seen since mid-2013, there is a risk that renewed rot is spreading across the region from the core,” Chris Williamson, chief economist at Markit, said in a press release. “The sector has more or less stagnated since August, but we are now seeing, for the first time in nearly one-and-a-half years, the three largest economies all suffering manufacturing downturns.” The near-stagnant euro zone-wide PMI figure was driven by falling levels of new business and lackluster export orders, Markit said, alongside signs of slowing global growth. The fall in manufacturing growth also came amid continued price pressures with factories continuing to cut prices.

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“I am sure shareholders would trade an executive or two for a few billion less in regulator fines.”

So Banks Are Too Big To Fail. Are They Also Too Big To Regulate? (Guardian)

The broken culture of high street banking will take a generation to fix, according to a report this week. The thinktank New City Agenda calculated that over the past 15 years banks had incurred £38.5bn in fines and redress for the mistreatment of customers. Bank boards and their regulators acknowledge the need for change, and by all accounts this is a massive problem. So why should it take so long – and how can we force things to move faster? A few months ago, a dealer in old wine was given a 10-year sentence for misrepresenting the quality of the contents. A banker who misrepresented his or her product would not face anything like this penalty. Despite scandal after scandal, the absence of personal accountability persists.

The size of penalties varies by regulator, but the unwillingness to punish the individual perpetrator does not. The message being sent from the regulators to the banks is: “Here’s the deal: we fine you a ton of money; no one goes to jail; no individual is named; and the best part – you can settle the bill with your shareholders’ dough!” True, in Britain the government is proposing new laws to make criminal behaviour a crime. But tools already in place remain untouched. The UK has long had an “approved persons” regime administered initially by the Financial Services Authority, and now by the Prudential Regulatory Authority. The PRA determines who is fit and proper to hold key positions in finance. Most of the focus has been on who is approved and how. But prior authorisations can be revoked. One wonders why they haven’t.

Surely there is no shortage of scandal-linked wrongdoers. Who would not want them to act? Think about the list of those who have a stake in the matter. Banks serve multiple stakeholders. These include society, clients, shareholders, employees and executives. We have already mentioned society’s outrage and clients’ dismay. Both have been clamouring for justice. What about the others? Surely shareholders should want the unfit to be identified and punished. After all, the depth, breadth and persistence of the wrongdoing shows that either management were complicit in their subordinates’ actions, or they were too incompetent to prevent it. Take your pick, but both are cases for being banned as unfit for such responsibilities. I am sure shareholders would trade an executive or two for a few billion less in regulator fines.

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“I’m pretty tired, as Forrest Gump would say .. ”

Tired’ Grillo Overhauls Leadership Of Italy’s 5-Star Movement (Reuters)

Beppe Grillo, the unruly comic who built Italy’s 5-Star Movement into one of the most potent anti-establishment forces in Europe, is struggling to stop a steady slide following months of infighting and electoral setbacks. After a week that saw two local election defeats and two parliamentary members expelled from the party, Grillo announced his movement needed a more formal leadership structure. A five-member committee, approved by an online poll, will take over much day-to-day running with the aim of strengthening foundations for the future. The 66-year-old Grillo said he would remain as “guarantor” but what that means is unclear. “I’m pretty tired, as Forrest Gump would say,” he wrote in his blog beneath a mock-up of himself as the movie character, telling a band of followers that he is ending a marathon run across the country.

One of the most successful of the anti-system parties that have blossomed in Europe during the financial crisis, Grillo’s movement is fueled by anger at a corrupt and inefficient political class. It remains Italy’s second-biggest party but after its triumph in the 2013 elections, when it won 25% of the vote, it has struggled in parliament. In the latest of a string of disputes over issues including whether members may appear on television, two deputies were thrown out this week, accused of failing to repay state funding as party rules demand. The latest expulsions left the 5-Star Movement with 143 seats in parliament, compared with the 163 it won last year. It has done poorly in recent local elections, taking only 13% and 5% respectively last week in the regions of Emilia-Romagna and Calabria.

In its place, the anti-immigrant Northern League, which shares Grillo’s hostility to the euro, is capturing more of the protest vote, coming second in Emilia-Romagna, a traditional stronghold of the left. Even Silvio Berlusconi, fighting to regain influence following a conviction for tax fraud, has re-emerged. In an opinion poll last week, he beat Grillo’s personal approval rating for the first time in months. “Grillo’s tired. I’m in better form than ever,” he said on Saturday. Marco Travaglio, a prominent columnist for Il Fatto Quotidiano, a newspaper generally sympathetic to Grillo’s movement, wrote that the disputes were “suicidal” and would only strengthen Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, “who, with adversaries like this, can stay 100 years.”

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Wouldn’t that be something?

Commercial Seafood Set to Disappear from Oceans in 2048 (Alternet)

A prominent marine research ecologist says that commercial seafood could disappear from our oceans within the next three decades if humans don’t take action immediately. Boris Worm of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Canada said the oceans are quickly losing biodiversity and that nearly 30% of seafood species humans consume are already too small to harvest. If the long-term trend continues, there will be little or no seafood available for a sustainable harvest by 2048. Dr. Worm’s study was recently published in the journal Science and is an update of a study published in 2006. Importantly, the study is about the collapse of commercial catches, not species extinction. Catch collapse means that fish are caught at 10% or less of the rate they had been caught historically. Several media outlets have incorrectly stated that the study warns all seafood will be gone from the oceans.

CBS News, for example, reported that “the apocalypse has a new date: 2048” and that the oceans would be empty of fish at that time. To our knowledge, the television network has not issued a retraction. “We never said that,” says Dr. Worm. “We never talked about extinction. We talked about the collapse of the commercial catches.” Still, Worm and his international team of scientists and economists say that catch collapses paint a grim picture for the ocean and for human health. The accelerated loss of biodiversity, they say, is imperiled by overfishing, pollution, habitat loss and climate change. Saltwater ecosystems, including human populations that depend on it for survival, can be adversely affected by dwindling populations. Harmful algae blooms, coastal flooding and poor water quality can be the results of reduced fish populations. “Biodiversity is a finite resource, and we are going to end up with nothing left…if nothing changes,” says Worm.

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Still not going well at all. New warnings are iddues about the threat of ebola spreading.

Ebola Death Toll in 3 West African Countries Most Affected Nears 7,000 (WSJ)

Nearly 7,000 people have died from the Ebola virus disease in the three West African countries most affected by the current outbreak, according to new data from the World Health Organization. In an update, the United Nations health agency said 16,169 confirmed, suspected or probable cases of Ebola had been reported in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. The three countries are at the epicenter of the current outbreak. A total of 6,928 people have died of Ebola in the three countries since the outbreak began, the WHO said. Liberia reported the biggest rise in deaths; more than 1,000 since WHO data released on Wednesday The agency, which recently changed the format it uses for reporting Ebola data, provided no commentary as to why the death toll jumped.

However, a spokesman said via email that the increase was caused by previously unreported deaths now being counted in the official statistics, rather than a rash of new fatalities. The WHO has previously said some local authorities have had difficulty processing paperwork quickly. The agency has said its count may greatly underestimate the toll, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said it believes the actual count could be between two and four times the WHO numbers. Ebola causes high fever and internal bleeding. The disease spreads via bodily fluids and the corpses of its victims can be contagious.

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