Jun 092018

Dorothea Lange Children and home of cotton workers at migratory camp in southern San Joaquin Valley, CA 1936


My long time pal Jesse Colombo, now at Real Investment Advice, recently linked on Twitter to a Zero Hedge article, which quoted CoreLogic as saying more than half of American homes are overvalued. CoreLogic calls itself “a leading provider of consumer, financial and property data, analytics and services to business and government.”

Well, CoreLogic is way off. All American homes are overvalued. How can we tell? It’s easy. It’s so easy it’s perhaps no wonder that people overlook the reasons why. But we all know them: The Fed has pushed some $20 trillion down the throats of the financial system. It has also lowered interest rates to near zero Kelvin. Then the government added a “relaxation” of lending standards and an upward tweak of credit scores. And Bob’s your uncle.

These measures haven’t influenced just half of US homes, they’ve hit every single one of them. Some more than others, not every bubble is as big as San Francisco’s, but the suggestion that nearly half of homes are not overvalued is simply misleading. It falsely suggests that if you buy a home in the ‘right’ place, you’ll be fine. You won’t be. The Washington-induced bubble will and must pop, and precious few homes will be ‘worth’ what they are ‘worth’ today.

Here’s what Jesse tweeted along with his link to the Zero Hedge article:

“Almost half of the US housing market is overvalued” – this is why U.S. household wealth is also overvalued/in an unsustainable bubble.

He followed up with:

U.S. household wealth is in a bubble thanks to Fed-inflated asset prices. This is creating a “wealth effect” that is helping to drive our spurious economic recovery. This economy is nothing but a sham. It’s smoke and mirrors. Wake the F up, everyone!!!

My reaction to this:

Sorry, my friend Jesse, but every single US home is overvalued. It just depends on the vantage point you look from. All prices have been distorted by the Fed’s policies, not just half of them. Arguably some more than others, but can that be the core argument here?

Jesse’s reply:

Yes, that’s a good point.

Another long time pal, Dave Collum, chimed in with a good observation:

I think even us bunker monkeys start recalibrating, no matter how hard we try to maintain what we believe to be perspective.

Yes, we’ve been at this for a while. Even if Jesse was still a student when he started out. We’ve been doing it so long that he recently wrote an article named: Why It’s Right To Warn About A Bubble For 10 Years. And he’s right on that too.

Let’s get to the article the conversation started with:


More Than Half Of American Homes Are Overvalued, CoreLogic Warns

CoreLogic reports that residential real estate prices nationwide increased 6.9% year over year from April 2017 to April 2018. The firm’s Home Price Index (HPI) also shows a 1.2% rise on the month-over-month basis from March to April 2018. This has certainly sparked the debate of housing affordability across the nation with many millennials struggling to achieve the American dream.

CoreLogic Market Condition Indicators showed that 40% of the 100 largest metropolitan areas were overvalued in April, compared to 28% undervalued, and 32% in line with valuations. The report uncovers a shocking discovery that of the nation’s top 50 largest residential real estate markets, 52% were overvalued in April.

CoreLogic’s methodology behind overvalued housing markets “as one in which home prices are at least 10% higher than the long-term, sustainable level, while an undervalued housing market is one in which home prices are at least 10% below the sustainable level.”

The CoreLogic people probably mean well, but they also probably don’t want to rattle the cage. It’s not really important. As soon as someone starts talking about a ‘sustainable level’ for home prices, you can tune out. Because no such thing exists. Unless you first take those $20 trillion out of the ‘market’, free up interest rates, tighten lending standards and lower credit scores. Only then MAY you find a ‘sustainable level’ for prices.

Historically a house in the US cost around 3 to 4 times the median annual income. During the housing bubble of 2007 the ratio surpassed 5 – in other words, the median price for a single-family home in the United States cost more than 5 times the US median annual household income. According to Mike Maloney, this ratio is heavily influenced by interest rates. When interest rates go down the affordability of a house goes up, so people spend more money on a house. Interest rates have now been falling since 1981 when they peaked at 15.32% (for a 10-year US treasury bond).

Mike Maloney, another longtime friend of the Automatic Earth, is dead on. Price to income is a useless point unless you include interest rates in the calculation. And then you can get large differences. Since interest rates have been falling for 37 years, count on them to rise. And see what that does to your model.

“The best antidote for rising home prices is additional supply,” said Dr. Frank Nothaft, chief economist for CoreLogic. “New construction has failed to keep up with and meet new housing growth or replace existing inventory. More construction of for-sale and rental housing will alleviate housing cost pressures,” Nothaft added.

Right, yeah. Now we know the CoreLogic mindset. The more you build, the better home prices will be. Just one of many problems with that is that if you really expect prices to fall once you build, people will build fewer houses, because profit margins fall too. The whole idea that we can save housing markets by simply building ever more has never rung very true. But that’s for another day.

In a recent op-ed piece via The Wall Street Journal, Paul Kupiec and Edward Pinto place the blame on the government for creating another real estate bubble through “loose mortgage terms pushing home prices up.” They claim that mortgage underwriters need to tighten standards.

“Home prices are booming. So far, 2018 has posted the strongest growth since 2005. “About 60% of all U.S. metros saw an acceleration in the rate of price increases through February this year,” according to Housing Wire. Since mid-2012, real home prices have increased 28%, according to data from the American Enterprise Institute. Entry-level home prices are up about double that rate. In contrast, over the same period household income has barely kept pace with inflation. The current pace of home-price inflation is increasing the risk of another housing bubble.

The Fed is raising rates -finally- and home prices grow at the fastest rate in 13 years. Over the past 6 years prices are up 28%. Entry level homes are up more than 50% in that time frame. That is just profoundly scary. It’s like Dante’s descent into hell. And no, it’s not true that “The current pace of home-price inflation is increasing the risk of another housing bubble”. We’re already caught up head first in a new housing bubble.

“The root of the problem is declining underwriting standards. In April Freddie Mac announced an expansion of its 3% down-payment mortgage, the better to compete with the Federal Housing Administration and Fannie Mae . Such moves propel home prices upward. Because government agencies guarantee about 80% of all home-purchase mortgages, their underwriting standards guide the market.

Making lending even more dangerous, CNBC recently reported that “credit scores may go up” because new regulatory guidance allows delinquent taxes to be excluded when calculating credit scores. These are only some of the measures that “expand the credit box” and qualify ever-shakier borrowers for mortgages.”

As I said before: if you lower lending -and underwriting- standards and artificially raise credit scores, then yes, you can keep the bubble going for a while longer. But it overvalues properties. You’re just moving goalposts.

“During the last crisis, easy credit led home prices to rise at an unsustainable pace, leading marginally qualified borrowers to stretch themselves thin. Millions of Americans’ dreams became nightmares when the housing market turned. The lax underwriting terms that helped borrowers qualify for a mortgage haunted many households for the next decade.”

No, it’s not just homes. Stocks and bonds as just as overvalued. Because of a behemoth attempt at making the economy look good, even though it’s entirely fake. No price discovery, no market, just central banks and tweaking standards and surveys. C’mon, we all know where this must go. We just don’t want to know. So this Marketwatch piece gets a wry smile at best:


America Is House-Rich But Cash-Poor

The housing market has not only recovered from the Great Recession, it’s heated up. According to an analysis from Attom Data, nearly 14 million Americans are now “equity rich” – meaning they have at least 50% equity in their homes. It bears repeating that many owners and communities are not so lucky: over a million Americans are underwater, and some cities and towns are still reeling under the weight of abandoned and vacant homes and stagnant micro-economies. But for most of the country, rapidly rising home prices and a dearth of anything else to buy means people are staying in their homes longer, allowing them to accrue more and more equity: $15 trillion worth, to be exact.



Apr 022017
 April 2, 2017  Posted by at 9:30 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  3 Responses »

DPC Gillender Building, corner of Nassau and Wall Streets, built 1897, wrecked 1910 1900


Why Trump Won’t Cut Taxes (Stockman)
Collapse In Demand (Fear)
Iceland’s Jailed Bankers Say They Were Scapegoats For Financial Crisis (AFP)
Blaming Russia for Everything (Robert Parry)
EU Offers Spain Veto Right Over Gibraltar After Brexit Talks (R.)
The European Union Lays Out A Greek Trap For The United Kingdom (Coppola)
Theresa May May Have Miscalculated (Varoufakis)
The Demise of the Anatolian Tiger – Turkey on Verge of Bankruptcy (Spiegel)
The Pentagon Doesn’t Want Turkey’s Help In Syria (WE)
Salmon Farming In Crisis: ‘A Chemical Arms Race In The Seas’ (G.)
Italy Praised For Giving Lone Child Refugees Legal Protection (Week)
Europe Keeps Its Rescue Ships Far From Where Refugees Drown (I’Cept)



Stockman won’t let go.

Why Trump Won’t Cut Taxes (Stockman)

[..] even the money printers have made it clear in no uncertain terms that they are done for this cycle, anyway, and that they will be belatedly but consistently raising interest rates for what ought to be a truly scary reason. That is, the denizens of the Eccles Building have finally realized that they have not outlawed the business cycle after all and need to raise rates toward 2-3% so that they have headroom to “cut” the next time the economy slides into the ditch. In effect, the Fed is saying to Wall Street: “Price in” a recession because we are! After all, our monetary central planners are not reluctantly allowing interest rates to lift off the zero bound because they have become converts to the cause of honest price discovery – nor are they fixing to liberate money rates, debt yields, and the prices of stocks and other financial assets to clear on the free market.

Instead, they are merely storing up monetary ammo for the next downturn. But the Wall Street mules keep buying the dips anyway because they are under the preposterous delusion that one source of “stimulus” is just as good as the next. And since the gamblers have now decreed that the “stimulus” baton be handed off to fiscal policy, it only remains for Congress and the White House to shape up and get the job done with all deliberate speed. But they won’t. Not in a million years. The massive Trump tax cut and infrastructure stimulus is DOA because Uncle Sam is broke and the U.S. economy has slithered into moribund old age.

In that context, it’s not remotely the same as the 12 members of the FOMC sitting behind closed doors for two days jawing about the short-term economic weather; and then at the conclusion of their gabfest, ordering the New York Fed’s open market desk to flood the canyons of Wall Street with cash by buying another $80 billion of bonds with digital credits conjured from thin air. Au contraire. Fiscal policy is inherently an exercise in herding cats and an especially impossible one when the cupboards are bare. [..] what lies directly ahead, therefore, is another bumbling attempt by the White House and Congressional Republicans to hammer out an FY 2018 budget resolution and what amounts to a 10-year fiscal plan. And it is there where the whole fantasy of the Trump Stimulus comes a cropper. There are not remotely 218 GOP votes for what would be a $12 -13 trillion add to the national debt with the Trump Stimulus program over the next decade – even with all the “dynamic” scoring and revenue “reflows” that are imaginable.

Read more …

How the sytem works (and then doesn’t): “..workers take on debt that fuels the profits of the corporates that dominate the consumer supply chains. However this rise in corporate profits has not been recycled back into the real economy via workers wages. There will come a point where the workers can no longer take on more debt. When this happens consumer demand will fall, wages will fall and unemployment will rise.”

Collapse In Demand (Fear)

John Maynard Keynes said that, a fall in bank lending leads to a fall in consumer demand creating recession. He was right, a fall in bank lending does create a fall in consumer demand, it also creates recession and in extreme cases can cause a complete meltdown of the entire economy as in 2008. So the question is, why does bank lending fall? A rise in interest rates can make new borrowing too expensive, it can also lead to existing borrowers defaulting on their loans. This was the catalyst for the 2007 subprime crash in the United States. The graph below shows that US interest rates went from 1% to 5% in the run up to the subprime crash.

Interest rate rises can accelerate a fall in borrowing and a fall in demand, but interest rate rises are not the cause of these falls. Borrowing would eventually, slowly fall over time even if interest rates had remained low. Most of us are now aware that banks create new deposits when they loan, they don’t lend other peoples deposits. How they do it is not important, accepting that they do, is fundamental to understanding the problem. See graph.

The bank creation of money via lending and debt is nothing new, what has changed is the amount of money creation and the ability to recycle this new money back to the debtors. The large increase in debt over the last 30 to 40 years has funded a massive increase in consumerism, consumerism is no longer constrained by wages but rather by how much debt people can accumulate. The graph below shows the result.

Basically we have a trickle up effect, workers take on debt that fuels the profits of the corporates that dominate the consumer supply chains. However this rise in corporate profits has not been recycled back into the real economy via workers wages. There will come a point where the workers can no longer take on more debt. When this happens consumer demand will fall, wages will fall and unemployment will rise. Existing loans made by workers will fall into default, creating another banking crisis. If the banks are not saved by government or central bank intervention the credit created by the banks will become worthless. So, it is in the interests of the wealthy elite to protect the banking system whatever the cost to the rest of society. In the end the wealthy elite will themselves, destroy the financial system by taking so much of it that demand collapses.

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Well, it’s true they were the only ones to go to jail…

Iceland’s Jailed Bankers Say They Were Scapegoats For Financial Crisis (AFP)

Once reviled symbols of rogue capitalism, Iceland’s ex-bankers now say they were scapegoats: jailed for their roles in the 2008 financial crisis, they’re taking their cases to the European Court of Human Rights. In 2008, after Iceland’s inflated financial system imploded, the three main banks Kaupthing, Glitnir, and Landsbanki collapsed. The government urgently nationalised them, then asked the IMF for an emergency bailout, a first for a western European country in 25 years. The crisis brought to light the bankers’ questionable practices, often involving artificially inflating the value of the banks’ assets by providing cheap loans to shareholders to buy even more shares in the bank. Without realising it, thousands of Icelanders had thus placed their life savings in a house of cards.

Since then, dozens of so-called “banksters” have been convicted, about 20 of them to prison, for manipulating the market. Some of them now claim they didn’t get fair trials, and have turned to the European Court of Human Rights. Sentenced by an Icelandic appeals court to four years in prison, Sigurdur Einarsson, the former chairman of the board of Kaupthing, spent one year behind bars before being released. He is critical of what he dubs Iceland’s “scapegoat” justice system, which he claims turned a blind eye to unlawful proceedings during his trial. “Some of the judges were partial … because they had lost a lot of money during the economic crisis,” Einarsson told AFP. “This was not a just and fair trial. (This is) very important because Iceland praises itself for being a Western democratic country, and one of the key issues for that is having fair trials for everyone.”

Read more …

Good topic for Parry to delve into.

Blaming Russia for Everything (Robert Parry)

When Sen. Marco Rubio’s presidential campaign fails seemingly because he was a wet-behind-the-ears candidate who performed like a robot during debates repeating the same talking points over and over, you might have cited those shortcomings to explain why “Little Marco” flamed out. However, if you did, that would make you a Russian “useful idiot”! The “real” reason for his failure, as we learned from Thursday’s Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, was Russia! When Americans turned against President Obama’s Pacific trade deals, you might have thought that it was because people across the country had grown sick and tired of these neoliberal agreements that have left large swaths of the country deindustrialized and former blue-collar workers turning to opioids and alcohol. But if you did think that, that would mean you are a dupe of the clever Russkies, as ex-British spy Christopher Steele made clear in one of his “oppo” research reports against Donald Trump.

As Steele’s dossier explained, the rejection of Obama’s TPP and TTIP trade deals resulted from Russian propaganda! When Hillary Clinton boots a presidential election that was literally hers to lose, you might have thought that she lost because she insisted on channeling her State Department emails through a private server that endangered national security; that she gave paid speeches to Wall Street and tried to hide the contents from the voters; that she called half of Donald Trump’s supporters “deplorables”; that she was a widely disliked establishment candidate in an anti-establishment year; that she was shoved down the throats of progressive Democrats by a Democratic Party hierarchy that made her nomination “inevitable” via the undemocratic use of unelected “super-delegates”; that some of her State Department emails were found on the laptop of suspected sex offender Anthony Weiner (the husband of Clinton’s close aide Huma Abedin); and that the laptop discovery caused FBI Director James Comey to briefly reopen the investigation of Clinton’s private email server in the last days of the campaign.

You might even recall that Clinton herself blamed her late collapse in the polls on Comey’s announcement, as did other liberal luminaries such as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. But if you thought those thoughts or remembered those memories, that is just more proof that you are a “Russian mole”! As we all should know in our properly restructured memory banks and our rearranged sense of reality, it was all Russia’s fault! Russia did it by undermining our democratic process through the clever means of releasing truthful information via WikiLeaks that provided evidence of how the Democratic National Committee rigged the nomination process against Sen. Bernie Sanders, revealed the contents of Clinton’s hidden Wall Street speeches, and exposed pay-to-play features of the Clinton Foundation in its dealings with foreign entities.

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Weird games. That’s Brussels for you.

EU Offers Spain Veto Right Over Gibraltar After Brexit Talks (R.)

The European Union on Friday offered Spain a right of veto over the future relationship between Gibraltar and the EU after Britain leaves the bloc, a move that could smooth Brexit talks but also dash Gibraltar’s hopes of winning a special status. The future of Gibraltar, a rocky British enclave on Spain’s southern tip, is set to be a major point of contention in the exit talks along with issues relating to Britain’s access to the EU’s single market or the future rights of EU citizens in the U.K. and of Britons living in Europe. Rows between Spain and Britain over Gibraltar have held up entire EU deals in the past – including current legislation governing air travel – and Brussels is keen to avoid a new bilateral dispute getting in the way of an orderly Brexit.

“This seems intended to give Spain something so they don’t try to hold the whole withdrawal treaty hostage over it,” one senior EU diplomat said in Brussels. According to the EU’s draft joint position on the exit talks, which the remaining members are due to approve on April 29, “after the United Kingdom leaves the Union, no agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom may apply to the territory of Gibraltar without the agreement between the Kingdom of Spain and the United Kingdom.” In essence, it offers Madrid a special share of power over Gibraltar’s fate, but only once the territory is no longer an internal EU problem. A spokesman for the Spanish government said Madrid was satisfied with the decision.

“It is what we wanted and what we have said from the beginning… The recognition by the European Union of the legal and political situation that Spain has defended fully satisfies us,” Inigo Mendez de Vigo told a news conference following the weekly cabinet meeting. The Government of Gibraltar issued a statement on Friday evening saying that the draft suggested Spain was trying to get away with mortgaging the future relationship between the EU and Gibraltar. “This is a disgraceful attempt by Spain to manipulate the European Council for its own, narrow, political interests (…) a clear manifestation of the predictably predatory attitude that we anticipated Spain would seek to abusively impose on its partners,” the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Fabian Picardo, said in an e-mailed statement.

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And you should wish to be part of a Union that does such things? I don’t get that. What is that, Stockholm Syndrome?

The European Union Lays Out A Greek Trap For The United Kingdom (Coppola)

Following the UK’s formal resignation on Wednesday March 29th 2017, the European Union has now laid out its approach to negotiating the United Kingdom’s exit from the bloc. At first glance, the draft negotiation guidelines appear friendly and reasonable. But don’t be fooled. They contain a trap with which followers of the Greek bailout negotiations should be all too familiar. At this point, Brexit supporters will no doubt scream “The UK is not like Greece!”. Of course it isn’t. It is one of the largest economies in Europe, and its departure will leave a gaping wound in the EU which will take some time to heal. A smooth, orderly exit is in everyone’s interests, to minimize damage on both sides and promote healing. And this is what both the UK and the EU say they want. So why do I say there is a trap?

The essence of the Greek negotiations is that the debt relief that Greece so desperately needs is conditional on Greece meeting all the EU creditors’ conditions, in full. The EU will not even discuss debt relief until sufficient progress has been made on everything else. Every time Greece draws nearer to debt relief it is snatched away, either by adding new conditions or by finding reasons to doubt that conditions have really been met. Of course, the UK is not looking for debt relief. It is after another prize. Theresa May’s letter outlined what the UK wants “Agreeing a high-level approach to the issues arising from our withdrawal will of course be an early priority. But we also propose a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. This should be of greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before it so that it covers sectors crucial to our linked economies such as financial services and network industries.”

Wonderful. Not only does the UK want a free trade agreement to be agreed before it leaves the bloc, it apparently wants that agreement to give it better terms than any trade agreement the EU has with any other country. I don’t know who constructed this flight of fancy, but it has about as much chance of seeing the light of day as a bottom-feeder in the Marianas Trench.

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“Request a Norway-like agreement for an interim period – something that they cannot refuse..”

Theresa May May Have Miscalculated (Varoufakis)

Prime Minister May is keen to avoid a defeat at the hands of EU negotiators determined to do to the UK that which they did to Greece in 2015. Correctly, she has set out to arm herself with a credible threat. The problem is that she may have miscalculated her optimal strategy. By making a hard Brexit the default of the negotiations’ process, Mrs May has secured its credibility. However, a credible threat can still produce an undesirable outcome. London’s greatest miscalculation would be to assume that the EU’s negotiators are committed to the bloc’s economic interests. Whilst negotiating Greece’s debt to the EU with them, I realised in horror that they cared very little about getting their money back and a great deal more about shoring up their relative positions in the games they play with one another – even if this sacrificed large economic gains. Mrs May will encounter this mindset soon in Berlin, Brussels and Paris.

If my experiences are anything to go by, a frustrating two years await British negotiators. They are faced with the EU’s favourite tactics: The EU Run-Around (as Brussels refers them to Berlin and vice versa), the Swedish National Anthem Routine (the feeling that whether you have outlined a sensible proposal or sung Sweden’s national anthem they react the same way), the All-Or-Nothing Ruse (refusing to discuss any issue unless all issues are simultaneously discussed) and the Blame Game (censuring you for THEIR recalcitrance). Nothing good, for Britain or for the EU, will come out of this process. It is why I recommend a strategy that robs Brussels of all room to manoeuvre. That is: Request a Norway-like agreement for an interim period – something that they cannot refuse – and empower the next UK parliament to design and pursue Britain’s long-term relationship with the EU.

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“Observers fear that Turkey could take other countries along with it. The country holds $270 billion of debt with international banks, with $87 billion of that total in Spain, $42 billion in France and $15 billion in Germany.”

The Demise of the Anatolian Tiger – Turkey on Verge of Bankruptcy (Spiegel)

[..] the aftermath of the coup attempt — the mass arrests of opposition activists and the confiscation of companies – has scared investors off. The rating agencies Moody’s and Standard & Poor’s have slashed Turkey’s credit rating to junk status and foreign investment plunged by over 40% last year. Yigit says that he can hardly find anyone anymore who is interested in doing business in Turkey. “The risk is simply too high for investors,” he says. Meanwhile, clients who have been economically involved in the country for years are now pulling their money out. The capital flight has triggered a downward spiral that has been particularly noticeable in the construction industry.

Turkey’s high growth rates in recent years were fueled primarily by infrastructure projects, with Erdogan pouring money into the construction of highways, hospitals and airports. Now, though, there is insufficient foreign capital available and growth is stagnating. Furthermore, political instability has led to a steep drop in tourism revenues, with a plunge of roughly one-third last year. There are hundreds of hotels up for sale on the Turkish Riviera, on the country’s southwest coast, and some 600 of 2,000 shops in Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar have been forced to close since last summer, according to the bazaar’s merchant association. Turkish Airlines has taken 30 planes out of service.

The consequences of the struggling economy can be seen in day-to-day life: Companies have been forced to lay off workers and cut salaries; people have less money. Domestic consumption, which made up 60% of the country’s GDP last year, has shrunk. At the same time, the Turkish currency, the lira, has rapidly lost value and inflation stands at 10%. “We are heading toward the worst-case scenario: economic stagnation combined with persistent inflation,” says Istanbul-based economic writer Mustafa Sönmez. “Turkey is on the verge of bankruptcy.” Observers fear that Turkey could take other countries along with it. The country holds $270 billion of debt with international banks, with $87 billion of that total in Spain, $42 billion in France and $15 billion in Germany. Should the country default or partially default, Sönmez believes, it could trigger another financial crisis in Europe.

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Turkey’s army has gotten even weaker after Erdogan fired tens of thousands, among them many officers.

The Pentagon Doesn’t Want Turkey’s Help In Syria (WE)

Like a marriage held together for the sake of the kids, the U.S. and Turkey keep saying nice things in public, while privately fuming and slowly drifting apart. The growing rift between the two countries stems from the intractable dispute over the U.S. plan to liberate Raqqa with a loose coalition of Syrian fighters comprising roughly 40% Kurdish YPG militia members, who Turkey considers terrorists. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has offered his military to drive the Islamic State out of its self-proclaimed capital in Raqqa, if only the U.S. will quit the Kurds. Turkey regards the Kurdish Popular Protection Units, or YPG, as an extension of the banned Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK, which has been declared a terrorist group by both Turkey and the U.S. But the Pentagon says the Kurds have proven to be the most battle-hardened and combat-effective force fighting ISIS in Syria, and it has no plans to abandon them now.

Publicly the U.S. says it’s still working with its NATO ally Turkey to find a role for it in the upcoming Raqqa offensive, but here’s the unspoken truth: The U.S. has also judged that the Turkish military is not up to the task, based on its performance in northern Syria. On Aug. 24, Turkey launched “Operation Euphrates Shield,” sending tank and troops into Syria with the stated objective of pushing ISIS back 60 miles from its shared border, and the unstated goal of keeping Kurdish forces from controlling an unbroken swath of land stretching back into Iraq. This past week, Turkey declared Euphrates Shield a success and ended the mission, a move Pentagon sources say was in fact largely because the U.S., Russia and Syria stymied the Turkish offensive from any further gains. The Turks did take the northern Syrian towns of Jarablus, Dabiq and al-Bab from ISIS, but their plan to move against the Kurds in Manbij was foiled when the U.S. positioned Army Rangers just outside the city and declared Manbij was in no further need of liberation.

And the Turkish forces had also suffered heavy losses in the fight against ISIS in al-Bab, or as one Pentagon official put it, “They got their asses kicked.” Meanwhile, Syrian and Russian forces have advanced across the Turkish forces’ southern flank in Syria, effectively blocking any movement south to Raqqa. Essentially hemmed in with nowhere to go, the Turkish forces called it a day and declared mission accomplished. Several Pentagon officials, who talked the Washington Examiner on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to discuss war planning publicly, said the major U.S. takeaway is that Turkish troops lack the training, logistics and weaponry to successfully launch the siege of a fortified and well-defended city. Consider that across the border in Iraq, 100,000 Iraqi troops have all they can handle trying to finish off fewer than 1,000 ISIS fighters in west Mosul.

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Yeah, we’re so smart.

Salmon Farming In Crisis: ‘A Chemical Arms Race In The Seas’ (G.)

Every day, salmon farmers across the world walk into steel cages – in the seas off Scotland or Norway or Iceland – and throw in food. Lots of food; they must feed tens of thousands of fish before the day is over. They must also check if there are problems, and there is one particular problem they are coming across more and more often. Six months ago, I met one of these salmon farmers, on the Isle of Skye. He looked at me and held out a palm – in it was a small, ugly-looking creature, all articulated shell and tentacles: a sea louse. He could crush it between his fingers, but said he was impressed that this parasite, which lives by attaching itself to a fish and eating its blood and skin, was threatening not just his own job, but could potentially wipe out a global multibillion-dollar industry that feeds millions of people.

“For a wee creature, it is impressive. But what can we do?” he asks. “Sometimes it seems nature is against us and we are fighting a losing battle. They are everywhere now, and just a few can kill a fish. When I started in fish farming 30 years ago, there were barely any. Now they are causing great problems.” Lepeophtheirus salmonis, or the common salmon louse, now infests nearly half of Scotland’s salmon farms. Last year lice killed thousands of tonnes of farmed fish, caused skin lesions and secondary infections in millions more, and cost the Scottish industry alone around £300m in trying to control them. Scotland has some of the worst lice infestations in the world, and last year saw production fall for the first time in years.

But in the past few weeks it has become clear that the lice problem is growing worldwide and is far more resistant than the industry thought. Norway produced 60,000 tonnes less than expected last year because of lice, and Canada and a dozen other countries were all hit badly. Together, it is estimated that companies across the world must spend more than £1bn a year on trying to eradicate lice, and the viruses and diseases they bring. As a result of the lice infestations, the global price of salmon has soared, and world production fallen. Earlier this year freedom of information [FoI] requests of the Scottish government showed that 45 lochs had been badly polluted by the antibiotics and pesticides used to control lice – and that more and more toxic chemicals were being used.

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You can’t let children pay the price.

Italy Praised For Giving Lone Child Refugees Legal Protection (Week)

Italy has become Europe’s first country to pass a law giving comprehensive protection to lone child migrants. Known as the Zampa law, the legislation sets minimum standards of care, such as reducing the time children can be kept in migrant reception centres, guaranteeing access to healthcare and setting a ten-day window for authorities to confirm their identities. It also prohibits turning unaccompanied and separated children away at the border or if it could cause them harm, AP reports. Unicef, the UN’s children agency praised the move and said it was the first of its kind in Europe. Afshan Khan, Unicef’s special coordinator for the refugee and migrant crisis in Europe, said: “While across Europe we have seen fences going up, children detained and pledges unmet, the Italian parliamentarians have shown their compassion and duty to young refugees and migrants.

“This new law serves not only to give refugee and migrant children a sense of predictability in their uncertain lives after risking so much to get to Europe, it serves as a model for how other European countries could put in place a legislative framework that supports protection.” The number of unaccompanied child migrants arriving in Italy is believed to still be on the increase, says the charity. In 2016, around 26,000 children arrived in the country without their families, the majority crossing the Mediterranean in unsafe boats from North Africa. In the first two months of 2017, 2,000 arrived, the majority aged between 14 and 17. Italy’s move is in stark contrast to the UK, where MPs earlier this month chose not to continue a scheme to accept more lone child refugees from Europe.

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Just lovely.

Europe Keeps Its Rescue Ships Far From Where Refugees Drown (I’Cept)

An average of 3,500 people have died each year while trying to make the journey to Italy from North Africa since 2014. Their vessels are overcrowded, unseaworthy, and have a near-nothing chance of making it to Europe. Most of the boats sink just 20 to 40 miles from the Libyan coast. These are preventable deaths. Since 2014, the European Union has deliberately chosen to keep their coast guard patrol boats far from where the shipwrecks happen, a decision detailed in an internal letter obtained by The Intercept and other leaked documents. Saving more lives, the logic goes, will only encourage more refugees to come. The result is that rescue boats are kept away from where rescues are actually needed.

The Italian navy used to run patrols near the Libyan coast. Their operation, called Mare Nostrum – “our sea” in Latin – involved a large mobilization of ships, planes, and helicopters in international waters close to Libya, where boats carrying refugees regularly capsized and sank. Mare Nostrum was enormously successful — in the year it ran, it saved over 150,000 people. Still, on October 31, 2014, Italy announced it would phase out the program. The following day, Frontex, the European Union’s border agency, took over with an operation called Triton. In a press release at the time, Frontex said its operation followed in the wake of Mare Nostrum and was intended to support the Italian authorities. There was one key difference from Mare Nostrum, however: Frontex would limit its patrols to just 30 miles off Italy’s coast, which was about 130 miles from Libya — at least a 12-hour sail. Frontex was deliberately not patrolling the area where most of the shipwrecks occurred.

What’s more, according to an internal letter obtained by The Intercept, the director of operations at Frontex privately told Italian authorities that his ships should not be called on to immediately respond to distress calls from outside their 30-mile patrol area. “Frontex is concerned about the engagement of Frontex deployed assets in the activities happening significantly outside the operational area,” Frontex’s director, Klaus Roesler, wrote to the head of Italy’s Immigration and Border Police, Giovanni Pinto, on November 25, 2014. The letter has been referenced in Italian newspapers and released with redactions that covered detailed descriptions of how Frontex coordinated its assistance with rescue efforts. The Intercept is publishing the letter in full for the first time.

Like any other vessels at sea, Frontex ships are obligated under maritime law to respond to distress calls when ordered by the relevant national authorities. For the Italians, an overloaded boat with an untrained captain was a distress situation by default. Typically, someone calls the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Rome by satellite phone from a boat or from the Libyan coast, and Italy initiates search and rescue. But for Frontex, at the time, that was not enough proof. [..] Frontex knew it had to respond to emergency calls. But it was deliberately patrolling in the wrong area and quibbling with definitions of distress, meaning that its ships would almost certainly arrive late, if at all.

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Mar 282017
 March 28, 2017  Posted by at 8:38 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  Comments Off on Debt Rattle March 28 2017

Dorothea Lange Abandoned cafe in Carey, Texas 1937


A Nation of Landowners – But For How Long? (M.)
Middle-Class, Even Wealthy Americans Sliding Inexorably Into The Red (MW)
Italy’s Monte Paschi Bailout Has Some ECB Supervisors Grumbling
NY Fed: “Oil Prices Fell Due To Weakening Demand” (ZH)
Why Did Preet Bharara Refuse to Drain the Wall Street Swamp? (Bill Black)
A Detailed “Roadmap” For Meeting The Paris Climate Goals (Vox)
In UK Access To Justice Is No Longer A Right, But A Luxury (G.)
The Curse of the Thinking Class (Jim Kunstler)
Tensions Flare As Greece Tells Turkey It Is Ready To Answer Any Provocation (G.)
Erdogan Races Against the Dollar in Campaign for Unrivaled Power (BBG)
Tillerson Will Not Meet Turkey Opposition In Ankara Visit This Week (R.)
Troika Pushes Greece To Sell Up To 40% Of State-Controlled Power Utility (R.)
Fraport Greece Signs Funding Deal With 5 Lenders (K.)
Contraction Of Credit Continues Unabated In Greece (K.)
Mikis Theodorakis: ‘In Tough Times, Greeks Become Heroes or Slaves’ (GR)
Nearly 1,200 Migrants Picked Up Off Libya, Heading To Italy (R.)
Italy Calls For Investigation Of NGO Supported Migrant Fleet (Dm.)



“To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced.”

A Nation of Landowners – But For How Long? (M.)

Land occupies a unique position in the economy because it is essential for any activity and, given its fixed supply, an increase in demand for it can only increase its price. Meanwhile finance, which facilitates that demand, has been available in ever-greater abundance since the deregulation of mortgage lending in the 1970s and 1980s. The interaction between the inelastic supply of land and the highly elastic supply of mortgage lending lies at the heart of the house price boom over the past few decades. But while the finance part of the story is relatively new (before the 1970s mortgages were harder to get and lending restricted by the conservative practices of the building societies), the land question has been around for centuries.

Ever since Henry VIII seized the monastery lands in the early 16th century a market has been evolving in land as a privately-owned tradable commodity. What is crucial to the contemporary housing debate, and what this book illustrates brilliantly, is how the control of land is, or has at least been allowed to become, fundamental to economic and political power relations. Because land is permanent and immovable, those who own the exclusive rights to its use are able to siphon off the value of any economic output that is dependent on it. The value of a piece of land therefore reflects the level of activity conducted on or around it, as well as any speculation arising from expectations about its potential future use. This price does not reflect the efforts or ingenuity of its owner, and so it does not reward productive activity but rather penalises it in the form of rent.

This ability of landowners to extract economic rent from productive activity, or the unearned increment, was once at the centre of political discourse. It was an issue that troubled classical economists ranging from Adam Smith to Karl Marx. As the industrial revolution advanced in the 18th and 19th centuries, productivity levels improved, and so the owners of land began to enjoy the fruits of the community’s labour. A land reform movement gathered momentum towards the late 19th century and the writings of the American economist Henry George advocating a land value tax attracted a following. In 1909, a young Winston Churchill (then 35, and a Liberal) decried the land monopolist’s free ride in what remains one of the best descriptions of the dilemma:

“Roads are made, streets are made, services are improved, electric light turns night into day, water is brought from reservoirs a hundred miles off in the mountains and all the while the landlord sits still. Every one of those improvements is effected by the labour and cost of other people and the taxpayers. To not one of those improvements does the land monopolist, as a land monopolist, contribute, and yet by every one of them the value of his land is enhanced.”

Churchill was careful to stress that it was the system he was attacking not the landowner himself (‘We do not want to punish the landlord. We want to alter the law’). But the law was as it was because landowners controlled parliament and indeed the Liberals’ plan for a land value tax in the People’s Budget, in support of which Churchill had been speaking, was thrown out by the House of Lords.

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How to kill a city part 832.

Middle-Class, Even Wealthy Americans Sliding Inexorably Into The Red (MW)

Not even a high six-figure salary is enough to keep New York City families out of the red. But spare a thought for the average American family, whose costs easily outpace the average income. A recent analysis from Sam Dogen at his personal finance website Financial Samurai showed how difficult it is for high earners to escape the rat race in New York City, one of the priciest places to live in the world. He analyzed a mock budget for an imaginary family of four in which the two 35-year-old breadwinners each make $250,000 a year. After factoring in taxes, 401(k)contributions, home and child care costs, the family was left with just $7,300 for the year — as if they were living “paycheck to paycheck.”

Perhaps nobody is crying for lawyers making $500,000 a year or even $250,000, but the analysis shows just how easy it is for spending habits to take a high salary and turn it into table scraps. Dogen said pressure from peers to spend more is a big contributing factor, adding “everywhere I go, and I’ve been all over the world, high income earners are secretly feeling the same squeeze.” “They are unhappy, getting divorces, and always comparing themselves to wealthier and wealthier people,” he said. “Heck, even a friend who is worth over $200 million after founding and taking public a company feels like he needs to continue working because he has to ‘keep up with the Zuckerbergs.’”

So how would the average American family fare by the same lifestyle? MarketWatch crunched the numbers and found they would be racking up approximately $27,000 in debt a year if they spent the average of what Americans spend on the same activities. This vast difference in economic stability comes even after adjusting for cheaper housing costs and lowering the number of vacations to one a year — the average in the U.S.

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Beware of any central bank announcements made the day after Christmas.

Italy’s Monte Paschi Bailout Has Some ECB Supervisors Grumbling

When the European Central Bank declared Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena solvent last December, the first step toward a state-funded rescue, some members of the 19-nation Supervisory Board weren’t fully on board. Confronted with what they saw as a political agreement to bail out the world’s oldest lender, dissenters went along with the consensus despite their concerns about the bank’s health…[..] To make sense of the Monte Paschi debate, you have to start with a 2014 law known as the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive, which sets out the EU’s bank-failure rules. The law assumes that if a firm needs “extraordinary public financial support,” this indicates that it’s failing and should be wound down. In that process, investors including senior bondholders can be forced to take losses.

An exception, known as a precautionary recapitalization, is allowed for solvent banks if a long list of conditions is met. As the name suggests, this tool isn’t intended to clear up a bank’s existing problems, such as Monte Paschi’s mountain of soured loans. This temporary aid is allowed to address a capital shortfall identified in a stress test. Daniele Nouy, head of the ECB Supervisory Board, reiterated in an interview on Monday that Monte Paschi and other Italian banks in line for a bailout are “not insolvent, otherwise we would not be talking about precautionary recapitalization.” Not everyone is convinced the bank, whose woes date back many years, qualifies for this special treatment.

“It is unclear if Monte Paschi meets the BRRD’s exemption criteria, and their use has the appearance of promoting national political concerns over a stricter reading of the newly established European rules,” said Simon Ainsworth at Moody’s. “The plan could risk damaging the credibility of the resolution framework, especially given that it would mark its first major test case.” The ECB’s decision on Monte Paschi’s solvency and capital gap was announced by the lender the day after Christmas. The ECB published an explanation of the precautionary recapitalization process a day later, but said little else publicly. On Dec. 29, the Bank of Italy issued a statement that broke down the €8.8 billion rescue into its parts. Solvency in the case of a precautionary recapitalization is determined based on two criteria, the ECB said: the bank meets its legal minimum capital requirements, and it has no shortfall in the baseline scenario of the relevant stress test.

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I’ve been talking about falling oil demand for so long that when other bring it up now it seems all new again.

NY Fed: “Oil Prices Fell Due To Weakening Demand” (ZH)

[..] one aspect of price formation that is rarely mentioned is demand, which is generally assumed to be unwavering and trending higher with barely a hiccup. The reason for this somewhat myopic take is that while OPEC has control over supply, demand is a function of global economic growth and trade (or lack thereof) over which oil producers have little, if any control. And yet, according to the latest oil price dynamics report issued by the Fed, it was declining global demand that pushed prices lower in the most recent, volatile period. As the New York Fed report in its March 27 report, “Oil prices fell owing to weakening demand” and explains as follows: “A decline in demand expectations together with a decreasing residual drove oil prices down over the past week.”

While there was some good news, namely that “in 2016:Q4, oil prices increased on net as a consequence of steadily contracting supply and strengthening, albeit volatile, global demand” offsetting the “modest decline in oil prices during 2016:Q3 caused by weakening global demand expectations and loosening supply conditions,” the Fed’s troubling finding is that the big move lower since 2014 has been a function of rising supply as well as declining demand: Overall, since the end of 2014:Q2, both lower global demand expectations and looser supply have held oil prices down. And while this trend appeared to have reversed in 2016:Q2 and 2016:Q4, recent indications suggest that demand may once again be slowing, which in turn has pressured oil prices back to levels last seen shortly after OPEC’s Vienna deal.

It is curious that according to the NY Fed, at a time when OPEC vows it is cutting production, the Fed has instead found “loose” supply to be among the biggest contributors to the latest decline in oil prices. But what may be concering to oil bulls is that as the decomposition chart below shows, while oil demand was solidly in the green ever since Trump’s election victory, in recent weeks it appears to have also tapered off along with the supply contribution to declining oil prices. This seems to suggest that along with most other “animal spirits” that were ignited following the Trump victory, only to gradually fade, oil demand, and thus price, may be the next to take another leg lower unless of course Trump manages to reignite the Trumpflation trade which, however, over the past month appears to have completely faded.

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“Indeed, Bharara never mustered the courtesy to respond to Bowen’s offers to aid his office.”

Why Did Preet Bharara Refuse to Drain the Wall Street Swamp? (Bill Black)

The New York Times’ editorial board published an editorial on March 12, 2017, praising Preet Bharara as the “Prosecutor Who Knew How to Drain a Swamp.” I agree with the title. At all times when he was the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (which includes Wall Street) Bharara knew how to drain the swamp. Further, he had the authority, the jurisdiction, the resources, and the testimony from whistleblowers like Richard Bowen (a co-founder of Bank Whistleblowers United (BWU)) to drain the Wall Street swamp. Bowen personally contacted Bharara beginning in 2005.

“You were quoted in The Nation magazine as saying that if a whistleblower comes forward with evidence of wrongdoing, then you would be the first to prosecute [elite bankers]. I am writing this email to inform you that there is a body of evidence concerning wrongdoing, which the Department of Justice has refused to act on in order to determine whether criminal charges should be pursued.” Bowen explained that he was a whistleblower about Citigroup’s senior managers and that he was (again) coming forward to aid Bharara to prosecute. Bowen tried repeatedly to interest Bharara in draining the Citigroup swamp. Bharara refused to respond to Bowen’s blowing of the whistle on the massive frauds led by Citigroup’s senior officers.

Bharara knew how to drain the Wall Street swamp and was positioned to do so because he had federal prosecutorial jurisdiction over Wall Street crimes. Whistleblowers like Bowen, who lacked any meaningful power, sacrificed their careers and repeatedly demonstrated courage to ensure that Bharara would have the testimony and documents essential to prosecute successfully some of Wall Street’s most elite felons. Bharara never mustered the courage to prosecute those elites. Indeed, Bharara never mustered the courtesy to respond to Bowen’s offers to aid his office. [..] Bharara knew how to drain the Wall Street swamp. He had the facts, the staff, and the jurisdiction to drain the Wall Street swamp. Bharara refused to do so.

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We all realize that this is never ever going to happen, right?!

A Detailed “Roadmap” For Meeting The Paris Climate Goals (Vox)

To hit the Paris climate goals without geoengineering, the world has to do three broad (and incredibly ambitious) things: 1) Global CO2 emissions from energy and industry have to fall in half each decade. That is, in the 2020s, the world cuts emissions in half. Then we do it again in the 2030s. Then we do it again in the 2040s. They dub this a “carbon law.” Lead author Johan Rockström told me they were thinking of an analogy to Moore’s law for transistors; we’ll see why. 2) Net emissions from land use — i.e., from agriculture and deforestation – have to fall steadily to zero by 2050. This would need to happen even as the world population grows and we’re feeding ever more people. 3) Technologies to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere have to start scaling up massively, until we’re artificially pulling 5 gigatons of CO2 per year out of the atmosphere by 2050 — nearly double what all the world’s trees and soils already do.

“It’s way more than adding solar or wind,” says Rockström. “It’s rapid decarbonization, plus a revolution in food production, plus a sustainability revolution, plus a massive engineering scale-up [for carbon removal].” So, uh, how do we cut CO2 emissions in half, then half again, then half again? Here, the authors lay out a sample “roadmap” of what specific actions the world would have to take each decade, based on current research. This isn’t the only path for making big CO2 cuts, but it gives a sense of the sheer scale and speed required:

2017-2020: All countries would prepare for the herculean task ahead by laying vital policy groundwork. Like: scrapping the $500 billion per year in global fossil fuel subsidies. Zeroing out investments in any new coal plants, even in countries like India and Indonesia. All major nations commit to going carbon-neutral by 2050 and put in place policies — like carbon pricing or clean electricity standards — that point down that path. “By 2020,” the paper adds, “all cities and major corporations in the industrialized world should have decarbonization strategies in place.”

2020-2030: Now the hard stuff begins! In this decade, carbon pricing would expand to cover most aspects of the global economy, averaging around $50 per ton (far higher than seen almost anywhere today) and rising. Aggressive energy efficiency programs ramp up. Coal power is phased out in rich countries by the end of the decade and is declining sharply elsewhere. Leading cities like Copenhagen are going totally fossil fuel free. Wealthy countries no longer sell new combustion engine cars by 2030, and transportation gets widely electrified, with many short-haul flights replaced by rail.

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Brexit hardly seems Britain’s biggest problem. It’s the gutting of an entire society that is.

In UK Access To Justice Is No Longer A Right, But A Luxury (G.)

Laws that cost too much to enforce are phoney laws. A civil right that people can’t afford to use is no right at all. And a society that turns justice into a luxury good is one no longer ruled by law, but by money and power. This week the highest court in the land will decide whether Britain will become such a society. There are plenty of signs that we have already gone too far. Listen to the country’s top judge, Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, who admits that “our justice system has become unaffordable to most”. Look at our legal-aid system, slashed so heavily by David Cameron and Theresa May that the poor must act as their own trial lawyers, ready to be skittled by barristers in the pay of their moneyed opponents. The latest case will be heard by seven supreme court judges and will pit the government against the trade union Unison. It will be the climax of a four-year legal battle over one of the most fundamental rights of all: the right of workers to stand up against their bosses.

In 2013, Cameron stripped workers of the right to access the employment tribunal system. Whether a pregnant woman forced out of her job, a Bangladeshi-origin guy battling racism at work, or a young graduate with disabilities getting aggro from a boss, all would now have to pay £1,200 for a chance of redress. The number of cases taken to tribunal promptly fell off a cliff – down by 70% within a year. Citizens Advice, employment lawyers and academics practically queued up to warn that workers – especially poor workers – were getting priced out of justice. But for Conservative ministers, all was fine. Loyal flacks such as Matthew Hancock (then employment minister) claimed those deterred by the fees were merely “unscrupulous” try-ons, intent on “bullying bosses”. Follow Hancock’s logic, and with all those time-wasters weeded out, you’d expect the number of successful tribunal claims to jump. They’ve actually dropped.

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“Do they covet our Chick-fil-A chains and Waffle Houses? Our tattoo artists? Would they like to induce the Kardashians to live in Moscow? Is it Nascar they’re really after?”

The Curse of the Thinking Class (Jim Kunstler)

Let’s suppose there really is such a thing as The Thinking Class in this country, if it’s not too politically incorrect to say so — since it implies that there is another class, perhaps larger, that operates only on some limbic lizard-brain level of impulse and emotion. Personally, I believe there is such a Thinking Class, or at least I have dim memories of something like it. The farfetched phenomenon of Trumpism has sent that bunch on a journey to a strange land of the intellect, a place like the lost island of Kong, where one monster after another rises out of the swampy murk to threaten the frail human adventurers. No one back home would believe the things they’re tangling with: giant spiders, reptiles the size of front-end loaders, malevolent aborigines! Will any of the delicate humans survive or make it back home?

This is the feeling I get listening to arguments in the public arena these days, but especially from the quarters formerly identified as left-of-center, especially the faction organized around the Democratic Party, which I aligned with long ago (alas, no more). The main question seems to be: who is responsible for all the unrest in this land. Their answer since halfway back in 2016: the Russians. I’m not comfortable with this hypothesis. Russia has a GDP smaller than Texas. If they are able to project so much influence over what happens in the USA, they must have some supernatural mojo-of-the-mind — and perhaps they do — but it raises the question of motive. What might Russia realistically get from the USA if Vladimir Putin was the master hypnotist that Democrats make him out to be?

Do we suppose Putin wants more living space for Russia’s people? Hmmmm. Russia’s population these days, around 145 million, is less than half the USA’s and it’s rattling around in the geographically largest nation in the world. Do they want our oil? Maybe, but Russia being the world’s top oil producer suggests they’ve already got their hands full with their own operations? Do they want Hollywood? The video game industry? The US porn empire? Do they covet our Chick-fil-A chains and Waffle Houses? Our tattoo artists? Would they like to induce the Kardashians to live in Moscow? Is it Nascar they’re really after?

My hypothesis is that Russia would most of all like to be left alone. Watching NATO move tanks and German troops into Lithuania in January probably makes the Russians nervous, and no doubt that is the very objective of the NATO move — but let’s not forget that most of all NATO is an arm of American foreign policy. If there are any remnants of the American Thinking Class left at the State Department, they might recall that Russia lost 20 million people in the dust-up known as the Second World War against whom…? Oh, Germany.

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“The Turkish nationalist opposition leader, Devlet Bahçeli, has gone even further, claiming that several Greek islands are under occupation and reacting furiously when Kammenos visited the far-flung isle of Oinousses. “Someone must explain to this spoiled brat not to try our patience,” he railed. “If they [the Greeks] want to fall into the sea again, if they want to be hunted down, they are welcome, the Turkish army is ready. Someone must explain to the Greek government what happened in 1922. If there is no one to explain it to them, we can come like a bullet across the Aegean and teach them history all over again.”

Tensions Flare As Greece Tells Turkey It Is Ready To Answer Any Provocation (G.)

Fears of tensions mounting in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean Seas reignited after the Turkish president raised the prospect of a referendum on accession talks with the EU and the Greek defence minister said the country was ready for any provocation. Relations between Ankara and European capitals have worsened before the highly charged vote on 16 April on expanding the powers of the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Western allies have argued that a vote endorsing the proposed constitutional change would invest him with unparalleled authority and limit checks and balances at a time when they fear the Turkish leader is exhibiting worrying signs of authoritarianism. Erdogan has been enraged by recent bans on visiting Turkish officials rallying “yes” supporters in Germany and the Netherlands.

Highlighting growing friction between Ankara and the bloc, he raised the spectre of a public vote on EU membership at the weekend. “We have a referendum on 16 April. After that we may hold a Brexit-like referendum on the [EU] negotiations,” he told a Turkish-UK forum attended by the British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson. “No matter what our nation decides we will obey it. It should be known that our patience, tested in the face of attitudes displayed by some European countries, has limits.” The animus – reinforced last week when the leader said he would continue labelling European politicians “Nazis” if they continued calling him a dictator – has also animated tensions between Greece and Turkey, and Erdogan’s comments came hours after the Greek defence minister said armed forces were ready to respond in the event of the country’s sovereignty and territorial integrity being threatened.

“The Greek armed forces are ready to answer any provocation,” Panos Kammenos declared at a military parade marking the 196th anniversary of Greece’s war of liberation against Ottoman Turkish rule. “We are ready because that is how we defend peace.” Although Nato allies, the two neighbours clashed over Cyprus in 1974 and almost came to war over an uninhabited Aegean isle in 1996. Hostility has been rising in both areas, with the Greek Cypriot leader Nicos Anastasiades recently voicing fears of Turkey sparking a “hot incident” in the run-up to the referendum. “I fear the period from now until the referendum in Turkey, as well as the effort to create a climate of fanaticism within Turkish society,” he told CNN Greece. Turkey’s EU negotiations have long been hindered by Cyprus, and talks aimed at reuniting its estranged Greek and Turkish communities are at a critical juncture but have stalled and are unlikely to move until after the referendum.

But it is in the Aegean where tensions, matched by an increasingly ugly war of words, have been at their worst. After a tense standoff over eight military officers who escaped to Greece after the abortive coup against Erdogan last July – an impasse exacerbated when the Greek supreme court rejected a request for their extradition – hostility has been measured in almost daily dogfights between armed jets and naval incursions of Greek waters by Turkish research vessels. Both have prompted diplomats and defence experts to express fears of an accident at a time when experienced staff officers and pilots have been sidelined in the purges that have taken place since the attempted coup. The shaky migration deal signed between the EU and Turkey to thwart the flow of refugees into the continent has only added to the pressure.

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The falling dollar is setting up Turkey for dictatorship. The world will come to regret this.

Erdogan Races Against the Dollar in Campaign for Unrivaled Power (BBG)

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has lambasted friend and foe alike in a campaign for vast new powers, but his political fate may hang on the one thing he’s stopped carping about: the price of money. With the April 16 vote on strengthening the presidency too close for pollsters to call, Erdogan is no longer berating the central bank and commercial lenders over borrowing costs they’ve pushed to a five-year high. He’s betting any measures taken to arrest the lira’s plunge will pay off at the ballot box. The lira’s value versus the dollar is more than just a pocketbook issue in Turkey, where millions of voters still remember the abrupt devaluations that ravaged their livelihoods in past decades and view the exchange rate as the most important indicator of the nation’s economic health.

Turkey’s trade deficit is the biggest of all top 50 economies relative to output and most of its imports and foreign debt are priced in dollars, so sharp declines in the lira can be ruinous for legions of entrepreneurs like Ramazan Saglam, who owns a print shop in a working-class neighborhood of Ankara. “I bitterly recall when the dollar jumped in 1994 and 2001 – my business collapsed both times,” Saglam said. “I’m supporting the new presidential system wholeheartedly because I don’t want to go bankrupt again.” Saglam nodded at the big red banner billowing from his second-story window to illustrate his point. The Chinese cloth and South Korean ink he used to make it were all bought with dollars, as was the American printer that produced Erdogan’s image and the slogan, “Yes. For my country and my future.”

Given the choice between paying more for credit to buy supplies and keeping the lira in check, he said he’d choose sound money every time. Supporters of the proposed constitutional changes say handing Erdogan sweeping new authority is the only way to achieve the stability that society craves and businesses need to thrive. But opponents say approving the referendum is an invitation to dictatorship, particularly since Erdogan, already the most dominant leader in eight decades, jailed or fired more than 100,000 perceived enemies after rogue army officers attempted a coup in July. “Everybody on the street tracks the exchange rate on a daily basis and Erdogan wins support as long as Turkey can keep the lira stable,” said Wolfango Piccoli, the London-based co-president of Teneo Intelligence, a political risk advisory firm. “But the challenge here is the external backdrop. They can’t really predict what’s coming.”

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The US must cease labeling the PKK a terrorist organization. Or stop backing the Kurds in Syria. Can’t have both.

Tillerson Will Not Meet Turkey Opposition In Ankara Visit This Week (R.)

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson will not meet members of Turkish opposition groups during a one-day visit to Ankara this week where talks with President Tayyip Erdogan will focus on the war in Syria, senior U.S. officials said on Monday. Thursday’s visit comes at a politically sensitive time in Turkey as the country prepares for a referendum on April 16 that proposes to change the constitution to give Erdogan new powers. A senior State Department official said Tillerson will meet with Erdogan and government ministers involved in the fight against Islamic State in Syria. “It is certainly something we are very acutely aware of and the secretary will be mindful of while he is there,” one State Department official told a conference call with reporters, referring to political sensitivities ahead of the referendum.

American officials expect Erdogan and others to raise the case of U.S.-based cleric Fethullah Gulen, whom the government accuses of orchestrating a failed coup last July. The focus of the Ankara talks is the U.S.-led offensive to retake Raqqa from Islamic State and to stabilize areas in which militants have been forced out, allowing refugees to return home, officials said. A major sticking point between the United States and Turkey is U.S. backing for the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia, which Turkey considers part of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party that has been fighting an insurgency for three decades in Turkey. But the United States has long viewed Kurdish fighters as key to retaking Raqqa alongside Arab fighters in the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). “We are very mindful of Turkey’s concerns and it is something that will continue to be a topic of conversation,” a second U.S. official said.

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Fire sale. The minister actually called these practices ‘cannibalistic’, and rightly so. And that’s not even the best of it. A Greek paper details how a Greek bank, Alpha Bank, lends the money to German investors to buy up Greece’s Public Power Corp. That is about as close to cannibalism as you can get. Economic warfare 101.

Troika Pushes Greece To Sell Up To 40% Of State-Controlled Power Utility (R.)

A Greek minister on Monday accused international lenders of reneging on a 2015 bailout deal by trying to force a fire-sale of its main electricity utility PPC to serve “domestic and foreign business interests.” Under terms of a 2015 bailout deal for Greece worth up to €86 billion, Public Power Corp. (PPC) is obliged to cut its dominance in the Greek market to below 50% by 2020. Although it is not clearly specified in the deal, lenders want Greece to sell some of PPC’s assets. PPC, which is 51% owned by the state, now controls about 90% of the country’s retail electricity market and 60% of its wholesale market. Greece last year launched power auctions to private operators as a temporary mechanism and has proposed that PPC team up with private companies to help achieve this target. But lenders doubt the effectiveness of the measure.

“What they want is that power production infrastructure of up to 40% – PPC’s coal-fired production- is sold. This is what they want right know, which is beyond the (2015) deal,” Interior Minister Panos Skourletis, a former energy minister, told Greek state television. Skourletis on Monday accused the lenders pressing the country to sell-off PPC units at a very low price to serve European and domestic competitors. “It is an assault which has set its sights on PPC’s assets to pass it on to specific European and domestic business interests at a humiliating price,” Skourletis said in an Op-Ed penned for the Efimerida Ton Syntakton daily.

Read more …

More warfare, more cannibalism. Airports also ‘privatized’, ‘reformed’. Alpha Bank is also the largest lender in this case. Nice partners too: “..the International Finance Corporation (€154.1 million), a member of the World Bank Group [..] is also the sole provider of euro interest rate hedging swaps..”

Fraport Greece Signs Funding Deal With 5 Lenders (K.)

Five leading financial institutions have signed a long-term financing agreement with German-Greek consortium Fraport Greece, which will soon be managing, operating, upgrading and maintaining 14 regional Greek airports under a 40-year concession contract. The agreement is for total financing of 968.4 million euros. The lenders are Alpha Bank (participating with €284.7 million), the Black Sea Trade & Development Bank (€62.5 million), the European Bank for Reconstruction & Development (€186.7 million), the European Investment Bank (€280.4 million), and the International Finance Corporation (€154.1 million), a member of the World Bank Group.

IFC is also the sole provider of euro interest rate hedging swaps to help Fraport Greece hedge potential fluctuations in interest rates through the term of the loan. Over two-thirds of the total amount (€688 million) will be used to cover the upfront payment (of €1.234 billion) due to state sell-off fund TAIPED upon the airports’ delivery, while €280.4 million will be used to finance upgrading work at the 14 airports. Meanwhile, Fraport Greece recently announced a capital increase raising the company’s total capital to €650 million, most of which will go toward the upfront payment.

Read more …

But domestic credit is still collapsing. And so is the economy, of course.

Contraction Of Credit Continues Unabated In Greece (K.)

Bank of Greece figures revealed on Monday a further contraction in the financing of the Greek economy last month, a result of the general uncertainty hanging over the economy and the drop deposits at the country’s banks. The total funding of the economy was down 2% YOY in February, from -1.5% in January, while the monthly net flow of total financing was negative by €801 million, against a negative flow of €1.261 billion in January. The main factor in that decline was the drop in funding to the state, as the annual rate concerning the general government sector posted a 3.7% contraction in February against a 0.1% increase in January. In the private sector it was negative by 1.6% as funding shrank by a net €101 million. The image was somewhat different for enterprises as there was an €82 million monthly increase in the net flow of funding last month, compared with a €643 million decline in January. However, the flow of credit to private clients and nonprofit organizations dipped by €153 million or 2.7% in February.

Read more …

Wise old genius. “As soon as three Greeks get together, they start talking of who’s going to be the leader..”

Mikis Theodorakis: ‘In Tough Times, Greeks Become Heroes or Slaves’ (GR)

“During tough times, a Greek can become a hero or a slave,” said legendary Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in an interview published in Proto Thema Sunday newspaper. The 92-year-old musician, who is also an emblematic figure of the Greek Left, spoke about Greece’s current state, the leftist government, the main opposition party and the bailout agreements. Theodorakis said that he is not shocked about the current condition Greece is in because, historically, the country has been through turmoil several times. He said the Greek spirit, like a light, shines through at the end because Greeks have an inner harmony that prevails. However, Theodorakis said, this is a hard period for Greece and this time he is afraid for the future of the country: “When the Greek is with his back against the wall, he becomes a hero or a slave.”

When asked to compare the current state of the nation with the times of the German Occupation, Theodorakis said that what Greece is going through now is worse: “I don’t remember people going through the trash to find food. I don’t remember elderly people waiting in line to get a cabbage.” Theodorakis spoke in length about the time (2012) opposition leader Alexis Tsipras and leftist legend Manolis Glezos approached him and asked him to join SYRIZA and win the upcoming elections. He said he refused to join because the young candidate did not have a plan on how to get Greece going without supervision and financial aid from the EU and the IMF. He described Greece as a train rolling on tracks laid by the EU and the IMF.

“I told him ‘if you’re planning to come to power without having a plan to change the tracks and provide Greek people with what they need, then you are opportunists and you will only succeed in destroying the country and humiliating the Greek Left’,” the composer said about Tsipras. “With great sadness, I believe that the current plight of the country confirms exactly what I said to Alexis Tsipras, here in my house, in the meeting that I mentioned earlier,” Theodorakis said. The composer said that Greeks have a lust for power: “As soon as three Greeks get together, they start talking of who’s going to be the leader,” he said characteristically.

Read more …

A new issue has come to light: where are the NGOs picking up the refugees?

Nearly 1,200 Migrants Picked Up Off Libya, Heading To Italy (R.)

Humanitarian ships rescued almost 1,200 migrants who were crossing the Mediterranean Sea at the weekend on an array of small, tightly packed boats, Doctors Without Borders said on Sunday. A young woman was found unconscious on one of the vessels and later died, the group said. Some 412 people were crammed onto a single wooden boat, while the others were picked up from huge inflatable dinghies, which had set sail from the coast of Libya. The weekend rescues mean that about 22,000 mainly African migrants have been picked up heading to Italy so far this year, while around 520 have died trying to make the crossing.

An Italian prosecutor said last week that humanitarian ships operating off Libya were undermining the fight against people smugglers and opening a corridor that is ultimately leading to more migrant deaths. The chief prosecutor of the Sicilian port city of Catania, Carmelo Zuccaro, said he also suspected that there may be direct communication between Libya-based smugglers and members of charity-operated rescue vessels. NGOs deny any wrongdoing, saying they are simply looking to save lives, but they are facing criticism in Italy, which has taken in about half a million migrants since the start of 2014.

Read more …

Italy thinks George Soros is sponsoring this.

Italy Calls For Investigation Of NGO Supported Migrant Fleet (Dm.)

Italian authorities are calling for monitoring of the funding of an NGO fleet bussing migrants into the EU from the North African coast after a report released the European Border and Coast Guard Agency has determined that the members of the fleet are acting as accomplices to people smugglers and directly contributing to the risk of death migrants face when attempting to enter the EU. The report from regulatory agency Frontex suggests that NGOs sponsoring ships in the fleet are now acting as veritable accomplices to people smugglers due to their service which, in effect, provides a reliable shuttle service for migrants from North Africa to Italy. The fleet lowers smugglers’ costs, as it all but eliminates the need to procure seaworthy vessels capable making a full voyage across the Mediterranean to the European coastline.

Traffickers are also able to operate with much less risk of arrest by European law enforcement officers. Frontex specifically noted that traffickers have intentionally sought to alter their strategy, sending their vessels to ships run by the NGO fleet rather than the Italian and EU military. On March 25th, 2017, Italian news source Il Giornale carried remarks from Carmelo Zuccaro, the chief prosecutor of Catania (Sicily) calling for monitoring of the funding behind the NGO groups engaged in operating the migrant fleet. He stated that “the facilitation of illegal immigration is a punishable offense regardless of the intention.” While it is not a crime to enter the waters of a foreign country and pick them migrants, NGOs are supposed to land them at the nearest port of call, which would have been somewhere along the North African coast instead of in Italy.

The chief prosecutor also noted that Italy is investigating Islamic radicalization occurring in prisons and camps where immigrants are hired off the books. Italy has for some months been reeling under the pressure of massive numbers of migrants who have been moving from North Africa into the southern states of the European Union. In December 2016, The Express cited comments made by Virginia Raggi, the mayor of Vatican City, stating that Rome was on the verge of a “war” between migrants and poor Italians. The wave of migrants has also caused issues in southern Italy, where the Sicilian Cosa Nostra has declared a “war on migrants” last year amid reports that the Italian mafia had begun fighting with North African crime gangs who entered the EU among migrant populations.

Read more …

Mar 032017
 March 3, 2017  Posted by at 1:41 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  14 Responses »

Leonardo da Vinci Head of a Woman 1470s


This is turning into a very rewarding series, it opens up vistas I could never have dreamed of. First, in “Not Nearly Enough Growth To Keep Growing”, I posited that peak wealth for the west, and America in particular, was sometime in the early ’70s or late ’60s of the last century.

That led to longtime Automatic Earth reader Ken Latta, who’s old enough to have been alive to see it all, writing, in “When Was America’s Peak Wealth?”, that in his view peak wealth for America was earlier, more like late ’50s to early ’60s, a carefree period for which Detroit provided the design, and the Beach Boys the soundtrack.

And I know, for those who wrote to me about this, that there’s quite a bit of myopia involved in focusing on the US, or even the western world in general, when discussing these things. But at the same time, we’re all at our best when talking about our own experiences, something this thread has made abundantly clear. That said, I would absolutely love to get a view from other parts of the world, China, Latin America, Africa, Eastern Bloc, on the same topic. I just haven’t received any yet.

What I’ve absolutely adored is how -previously- anonymous Automatic Earth readers and commenters have felt the urge to share their life experiences because of what’s been written. This happened especially after Ken’s follow-up to his initial article, “Peak American Wealth – Revisited”, which saw many of his contemporaries, as well as younger readers after I ‘poked’ them, relate their views.

Then there was distinguished emeritus professor Charles A. Hall, who took offense with neither Ken nor I including energy as an explicit factor in determining wealth. Of course he was right. I have the creeping suspicion he often is. So Charlie wrote “Peak Wealth and Peak Energy”. Which not only set us straight, it also generated a -privately- emailed response from Belgian scientists- also Automatic Earth readers- about work he has earlier published on EROI of for instance Spanish solar PV (2.45:1? That must hurt!). As of this morning, it looks as if this may lead to further cooperation. What’s not to love?

And then all this has fired up Ken Latta to write yet another article, this time on ‘freely available’ energy before the age of oil -and after it!-, in the form of human slavery. In all of its forms and shapes, including wage slavery. Is it a coincidence that at the end of the age of oil, America’s -former- middle class appears to be descending -once more- into wage and debt slavery? Or is something entirely else – and darker- going on, as Ken seems to suggest below: The currently observable rapid decline in demand for wage slaves just happens to coincide with global peak energy.

Here once more is Ken Latta:



Ken Latta: Responses to the recent Charles Hall posting at the Automatic Earth, “Peak Wealth and Peak Energy”, parried with the idea that slaves were the original black gold that allowed society to build great wealth. Not only is that a fair statement, but what the finest historians tell us is that it was always thus. It seems that whenever a cluster of mud huts went up, taking slaves was soon placed on the to-do list.

When uncoerced human power is the highest EROEI source available, usually not much gets done beyond procuring food and making basic necessities. For such societies, peak wealth occurs when a herd of grazing animals happens by. The first rule of civilization building is: find a bunch of people you can force to do things they wouldn’t otherwise be inclined to do.

In antebellum America (USA that is) there were three kinds of coerced laborers. Chattel slaves (held as real property) were the abducted Africans that made the plantation economy of the southern states possible. Something that was not well known was the practice of our colonial masters trading guns, powder and lead to the “Indians” to purchase captive natives for slave labor. They proved to be unwilling workers and frequently escaped back to their tribes.

Indentured servants were not property. Their coerced labor was legally imposed to work off a debt. Many of our ancestors got to the US by contracting to work for someone that would pay their fare. The main difference from chattel was that upon settlement of the debt they were free to leave.


That brings us to the thing known to wags in recent times as wage slavery. Us wrinklies may remember a bumper sticker [I can’t be fired, slaves must be sold]. Wage slaves are free to come and go and quit any time. They may also be fired. When they are trying not to be fired and not ready to quit, they must pretty much do as they are told and thus coerced labor. There could be a fourth class, in that some people refer to entrepreneurial souls as the self-exploited.

Once the infrastructure to fully exploit fossil fuels was in place, the most repugnant forms of forced servitude fell out of favor. The president known as Old Hickory outlawed chattel slavery. Not necessarily because he so loved his African constituents, who were politically considered to be two-thirds of a person, but in hopes they would do what they could to hinder the Confederate war effort.

The newly self-owned citizens often ended up doing much the same work as before except as either indentured or wage slaves. Most wage slaves have progressively gotten less back breaking work to do, though not necessarily less monotonous. Some have gotten to do quite exciting and satisfying work.

They also worked up to the point of having some effective leverage in dealing with their would-be slave masters.


James Gibson Group of contrabands [runaway slaves] at Foller’s house, Cumberland Landing, Virginia 1862


Wage slavery is categorically different in that its prevalence correlates with non animate sources of energy. Wage slaves have served as overseers of the energy slave economy according to the instructions of the bosses. Sadly, what this implies is that as fossil energy production declines, the demand for wage slaves also declines. We are observing it happening. The stagnation of wage earnings began at the time US oil production peaked. The currently observable rapid decline in demand for wage slaves just happens to coincide with global peak energy.

The actual rate of energy decline is accelerated by the associated trend of impoverishment of wage slaves and the growing pool of would-be wage slaves. And thus we will get to see the effect of Ugo Bardi’s Seneca Cliff. Named for 1st century Roman citizen Lucius Annaeus Seneca and based on this quotation:

“It would be some consolation for the feebleness of our selves and our works if all things should perish as slowly as they come into being; but as it is, increases are of sluggish growth, but the way to ruin is rapid.”
– Lucius Anneaus Seneca, Letters to Lucilius, n. 91

Demand for energy is falling faster than production, causing even the mightiest producers to teeter on the edge of insolvency. The prediction a few years ago by petroleum geologist Jean Laherrere that the Bakken fields would be played out around 2020 appears to be on target.

The great NY Yankees catcher Yogi Berra is said to have quipped that “predictions are hard, especially about the future.” I agree, but sometimes you just have to throw caution to the wind.

Ugo Bardi, an estimable professor, and a whole pack of fellow academics joined by the usual crowd of entrepreneurial hustlers are pushing a pipe filled to the brim with Hopium that ruination can be avoided or mitigated by works worthy of a sorcerers apprentice.

We just have to assemble a vast armada of solar panels and wind turbines, plus a few billion tons of rechargeable batteries and turn every suitable topographic feature of the landscape into pumped storage, et voila!, energy slaves forever.

An admirable dream, but I’m gonna let that bandwagon go on down the street without me. I share the opinion that boat sailed for NeverneverLand quite a long time ago. What already exists and whatever still gets built will keep some lights on for awhile, but preservation of industrial civilization seems to me unattainable.


There must be a consequence right? Yes, I think there is and nobody is gonna like what I think it will be. At some threshold level of wage slave unwagedness the perfumed princes of the shrunken “protected class” (pace Peggy Noonan) will regretfully determine that a return to indentured servitude is necessary for the maintenance of moral fabric (and the preservation of their class). Rumor has it, this is already emerging as a feature of the injustice system. The next obvious step would be press gangs grabbing people off the streets and in their homes (hovels?) to sell at auction or gift to a powerful enemy, etc.

Sounds too far fetched? It is approximately what happened in Nazi Germany. The unemployed were rounded up and forced to work on public works projects. Jews weren’t just sent to camps to be gassed, they also went to camps next to industrial facilities to work as slaves to sustain the German economy and war effort. Even Auschwitz was a slave labor camp. Famous sign over the main gate says “Arbeit Macht Frei” (work makes free). If it isn’t already happening, something similar seems likely to emerge in the Nazi glorifying madhouse called Ukraine.

This was difficult to write. It can’t have been easy to read. But, to paraphrase one of recent history’s real shitheads, we must live the dark ages with the human species we have, not the one we might wish we had.

There is an ageless quip about not shooting the messenger, but who else ya gonna shoot when he’s the only one standing there.

Let the 10 minutes hate begin.



Aug 172015
 August 17, 2015  Posted by at 1:28 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  13 Responses »

Gustave Doré Dante before the wall of flames which burn the lustful 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 3. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
and part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

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 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 though 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 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.

This is part 3. Part 1 is here:
Global Financial Crisis – Liquidity Crunch and Economic Depression,
and part 2 is here:
The Psychological Driver of Deflation and the Collapse of the Trust Horizon

Tune back in tomorrow for part 4: Blind Alleys and Techno-Fantasies

Dec 172014
 December 17, 2014  Posted by at 10:19 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , ,  11 Responses »

Harris&Ewing F Street, Washington, DC 1935

This is another article from our friend in Aberdeen, Euan Mearns. It was first posted on Euan’s own site, Energy Matters. I earlier posted Euan’s The 2014 Oil Price Crash Explained on November 24, when the price of oil was still quite a bit higher than today. WTI ended that day at $75.74, it’s now $55.15. Here’s Euan:

A couple of weeks ago I had a post titled The 2014 Oil Price Crash Explained that was cross posted to over 20 other blogs including The Automatic Earth and Zero Hedge. In this post I use the empirical supply and demand dynamic described in that earlier post (Figure 1) to try and constrain the oil price a year from now and in 2016. The outcome is heavily dependent upon assumptions made about supply and demand and the behaviour of OPEC and the banking sector. Three different scenarios are presented with December 2015 prices ranging from $45 to $100 / bbl. Those hoping for a silver bullet forecast will be disappointed. Individuals must judge the scenarios on merit and decide for themselves which outcome, if any, is most likely.

Figure 1 The blue supply line is constrained by monthly production – price data from 1994 to 2008 and shows how supply became inelastic to demand post-2004. As demand continued to rise, prices rose exponentially to $148 / bbl in July 2008 before crashing all the way down again. The blue supply line in this chart is shown as a faint blue dashed line in all other charts to provide a frame of reference.

But first a look at the recent response of oil price dynamics to fluctuations in supply and demand.

OPEC spare capacity

Part of the key to understanding how the global oil market performs is to look at OPEC spare capacity data which gives a picture of how OPEC have provided or withheld capacity to try and retain order in the oil markets. OPEC suspending their market interventions has caused the recent oil price rout.

Figure 2 OPEC have tried to maintain order in the oil market. Rather than allow price fluctuations to control supply and demand, OPEC have aimed for a price that suits them and tried to maintain it by reducing and increasing supply in tune to fluctuations in global demand and non-OPEC supply. The picture of OPEC spare capacity therefore reflects fluctuations in the global oil market.

Over the past 10 years there have been three market cycles. Two of those have had roughly 3 years duration and amplitude of roughly 2 Mbpd (Figure 2). These sit either side of a larger cycle of 4 years duration and amplitude of 4 Mbpd caused by the 2008 financial crash. These cycles represent OPEC responding to global demand and non-OPEC supply changes. The smaller cycles may be viewed as “normal” and the larger cycle as rather extraordinary. OPEC intervention provided price stability of sorts. Without it we have price volatility that requires production to be balanced by varying demand and varying non-OPEC supply.

The spare capacity data suggests that demand / supply imbalance may last three years, requiring 18 months to work through to the mid-cycle point where over-supply turns to under-supply. It is by no means certain that the market will respond to the same time dynamic when we are now dependent upon natural production capacity wastage to occur as opposed to OPEC simply closing the spigot. But this is all I have to go on. The downturn in the current price cycle began last July and we are therefore just 6 months in. Another year of pain to go for the producers, that is unless OPEC decides to intervene.

Supply or Demand Driven Markets?

It is also difficult to discern if the current over-supply state is down to excess production capacity or a reduction in demand. Both are likely but my opinion is that the price rout is demand driven with many parts of the global economy performing badly – Japan, China and the EU to name but a few. These are about to be joined by OPEC, Russia and Canada.

The graphic below from the newly published December IEA OMR (oil market report) tends to confirm this view. 4Q14 supply is flat while demand is down. By 1Q15 a 2 Mbpd supply-demand gap is beginning to open tending to confirm the position laid out above.

Figure 2b The oil supply-demand view from the December IEA OMR.

Scenario 1

In 2015 demand falls by 2Mbpd relative to summer 2014 peak. New 2015 non-OPEC production capacity of 1.4 Mbpd (OPEC forecast) does not materialise leaving the supply curve as it is today.

This leaves the oil price around $60 a year from now (Figure 3). In the interim the price may go a lot lower as production capacity continues to rise before falling back to current level at year end; and because of short term trends driven by speculation.

Figure 3 Scenario 1 December 2015. Supply capacity grows and then falls back to where it is today. Underlying ills in the global economy sees demand drop 2 Mbpd from the July 2014 peak. The price ends up at around $60 / bbl, where it is today. But in the interim may go on an excursion to lower prices followed by recovery. Note that the 2014 demand line is retained in other charts to provide a frame of reference.

In 2016, low price causes a fall in global oil production capacity of 1 Mbpd and an increase in demand of 1 M bpd. These very small adjustments see the oil price rebound to $105 / bbl by December 2016 (Figure 4). Every cloud appears to have a silver lining if you are an oil producer, but global oil production capacity is cut by 1 M bpd in the process.

Figure 4 The low price of 2015 gives the oil industry a hangover in 2016 and supply drops 1 Mbpd. At the same time consumers party and falling supply collides with rising demand sending the oil price back up to $105 / bbl by December 2016.

Scenario 2

Under Scenario 2, the oil price rout causes high cost, high debt producers to default on loans creating a new banking crisis that spills over to the main economy. Re-run of 2008/9 though perhaps worse since most banks and national government balance sheets have not recovered from prior crisis.

Demand falls by 4Mbpd relative to summer 2014 peak, but supply capacity is also cut by 1 Mbpd owing to shale and other high cost operators going out of business. In December 2015 the oil price stands at $45 / bbl (Figure 5).

Figure 5 The fall in demand experienced so far causes trauma to many global producers that default on loans with knock on to banking sector and the broader economy resulting in further falls in demand during 2015. The price rout continues but is tempered slightly by non-OPEC supply being reduced by 1 Mbpd.

The low oil price works its magic on the global economy that rebounds strongly in 2016 pushing demand up by 2 Mbpd. But the $45 oil experienced in 2015 seals the fate of another 1Mbpd production capacity that is lost. Rising demand collides with falling capacity sending the oil price soaring back to $100 / bbl by December 2016. But the world has lost 2 Mbpd oil production capacity as a result of the price rout.

Figure 6 The price rout sees supply fall by a further 1 Mbpd. But the ultra low price causes a major rebound in demand of 2 Mbpd in 2016 from an “oversold” position. The oil price recovers to $100 / bbl.

Scenario 3

OPEC blinks first and with both Qatar and Kuwait cutting production in November, there are signs that this may be possible. Much depends upon Saudi Arabia who could conceivably raise production to counter the cuts made in other Gulf States. In Scenario 3, OPEC cuts production by 2 Mbpd by December 2015. While demand falls by 2 Mbpd from the July 2014 peak. The oil price recovers to $100 / bbl by next December 2015 (Figure 7).

Figure 7 Early in 2015 OPEC succumbs to pressure from several members and cuts supply progressively for a total of 2 Mbpd over the year. The net demand fall from the July 2014 peak is cancelled by the supply cut and the price recovers to $100 by December 2015.

This effectively means re-establishing the status quo of recent years. In this scenario, it is not necessary to look beyond 2015 since OPEC have re-adopted their strategy of market stability at a price that suits all – including the high-cost producers.


Each of the scenarios see strong recovery in oil price to the region of $100 come 2016. The main differences are in the extent and duration of short term pain and in the global production capacity. Scenarios 1 and 2 sees production capacity falling by 1 to 2 Mbpd come December 2016 and this would mainly be non-OPEC capacity that is destroyed handing greater control of oil markets to OPEC. Scenario 3 sees capacity maintenance and with re-establishment of status quo and high oil price, further expansion of N America. We need to wait and see if OPEC does what OPEC says.

My estimation of probabilities goes something like this:

Scenario 1: 40%
Scenario 2: 50%
Scenario 3: 10%

So my weighted forecast for December 2015 goes like this:

($60*0.4)+($45*0.5)+($100*0.1) = $56.50

Every year around this time I have a bet on the oil price a year from now. A year ago I bet $125 and my friend $110. Rarely have we both been so badly wrong. I lost again :-(

Ilargi: And of course Euan’s friend Roger Andrews has the first comment again:

Euan: Excellent piece of work. My weighted prediction for December 2015 is ($60*0.45)+($45*0.5)+($100*0.05) = $54.50/bbl. I’ve halved your already-low scenario 3 probability because I just don’t see OPEC – and certainly not the Saudis – cutting production first.

I think the Saudis have decided that preserving their historic market share is worth a few years of privation, particularly when they can live off their accumulated fat in the meantime. I say “a few years” because I don’t think it’s out of the question that the price slump could go on for that long.

Each of the scenarios see strong recovery in oil price to the region of $100 come 2016. Will this be the next “oil shock”?

Nov 292014
 November 29, 2014  Posted by at 7:21 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  16 Responses »

‘Daly’ Somewhere in the South, possibly Miami 1941

I thought it might be a nice idea to question a certain someone’s theories using their own words, while at the same time showing everybody what the dangers are from falling oil prices. There are many ‘experts and ‘analysts’ out there claiming that economies will experience a stimulus from the low prices, something I’ve already talked about over the past few days in The Price Of Oil Exposes The True State Of The Economy and OPEC Presents: QE4 and Deflation. And I’ve also already said that I don’t think that is true, and I don’t see this ending well.

Today, our old friend Ambrose Evans-Pritchard starts out euphoric, only to cast doubt on his self-chosen headline. He’d have done better to focus on that doubt, in my opinion. And I have his own words from earlier in the year to support that opinion. Ambrose is bad at opinions, but great at collecting data; his personal views are his achilles heel as a journalist. That’s maybe why he fell into the propaganda trap of picking this headline; after all, if you write for the Daily Telegraph you’re supposed to write positive things about the economy.

Oil Drop Is Big Boon For Global Stock Markets, If It Lasts

Tumbling oil prices are a bonanza for global stock markets, provided the chief cause is a surge in crude supply rather than a collapse in economic demand

Roughly one third of the current oil slump is a shortfall in expected demand, caused by China’s industrial slowdown and Europe’s austerity trap. The other two thirds are the result of a sudden supply glut, which Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have so far chosen not to offset by cutting output. This episode looks relatively benign. Nick Kounis from ABN Amro says it will add $550 billion of stimulus to world markets. “That is fantastic news for the global economy,” he said. But it comes at a time when stocks are already high if measured by indicators of underlying value. The Schiller 10-year price earnings ratio is at nose-bleed levels above 27.

Tobin’s Q, a gauge based on replacement costs, is stretched to near historic highs. Andrew Lapthorne from SocGen says the MSCI world index of stocks has risen 38% over the last three years but reported profits have risen just 3%. “Valuations, as measured by median price to cash flow ratios, are near historical highs. As US QE has come to an end, depriving the world of $1 trillion printed dollars a year, there are plenty of reasons to be nervous,” he said.

Ambrose’s gauge of share values is dead on, and far more important than he seems to realize. He knows full well there are tons of reasons to doubt his own headline. But he still leaves out many of those reasons in that article today. So let’s move back in time to look at what he wrote this summer, before the drop in oil prices.

Here are a few lines from Ambrose on July 9 2014:

Fossil Industry Is The Subprime Danger Of This Cycle

The epicentre of irrational behaviour across global markets has moved to the fossil fuel complex of oil, gas and coal. This is where investors have been throwing the most good money after bad. [..] oil and gas investment in the US has soared to $200 billion a year. It has reached 20% of total US private fixed investment, the same share as home building.

This has never happened before in US history, even during the Second World War when oil production was a strategic imperative. The International Energy Agency (IEA) says global investment in fossil fuel supply doubled in real terms to $900 billion from 2000 to 2008 as the boom gathered pace. It has since stabilised at a very high plateau, near $950 billion last year. The cumulative blitz on exploration and production over the past six years has been $5.4 trillion [..]

upstream costs in the oil industry have risen 300% since 2000 but output is up just 14% [..] The damage has been masked so far as big oil companies draw down on their cheap legacy reserves.

companies are committing $1.1 trillion over the next decade to projects that require prices above $95 to break even. The Canadian tar sands mostly break even at $80-$100. Some of the Arctic and deepwater projects need $120. Several need $150. Petrobras, Statoil, Total, BP, BG, Exxon, Shell, Chevron and Repsol are together gambling $340 billion in these hostile seas.

… the biggest European oil groups (BP, Shell, Total, Statoil and Eni) spent $161 billion on operations and dividends last year, but generated $121 billion in cash flow. They face a $40 billion deficit even though Brent crude prices were buoyant near $100 ..

… the sheer scale of “stranded assets” and potential write-offs in the fossil industry raises eyebrows. IHS Global Insight said the average return on oil and gas exploration in North America has fallen to 8.6%, lower than in 2001 when oil was trading at $27 a barrel.

What happens if oil falls back towards $80 as Libya ends force majeure at its oil hubs and Iran rejoins the world economy?

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. [..]

“Under a global climate deal consistent with a two degrees centigrade world, we estimate that the fossil fuel industry would stand to lose $28 trillion of gross revenues over the next two decades , compared with business as usual,” said Mr Lewis. The oil industry alone would face stranded assets of $19 trillion, concentrated on deepwater fields, tar sands and shale.

By their actions, the oil companies implicitly dismiss the solemn climate pledges of world leaders as posturing, though shareholders are starting to ask why management is sinking so much their money into projects with such political risk.

Those numbers alone, combined with the knowledge that prices are off close to 40% by now, should be enough to give anyone the jitters, about the oil industry, and therefore about the global economy. Any industry that’s so deeply in debt cannot afford a 40% dip in revenue, not even for a short while. Dominoes must start tumbling in short order.

And of course saying ‘any industry so deeply in debt’ is already a bit misleading, because there is no industry like oil in the world (except maybe steel, and look how that’s doing), and it’s highly doubtful there’s another one with such debt levels. Oil stocks are down somewhat, but it’s hard to see how they could not fall a lot further. And as for the huge amounts invested in energy junk bonds, one can but shudder.

On August 11 2014, Ambrose had some more:

Oil And Gas Company Debt Soars To Danger Levels To Cover Cash Shortfall

The world’s leading oil and gas companies are taking on debt and selling assets on an unprecedented scale to cover a shortfall in cash, calling into question the long-term viability of large parts of the industry. The US Energy Information Administration (EIA) said a review of 127 companies across the globe found that they had increased net debt by $106 billion in the year to March, in order to cover the surging costs of machinery and exploration, while still paying generous dividends at the same time.

They also sold off a net $73 billion of assets. [..] The EIA said revenues from oil and gas sales have reached a plateau since 2011, stagnating at $568 billion over the last year as oil hovers near $100 a barrel. Yet costs have continued to rise relentlessly.

… the shortfall between cash earnings from operations and expenditure – mostly CAPEX and dividends – has widened from $18 billion in 2010 to $110 billion during the past three years. Companies appear to have been borrowing heavily both to keep dividends steady and to buy back their own shares, spending an average of $39 billion on repurchases since 2011.

… “continued declines in cash flow, particularly in the face of rising debt levels, could challenge future exploration and development”. [..] upstream costs of exploring and drilling have been surging, causing companies to raise long-term debt by 9% in 2012, and 11% last year. Upstream costs rose by 12% a year from 2000 to 2012 due to rising rig rates, deeper water depths, and the costs of seismic technology. This was disguised as China burst onto the world scene and powered crude prices to record highs.

Global output of conventional oil peaked in 2005 despite huge investment. [..] the productivity of new capital spending has fallen by a factor of five since 2000. “The vast majority of public oil and gas companies require oil prices of over $100 to achieve positive free cash flow under current capex and dividend programmes. Nearly half of the industry needs more than $120,” ..

Analysts are split over the giant Petrobras project off the coast of Brazil, described by Citigroup as the “single-most important source of new low-cost world oil supply.” The ultra-deepwater fields lie below layers of salt, making seismic imaging very hard. They will operate at extreme pressure at up to three thousand meters, 50% deeper than BP’s disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Petrobras is committed to spending $102 billion on development by 2018. It already has $112 billion of debt. The company said its break-even cost on pre-salt drilling so far is $41 to $57 a barrel. Critics say some of the fields may in reality prove to be nearer $130. Petrobras’s share price has fallen by two-thirds since 2010.

… global investment in fossil fuel supply rose from $400 billion to $900 billion during the boom from 2000 and 2008, doubling in real terms. It has since levelled off, reaching $950 billion last year. [..] Not a single large oil project has come on stream at a break-even cost below $80 a barrel for almost three years.

companies are committing $1.1 trillion over the next decade to projects requiring prices above $95 to make money. Some of the Arctic and deepwater projects have a break-even cost near $120 . The IEA says companies have booked assets that can never be burned if there is a deal limit to C02 levels to 450 (PPM), a serious political risk for the industry. Estimates vary but Mr Lewis said this could reach $19 trillion for the oil nexus, and $28 trillion for all forms of fossil fuel.

For now the major oil companies are mostly pressing ahead with their plans. ExxonMobil began drilling in Russia’s Arctic ‘High North’ last week with its partner Rosneft, even though Rosneft is on the US sanctions list. “Exxon must be doing a lot of soul-searching as they get drawn deeper into this,” said one oil veteran with intimate experience of Russia. “We don’t think they ever make any money in the Arctic. It is just too expensive and too difficult.”

Plummeting oil prices not only mirror the state of the – real – economy, they will also drag the state of that economy down further. Much further. If only for no other reason than that today’s oil industry swims in debt, not reserves. Investment policies, both within the industry and on the outside where people buy oil company stocks and – junk – bonds, have been based on lies, false presumptions, hubris and oil prices over $100.

The oil industry is no longer what it once was, it’s not even a normal industry anymore. Oil companies sell assets and borrow heavily, then buy back their own stock and pay out big dividends. What kind of business model is that? Well, not the kind that can survive a 40% cut in revenue for long. The industry’s debt levels were, in Ambrose’s words, at a ‘danger level’ when oil was still at $110.

Is Big Oil still a going concern? You tell me. I don’t want to tell the whole story bite-sized on a platter, there’s more value in providing the numbers, this time from Ambrose but there are many other sources, and have you make up your own mind, do the math etc.

Ambrose’s exact numbers can and will be contested three ways to Sunday, but his numbers are not that far off, and if anything, he may still be sugarcoating. WTI closed at $66.15 on Friday, Brent is at $70.15. Given the above data, where would you think the industry is headed? What will happen to the trillions in debt the industry was already drowning in when oil was still above $100?

And how will this be a boon to the economy even if, as Ambrose puts it, the ”oil drop lasts”? Do you have any idea how much your pension fund is invested in oil? Your money market fund? Your government? I would almost say you don’t want to know.

There can be very little doubt that oil prices will at some point rise again from whatever bottom they will reach. Even if nobody knows what that bottom will be. At the same time, there can also be very little doubt that when that happens, the energy industry’s ‘financial landscape’ will look very different from today. And so will the – real – economy.

Cheap oil a boon for the economy? You might want to give that some thought.

Nov 242014
 November 24, 2014  Posted by at 2:33 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »

NPC Capitol Refining Co. plant, Relee, Alexandria County 1925

This is an article by our good friend Euan Mearns at the University of Aberdeen. It was originally published here .

  • In February 2009 Phil Hart published on The Oil Drum a simple supply demand model that explained then the action in the oil price. In this post I update Phil’s model to July 2014 using monthly oil supply (crude+condensate) and price data from the Energy Information Agency (EIA).
  • This model explains how a drop in demand for oil of only 1 million barrels per day can account for the fall in price from $110 to below $80 per barrel.
  • The future price will be determined by demand, production capacity and OPEC production constraint. A further fall in demand of the order 1 Mbpd may see the price fall below $60. Conversely, at current demand, an OPEC production cut of the order 1 Mbpd may send the oil price back up towards $100. It seems that volatility has returned to the oil market.

Figure 1 An adaptation of Phil Hart’s oil supply demand model. The blue supply line is constrained by data (see Figure 4). The red demand lines are conceptual. Prior to 2004, oil supply was fairly elastic to changes in price, i.e. a small rise in price led to a large rise in production. This is explained by OPEC opening and closing the taps. Post 2004, oil supply became inelastic to price, i.e. a large change in price led to marginal increase in supply. This is explained by the world pumping flat out. Demand tends to be fairly inelastic and inversely correlated with price in that high price suppresses demand a little. Supply and price at any point in time is defined by the intersection of the supply and demand curves. 72 Mbpd and $40 / bbl in 2004 became 76 Mbpd and $120 / bbl in 2008 as demand for oil soared against inelastic supply.

Figure 2

Followers of the oil market will be familiar with the recent evolution of oil supply and price shown in Figure 2.

Figure 3

What is less widely appreciated is that a cross plot of the data shown in Figure 2 results in the well-ordered relationship shown in Figure 3. Oil supply and price are clearly following some well established rules. This relationship led to Phil Hart developing his model shown as Figure 1.

Figure 4

Separating the data into two time periods brings more clarity to the process at work. The data define a fairly well-ordered time series beginning at January 1994 at the bottom left rising slowly to January 2004 and then steeply to the Olympic Peak of July 2008. The financial crash then caused the oil price to give up all of its gains returning to 2004 levels by December 2008.

Figure 5

The second time period from January 2009 to the present shows some different forces at work. Starting in 2009 some new production capacity was built. This was not in OPEC and is concentrated in N America where the light tight oil (LTO) boom took off supplemented by steady expansion of tar sands production. Prior to 2009, the production peaks were of the order 74 Mbpd. Post 2009 peaks of the order 77 Mbpd were achieved. About 3 Mbpd new capacity has been added. In May 2011 there is a significant and curious excursion to lower production not accompanied by a fall in price. This coincides with Libya coming off line for the first time and the loss of 1.6 Mbpd production. It seems possible that this coincided with weak demand and the fortuitous loss of production cancelling weak demand leaving price unchanged.

The EIA are always running a few months behind with their statistics these days, not ideal in a rapidly changing world. Thus we do not yet have the data to see the recent crash in the oil price. But we know the price has fallen below $80 and production is unlikely to be significantly changed. So, how do we explain production of roughly 77 Mbpd and a price below $80?

Figure 6

Figure 6 updates Phil Hart’s model (Figure 1) to take account of the oil supply and price movements of the last 5 years. Capacity expansion is achieved by adding 3 Mbpd to the former, well-defined supply-price curve (blue arrow). There is no a-priori reason that this curve should hold in the new supply-price regime, but for the time being that is all I have to work with. The red lines, as described in the caption to Figure 1, conceptually represent inelastic demand where high price marginally suppresses demand for oil. The recent past has seen oil priced at $110 with supply running at about 77 Mbpd as defined by the right hand red coloured demand curve. Reducing demand by about 1 Mbpd brings the price below $80 / bbl (red arrow).

The Recent Past and the Future

Old hands will know that it is virtually impossible to forecast the oil price. The anomalous recent price stability of $110±10 I believe reflects great skill on the part of Saudi Arabia balancing the market at a price high enough to keep Saudi Arabia solvent and low enough to keep the world economy afloat. The reason Saudi Arabia has not cut production now, when faced with weak global demand for oil, probably comes down to their desire to maintain market share which means hobbling the N American LTO bonanza. Alternatively, they could be conspiring with the USA to wreck the Russian economy? But Saudi Arabia is not the only member of OPEC and the economies of many of the member countries will be suffering badly at these prices and that ultimately leads to elevated risk of civil unrest. It is not possible to predict the actions of the main players but it is easier to predict what the outcome may be of certain actions.

  1. If demand for oil weakens by about a further 1 Mbpd this may send the price down below $60 / bbl.
  2. If OPEC cuts supply by about 1 Mbpd at constant demand this may send the price back up towards $100 / bbl.
  3. Prolonged low price may see LTO production fall in N America and other non-OPEC projects shelved resulting in attrition of non-OPEC capacity. This may take one to two years to work through but with constant demand, this will inevitably send prices higher again.
  4. Prolonged low price may see many specialist LTO producers default on loans, risking a new credit crunch and reduced LTO production. This would likely lead to a major consolidation of operators in the LTO patch where the larger companies (the IOCs) pick up the best assets at knock down prices. That is the way it has always been.
  5. Black Swans and elephants in the room – with conflict escalation in Ukraine and / or Syria-Iraq and a new credit crunch, all bets will be off.

[Ilargi:] And this comment to the article from Euan’s friend and collaborator Roger Andrews certainly warrants attention as well. (check the grey dots!):

Hi Euan:

I put this XY plot of the data together from the data links you supplied. It shows the same trends as your Figures except that I’ve plotted all the points on one graph and segregated them into five periods, with trend lines and arrows showing the overall “direction of travel” for each (arrows in both directions for October 2004-May 2009, which as you noted goes zooming up and then comes right back down again).

I’ve also projected production data for the missing months since May 2014 (shouldn’t be too far off) so that we can at least get an idea of how the latest trend might compare with the old ones. We seem to be in uncharted territory.