Jul 112018
 
 July 11, 2018  Posted by at 5:23 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Marc Riboud Forbidden City under the snow, Beijing 1957

 

Okay, well, Trump did it again. Antagonizing allies. This time it was Germany that took the main hit, over the fact that it pays Russia billions of dollars for oil and gas while relying on the US for its defense … against Russia. And yes, that is a strange situation. But it’s by no means the only angle to the story. There are many more.

For one thing, The US has by far the largest military industry. So it makes a lot of money off the billions already spent by NATO partners on weaponry. Of course Raytheon, Boeing et al would like to see them spend more. But once they would have done that, they would clamor for even more after.

At some point one must ask how much should really be spent. How much is enough, how much is necessary. The military-industrial complex (MIC) has every reason to make the threat posed by ‘enemies’ as big as they possibly can. So knowing that, we must take media reports on this threat with tons of salt.

And that is not easy. Because the MIC has great influence in politics and the media. But we can turn to some numbers. According to GlobalFirePower, the US in 2018 will spend $647 billion on its military, while Russia is to spend a full $600 billion less, at $47 billion. And the US Senate has already voted in a $82 billion boost recently.

There are other numbers out there that suggest Russia spends $60 billion, but even then. If Moscow spends just 10% of the US, and much less than that once all NATO members’ expenditure is included, how much of a threat can Russia realistically be to NATO?

 

Sure, I’ve said it before, Russia makes weapons to defend itself, while America makes them to make money, which makes the latter much less efficient, but it should be glaringly obvious that the Russia threat is being blown out of all proportions.

Problem with that is that European nations for some reason love playing the threat card as much as America does. After all, Britain, France and Germany have major weapons manufacturers, too. So they’re all stuck. The Baltic nations clamor for more US protection, so does Sweden, Merkel re-focused on Putin just days ago, the game must go on.

Another way to look at this is to note that UD GDP in 2017 according to the IMF was $19.3 trillion, while Russia’s was $1.5 trillion. NATO members Germany France, Britain, Italy and France all have substantially higher GDP than Russia as well. European Union GDP was $17.3 trillion in 2017.

If this economically weak Russia were really such a threat to NATO, they would be using their funds so much better and smarter than anyone else, we’d all better start waving white flags right now. And seek their help, because that sort of efficiency, in both economics and defense, would seem to be exactly what we need in our debt-ridden nations.

 

The solution to the problems Trump indicated this morning is not for Germany et al to spend more on NATO and their military in general, but for the US to spend less. Much less. Because the Russian threat is a hoax that serves the interests of the MIC, the politicians and the media.

And because America has much better purposes to spend its money on. And because we would all be a lot safer if this absurd theater were closed. To reiterate: developments in weapons technology, for instance hypersonic rocket systems make most other weapons systems obsolete. Which is obviously a big threat to the MIC.

Russia attacking NATO makes as much sense as NATO attacking Russia: none whatsoever. Unwinnable. Russia attacking Germany and other European countries, which buy its oil and gas, makes no sense because it would then lose those revenues. From that point of view, European dependence on Russian energy is even a peacemaker, because it benefits both sides.

Can any of the Russiagate things be true? Of course, Russia has ‘bad’ elements seeking to influence matters abroad. Just like the US does, and France, Britain, Germany, finish the list and color the pictures. How about the UK poisoning stories? That’s a really wild one. Russia had no reason to poison a long-lost double spy they themselves let go free years ago, not at a time when a successful World Cup beckoned.

342 diplomats expelled and risking the honored tradition of exchanging spies and double agents from time to time. Not in Moscow’s interest at all. Britain, though, had, and has, much to gain from the case. As long as its people, and its allies, remain gullible enough to swallow the poisoned narrative. Clue: both poisonings, if they are real, occurred mere miles from Porton Down, Britain’s main chemical weapons lab.

And c’mon, if Putin wants his country strong and independent, the last thing he would do is to risk his oil and gas contracts with Europe. They’re simply too important, economically and politically. Trump may want some of that action for the US, understandably, but for now US LNG can’t compete with Russian pipelines. Simple as that.

Let’s hope Trump and Putin can talk sense in 5 days. There’s a lot hanging on it. Let’s hope Trump gets his head out of NATO’s and the US and EU Deep State’s asses in time. There’s no America First or Make America Great Again to be found in those dark places. It’s time to clear the air and talk. America should always talk to Russia.

Funny thing is, the more sanctions are declared on Russia, the stronger it becomes, because it has to learn and adapt to self-sufficiency. Want to weaken Russia? Make it depend on your trade with it, as opposed to cut off that trade. Well, too late now, they won’t trust another western voice anymore for many years. And we’re too weak to fight them. Not that we should want to anyway.

We’re all captive to people who want us to believe we’re still stuck in the last century, because that is their over-luxurious meal ticket. But it’s all imaginary, it’s an entirely made-up narrative. NATO is a con game.

 

 

May 202018
 
 May 20, 2018  Posted by at 2:20 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  


Vittorio Matteo Corcos Conversation in the Jardin du Luxembourg 1892

 

Obviously, there are tensions between Europe and the US. Just as obviously, these tensions are blamed on, who else, Donald Trump. European Council President Donald Tusk recently said: “With friends like Trump, who needs enemies?” EU Commission chair Jean-Claude Juncker even proclaimed that “Europe must take America’s place as global leader”.

These European ‘leaders’ love the big words. They think they make them look good, strong. In reality, they are merely messenger boys for Berlin and Paris. Who have infinitely more say than Brussels. Problem is, Berlin and Paris are not united at all. Macron wants more Europe, especially in finance, but Merkel knows she can’t sell that at home.

So what are those big words worth when the whip comes down? It’s amusing to see how different people reach wholly different conclusions about that. Instructive and entertaining. First, Alex Gorka at The Strategic Culture Foundation, who likes the big words too: “..a landmark event that will go down in history as the day Europe united to openly defy the US.” and “May 17 is the day the revolt started and there is no going back. Europe has said goodbye to trans-Atlantic unity. It looks like it has had enough.

 

Brussels Rises In Revolt Against Washington: A Turning Point In US-European Relations

The May 16-17 EU-Western Balkans summit did address the problems of integration, but it was eclipsed by another issue. The meeting turned out to be a landmark event that will go down in history as the day Europe united to openly defy the US. The EU will neither review the Iran nuclear deal (JPCOA) nor join the sanctions against Tehran that have been reintroduced and even intensified by America.

Washington’s unilateral withdrawal from the JPCOA was the last straw, forcing the collapse of Western unity. The Europeans found themselves up against a wall. There is no point in discussing further integration or any other matter if the EU cannot protect its own members. But now it can.

[..] As European Council President Donald Tusk put it, “With friends like Trump, who needs enemies?” According to him, the US president has “rid Europe of all illusions.” Mr. Tusk wants Europe to “stick to our guns” against new US policies. Jean-Claude Juncker, the head of the EU Commission, believes that “Europe must take America’s place as global leader” because Washington has turned its back on its allies.

Washington “no longer wants to cooperate.” It is turning away from friendly relations “with ferocity.” Mr. Juncker thinks the time is ripe for Europe “to replace the United States, which as an international actor has lost vigor.” It would have been unthinkable not long ago for a top EU official to say such things and challenge the US global leadership. Now the unthinkable has become reality.

[..] Sandra Oudkirk, US Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Energy, has just threatened to sanction the Europeans if they continue with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project to bring gas in from Russia across the Baltic Sea.

[..] President Donald Trump has just instructed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to prepare a list of new sanctions against the Russian Federation for its alleged violations of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. [..] But nobody in Europe has announced that they want US nuclear-tipped intermediate- range weapons on their territory that will be a target for a potential retaliatory strike by Russia.

[..] The time is ripe for Brussels to stop this sanctions-counter-sanctions mayhem and stake out its own independent policies on Russia, Iran, defense, and other issues, that will protect European, not US, national interests. May 17 is the day the revolt started and there is no going back. Europe has said goodbye to trans-Atlantic unity. It looks like it has had enough.

As for placing new nukes in Europe, that will be a hard sell. But the US will probably find countries that say yes, provided they are compensated well. Just don’t try it in Holland, Germany or France. But also don’t forget the amount of nukes already on the continent: just call it an upgrade.

Nord Stream 2 is tricky, but mostly an economic issue: Trump wants to sell American gas to Europe, and uses the bad bad Putin narrative to make that happen. Still, the pipeline has been in the pipeline for a long time, and a lot of time and money has been spent on it. It’ll be hard for the US to cut it off at this late stage.

When it comes to claiming the EU will not review the Iran nuclear deal, isn’t that exactly what they are indeed doing? Reuters:

 

Europe, China, Russia Discussing New Deal For Iran

Under the 2015 deal, Iran agreed to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of most Western sanctions. One of the main complaints of the Trump administration was that the accord did not cover Iran’s missile program or its support for armed groups in the Middle East which the West considers terrorists.

Concluding a new agreement that would maintain the nuclear provisions and curb ballistic missile development efforts and Tehran’s activities in the region could help convince Trump to lift sanctions against Iran, the paper said. “We have to get away from the name ‘Vienna nuclear agreement’ and add in a few additional elements. Only that will convince President Trump to agree and lift sanctions again,” the paper quoted a senior EU diplomat as saying.

All in all, Mr. Gorka doesn’t convince me. Europe doesn’t speak with one voice, and we wouldn’t even know which voice speaks for it. Just that it isn’t Juncker or Tusk, they’re handpuppets. Moreover, Europe has so many internal issues to deal with that it has a hard time speaking at all. A landmark event in US-EU relations may happen one day, but May 17 wasn’t it.

What I find more interesting is the account of academic John Laughland, ‘a historian and specialist in international affairs’, at RT:

 

With Iran Sanctions Trump Made Europeans Look Like The Fools They Are

Donald Tusk may say “Europe must be united economically, politically and also militarily like never before … either we are together or we are not at all” but Europe is indeed not “together” at all. The Brussels commission is hounding Poland and Hungary on what are clearly internal political matters beyond the Commission’s remit; the EU is about to lose one of its most important member states; and a new government is going to take power in Rome whose economic policies (a flat tax at 15%) will blow the eurozone’s borrowing rules out of the water and perhaps cause Italy to leave the euro.

The Italian 5-Star/League government also wants an end to the EU sanctions against Russia; these are voted by a unanimity which, although fragile, has held until now but which, if the new power in Rome keeps its word, will shortly collapse. In other words, what Trump has done is to make the Europeans look like the fools they are. In circumstances in which the EU has placed all its eggs in one basket, a basket which Trump has now overturned, it will be impossible for it to come together. On the contrary, it is falling apart.

[..] the EU draws its entire legitimacy from the belief that by pooling sovereignty and by merging its states into one entity, it has advanced beyond the age when international relations were decided by force. It believes that it embodies instead a new international system based on rules and agreements, and that any other system leads to war. It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of this belief for European leaders; yet Donald Trump has just driven a coach and horses through it.

The angry statements by European leaders might lead one to think that we are on the cusp of a major reappraisal of trans-Atlantic relations. However, the reality is that the EU and its leaders have painted themselves into a corner from which it will be very difficult, perhaps impossible, to extricate themselves.

Like I said, completely different conclusions based on the exact same events. The EU risks what might turn into an existential crisis with Beppe Grillo effectively holding the reins of power in Rome. The new government may have dropped the demand for a €260 billion debt relief, but the basic income plan is still there, and so is dropping Russian sanctions.

The new guys can’t divert from their election promises much further, they need to maintain their credibility. But for a lot of their promises it is not at all clear how they could possible fit into the present EU structure. Try their demand for a mechanism to leave the EU.

Italy is so large that Brussels cannot be too aggressive against it. The ECB cannot stop buying Italian bonds, as it did with Greek ones. And at some point the debt relief demand will return too.

But Laughland has a lot more cold water to pour on the alleged but toothless European revolt. In the shape of NATO. This is scary for every European:

 

[..] the links between the EU and the US are not only very long-standing, they are also set in stone. NATO and the EU are in reality Siamese twins, two bodies born at the same time which are joined at the hip. The first European community was created with overt and covert US support in 1950 in order to militarize Western Europe and to prepare it to fight a land war against the Soviet Union; NATO acquired its integrated command structure a few months later and its Supreme Commander is always an American.

Today the two organizations are legally inseparable because the consolidated Treaty on European Union, in the form adopted at Lisbon in 2009, states that EU foreign policy “shall respect” the obligations of NATO member states and that it shall “be compatible” with NATO policy. In other words, the constitutional charter of the EU subordinates it to NATO, which the USA dominates legally and structurally. In such circumstances, European states can only liberate themselves from US hegemony, as Donald Tusk said they should, by leaving the EU. It is obvious that they are not prepared to do that.

Anything else about those dreams of standing up to Trump? Have the past and present leaders in Brussels, and in Berlin and Paris and Rome, betrayed their own citizens? Sold them out? How far removed is this from treason? And does this perhaps indicate that it’s high time for a complete and utter overhaul of the European Union?

It sure sounds a lot more realistic than Europe replacing America as the global leader.

Who needs enemies? NATO does.

 

 

Apr 072018
 
 April 7, 2018  Posted by at 12:32 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Dorothea Lange Farmers’ supply co-op. Nyssa, Malheur County, Oregon 1939

 

 

It’s Dr. D again. Told you he’s on a roll. He remains convinced America can re-invent itself. If only because it must.

 

 

Dr. D: Herbert Stein’s Law states “What Can’t Go On Forever, Doesn’t.” This is a neat summary of the present trade and currency imbalance. China makes real goods and the U.S. consumes them by typing digits on a keyboard. This is the very definition of what cannot go on forever.

 

• How long do you expect a nation can make nothing and consume everything?

• How long do you expect a nation without manufacturing, without a workforce, and now without a viable military to remain pre-eminent?

• How long does wealth and influence remain in a nation that makes nothing, does nothing, and knows nothing?

 

Reminds me of that other Law: “A fool and his money should be parted as soon as possible”, for to be wealthy, and helpless, and dumb, is not a combination that lasts for very long.

Since China cannot send the U.S. free goods forever, ergo, they won’t. That means slowly or quickly, now or later, they will cut us off. Right now it appears that can never happen, but I assure you it will very soon. And what will the U.S. do then? Actually, that’s very simple: the U.S. will have to close a $600B trade deficit instantly. Roughly, that means the U.S. will no longer import $600B worth of goods and be $600B/year poorer, or $2,000/year per person. Nor is this unusual. History is rife with examples of nations that once were prosperous and were suddenly cut off: Spain and Greece come immediately to mind. So how does this happen?

The Core nation, the trading hub has failed dozens of times in history, from Venice to Holland, Spain to England, and although most of history was on a gold standard, nevertheless the same thing happened: repudiation and devaluation of the currency. That’s why a U.K. Pound is no longer a troy pound of pure silver ($192) and why the U.S. Dollar is no longer 1/20th ounce of gold ($267). So let’s run down how this might unfold.

Like other empires, the U.S. rose to prominence with hard work and industry. Like other empires, this personal and physical industry was the foundation of an effective military. This military eventually stood alone, leaving the U.S. to set the rules of trade, the rules of diplomacy, and the rules of conduct. Like other nations, the U.S. bent those rules in its own favor, both early and late. Like other nations, the natural way to take advantage was to run an overvalued currency, which draws in capital from all trading partners worldwide, creating a 100-year spiral of wealth and influence that seems truly endless.

However math, the cruelest of Mother Nature’s laws, is not fooled. If you bend the rules to create market distortions, those distortions are indeed created. If there were fair trade, a gold standard, a nation that increases their wealth would find its currency rise. A rising currency would dampen manufacturing and efficiency, the gold would flow back out, and the unfair advantage would be corrected. But only in a free market. Any market on Earth has an Army, and that Army’s job day and night is to make sure that unfair advantage does NOT end. Ask Smedley Butler.

 

Mother Nature is never deterred. However long it takes, she waits. Lacking fair trade, an abnormally strong currency does the only other thing it can: destroy the Core nation’s industry, totally and completely. More certain than a nuclear explosion, economics will not miss a single spot until the wrong is righted and the truth is out. At first the low-gain commodity industries go: mining, shipping, smelting; then their sooty kinsmen: heavy rail, ships, ports, transportation.

After that go the lighter industries: manufacturing, stamping, autos, and so on up to mainframes, silicon chips and phones, and with them, their children, manufacturing processes and R&D. However, as London and NY showed, you can forestall currency correction even now by moving market distortions into services and financial engineering. At this point, however, the Core nation has nothing left but Banks, Universities, and the Government/Military, and no underlying economy to support them.

However, what Charles Hugh Smith calls the fiefdoms of monopoly cartels and apparatchiks of the 1% now lead an empty parade, horse-whipping the uncompliant 99% into supporting an economy that exists only in their minds. And then “What can’t go on, doesn’t.” The empire collapses from within, to the total surprise of historians of the 1%, and the total lack of interest of the 99%, for whom it had already collapsed decades before.

And of the other side? Thanks to the overly-high currency of the Core nation, the perimeter nation has an artificially LOW currency. They didn’t do that, because they are by definition small and weak and aren’t using an army to set the rules. The artificially low currency leads to low costs, low labor, high enterprise, and in the mirror image of the Core nation, the constant INCREASE in manufacturing. The increase in wealth, and the addition of commodity goods, then heavy industry, then manufacturing, then R&D. Whose fault is that? Who used a worldwide army to enforce the very rules that gutted their homeland? Not the Vandals; not China. It was Rome; it was D.C.

What is this whole imbalance based on? In our case, the artificially strong dollar, backed by a worldwide U.S. military. So how must it end? With a weak dollar, falling real markets, and a U.S. military returning home.

You say this can’t happen? Yet it must happen. To say otherwise means China will give us free goods for 10,000 years, and the U.S. will get always weaker that whole time. So how does the transition go?

The U.S. financial bulwark cracks, being highest and most based on psychology, not reality, very likely in conjunction to a military failure or withdrawal, as in empire finance, the military and currency are equivalent. Slowly, then rapidly, the tide flows out, the U.S. dollar gets weaker, the Chinese Yuan gets stronger, and the whole process reversed as it should have done years ago.

 


(mind the log scale)

 

Mother Nature isn’t fooled, and those 70 years of repression and manipulation are made up in a few years.

Down on the ground, what happens is not that China shuts off free imports to the U.S. directly, with a political embargo, what happens is the U.S. is seen as a has-been and the U.S. dollar falls in purchasing power on the world market, raising the price of foreign goods in a “free” and “open” marketplace. Lacking manufacturing and the military power to stop it, the U.S. can’t hold off Mother Nature and the laws of physics any more.

Knowing this to be inevitable, how would a nation prepare? For one thing, you would need to kick-start your industry, post-haste. Anything that can be made internally will find its prices stabilize and not rise. Yet before the currency rates are corrected this face overwhelming headwinds. Second, as income will be lost and the borders will be shut off, you need to switch the focus of taxation from income to tariffs, from finance to real goods.

Third, you need to open your pipelines, ports, and infrastructure, and expand the required steel, oil by any means necessary, even armed standoffs. Fourth, you’ll need to shove the culture away from government support and subsidies that will soon disappear, and into self-reliance and productivity. Firth, you’ll need to downsize the government and especially the military, which will and must return home. Any of those platforms sound familiar?

 

Despite what you read, it’s not all bad. Just as “The arrogant people will be brought down, and high and mighty people will be humbled”, “Every valley shall be raised up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places smooth.”

 

This is a master reversal of all manipulations, of all imbalances that have reached extremes. As the U.S. – China trade deficit must balance, we know that Chinese goods must rise. But that also means the cost of production for U.S. goods must fall. This cost-advantage puts Americans back to work just as it did the Chinese, while the rise of the Yuan will make China rich, but less productive.

What’s more, as matters reverse, the U.S. will raise prices on their exports: food and oil, two things China must have and cannot get elsewhere. Agriculture is at an all-time, 1,000 year low and must rise. Stocks and housing are at an all-time high and must fall. In a reversal, the high prices fall, the low prices rise, that’s obvious. That’s what “reversal” means, that’s what “extreme” means.

As for manufacturing, the world is changing fast. Even China is opening “dark” factories that employ no people, only robots. That will be true here as well, which undercuts any labor savings they once had. There’s a few problems, however: robotic mega-factories only work with very large scale of identical goods that can source reliable, high-quality inputs. If oil is too high, and/or shipping or marketing fractures, those factories scale down, retool more, and therefore require more people than presently.

How is China going to have huge robotic mega-factories if half their export market can no longer afford them? If the U.S. and China split the market, aren’t all those factories half the size of present? Since the U.S. will now have low-cost people and raw materials, what advantage does China bring to offset shipping and tariffs? The “market” isn’t uniform. There was worldwide mass-integration of manufacturing between India and England and the world in 1910 too, yet it’s didn’t persist; it changed.

 

One way it can change is to leapfrog China. We hear about how the U.S. is a has-been as we are supporting legacy copper telephones while the 3rd world goes directly to fiber and cell, and this is true. However, China has mainlined on low-price, low-profit, mass-manufacturing. Why would anyone compete with them there? It’s irrational. Build a baseline and let them have all the low-profit, environment-destroying work they want, the U.S. can’t and won’t beat them there.

We can beat them by leapfrogging into technology that’s out there, but no one is revealing yet, things they haven’t done, but Americans are good at doing: innovating, high-tech, medical. Much as I hate high-tech and its panacea as an answer, yet I believe there are goods, ideas out there that can transform the way things work.

Look at the rapid development and uptake of LEDs for example. The patent office is filled with them, and an outsized number are American. We have superconducting maglev, field physics, material science of no-weight foam, color-shifting paint, hyperconducting graphite, and transparent concrete to name a few. All there, all unused. Let’s make an example case in a very large, very quiet investment.

Medical and Biotech are to some extent used up, with overpriced, mass-market pharmaceuticals being rejected by price and form even by the wider population. But that’s so last-century. The new biotech is going to take a blood or DNA sample and synthesize a drug specifically for your blood and DNA. They are going to create another organ, a blood transfusion no one but you can use.

In one way, this may be more expensive, and that’s good for profits, but in another way, they will work for you, much better and guaranteed, and therefore fix your health faster, spare you useless drugs, bad side effects, and actually work, and therefore be cheaper. What does it take to make them? A complete revolution in drug manufacturing. Multi-billion dollars’ worth of equipment, extremely unique development and patents, a 20 year head start.

 

Could you sell such a thing to the Chinese? You bet. Could they get off retail manufacturing and scoop us on it? Not a chance. So you see how such a thing could happen, even with a U.S. dollar falling and a hard readjustment ahead. And that’s just one.

If boutique and robotic goods are the new industries, what do we do with 200 million unemployed? We won’t have 200 million. That’s a consequence of the distorted extreme of our finance, our centralization, our currency. For one thing, we have only 100 million now and a lower dollar will definitely restore the competitive advantage of highly-productive U.S. workers. At the same time, if work requires fewer workers, we will find a solution. Why?

Because you can’t have 200 million unemployed. Not even 100 million. The resulting inequity and income disparity can and has caused a revolution. Faced with that, any nation will adjust because they must or perish. As difficult as Americans can be, they are a practical people above all. This has happened to dozens of nations in the past: Spain, France, Germany, England, China, Japan, and they all still exist. Things rotated out in the big wheel of time. New things were made and the old ones faded away, and we will too.

We’re going back to being just one of many nations, and a fair and productive one too. There are ways and we will find them. How can I be so sure? Because “What Can’t Go On Forever, Doesn’t,” and it won’t this time either.

 

 

Nov 082017
 
 November 8, 2017  Posted by at 1:47 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Salvador Dalí The oecumenial council 1960

 

Trying to figure out what on earth is happening in the Middle East appears to have gotten a lot harder. Perhaps (because) it’s become more dangerous too. There are so many players, and connections between players, involved now that even making one of those schematic representations would never get it right. Too many unknown unknowns.

A short and incomplete list of the actors: Sunni, Shiite, Saudi Arabia, US, Russia, Turkey, ISIS, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Kurds, Lebanon, Hezbollah, Hamas, Qatar, Israel, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Houthis, perhaps even Chechnya, Afghanistan, Pakistan. I know I know, add your favorites. So what have we got, or what do we know we’ve got? We seem to have the US lining up with Israel, the UAE and Saudi Arabia against Russia, Iran, Syria, Hezbollah. Broadly. But that’s just a -pun intended- crude start.

Putin has been getting closer to the Saudis because of the OPEC production cuts, trying to jack up the price of oil. Which ironically has now been achieved on the heels of the arrests of 11 princes and scores of other wealthy and powerful in the kingdom. But Putin also recently signed a $30 billion oil -infrastructure- deal with Iran. And he’s been cuddling up to Israel as well.

In fact, Putin may well be the most powerful force in the Middle East today. Well played?! He prevented the demise of Assad in Syria, which however you look at it at least saved the country from becoming another Iraq and Libya style failed state. If there’s one thing you can say about the Middle East/North Africa it’s that the US succeeded in creating chaos there to such an extent that it has zero control left over any of it. Well played?!

 

One thing seems obvious: the House of Saud needs money. The cash flowing out to the princes is simply not available anymore. The oil price is a major factor in that. Miraculously, the weekend crackdown on dozens of princes et al, managed to do what all the OPEC meetings could not for the price of oil: push it up. But the shrinkage of foreign reserves shows a long term problem, not some momentary blip:

 

 

Another sign that money has become a real problem in Riyadh is the ever-postponed IPO of Saudi Aramco, the flagship oil company supposedly worth $2 trillion. Trump this week called on the Saudi’s to list it in New York, but despite the upsurge in oil prices you still have to wonder which part of that $2 trillion is real, and which is just fantasy.

But yeah, I know, there’s a million different stocks you can ask the same question about. Then again, seeing the wealth of some of the kingdom’s richest parties confiscated overnight can’t be a buy buy buy signal, can it? Looks like the IPO delay tells us something.

And then you have the 15,000 princes and princesses who all live off of the Kingdom’s supposed riches (‘only 2,000’ profit directly). All of them live in -relative- wealth. Some more than others, but there’s no hunger in the royal family. Thing is, overall population growth outdoes even that in the royal family. Which means, since the country produces nothing except for oil, that there are 1000s upon 1000s of young people with nothing to do but spend money that’s no longer there. Cue mayhem.

 

 

And things are not getting better, Saudi Arabia loses money on every barrel it produces. There are stories about them lowering their break-even price, but let’s take that with a few spoonfuls of salt. A 25% drop in break-even prices in just one year sounds a bit too good. Moreover, main competitors like Iran would still have a much lower break-even price. So even if prices would rise further, the Saudi’s might only break even while Iran gets much richer. Running vs standing still.

 

Saudi Arabia Leads Gulf Nations in Cutting Break-Even Oil Price

Saudi Arabia, OPEC’s biggest oil producer, is also a leader when it comes to slashing the crude price the country needs to balance its budget. The kingdom will need oil to trade at $70 a barrel next year to break even, the IMF said Tuesday in its Regional Economic Outlook for the Middle East and Central Asia. That’s down from a break-even of $96.60 a barrel in 2016, the biggest drop of eight crude producers in the Persian Gulf. The break-even is a measure of the crude price needed to meet spending plans and balance the budget.

 

 

Gulf oil producers are cutting spending and eliminating subsidies after crude plunged from more than $100 a barrel in 2014 to average just over half that this year. The need to curb spending is more urgent with the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries cutting output to reduce a global glut. Oil will trade at $50 to $60 a barrel for the “medium term,” the IMF said.

 

 

So a thorough cleansing job of the royal family is perhaps inevitable, albeit very risky. King Salman and crown prince Mohammed bin Salman are up against a very large group of rich people. But there’s no way back now.

 

Saudi Banks Freeze More Than 1,200 Bank Accounts in Anti-Corruption Purge

Saudi Arabian banks have frozen more than 1,200 accounts belonging to individuals and companies in the kingdom as part of the government’s anti-corruption purge, bankers and lawyers said on Tuesday. They added that the number is continuing to rise. Dozens of royal family members, officials and business executives have been detained in the crackdown and are facing allegations of money laundering, bribery, extorting officials and taking advantage of public office for personal gain. Since Sunday, the central bank has been expanding the list of accounts it is requiring lenders to freeze on an almost hourly basis…

Much more will have to follow that. Doing a half way job is far too risky once the job has started. Not even $800 billion sounds like all that much. Separate families and factions within the royal family have had decades to accumulate wealth.

 

Saudi Crackdown Targets Up to $800 Billion in Assets

The Saudi government is aiming to confiscate cash and other assets worth as much as $800 billion in its broadening crackdown on alleged corruption among the kingdom’s elite, according to people familiar with the matter. Several prominent businessmen are among those who have been arrested in the days since Saudi authorities launched the crackdown on Saturday, by detaining more than 60 princes, officials and other prominent Saudis, according to those people and others. The country’s central bank, the Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority, said late Tuesday that it has frozen the bank accounts of “persons of interest” and said the move is “in response to the Attorney General’s request pending the legal cases against them.”

The most visible – and perhaps richest- of all those arrested -in western eyes- is Al-Waleed. The Bloomberg estimate of his wealth that came out this week is $19 billion. But their own article seems to indicate a much higher number. He owns 5% of Apple -says Bloomberg-, and that share alone would be worth $45 billion.

 

Alwaleed, Caught in Saudi Purge, Has Assets Across the World

Apple – Alwaleed bought 6.23 million shares, or 5 percent, of the computer and mobile-device maker for $115.4 million in 1997. He made these purchases between mid-March and April of that year while the company was still struggling to turn itself around. He has since continued to hold the stake while Apple’s valuation has soared to as high as $900 billion.

 

Going through all these numbers, you can imagine why the ruling family, or rather the rulers within that family, are getting nervous. And that’s where we get to an interesting piece by Ryan Grim at the Intercept, who says it’s not even 32-year-old crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, or King Salman, 81, who control the kingdom these days, it’s the United Arab Emirates (UAE) -and maybe Washington-.

The coup has already been perpetrated.

 

Saudi Arabia’s Government Purge – And How Washington Corruption Enabled It

The move marks a moment of reckoning for Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which struck a bargain of sorts with Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS, and Yousef Al Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the U.S. who has been MBS’s leading advocate in Washington. The unspoken arrangement was clear: The UAE and Saudi Arabia would pump millions into Washington’s political ecosystem while mouthing a belief in “reform,” and Washington would pretend to believe that they meant it.

MBS has won praise for some policies, like an openness to reconsidering Saudi Arabia’s ban on women drivers. Meanwhile, however, the 32-year-old MBS has been pursuing a dangerously impulsive and aggressive regional policy, which has included a heightening of tensions with Iran, a catastrophic war on Yemen, and a blockade of ostensible ally Qatar. Those regional policies have been disasters for the millions who have suffered the consequences, including the starving people of Yemen, as well as for Saudi Arabia, but MBS has dug in harder and harder. And his supporters in Washington have not blinked.

The platitudes about reform were also challenged by recent mass arrests of religious figures and repression of anything that has remotely approached less than full support of MBS. The latest purge comes just days after White House adviser Jared Kushner, a close ally of Otaiba, visited Riyadh, and just hours after a bizarre-even-for-Trump tweet. Whatever legitimate debate there was about MBS ended Saturday — his drive to consolidate power is now too obvious to ignore. And that puts denizens of Washington’s think tank world in a difficult spot, as they have come to rely heavily on the Saudi and UAE end of the bargain.

As The Intercept reported earlier, one think tank alone, the Middle East Institute, got a massive $20 million commitment from the UAE. And make no mistake, MBS is a project of the UAE — an odd turn of events given the relative sizes of the two countries. “Our relationship with them is based on strategic depth, shared interests, and most importantly the hope that we could influence them. Not the other way around,” Otaiba has said privately.

The kingdom’s broke. Not today, or tomorrow morning, but crown prince MBS is able to look at the numbers and go: Oh Shit! And if he doesn’t see it, he has Kushner (re: Israel) and Al-Otaiba to fill him in. All three relative youngsters -MBS is 32, Kushner is 36, Otaiba is 43- are exceedingly nervous by now.

And then you get war, or the threat of war. War in Yemen, a blockade of Qatar, and now ‘mingling’ in Lebanon with the somewhat mysterious removal of billionaire PM Hariri -allegedly on an Iran/Hezbollah assassination plot-, and outright threats against Iran and Hezbollah:

 

Lebanon’s Hariri Visits UAE As Home Crisis Escalates

Lebanon’s outgoing prime minister, Saad al-Hariri, made a brief visit to the United Arab Emirates from Saudi Arabia on Tuesday despite a deepening crisis back home and a rise in regional tensions triggered by his surprise resignation. Hariri announced his resignation on Saturday during a visit to his ally Saudi Arabia and has not yet returned to Lebanon. He said he believed there was an assassination plot against him and accused Iran, Saudi Arabia’s arch-rival, and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah of sowing strife in the Arab world.

His resignation has thrust Lebanon back into the frontline of the regional rivalry that pits a mostly Sunni bloc led by Saudi Arabia and allied Gulf monarchies against Shi‘ite Iran and its allies. Hariri’s office said he had flown to Abu Dhabi on Tuesday and then returned to Riyadh, but it gave no reason for the trip. It also did not say when he would return home. Hariri’s Future TV channel said he would also visit Bahrain but gave no reason.

In short: billionaire PM Hariri is a puppet. Just perhaps not of Saudi Arabia, but of Abu Dhabi. Whether he’s under house arrest in Riyadh, as has been suggested, is still unclear. But it’s a safe bet that he didn’t fly to Abu Dhabi -and back- alone, or of his own accord. He went to receive instructions.

 

Saudi Arabia Accuses Iran Of ‘Direct Military Aggression’ Over Yemen Missile

Saudi Arabia’s crown prince has accused Iran of “direct military aggression” by supplying missiles to Houthi rebels in Yemen, raising the stakes in an already tense standoff between the two regional rivals. Mohammed bin Salman linked Tehran to the launch of a ballistic missile fired from Yemen towards the international airport in the Saudi capital of Riyadh on Saturday. The missile was intercepted and destroyed.

“The involvement of the Iranian regime in supplying its Houthi militias with missiles is considered a direct military aggression by the Iranian regime,” the prince said on Tuesday during a phone conversation with the UK foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, according to the state-run Saudi Press Agency. He added that the move “may be considered an act of war against the kingdom”. Iran has called Riyadh’s accusations as baseless and provocative.

We have way of knowing what is true or not about this. We do know that Saudi Arabia have been executing a barbaric war in Yemen. With weapons from the US, UK, et al. So someone firing back wouldn’t be that far-fetched.

 

Regardless, Pepe Escobar, a journalist who knows much more than his peers, or at least doesn’t hold back as much as them, doesn’t see this end well for MBS, UAE, Israel, US, and whoever else is in their corner. Another losing war for the US in the Middle East? We’re losing count.

 

The Inside Story Of The Saudi Night Of Long Knives

A top Middle East business/investment source who has been doing deals for decades with the opaque House of Saud offers much-needed perspective: “This is more serious than it appears. The arrest of the two sons of previous King Abdullah, Princes Miteb and Turki, was a fatal mistake. This now endangers the King himself. It was only the regard for the King that protected MBS. There are many left in the army against MBS and they are enraged at the arrest of their commanders.” To say the Saudi Arabian Army is in uproar is an understatement. “He’d have to arrest the whole army before he could feel secure.”

[..] The story starts with secret deliberations in 2014 about a possible “removal” of then King Abdullah. But “the dissolution of the royal family would lead to the breaking apart of tribal loyalties and the country splitting into three parts. It would be more difficult to secure the oil, and the broken institutions whatever they were should be maintained to avoid chaos.” Instead, a decision was reached to get rid of Prince Bandar bin Sultan – then actively coddling Salafi-jihadis in Syria – and replace the control of the security apparatus with Mohammed bin Nayef. The succession of Abdullah proceeded smoothly.

Power was shared between three main clans: King Salman (and his beloved son Prince Mohammed); the son of Prince Nayef (the other Prince Mohammed), and finally the son of the dead king (Prince Miteb, commander of the National Guard). In practice, Salman let MBS run the show. And, in practice, blunders also followed. The House of Saud lost its lethal regime-change drive in Syria and is bogged down in an unwinnable war on Yemen, which on top of it prevents MBS from exploiting the Empty Quarter – the desert straddling both nations. The Saudi Treasury was forced to borrow on the international markets. Austerity ruled …

[..] aversion to MBS never ceased to grow; “There are three major royal family groups aligning against the present rulers: the family of former King Abdullah, the family of former King Fahd, and the family of former Crown Prince Nayef.” Nayef – who replaced Bandar – is close to Washington and extremely popular in Langley due to his counter-terrorism activities. His arrest earlier this year angered the CIA and quite a few factions of the House of Saud – as it was interpreted as MBS forcing his hand in the power struggle. According to the source, “he might have gotten away with the arrest of CIA favorite Mohammed bin Nayef if he smoothed it over but MBS has now crossed the Rubicon though he is no Caesar. The CIA regards him as totally worthless.”

[..] The source, though, is adamant; “There will be regime change in the near future, and the only reason that it has not happened already is because the old King is liked among his family. It is possible that there may be a struggle emanating from the military as during the days of King Farouk, and we may have a ruler arise that is not friendly to the United States.”

In the end, it all comes down to a familiar theme: follow the money. And we need to seriously question the economic reality of Saudi Arabia. That graph above of their foreign reserves looks downright grim.

With money comes power. Who loses money loses power. Saudi Arabia is bleeding money. The population surge is uncanny, and there are no jobs for all these young people. Perhaps the best they can do is be a US/Israel puppet in an attempt to ‘redo’ the map of the Middle East, but that has not been a very successful project off late -like the past 100 years-.

Then again, when you’re desperate you do desperate things. And when you’re a 32-year-old crown prince with more enemies than you can keep track of, you use what money is left to 1) keep up appearances, 2) steal what others have gathered, 3) buy weapons up the wazoo, and 4) go to war.

It all paints a very dark picture for the world. Russia won’t stand for attacks on Iran. And Iran won’t let attacks on Lebanon/Hezbollah go unanswered. All that is set to push up oil prices further, and all parties involved are just fine with that. Because they can buy more weapons with the additional profits.

I’ll leave you with Nassim Taleb’s comments on the situation. After all, Nassim’s from Lebanon, and knows that part of the world like the back of his hand:

 

 

 

Nov 012017
 
 November 1, 2017  Posted by at 2:44 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  


Jean-Léon Gérôme Slave market 1866

 

Here’s the story in a nutshell: Ultra low interest rates mark a shift away from people’s wealth residing in their savings and pension plans, and into to so-called wealth residing in their homes, which are bought with ever growing levels of debt. When interest rates rise, they will lose that so-called wealth.

It is grand theft auto on an unparalleled scale, and it’s a piece of genius, because while people are getting robbed in plain daylight, they actually think they’re winning. But as I wrote back in March of this year, home sales, and bubbles, are the only thing that keeps our economies humming.

We haven’t learned a thing since March, and we haven’t learned a thing for many years. People need a place to live, and they fall for the scheme hook line and sinker. Which in a way is a good thing because the economy would have been dead without that ignorance, but at the same time it’s not because it’s a temporary relief only and the end result will be all the more painful for it.

Whatever Yellen decides as per rates, or Draghi, it doesn’t really matter anymore, this sucker’s going down something awful. This is a global issue. Housing bubbles have been blown not only in the Anglosphere, though they are strong there, many other countries have them as well, Scandinavia, Netherlands, even Germany and France. It’s what ultra low rates do.

First, here’s what I said in March:

 

Our Economies Run On Housing Bubbles

What we have invented to keep big banks afloat for a while longer is ultra low interest rates, NIRP, ZIRP etc. They create the illusion of not only growth, but also of wealth. They make people think a home they couldn’t have dreamt of buying not long ago now fits in their ‘budget’. That is how we get them to sign up for ever bigger mortgages. And those in turn keep our banks from falling over.

Record low interest rates have become the only way that private banks can create new money, and stay alive (because at higher rates hardly anybody can afford a mortgage). It’s of course not just the banks that are kept alive, it’s the entire economy. Without the ZIRP rates, the mortgages they lure people into, and the housing bubbles this creates, the amount of money circulating in our economies would shrink so much and so fast the whole shebang would fall to bits.

That’s right: the survival of our economies today depends one on one on the existence of housing bubbles. No bubble means no money creation means no functioning economy.

 

 

What we should do in the short term is lower private debt levels (drastically, jubilee style), and temporarily raise public debt to encourage economic activity, aim for more and better jobs. But we’re doing the exact opposite: austerity measures are geared towards lowering public debt, while they cut the consumer spending power that makes up 60-70% of our economies. Meanwhile, housing bubbles raise private debt through the -grossly overpriced- roof.

This is today’s general economic dynamic. It’s exclusively controlled by the price of debt. However, as low interest rates make the price of debt look very low, the real price (there always is one, it’s just like thermodynamics) is paid beyond interest rates, beyond the financial markets even, it’s paid on Main Street, in the real economy. Where the quality of jobs, if not the quantity, has fallen dramatically, and people can only survive by descending ever deeper into ever more debt.

 

 

Australia’s housing boom has been a thing of beauty, with New Zealand, especially Wellington and Auckland, following close behind. UBS now says the Oz bubble is over. Prices are still rising quite a bit though.

Fresh New Zealand PM Jacinda Ardern has announced new policies to deter foreign buyers from purchasing more property in the country. She may not like what that does to the country’s economy. Most new Zealanders can no longer afford property in major centers, and forcing prices down this way will expose many present owners to margin calls and foreclosures.

Moreover, because Australian banks own their New Zealand peers, if the Aussie boom is really gone, these banks are going to get hit so hard they’ll take down New Zealand with them. Close your eyes and put your fingers in your ears.

 

Australia’s Housing Boom Is ‘Officially Over’

The housing boom that has seen Australian home prices more than double since the turn of the century is “officially over,” after data showed prices now flatlining, UBS said. National house prices were unchanged in October from September, while annual growth has slowed to 7% from more than 10% as recently as July, CoreLogic data released Wednesday showed. “There is now a persistent and sharp slowdown unfolding,” UBS economists led by George Tharenou said in a report. “This suggests a tightening of financial conditions is unfolding, which we expect to weigh on consumption growth via a fading household-wealth effect.”

An end to Australia’s property boom will be welcome news for first-time buyers, who have struggled to break into the market after surging prices propelled Sydney past London and New York to be the second-most expensive housing market. Less impressed may be property investors, already squeezed by regulatory lending curbs that drove up mortgage rates. The cooling housing market may encourage the Reserve Bank to keep interest rates at a record low. A rate hike would be undesirable as it would put further downward pressure on dwelling prices, said Diana Mousina, senior economist at AMP Capital Investors.

 

 

But perhaps a bigger, and more surprising, story is shaping up in the US. Looks like the American housing bubble is back with a vengeance. It’s always amusing to see claims that this is due to a lack of supply. The real problem is not supply, but artificially fabricated demand. Fabricated by low rates. Though the NAR is not known for its accuracy (it’s a PR firm), this Bloomberg piece is still relevant.

 

Homes Are Getting Snapped Up at the Fastest Pace in 30 Years

Homes are sitting on the market for the shortest time in 30 years, according to an annual report on homebuyers and sellers published today by the National Association of Realtors. The typical home spent just three weeks on the market, according to the report, which focused on about 8,000 homebuyers who purchased their home in the year ending in June. That was down from four weeks in the year ending June 2016 and 11 weeks in 2012, when the U.S. housing market was still reeling from the foreclosure crisis.

It was the shortest time since the NAR report began including data on how long homes spend on the market, in 1987. Buyers are snapping up homes quickly at a time when for-sale listings are in short supply, forcing them to compete. The number of available properties declined in September, according to NAR’s monthly report on existing home sales, marking the 28th consecutive month of year-on-year decline in inventory. In addition to moving fast, buyers also had to pony up to close the deal. 42% of buyers paid at least the listing price, the highest share since the NAR survey started keeping track in 2007.

 

Where the fine bubble plan runs astray is in affordability. Ultra low rates can encourage sales, but that also raises prices, and if and when wages do not keep up there must be a point where you hit a wall. In the US that wall is fast approaching, suggests Tyler Durden:

 

US Homes Have Never Been More Unaffordable

Just under a year ago, US home prices finally surpassed their prior all time highs, one decade after the 2006 bubble… and haven’t looked back since. Which, all else equal, would be great news for America, where the bulk of middle-class wealth is not in the stock market contrary to conventional wisdom, but in its biggest, and most illiquid asset-cum-investment: one’s home. There is just one problem: while house prices are once again hitting new all time highs every month, household incomes have failed to keep up; in fact, as the Political Calculations blog shows, in the past two years there has been a distinct trend in home affordability, or lack thereof.

[..] starting in September 2015, the TTM average median new home sale price in the U.S. has been rising at an average rate of $906 per month. That’s the good news; the bad news is that in terms of affordability, the ratio of the trailing twelve month averages of median new home sale prices to median household income in the U.S. has risen to an all time high of 5.454, which following revisions in the data for new home sale prices, was recorded in July 2017. The initial value for September 2017 is 5.437. In other words, the median new home in the US has never been more unaffordable in terms of current income.

 

 

Never more unaffordable is a bold statement, but it’s probably correct. The graph only goes back as far as 1987, but that should do. Another angle on the same issue, also from Tyler:

Home Prices In All US Cities Grow Faster Than Wages… And Then There’s Seattle

US national home prices are up 6.07% YoY in August – the fastest rate since June 2014. We note this data is for August – before the hurricanes. Seattle (up 13.2%), Las Vegas (up 8.6%), and San Diego (up 7.8%) were the top three cities in terms of year-over-year price appreciation; all cities showed gains of at least 3%. Pushing home prices to a new record high…

“Home-price increases appear to be unstoppable,” David Blitzer, chairman of the S&P index committee, said in a statement. “At the same time, “measures of affordability are beginning to slide, indicating that the pool of buyers is shrinking, and the Fed’s interest-rate hikes are likely to push mortgage rates higher over time, “removing a key factor supporting rising home prices,” he said.

 

 

There’s nothing anyone can do to raise wages, and while Yellen may claim not to understand why wages and inflation refuse to shine, it’s not that hard. Whatever is called a job these days is America didn’t use to be labeled that. We’ve all been conned into redefining what a job is, but the benefits and security and all that have still vanished. So what can people afford? They can’t even afford to rent anymore:

 

Renting In The US Has Never Been More Unaffordable

Over the weekend, when looking at the record high ratio in median new home sale prices to household incomes in the US, we concluded that US homes have never been more unaffordable for the average American. What about renting? Isn’t it intuitive that if buying a house has never been more expensive, then at least renting should be cheap(er). Unfortunately no, because not only is renting not cheap(er) in either absolute or relative terms, but when observed through the prism of the only thing that matters, namely disposable income, renting – just like buying a house – has never been more unaffordable.

 

 

Now remember what I said before: millions upon millions see their savings and pensions melt away before their eyes, while at the same time they are forced to spend ever more on housing costs. And when that scheme hits the wall, the economy will remember it’s alive only because of the housing bubble, and then croak. Leaving both renters and owners without jobs and eventually places to live.

A lovely example of where all this is heading comes from a Statista report on the Netherlands 3 weeks ago. The Dutch have tons of interest-only mortgages, just like the Australians, but you can take this graph as a general model for what many of not most countries that have low interest rates and thus housing bubbles, will face:

 

Heading Towards A Mortgage Crisis In The Netherlands?

Bank it or bust. In October 2017, the Dutch Central Bank (DNB) issued a warning on mortgages in the Netherlands. They claimed that almost 55% of the aggregate Dutch mortgage debt consisted of interest-only and investment-based mortgage loans, which did not involve any contractual repayments during the loan term. As prices in the the European housing, or residential real estate, market increase and mortgage rates decrease due the Asset Purchase Programme (APP) of the ECB, interest-only mortgages became more and more popular.

In addition, the Dutch government encouraged home ownership for many years, offering tax exemptions on Dutch mortgage payments alongside other benefits for homebuyers in the Netherlands. Consequently, the total mortgage debt from households in the Netherlands increased from approximately €548 billion in 2006 to approximately €664 billion in 2016. However, the debts must still be repaid when the interest-only mortgages expire.

The DNB stated there could be a risk that the households in question may not have the means to repay their debts before or when their loans expire, risking a new mortgage crisis. Lenders, they say, must actively alert customers to this risk and help them find a suitable solution. Unfortunately, the value of mortgages in 2017 is forecasted to increase with approximately 3.9% compared to 2016.

 

 

The debt accumulation is insane. Combine that with the wholesale erosion of savings and pensions, and you have an economy with either a lot of foreclosures and homelessness in its future, or a bankrupt banking system. More people should, before purchasing property, be shown graphs like that. But that would kill the bubble scheme, wouldn’t it?

Is there a way out of this mess? Well, there is in theory. Just grow your economy, and your wages etc., by let’s say 6.8% per year for decades on end. Problem with that is it’s possible only in a country like China, and that only because whatever Beijing says the growth rate is, goes. But that doesn’t make it real. Still, it entices Chinese grandmas into buying apartments.

What Beijing doesn’t tell them, or us, is how much debt the grandmas have gone into by now to buy all those new nice and shiny apartments. But since stocks and bonds are still not their thing, it’s all they have. Property in China is all on red. In the US about one quarter of household wealth is in housing, in China it’s three quarters.

 

 

So no, there’s no way out. My best guess is the first country to deal with this in an aggressive manner will be the -relative- winner. All others are goners. The governments and politicians who’ve lured their people into this biggest Ponzi in human history will probably be long gone when the house comes down, and if they know what’s good for them will have moved to some street with no name in a land far away.

 

 

Jul 312016
 
 July 31, 2016  Posted by at 10:13 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  


Vincent van Gogh Branches Of An Almond Tree In Blossom in Red 1890

Think about it for a second: If America -and UK, France- were to announce today that they would immediately cease bombing Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, would the US be any less safe? Would Europe?

How about if we’d promise to spend all the billions saved by not throwing bombs on them, to help rebuild these countries? Would that make us less safe, from terrorists, from anyone at all? Do you think ‘they’ would ‘hate’ us for that?

It becomes a pretty stupid non-discussion pretty fast, doesn’t it?

 

 

Jun 082016
 
 June 8, 2016  Posted by at 2:18 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


Fred Stein Evening, Paris 1934

Two months ago, there was a referendum in Holland about an association agreement between the EU and Ukraine. A relatively new Dutch law states that with an X amount of signatures a referendum can be ‘forced’ by anyone. Before, during and -especially- after the vote, its importance was -and is actively being- pooh-poohed by both the Dutch government and the EU. That in itself paints the issue better than anything else. Both the call and the subsequent support for the referendum stem from resistance against exactly that attitude.

The Dutch voted No to the EU/Ukraine agreement. It was with a turnout not much above the validity threshold, but a large majority of those who did vote agreed they want no part of the deal. This puts Dutch PM Rutte in an awkward position, he can’t be seen ignoring the population. Well, at least not openly. The EU can’t validate the agreement, and with Holland still holding the chair of the Union until July 1, a meeting on the topic has been pushed forward until the last weekend of June. With Rutte still in charge, but only just, and with the June 23 UK Brexit vote decided.

Brussels is frantically looking for a way to push through the agreement despite the Dutch vote, and likely some sort of bland compromise will be presented, which Rutte’s spin doctors will put into words that he can -with a straight face- claim honor the vote while at the same time executing what that same vote specifically spoke out against.

The EU will claim that since 27 other nations did ‘ratify’ the agreement, the 67% of the 32% of Dutch voters who bothered to show up should not be able to block it. As they conveniently fail to mention that nobody in the other 27 countries had a chance to vote on the issue. Just imagine a Brexit-like vote in all 28 EU nations on June 23. Brussels knows very well what that would mean. There’s nothing it finds scarier than people having an active say in their lives.

 

All this is a mere introduction for what is a ‘western world wide’ trend that hardly anybody is able to interpret correctly. It what seems to many to be a sudden development, votes like the Dutch one are ‘events’ where people vote down incumbents and elites. But these are not political occurrences, or at least politics doesn’t explain them.

In the US, there’s Trump and Bernie Sanders. In Britain, the Brexit referendum shows a people that are inclined not to vote FOR something, but AGAINST current political powers. In Italy, a Five-Star candidate is set to become mayor of Rome, something two Podemos affiliated -former- activists have already achieved in Barcelona and Madrid.

All across Europe, ‘traditional’ parties are at record lows in the polls. As is evident when it comes to Brexit, but what when you look closer is a common theme, anything incumbents say can and will be used against them. (A major part of this is that the ’propaganda power’ of traditional media is fast coming undone.)

The collapse of the system doesn’t mean people swing to the right, as is often claimed, though that is one option. It means people swing outside of the established channels, and whoever can credibly claim to be on that outside has a shot at sympathy, votes, power, be they left or right. Whatever else it is they may have in common, first and foremost they’re anti-establishment.

 

To understand the reason all this is happening, we must turn our heads and face economics. Or rather, the collapse of the economy. Especially in the western world – the formerly rich world-, there is no such thing as separate political and economic systems anymore (if there ever were). There is more truth in Hazel Henderson’s quote than we should like: “economics [..] has always been nothing more than politics in disguise”.

What we have is a politico-economic system, with the former media establishment clinging to (or inside?!) its body like some sort of embedded parasite. A diseased triumvirate.

With the economy in irreversible collapse, the politico part of the Siamese twin/triplet can no longer hold. That is what is happening. That is why all traditional political parties are either already out or soon will be. Because they, more than anything else, stand for the economic system that people see crumbling before their eyes. They represent that system, they are it, they can’t survive without it.

Of course the triumvirate tries as hard as it can to keep the illusion alive that sometime soon growth will return, but in reality this is not just another recession in some cycle of recessions. Or, at the very minimum this is a very long term cycle, Kondratieff style, . And even that sounds optimistic. The system is broken, irreparably. A new system will have to appear, eventually. But…

‘Associations’ like the EU, and perhaps even the US, with all the supranational and global entities they have given birth to, NATO, IMF, World Bank, you name them, depend for their existence on an economy that grows. The entire drive towards globalization does, as do any and all drives toward centralization. But the economy has collapsed. So all this will of necessity go into reverse, even if there are very powerful forces that will resist such a development.

 

Despite what the media try to tell you, as do the close to 100% manipulated economic data emanating from various -tightly controlled- sources, the economy is not growing, and it hasn’t for years; the only thing that grows is debt. And you can’t borrow growth.

You can argue in fascinating philosophical debates about when this started, arguments can be made for Nixon’s 1971 abolishment of the -last vestiges of- the gold standard anywhere up to Clinton’s 1998 repeal of Glass-Steagall, or anything in between -or even after.

It doesn’t matter much anymore, the specifics are already gathering dust as research material for historians. The single best thing to do for all of us not in positions of politico/economic power is to recognize the irreversible collapse of the system. Since we all grew up in it and have never known anything else, that is hard enough in itself. But we don’t have all that much time to lose anymore.

The whole shebang is broke. This can easily be displayed in a US nominal debt vs nominal GDP graph:

 

 

That’s really all you need to know. That’s what broke the shebang. It is easy. And even if a bit more of the ‘surplus’ debt had been allowed to go towards the common man, it wouldn’t have made much difference. We’ve replaced growth with debt, because that is the only way to keep the -illusion of- the politico-economic system going, and thereby the only way for the incumbent powers to cling on to that power.

And that is where the danger lies. It’s not just that the vast majority of westerners will become much poorer than they are now, they will be forced to face powers-that-be that face the threat of seeing their powers -both political and economic- slip sliding away and themselves heading towards some sort of Marie-Antoinette model.

The elites-that-be are not going to take that lying down. They will cling to their statuses for -literally- dear life. That right there is the biggest threat we all face (including them). It would be wise to recognize all these things for what they really are, not for what all these people try to make you believe they are. Dead seriously: playtime is over. The elites-that-be are ready and willing to ritually sacrifice you and your children. Because it’s the only way they can cling on to their positions. And their own very lives.

It may take a long time still for people to understand the above, but it’s also possible that markets crash tomorrow morning and bring the facades of Jericho down with them. Waiting for that to happen is not your best option.

Feb 272016
 
 February 27, 2016  Posted by at 1:56 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  


Theodor Horydczak Lincoln Memorial 1925

There has been quite a bit of talk lately over the need for a new Plaza Accord, something several parties saw happening during this weekend’s G20 summit in Shanghai -hence the term ‘Shanghai Accord’-. (On September 22, 1985 at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, France, West Germany, Japan, the US, and the UK signed an accord to depreciate the US dollar vs the Japanese yen and German Deutschmark by intervening in currency markets).

Unless all the G20 finance ministers and central bankers gathered in China are in close and secretive cahoots, though, it doesn’t look like it is going to happen. And that seems to both make sense and not. What those advocating such an accord are calling for is a -large- devaluation of the Chinese yuan (RMB) vs the USD and yen -perhaps even the euro-, but the climate simply doesn’t look ripe for it.

Still, the problem is, if they don’t do it, they open the doors to a whole lot more volatility, unpredictability and losses in the markets. All things that those markets do not want. Because, like it or not, the yuan is overvalued, China’s fabricated trade numbers are increasingly under scrutiny, and a large devaluation could settle things at least for a while.

However, Beijing looks too full of hubris and pride -and inclusion in the IMF basket of currencies is an issue too- to do what seems natural. Lest we forget, no matter how much China seeks to obfuscate the numbers, everybody already knows that numbers like producer prices and exports, and most importantly imports, have seen steep falls, and for a long time too.

China’s oil tanks look as close to overflowing as the American ones, and without those oil imports, who knows who bad import numbers would have looked? So from a Chinese point of view, a cheaper yuan would mean much cheaper Chinese exports for global buyers, whereas the negative effect of more expensive imports would be relatively small.

But there’s the other side of the equation as well: other nations’ exports would see a potentially enormous effect of cheaper Chinese imports on their domestic manufacturing base. For countries like Germany, the US and Japan, any such devaluation may therefore be an absolute non-starter at this point.

That, however, leaves the fact that there is that large imbalance in currency (FX) markets, and that those markets, along with hedge funders like Kyle Bass, have already made it known that they will seek to exploit that imbalance to go after the yuan for profit. That finance ministers seem unable to ‘soften’ the imbalance will only make them more determined. It’s like the central bankers and finance ministers make their case for them.

A few news snippets from the past week. First, Tyler Durden’s take on BofA’s Michael Hartnett a week ago, who’s quite clear on why there should be a devaluation.

BofA: ‘Shanghai Accord’, Massive Central Bank Intervention Imminent

Any time the relative performance of global financials to US Treasuries has stumbled as far as it has, as shown in the chart below, it has meant one thing – a major central bank intervention was imminent. At least that’s the interpretation of BofA’s Michael Hartnett, who shows that in order to provide the kick for the bounce in this all too important “deflationary leading indicator”, central banks engaged in major unorthodox easing episodes, whether QE1-3, or the ECB’s QE.

Why intervene now? Here are the problems according to Hartnett:
• Problem 1: US economy in “bad Goldilocks”, i.e. US economy not hot/strong enough to lift global GDP & EPS; but not cold/bad enough to induce global coordinated response
• Problem 2: global policy-maker rhetoric in recent days shows “coordinated innocence” not stimulus, all blaming global economy for weak domestic economies (“Overseas factors are to blame”…Japan PM Abe; “drag on U.S. economy from greater-than-expected-slowdown in China & other EM economies“…FOMC minutes; “increasing concerns about the prospects for the global economy”…ECB Draghi; “the change in China’s growth rate can be attributed in part to weak performance of the global economy”…PBoC)

Problem 2 is static, meant for media propaganda and jawboning; it can easily be removed once the global economy takes the next leg lower. Which incidentally would also resolve the gating factor of Problem 1 – as we have said for months, the Fed and its central bank peers need the political cover to launch more stimulus.

And in a reflexive world, where the “economy is the market”, this means just one thing – a big leg lower in stocks is the necessary and sufficient condition to once again push stocks higher, as policy failure is internalized, and global risk reprises from square 1. This is Bank of America’s summary, warning that unless a major policy intervention is enacted, the market will then sell off to the next support level, below the 1,812 which has proven so stable since August. Stabilization of “4C’s” (China, Commodities, Credit, Consumer) allowed SPX 1800 to hold/bounce to 1950-2000; weak policy stimulus in coming weeks could end rally/risk fresh declines to induce growth-boosting policy accord.

Next up, Bloomberg:

Barclays Says Sharp Yuan Devaluation Needed

A sharp, one-off devaluation of the yuan is among options China’s central bank might consider to stem capital outflows and shift market psychology to appreciation from depreciation, according to Barclays. The risk of such a move, which Barclays says would need to be in the region of 25% to alter perceptions, is rising as China’s foreign-exchange reserves plunge, analysts Ajay Rajadhyaksha and Jian Chang wrote in a report. Based on the current pace of decline in those holdings, there’s a six- to 12-month window before they drop to uncomfortable levels and measures such as capital controls or monetary tightening may also have to be looked at to curb the exodus of money, they said. All those options carry elements of danger.

Another rapid yuan depreciation could spook investors just as concern about the state of the global economy is growing and other central banks would likely follow, countering the beneficial impact on Chinese exports, the analysts said. Strict capital controls won’t work in an export-driven economy, while a move to policy tightening could slow growth and cause credit defaults, they said. “A devaluation of this magnitude seems impossible to ‘sell’ to the rest of the world,” according to the analysts at Barclays, the world’s third-biggest currency trader.

And then this from the FT, which confirms the huge question mark over the option:

Scepticism Rife Over G20 Move To Calm FX

Scepticism is rife that the G20 gathering of finance ministers will agree to co-ordinate currency policy but there is some belief it could provide a short-term boost to risk appetite. Japan has led calls for the two-day meeting in Shanghai to bring calmness to an unstable market with a broad-based FX strategy, seen by some market commentators as a reprise of the 1985 Plaza Accord that succeeded in weakening a rampant dollar. But those hopes have been knocked back by China and the US, and market expectations have been subdued in the run-up to the G20 meeting that ends with a communique on Saturday. “A grand solution like the Plaza Accord feels far-fetched”, said Peter Rosenstrich at the online bank Swissquote.

Then, the South China Morning Post a few days back on how Beijing apparently seeks to hide capital outflows data.

Sensitive Financial Data ‘Missing’ From PBOC Report On Capital Outflows

Sensitive data is missing from a regular Chinese central bank report amid concerns about capital outflow as the economy slows and the yuan weakens. Financial analysts say the sudden lack of clear information makes it hard for markets to assess the scale of capital flows out of China as well as the central bank s foreign exchange operations in the banking system. Figures on the “position for forex purchase” are regularly published in the People’s Bank of China’s monthly report on the “Sources and Uses of Credit Funds of Financial Institutions”. The December reading in foreign currencies was US$250 billion. But the data was missing in the central bank’s latest report. It seemed the information had been merged into the “other items” category, whose January figure was US$243.9 billion -a surge from US$20.4 billion the previous month.

Combine that with new world trade numbers as reported by the FT, and you can’t help but wonder 1) what is going on with trade (though this is in USD, and that tweeks things somewhat), and 2) how much the yuan would have to drop to make up for the difference.

World Trade Falls 13.8% In Dollar Terms (FT)

Weaker demand from emerging markets made 2015 the worst year for world trade since the aftermath of the global financial crisis, highlighting rising fears about the health of the global economy. The value of goods that crossed international borders last year fell 13.8% in dollar terms — the first contraction since 2009 — according to the Netherlands Bureau of Economic Policy Analysis’s World Trade Monitor. Much of the slump was due to a slowdown in China and other emerging economies. The new data released on Thursday represent the first snapshot of global trade for 2015.

Next, Christopher Balding, an associate professor at Peking University HSBC Business School, who does them all one better by questioning even what may be the most widely accepted idea about the Chinese economy.

China Does Not Have a Trade Surplus

Whereas Chinese Customs reports $1.68 trillion and SAFE report $1.57 in goods imports into China, banks report paying $2.55 trillion for imports. In other words, funds paid for imported goods and services was $870-980 billion or 52-62% higher than official Customs and SAFE trade data. This level of discrepancy is extreme in both absolute and relative terms and cannot simply be called a rounding error but is nothing less than systemic fraud. If we adjust the official trade in goods and services balance to reflect cash flows rather than official headline trade data as reported by both Customs and SAFE, the differences are even worse.

According to official Customs and SAFE data, China ran a goods trade surplus of $593 or $576 billion but according to bank payment and receipt data, China ran a goods trade surplus of only $128 billion. If we include service trade, the picture worsens considerably. China via SAFE trade data reports a $207 billion trade deficit in services trade. Payment data reported via SAFE actually reports about $42 billion smaller deficit of $165 billion. In other words, the supposed trade surplus of $600 billion has become a trade in goods and services deficit of $36 billion. Expand to the current, through a significant primary income deficit, and the total current account deficit is now $124 billion.

That doesn’t leave much in one piece of what we’ve been told about the China growth miracle. No wonder the PBoC is ‘airbrushing’, as the NYT says. The problem with this is that analysts are already scrutinizing the data up -very- close, and they’re not going to be easily fooled anymore. For instance, in the case of the missing capital outflows data mentioned earlier, analysts say they can find them out through other channels anyway, and they will be that much more eager to do just that. Trying to bully them is senseless.

As China’s Economic Picture Turns Uglier, Beijing Applies Airbrush

This month, Chinese banking officials omitted currency data from closely watched economic reports. Weeks earlier, Chinese regulators fined a journalist $23,000 for reposting a message that said a big securities firm had told elite clients to sell stock. Before that, officials pressed two companies to stop releasing early results from a survey of Chinese factories that often moved markets. Chinese leaders are taking increasingly bold steps to stop rising pessimism about turbulent markets and the slowing of the country’s growth. As financial and economic troubles threaten to undermine confidence in the Communist Party, Beijing is tightening the flow of economic information and even criminalizing commentary that officials believe could hurt stocks or the currency.

The effort to control the economic narrative plays into a wide-reaching strategy by President Xi Jinping to solidify support at a time when doubts are swirling about his ability to manage the tumult. The persistence of that tumult was underscored on Thursday by a 6.4% drop in Chinese stocks, which are now down more than a fifth since the beginning of this year alone. The government moved to bolster confidence on Saturday by ousting its top securities regulator, who had been widely accused of contributing to the stock market turmoil. Mr. Xi is also putting pressure on the Chinese media to focus on positive news that reflects well on the party. But the tightly scripted story makes it ever more difficult to get information needed to gauge the extent of the country’s slowdown, analysts say. “Data disappears when it becomes negative,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang, co-founder of J Capital Research, which analyzes the Chinese economy.

A bit more of that through CNBC:

Chinese Accounting Is ‘Highly Questionable’

Financial reporting in China was back in the spotlight again Friday, with one strategist claiming Chinese businesses were using “accounting trickery” to mask underlying credit problems. China looks like it’s heading towards a credit bust, Chris Watling, CEO and chief market strategist at Longview Economics told CNBC on Friday, explaining that cash borrowed by mainland firms is primarily being used to service debts. “We’ve been looking a lot at Chinese accounting recently and it is highly questionable,” he said. The corporate sector is increasing borrowing to pay interest, while instances of fraud and default are on the rise, he added in a note published Thursday. He said there were many examples where operating profit has been high, while cash flow has been negative — a “classic sign” that firms aren’t generating a profit, he added.

Watling highlighted that the balance sheets of commercial banks were particularly worrying. “In an economy which has undergone a credit boom, all of the lending is not necessarily readily apparent from the top level data,” he said. “Accounting trickery is often at work..”

A good example of where the data fit with reality is this graph from ZH, which has a strong correlation with Balding’s claim that there is no Chinese trade surplus. What there is, is a lot of fake invoices.

And that inevitably leads to this kind of Bloomberg piece. Beijing is dying to get investments flowing in from abroad, but investors have no idea what potential profits will be worth in yuan, or, given capital controls, whether or when they can take them out of the country.

Yuan Uncertainty Scares Funds Away From China Bond Market

Yield versus yuan. That’s the crux of the investment decision now facing the global funds given more access to China’s bond market. While it offers the highest yields among the world’s major economies, PIMCO and Schroder Investment say exchange-rate risk is damping global demand for Chinese assets. Barclays said this week there’s a growing chance China will announce a sharp, one-time devaluation to change sentiment toward the currency and suggested such a move would need to be in the region of 25% to be effective. “Uncertainty around currency policy remains one of the larger hurdles for foreign investors,” said Rajeev De Mello at Schroder Investment in Singapore. “This should be resolved as the year progresses and would then be a signal to increase investments in Chinese government bonds.”

Of course the Chinese claim that this particular uncertainty is just a temporary thing, and it will all be fine soon, but that doesn’t look to be true. Or at least, it will remain an issue, and probably THE issue, as long as the yuan is seen as substantially overvalued. The PBoC and politburo thus far have apparently thought they could solve this by hiding data, uttering soothing words and/or bullying, but that’s not going to work. They need to devalue, and not by a few percent either.

Barclays says a devaluation “would need to be in the region of 25% to alter perceptions”, while Kyle Bass earlier mentioned a 30% to 50% move. Central bankers and politicians can try and stand still in the Mexican standoff until they’re blue in the face, but the markets will not stand still, and only get more nervous as time passes.

It doesn’t need to be done in Shanghai over the weekend, though one may wonder what will happen in the Chinese equity markets next week if nothing is done while there are great expectations now. From whatever angle we look at the issue, the outcome seems crystal clear: better get it done soon.

The US and Germany may not like it initially, but the uncertainty will hit them too, because the anticipation of a -strong- yuan devaluation affects their export markets, bonds, equities and currencies as well.

One problem we should not overlook may be that in the 1985 Plaza Accord, the strongest party -the US- wanted to get something done and got their devaluation wish. This time around, it’s not the strongest party that needs a devaluation, and the party that does need it doesn’t want it.

It is a very different set-up.

Jan 182016
 
 January 18, 2016  Posted by at 10:39 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , ,  


Berenice Abbott Columbus Circle, Manhattan 1936

We’ve only really been in two weeks of trading in the new year, things are looking pretty bad to say the least, so predictably the press are asking -and often answering- questions about when the slump will be over. Rebound, recovery, the usual terminology. When will we get back to growth?

For me personally, but that’s just me, that last question sounds a bit more stupid every single time I hear and read it. Just a bit, but there’s been a lot of those bits, more than I care to remember. Luckily, the answer is easy. The slump will not be over for a very long time, there will be no rebound or recovery, and please stop talking about a return to growth unless you can explain what you want to grow into.

I’m sorry, I know that’s not what you want to hear, but life’s a bitch and so’s the economy. You’ve lived on pink fumes for a long time, most of you for their whole lives, but reality dictates that real ‘growth’ stopped decades ago, and you never figured that out because, and I quote here (see below), you and the world you’re part of became “addicted to borrowing money, spending it, and passing this off as ‘growth'”.

That you believed this was actual growth, however, is on you. You fell for a scam and you’re going to have to pay the price. If there’s one single thing people are good at, it’s lying. It’s as old as human history, and it happens every day, so you’re no exception to any rule. You’re perhaps just not particularly clever.

How do we know a ‘recovery’ is so far off it’s really no use to even talk about it? As I said, it’s easy. Let me lead this in with a graph I saw just today, which deals with a topic the Automatic Earth has covered a lot: marginal debt, or more precisely, the productivity/growth gained from each additional dollar of debt.

Please note, this particular graph deals with private non-financial debt only, we’ll get to other kinds of added debt, but that restriction is actually quite illuminating.

Now of course, you have to wonder about the parameters the St. Louis Fed uses for its data and graphs, and whether ‘growth’ was all that solid in the run up to 2008. There’s plenty of very valid arguments that would say growth in the 1960’s was a whole lot more solid than that in the naughties, after the Glass-Steagall repeal, and after the dot.com blubber.

However, that’s not what I want to take away from this, I use this to show what has happened since 2008, more than before, when it comes to “passing debt off as ‘growth'”.

But it’s another thing that has happened since 2008, or rather not happened, that points out to us why this slump will have legs. That is, in 2008 a behemoth bubble started bursting, and it was by no means just US housing market. That bubble should have been allowed to fully deflate, because that is the only way to allow an economy to do a viable restart.

Instead, all that has been done since 2008, QE, ZIRP, the works, has been aimed at keeping a facade ‘alive’, and aimed at protecting the interests of the bankers and other rich parties. That facade, expressed most of all in rising stock markets, has allowed for societies to be gutted while people were busy watching the S&P rise to 2,100 and the Kardashians bare 2,100 body parts.

It was all paid for, apart from western QE, with $28 trillion and change of newfangled Chinese debt. The problem with this is that if you find yourself in a bubble and you don’t go through the inevitable deleveraging process that follows said bubble in a proper fashion, you’re not only going to kill economies, you’ll destroy entire societies.

And that is not just morally repugnant, it also works as much against the rich as it does against the poor. It’s just that that is a step too far for most people to understand. That even the rich need a functioning society, and that inequality as we see it today is a real threat to everyone.

Recognizing this simple fact, and the consequences that follow from it, is nothing new. It’s why in days of old, there were debt jubilees. It’s also why we still quote the following from Marriner Eccles, chairman of the Federal Reserve under FDR and Truman from 1934-1948, in his testimony to the Senate Committee on the Investigation of Economic Problems in 1933, which prompted FDR to make him chairman in the first place.

It is utterly impossible, as this country has demonstrated again and again, for the rich to save as much as they have been trying to save, and save anything that is worth saving. They can save idle factories and useless railroad coaches; they can save empty office buildings and closed banks; they can save paper evidences of foreign loans; but as a class they cannot save anything that is worth saving, above and beyond the amount that is made profitable by the increase of consumer buying.

It is for the interests of the well to do – to protect them from the results of their own folly – that we should take from them a sufficient amount of their surplus to enable consumers to consume and business to operate at a profit. This is not “soaking the rich”; it is saving the rich. Incidentally, it is the only way to assure them the serenity and security which they do not have at the present moment.

Everything would all be so much simpler if only more people understood this, that you need a – fleeting, ever-changing equilibrium- to prosper.

Instead, we’re falling into that same trap again. Or, more precisely, we already have. We have been fighting debt with more debt and built the facade put up by the Fed, the BoJ and the ECB, central banks that all face the same problems and all take the same approach: save the rich at the cost of the poor. Something Eccles said way back when could not possibly work.

Anyway, so here are the graphs that prove to us why the slump has legs. There’s been no deleveraging, the no. 1 requirement after a bubble bursts. There’s only been more leveraging, more debt has been issued, and while households have perhaps deleveraged a little bit, though that is likely strongly influenced by losses on homes etc. plus the fact that people were simply maxed out.

First, global debt and the opposite of deleveraging:

And global debt from a longer, 65 year, more historical perspective:

It’s a global debt graph, but it’s perhaps striking to note that big ‘growth’ spurts happened in the days when Reagan, Clinton and Obama were the respective US presidents. Not so much in the Bush era.

Next, China. What we’re looking at is what allowed the post 2008 global economic facade to have -fake- credibility, an insane rise in debt, largely spent on non-productive overinvestment, overcapacity highways to nowhere and many millions of empty apartments, in what could have been a cool story had not Beijing gone all-out on performance enhancing financial narcotics.

Today, the China Ponzi is on its last legs, and so is the global one, because China was the last ‘not-yet-conquered’ market large enough to provide the facade with -fleeting- credibility. Unless Elon Musk gets us to Mars very soon, there are no more such markets.

So US debt will have to come down too, belatedly, with China, and it will have to do that now. because there are no continents to conquer and hide the debt behind. We’re all going to regret engaging in the debt game, and not letting the bubble deflate in an orderly fashion when we still could, but all those thoughts are too late now.

What the facade has wrought is not just the idea that deleveraging was not needed (though it always is, after every single bubble), but that net US household worth rose by 55% in the 6-7 years since the bottom of the crisis, an artificial bottom fabricated with…more debt, with QE, and ZIRP.

Meanwhile, in today’s world, as stock markets go down at a rapid clip, China, having lost control of a market system it never had the control over that Politburos are ever willing to acknowledge they don’t have, plays a game of Ponzi whack-a-mole, with erratic ‘policies’ such as circuit breakers and CIA-style renditions of fund managers and the like.

And all the west can do is watch them fumble the ball, and another one, and another. And this whole thing is nowhere near the end.

China bad loans have now become a theme, but the theme doesn’t mean a thing without including the shadow banking system, which in China has been given the opportunity to grow like a tumor, on which Beijing’s grip is limited, and which has huge claims on local party officials forced by the Politburo to show overblown growth numbers. If you want to address bad loans, that’s where they are.

Chinese credit/debt graphs paint only a part of the picture if and when they don’t include shadow banks, but keeping their role hidden is one of Xi’s main goals, lest the people find out how bad things really are and start revolting. But they will anyway. That makes China a very unpredictable entity. And unpredictable means volatile, and that means even more money flowing out of, and being lost in, markets.

The ‘least worst’ place to be for what money will be left is US dollars, US treasuries and perhaps metals. But there’ll be a whole lot less left than just about anyone thinks. That’s the price of deleveraging.

The price of not deleveraging, on the other hand, is what we see in the markets today. And there is no cure. It must be done. The price for keeping up the facade rises sharply with each passing day, and the effort will in the end be futile. All bubbles have limited lifespans.

I’ll close this with a few recent words from Tim Morgan, who puts it so well I don’t feel the need to try and do it better.

The Ponzi Economy, Part 1

In order to set the Ponzi economy into some context, let’s put some figures on it. In the United States, total “real economy” debt (which excludes inter-bank borrowing) increased by $19.4 trillion – in real, inflation-adjusted terms – between 2000 and 2014, whilst real GDP expanded by only $3.7 trillion. Britain, meanwhile, added £1.9 trillion of new debt for less than £400bn on “growth” over the same period. I spent part of the holiday period unearthing quite how much debt countries added for each dollar of “growth” over a period starting at the end of 2000 and ending in mid-2015.

Unsurprisingly, the league is topped by Portugal ($5.65 for each $1 of growth), Ireland ($5.42) and Greece ($5.39). Britain’s ratio ($3.46) is somewhat flattering, in that the UK has used asset sales as well as borrowing to sustain its consumption. The average for the Eurozone ($3.54) covers ratios as diverse as Germany (just $1.87) and France ($4.22).

China’s $2.56 looks unexceptional until you note that the more recent (post-2007) number is much worse. Economies which seem to have been growing without too much borrowing (such as Brazil and Russia) are now experiencing dramatic worsening in their ratios, generally in the wake of tumbling commodity prices.

In the proverbial nutshell, then, the world has become addicted to borrowing money, spending it, and passing this off as “growth”. This is a copybook example of a pyramid scheme, which in turn means that the world’s most influential economic mentor is neither Keynes nor Hayek, but Charles Ponzi.

[..] How, in the absence of growth, can inflated capital values be sustained? The answer, of course, is that they can’t. Like all Ponzi schemes, this ends with a bang, not a whimper. This is why I find forecasts of a ‘big fall’ or ‘sharp correction’ in markets hard to swallow. Ponzi schemes don’t end gradually, any more than someone can fall off a cliff gradually, or be “slightly pregnant”.

The Ponzi economy simply continues for as long as irrationality prevails, and then implodes. Capital markets, though, are the symptom, not the cause. The fundamental problem is an inability to escape from an addictive practice of manufacturing supposed “growth” on the basis of borrowed money.

There may be shallow lulls in the asset markets, nothing ever only falls down in a straight line in the real world, but that debt I’ve described here will and must come down and be deleveraged.

The process will in all likelihood lead to warfare, and to refugee movements the likes of which the world has never seen just because of the sheer numbers of people added in the past 50 years.

When your children reach your age, they will not live in a world that you ever thought was possible. But they will still have to live in it, and deal with it. They will no longer have the facade you’ve been staring at for so long now, to lull them into a complacent sleep. And the Kardashians will no longer be looking so attractive either.

Jan 152016
 
 January 15, 2016  Posted by at 8:03 am Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , ,  


Russell Lee Tracy, California. Tank truck delivering gasoline to a filling station 1942

The first thing that popped into our minds on Tuesday when WTI oil briefly broached $30 for its first $20 handle in many years, was that this should be triggering a Gawdawful amount of bets, $30 being such an obvious number. Which in turn would of necessity lead to a -brief- rise in prices.

Apparently even that is not so easy to see, since when prices did indeed go up after, some 3% at the ‘top’, ‘analysts’ fell over each other talking up ‘bottom’, ‘rebound’ and even ‘recovery’. We’re really addicted to that recovery idea, aren’t we? Well, sorry, but this is not about recovering, it’s about covering (wagers).

Same thing happened on Thursday after Brent hit that $20 handle, with prices up 2.5% at noon. That too, predictably, shall pass. Covering. On this early Friday morning, both WTI and Brent have resumed their fall, threatening $30 again. And those are just ‘official’ numbers, spot prices.

If as a producer you’re really squeezed by your overproduction and your credit lines and your overflowing storage, you’ll have to settle for less. And you will. Which is going to put downward pressure on oil prices for a while to come. Inventories are more than full all over the world. With oil that was largely purchased, somewhat ironically, because prices were perceived as being low.

Interestingly, people are finally waking up to the reality that this is a development that first started with falling demand. China. Told ya. And only afterwards did it turn into a supply issue as well, when every producer began pumping for their lives because demand was shrinking.

All the talk about Saudi Arabia’s ‘tactics’ being aimed at strangling US frackers never sounded very bright. By November 2014, the notorious OPEC meeting, the Saudi’s, well before most others including ‘analysts’, knew to what extent demand was plunging. They had first-hand knowledge. And they had ideas, too, about where that could lead prices. Alarm bells in the desert.

There are alarm bells ringing in many capitals, there’s not a single oil producer sitting comfy right now. And that’s why ‘official’ prices need to be taken with a bag of salt. Bloomberg puts the real price today at $26:

The Real Price of Oil Is Far Lower Than You Realize

While oil prices flashing across traders’ terminals are at the lowest in a decade, in real terms the collapse is even deeper. West Texas Intermediate futures, the U.S. benchmark, sank below $30 a barrel on Tuesday for the first time since 2003. Actual barrels of Saudi Arabian crude shipped to Asia are even cheaper, at $26 – the lowest since early 2002 once inflation is factored in and near levels seen before the turn of the millennium. Slumping oil prices are a critical signal that the boom in lending in China is “unwinding,” according to Adair Turner, chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

Slowing investment and construction in China, the world’s biggest energy user, is “sending an enormous deflationary impetus through to the world, and that is a significant part of what’s happening in this oil-price collapse,” Turner, former chairman of the U.K. Financial Services Authority, said. The nation’s economic expansion faltered last year to the slowest pace in a quarter of a century. “You see a big destruction in the income of the oil and commodity producers,” Turner said. “That is having a major effect on their expenditure across the world.”

Zero Hedge does one better and looks at 1998 dollars:

The ‘Real’ Price Of Oil Is Below $17

“You see a big destruction in the income of the oil and commodity producers,” exclaims an analyst but, as Bloomberg notes, while oil prices flashing across traders’ terminals are at the lowest in a decade, in real terms the collapse is considerably deeper. Adjusted for inflation, WTI is its lowest since 2002 and worse still Saudi Light Crude is trading at below $17 (in 1998 dollar terms) – the lowest since the 1980s… Slumping prices are a critical signal that the boom in lending in China is “unwinding,” according to Adair Turner, chairman of the Institute for New Economic Thinking.

In fact, while sub-$30 per barrel oil sounds very scary, Saudi prices would be less than $17 a barrel when converted into dollar levels for 1998, the year oil sank to its lowest since the 1980s. Slowing investment and construction in China, the world’s biggest energy user, is “sending an enormous deflationary impetus through to the world, and that is a significant part of what’s happening in this oil-price collapse,” Turner, former chairman of the U.K. Financial Services Authority, said.

But this still covers only light sweet crude. Heavier versions are already way below even those levels. Question: what does tar sands oil go for in 1998 dollars? $5 perhaps? A barrel’s worth of it fetched $8.35 in 2016 US dollars on Tuesday. And that does not stop production, because investment (sunk cost) has been spent so there’s no reason to cut, quite the contrary.

Crude At $10 Is Already A Reality For Canadian Oil-Sands Miners

Think oil in the $20s is bad? In Canada they’d be happy to sell it for $10. Canadian oil sands producers are feeling pain as bitumen – the thick, sticky substance at the center of the heated debate over TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline – hit a low of $8.35 on Tuesday, down from as much as $80 less than two years ago. Producers are all losing money at current prices, First Energy Capital’s Martin King said Tuesday at a conference in Calgary. Which doesn’t mean they’ll stop. Since most of the spending for bitumen extraction comes upfront, and thus is a sunk cost, production will continue and grow.

Another interesting question is where the price of oil would be right now if the perception of low prices had not made 2015 such a banner year for filling up storage space across the globe, including huge amounts of tankers that are left floating at sea, awaiting a ‘recovery’. But that is so last year:

Tanker Rates Tumble As Last Pillar Of Strength In Oil Market Crashes

If there was one silver-lining in the oil complex, it was the demand for VLCCs (as huge floating storage facilities or as China scooped up ‘cheap’ oil to refill their reserves) which drove tanker rates to record highs. Now, as Bloomberg notes so eloquently, it appears the party is over! Daily rates for benchmark Saudi Arabia-Japan VLCC cargoes have crashed 53% year-to-date to $50,955 (as it appears China’s record crude imports have ceased). In fact the rate crashed 12% today for the 12th straight daily decline from over $100,000 just a month ago…

China imported a record amount of crude last year as oil’s lowest annual average price in more than a decade spurred stockpiling and boosted demand from independent refiners. China’s crude imports last month was equivalent to 7.85 million barrels a day, 6% higher than the previous record of 7.4 million in April, Bloomberg calculations show.

China has exploited a plunge in crude prices by easing rules to allow private refiners, known as teapots, to import crude and by boosting shipments to fill emergency stockpiles. The nation’s overseas purchases may rise to 370 million metric tons this year, surpassing estimated U.S. imports of about 363 million tons, according to Li Li, a research director with ICIS China, an industry researcher. But given the crash in tanker rates – and implicitly demand – that “boom” appears to be over.

The consequences of all this will be felt all over the world, and for a long time to come. All of our economic systems run on oil, so many jobs are related to it, so many ‘fields’ in the economy, and no, things won’t get easier when oil is at $20 or $10, it’ll be a disaster of biblical proportions, like a swarm of locusts that leaves precious little behind. Squeeze oil and you squeeze the entire economic system. That’s what all the ‘low oil prices are great for the economy’ analysts missed (many still do).

Entire nations will undergo drastic changes in leadership and prosperity. Norway, Canada, North Dakota, Russia. But more than that, Middle East nations that rely entirely on oil, a dependency that won’t allow for many of their rulers to remain in office. Same goes for all OPEC nations, and many non-OPEC producers.

We can argue that a war of some kind or another can be the black swan that sets prices ‘straight’, but black swans are supposed to be the things you can’t see coming, and Middle East warfare for obvious reasons doesn’t even qualify for that definition.

The world is full of nations and rulers that are fighting for bare survival. And things like that don’t play out on a short term basis. For that reason alone, though there are many others as well, oil prices will remain under pressure for now.

Even a war will be hard put to turn that trend around at this point. Unless production facilities are destroyed on a large scale, war may just lead to even more production as demand keeps falling. The fact that Iran is preparing to ‘come back online’, promising an even steeper glut in world markets, is putting the Saudi’s on edge. Rumors of Libya wanting to return for a piece of the pie won’t exactly soothe emotions either.

And when, in a few years’ time, all the production cuts due to shut wells become our new reality, and eventually they must, then no, there will still not be an oil shortage. Because the economy will be doing so much worse by then that demand will have fallen more than supply.

Barring large scale warfare in the Middle East there is nothing that can solve the low oil price conundrum. But think about it, which Gulf nation can even afford such warfare in present times? For that matter, which nation in the world can?

The US may try and ignite a proxy war with Russia, but that would lead to an(other) endless and unwinnable war theater. Which would carry the threat of dragging in China as well. The US and its -soon even officially- shrinking economy can’t afford that. Which of course by no means guarantees it won’t try.