Nov 082017
 
 November 8, 2017  Posted by at 1:47 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , , , , ,  12 Responses »
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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: , , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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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: , , , , , , , , , , ,  4 Responses »
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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: , , , , , , , ,  10 Responses »
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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: , , , , , , , ,  8 Responses »
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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: , , , , , , , , ,  8 Responses »
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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: , , , , , , , , , ,  11 Responses »
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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.

Nov 092015
 
 November 9, 2015  Posted by at 1:33 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  7 Responses »
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Giles Duley Afghan boy lands on Lesvos Nov 2015

German Chancellor Angela Merkel needs to do something, urgently, that should have been done months- if not more- ago. There has to be a UN emergency summit on the European refugee crisis, it has to involve leaders at the very highest levels, and it has to take place within weeks at the latest. Or else.

Of course any leader could call for the summit, and if Merkel waits too long -as she is wont to do- someone else should. But she is the best person for the job. No-one else who leads an entire continent looks ready to take this on, and moreover it’s her own country that quite possibly faces the gravest consequences of the crisis.

That is to say, for now Germany still comes in way after Greece in that regard, but if Alexis Tsipras would attempt to call such a summit, his appeal would fall on deaf ears, and at best lead to lots of international Merkel-style diddling (or ‘Merkeln’, as the Germans put it). And there’s already been far too much of that.

The renewed urgency comes from a number of directions. First, the continuing drownings of refugees in the Aegean sea. The lack of urgency with which those drownings have been met has become a huge and immediate threat to Merkel, if only because the entire European project has already died with the babies washing up on the shores of Greece.

Even if it will take a long time for people to recognize that, given the ideological ‘union’ blindness that pervades Brussels and European capitals. Angela’s legacy risks being not only her responsibility for thousands of deaths, but also the very demise of the EU. And that’s just for starters.

Secondly, It was Merkel herself last week who warned of renewed military conflicts in the Balkans if the approach to the refugee crisis wouldn’t change, and rapidly.

According to Merkel, if Balkan countries -continue to- build fences and razor wire barriers at their borders, one after the other, some countries risk ‘getting stuck’ with huge numbers of refugees on their territories that they are not in the least prepared for. Which makes Friday’s German announcement, mere days after Merkel’s warning, all the more ominous:

Germany Imposes Surprise Curbs On Syrian Refugees

Angela Merkel has performed an abrupt U-turn on her open-door policy towards people fleeing Syria’s civil war, with Berlin announcing that the hundreds of thousands of Syrians entering Germany would not be granted asylum or refugee status. Syrians would still be allowed to enter Germany, but only for one year and with “subsidiary protection” which limits their rights as refugees. Family members would be barred from joining them.

[..] the interior minister, Thomas de Maiziere, announced that Berlin was starting to fall into line with governments elsewhere in the EU, who were either erecting barriers to the newcomers or acting as transit countries and limiting their own intake of refugees.

[..] the suddenness of the move by the country that has been pivotal in the EU’s biggest ever immigration crisis will ripple across the region with unknown consequences, particularly in the transit countries of the Balkans and central Europe through which hundreds of thousands have been trekking towards Germany.

The German curbs will encourage these countries to establish barriers of their own to the refugee wave. Merkel is also pressing countries such as Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia to establish “reception centres” or camps where refugees can be processed and screened before they reach Germany. The countries are resisting because no one knows what to do with those who are screened and do not pass muster for passage to Germany.

Around the same time that Germany pressures Balkan countries to establish ‘reception centers’, it votes down plans for ‘transit zones’ on its own territory. Some are more equal than others? Berlin had better beware.

The third ‘urgency’, curiously downplayed by media and politics, comes in the shape of a warning by the EU itself, albeit “buried in a 204-page report on the future of the European economy”.

European Union Predicts 3 Million More Refugees By End Of Next Year

The European Union predicted Thursday that up to 3 million additional asylum seekers could enter the 28-member bloc by the end of next year, suggesting the staggering pace of new arrivals in recent months shows no sign of abating. The forecast, buried in a 204-page report on the future of the European economy..

The EU expects 3 million refugees in 2016. This year, there will be ‘only’ 1 million. Of which resettlement deals have been made for 160,000, and at last count 116 have actually been resettled. Somebody better start taking this serious, or it will get very terribly out of hand. And that’s not to say it hasn’t already, with well over 3000 refugees having drowned in the Mediterranean, hundreds of them children.

This is a humanitarian disaster that nobody’s willing to recognize as one, and that is exactly what has to stop. The reason why this prediction is hushed up across the board is of course obvious: the 1 million refugees in 2015 have already strained resources, international relationships and indeed entire governments to such an extent, wars could start just because of that.

Add another 3 million, and the chances of a peaceful 2016 in Europe grow terribly slim. But not talking about it will of course slim down those chances further. And even if the total of 4 million refugees expected by the end of next year will be less than 1% of the EU’s 500 million population, someone better do something fast, or else.

The fact that Europe risks being strained to the point of military conflict, and there’s precious little reason to doubt Angela Merkel’s assessment of the situation, means that what needs to be done is to make the entire world aware that this is a global issue, not a regional one. And that’s where the UN emergency summit comes in.

Obviously, Germany is overwhelmed right now. But doing a U-turn on the open-door policy is not going to solve that problem. It will merely shift it, either within Germany itself, or towards the Balkan countries the refugees travel through to come to the Bundesrepublik.

Decision making by the EU Brussels has failed shamefully. And not only on the refugee crisis. But since Merkel is the no. 1 voice of power in Europe, that puts the shame on her as well. As we’ve said before, the only way to handle an issue such as this, is to put the people first.

You can’t let the people, the children, drown at random and expect to come away with your positions intact. And just because international politics these days focuses a lot on trying to deflect responsibilities by pointing to others, and to international bodies, blood on one’s hands doesn’t wash off easily, and in the end not at all.

Blaming the refugees themselves, as the head of EU border agency Frontex attempted once again by labeling them , is as useless as it is disgraceful. People fleeing war zones to save their lives are not ‘illegals’.

Blaming the ‘smugglers’, an even more popular EU pastime, makes no sense either. If the smugglers were Europe’s biggest concern, it would grant safe passage to refugees. That would stop ‘smuggling’ in one fell swoop. But it would demand a level of political courage that nobody, not Merkel either, possesses.

What drives policies across the board still comes down to the prevailing wish, fed to European populations by media and politics, to keep things as they are. To maybe invite the token refugee, but to prevent sudden or large changes in the society people happen to live in.

And while that may be understandable, it doesn’t mean it’s always realistic. Sometimes change is inevitable. We may find it easier to accept that when it comes to earthquakes and hurricanes than in the case of mass migrations, but all of these are regular occurrences throughout history. In the end, all we can do is make the best of it, in the most humane way we know of, or descend into mayhem.

One more thing that needs repeating time and again though politicians won’t like it: Europe’s leadership knew the refugee problem was coming. Angela Merkel was warned by her Bundespolizei at least eight months ago, but there were warnings even way before that. Everyone just chose to ignore them.

Refugee Crisis Was Not Unexpected, Top UN Official Says

Director-General of the United Nations office in Geneva, Denmark’s Michael Moller: [..] “The crisis we have today, we knew it was going to happen. The leaders of Europe were told it was going to happen at least two years ago.”

[..] there will be even greater problems, unless we sit down globally and figure out structures and ways to deal with this in the future. Not to reinvent the wheel every time that happens, but to rethink completely and strengthen the humanitarian system, because I guarantee you that it will happen again.

Moller say the same thing I do: “we need to sit down globally”. He doesn’t provide a timeframe, but between the lines it’s clear he doesn’t think either that there’s time to waste. A UN emergency summit may be all that stands between us and ‘anarchy’, in one way and shape or the other.

This summit must include the presidents and prime ministers of all major nations (and please leave out the EU). Obama, Putin, Xi Jinping and Merkel, but also the leaders of Greece, Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon (where the majority of Syrian refugees are) and all Balkan countries. Countries like Canada, Brazil and Australia can and must be called upon to grant asylum to many more refugees than they do now.

In this week’s issue of the New Yorker, George Packer describes how America took in more than a million refugees from South East Asia in one year 35 years ago, and how it can and should make such an effort once more:

America’s Apathy About The Syrian Refugees

[..].. the U.S. has accepted fewer than two thousand Syrians. In September, President Obama announced an increase in the quota for the coming year to ten thousand. That figure represents just half the monthly total of Indochinese refugees brought here in 1980. One refugee advocate called it “an embarrassingly low number.” And yet even this humble goal is unlikely to be reached.

The world has a narrow window left to prevent an already grave humanitarian disaster into something much worse, to prevent antagonism and military action that will set loose the evil genies of the Pandora’s box that is Europe’s past, once again, and genies of surrounding regions too. There is no need for that. Not yet.

The world, united in such a summit, must also look beyond the refugee crisis, and, as the UN’s Moller says, “rethink completely and strengthen the humanitarian system”. Because there are other dangers on the horizon, potentially much worse. Climate refugees are an obvious one, but even more, there’s the economic downturn nobody seems to be willing to acknowledge (at their own peril).

As I wrote a week ago, in an article quoted by Zero Hedge on Wednesday in their piece on German opposition parties warning of a domestic civil war:

Europe Will Never Be The Same; Neither Will The World

Ignorance and denial threatens to lead to a needless increase in nationalism, fascism, violence, misery, death and warfare. If we were to acknowledge that the change is inevitable, and prepare ourselves accordingly, much of this could be avoided.

There are two main engines of change that have started to transform the Europe we think we know. First, a mass migration spearheaded by the flight of refugees from regions in the world which Europeans have actively helped descend into lethal chaos. Second, an economic downturn the likes of which hasn’t been seen in 80 years or so (think Kondratieff cycle).

Negative ideas about refugees are already shaping everyday opinion and politics in many places, and this will be greatly exacerbated by the enormous economic depression that for now remains largely hidden behind desperate sleight-of-hands enacted by central bankers, politicians and media.

There are fine theories around coming from fine people, on how refugees can benefit a host country’s economic systems. But they are the kind of people who are perpetually looking at economic growth. And no such growth is guaranteed – to put it awfully mildly.

Therefore, it doesn’t really matter to the issue if refugees do or do not contribute ‘positively’ to a country’s economics, because all countries are facing a giant slowdown and depression caused by an inevitable debt deflation. And that makes it all the more urgent for people, and societies, to be prepared for all possible outcomes, including worst case scenarios.

The depression is guaranteed, and so are millions more people fleeing the ruins that were ones their homes, and their hopes for a decent future for their children.

Every day that Merkel loses in calling this highest-level, highest-urgency, UN summit, is a day that more people will drown. And that means one more day that we all will lose more of our own humanity, and of our claims for others to show us theirs.

In our own way, we’re all already drowning and washing up devoid of life, and of human values, somewhere on a cold and lonely distant beach.

Sep 232015
 
 September 23, 2015  Posted by at 2:24 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , , ,  19 Responses »
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Dorothea Lange Depression refugee family from Tulsa, Oklahoma 1936

At the moment I start writing this, leaders of European nations are in a meeting in which they talk about refugees that, though it was announced over a week ago, was nevertheless labeled an ’emergency’ meeting. The only thing that truly tells you is that Europe still refuses to see the refugee situation as an emergency. And that’s not just semantics.

Of course there’ll be all sorts of bickering about the difference between migrants and refugees, and tons of words about how “we” should separate the two, and send people back, and strengthen European borders, and fight the human smugglers. None of which addresses reality, or at least at best a tiny sliver of it.

“Smugglers” are not the problem, it’s the people they “smuggle” that are. Or perhaps we should turn that around and admit that in fact it’s the European leaders who are the problem. It’s they who lack any courage or vision, or even a basic understanding of what is going on.

Angela Merkel has gotten a lot of accolades when she opened Germany’s borders to Syrians, even though that only lasted a few days. But people seem to forget that she is Europe’s most powerful politician, and that makes her responsible for a lot of the drowned children who lose their lives on a daily basis in a small stretch of the Mediterranean between Turkey and Greece.

Merkel should have acted much faster. She’s just as culpable as all the other jokers in Brussels and various EU capitals. They all were, and still are, hoping this issue would go away by itself. Instead, the issue has only just started, and the whole continent is woefully unprepared to this day.

German paper Die Welt ran a story this weekend (in German) that detailed how Merkel and her government were warned in Q1 by the German federal police (Bundespolizei) that a million refugees would be coming to Germany in 2015. And did nothing. The paper didn’t provide a precise date, but Q1 ended close to 6 months ago, so we know Merkel et al could have acted on this information -and prepared- at least half a year ago.

Have they? Given the chaos that developed within a few days of allowing refugees to enter the country, our money’s on a resounding NO. So those portraits we’ve seen with Angela dressed up as Mother Teresa can now be filed away as ludicrous.

The outcome of today’s meeting is very easy to predict. There will be promises of millions of dollars, and of saddling Greece and Italy with huge camps to house refugees in, far away from whoever is either too comfortable or too right-wing to deal with Europe’s new reality.

There will be nothing in writing that comes even close to what is needed, neither financially nor in practical terms. All politicians will feel free to pander to, and hide behind, their bigoted populations.

These talks should have taken place at least half a year ago. That might have saved children’s – and adults’- lives both in the meantime and in the future. That nothing of true value happened between the moment Merkel got her warning and last week’s announcement of this week’s “emergency” meeting not only tells you all you need to know about Merkel and her peers, it also is certain to both have made matters worse and to continue doing so going forward.

There is precious little to be expected from Europe’s leadership, because there is so little of it. They all like the power but skirt the responsibility. The EU apparently seeks to charge 14 nations with 19 cases of violating EU asylum treaties, but countries like Croatia and Hungary were so unprepared for what happened to them, this could only have led to panic and fences and police dogs. It’s a miracle nobody shot a whole bunch of refugees. Yet.

It could all have been prevented if Merkel had decided not to shelve that warning from her federal police force, and instead had called a high level summit then and there. But she was too busy whipping Greece into submission, and hoping, as all other did, that one morning it would all prove to have been a bad dream.

One would suspect that French secret services also had information on what was to come, but François Hollande is a dunce who spends his time counting votes and reading polls. David Cameron would probably prefer to drown and/or shoot that ‘swarm’, and the other heads of state either don’t count for much in terms of population numbers or elect to keep their mouths shut lest they risk the next election.

If Europe’s leaders don’t tackle the issue now, and in an effective way, we risk, with a likelihood bordering on certainty, much worse than we have seen so far. The refugees will not stop coming to Europe. But with autumn now on the doorstep, their journeys will become much more perilous, and deadly.

Europe is set to change, and in very sweeping ways. That cannot be altered. What can be done is to treat refugees like they are human beings, whose lives matter the way German and French lives matter.

Moreover, if Merkel had called that EU meeting in early spring, she would rapidly have concluded that it was not enough. That this is not a European problem. Very few of the refugees, after all, are European. It is, therefore, a global problem. And there is a political body to deal with those, the UN. Merkel would have called a UN meeting long ago if only she had called that EU meeting first.

Why the UN itself hasn’t even opened its mouth, other than to chide Europe, is a mystery. It’s on a fast track to becoming redundant.

The US has announced it will accept 10,000 Syrian refugees – who may take two years to be processed. For perspective: in the space of just three hours this morning, 2,500 arrived on the island of Lesbos alone. The US cannot deny its share of the blame for causing the crisis. It can still, however, start acting in a humane fashion.

Not like Hollande and Cameron whose main target today is increased bombing of the very places the refugees are fleeing from, not providing them with asylum away from those places.

The refugee question should be the top priority in the talks Obama has with the Pope in America in the next few days. As it should be in the meeting(s) with Chinese president Xi Jinping, who’s also in the country. But it doesn’t look as if that’s going to happen. It’ll be a sidenote at best.

Merkel has a narrow window to right her wrongs, and it’s closing fast. If she doesn’t act now, we’ll see Europe’s lack of humanity and abundance of disgrace bared even more, and increasingly so.

There will be blood.

Aug 132015
 
 August 13, 2015  Posted by at 9:28 pm Finance Tagged with: , , , , , , ,  28 Responses »
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Gustave Doré The Ninth Circle of Hell (Treachery) 1857

Eventful days in the middle of summer. Just as the Greek Pandora’s box appears to be closing for the holidays (but we know what happens once it’s open), and Europe’s ultra-slim remnants of democracy erode into the sunset, China moves in with a one-off but then super-cubed renminbi devaluation. And 100,000 divergent opinions get published, by experts, pundits and just about everyone else under the illusion they still know what is going on.

We’ve been watching from the sidelines for a few days, letting the first storm subside. But here’s what we think is happening. It helps to understand, and repeat, a few things:

• There have been no functioning financial markets in the richer parts of the world for 7 years (at the very least). Various stimulus measures, in particular QE, have made sure of that.

A market cannot be said to function if and when central banks buy up stocks and bonds with impunity. One main reason is that this makes price discovery impossible, and without price discovery there is, per definition, no market. There may be something that looks like it, but that’s not the same. If you want to go full-frontal philosophical, you may even ponder whether a country like the US still has a functioning economy, for that matter.

• There are therefore no investors anymore either (they would need functioning markets). There are people who insist on calling themselves investors, but that’s not the same either. Definitions matter, lest we confuse them.

Today’s so-called ‘investors’ put to shame both the definition and the profession; I’ve called them grifters before, and we could go with gamblers, but that’s not really it: they’re sucking central bank’s udders. WHatever we would settle on, investors they’re not.

• The stimulus measures, QE, were never designed to induce economic recovery. They were meant to transfer private losses to public purses. In that, they have been wildly successful.

• China is the end of the line. It was the only economy left that until recently could boast actual growth on a scale that mattered to the global economy. Growth stopped when China, too, introduced stimulus measures. To the tune of some $25 trillion or more, no less.

The perhaps most pivotal importance of China is that it was the world’s latest financial hope. The yuan devaluation shatters that hope once and for all. The global economy looks a lot more bleak for it, even if many people already didn’t believe official growth numbers anymore.

Because we’ve reached the end of the line, the game changes. Of course there will be additional attempts at stimulus, but China’s central bank has de facto conceded that its measures have failed. The yuan devaluations, three days in a row now, mean the central People’s Bank of China has, openly though reluctantly, acknowledged its QE has failed, and quite dramatically at that. They just hope you won’t notice, and try to bring it on with a positive spin.

Central banks are not “beginning” to lose control, they lost control a long time ago. The age of central bank omnipotence has “left and gone away” like Joltin’ Joe. Omnipotence has been replaced by impotence.

This admission will reverberate across the globe. China is simply that big. It may take a while longer for other central bankers to admit to their own failures (though ‘failures’, in view of the wealth transfer, is a relative term here), but it won’t really matter much. One is enough.

What will happen from here on in will be decided by how, where and in what amounts deleveraging will take place. This will of necessity be a chaotic process.

Debt deleveraging leads to, or can even be seen as equal to, debt deflation. This is a process that has already started in various places and parts of economies (real estate), but was kept at bay by QE programs. It will now accelerate to wash over our societies like a biblical plague.

The Automatic Earth started warning about this upcoming deflation wave many years ago. I am wondering if I should rerun some of the articles we posted over the past 8 years or so. I might just do that soon.

It is fine for people to say that since it hasn’t happened yet, we were wrong about this, but for us it was never, and is not now, about timing. If you think like an investor -or at least you think you do- timing may seem to be the most important thing in the world. But that’s just another narrow point of view.

When deflation takes its inevitable place center stage, it will wipe away so much wealth, be it real or virtual or plain zombie, that the timing issue will be irrelevant even retroactively. Whether the total sum of global QE measures is $22 trillion or $42 trillion, its deflation-driven demise will wipe out individuals, companies and nations alike at such a pace, people will wonder why they ever bothered with trying to get the timing right.

This may be hard to understand in today’s world where so many eyes are still focused on central banks and asset- and equity markets, on commodities and precious metals, on housing markets. In that regard, again, it is important to note that there have been no functioning markets for many years. Those eyes are focused on something that merely poses as a market.

For us this was clear years ago. It was never about the timing, it was always about the inevitability. Back in the day there were still lots of voices clamoring for – near-term or imminent – hyperinflation. Not so much now. We always left open the hyperinflation option, but far into the future, only after deflation was done wreaking its havoc. A havoc that will be so devastating you’ll feel silly for ever even thinking about hyperinflation.

Deflation will obliterate our economies as we know them. Imagine an economy for instance where next to no-one sells cars, or houses, or college educations, simply because next to no-one can afford any of it.

Where everything that today is bought on credit will no longer be bought, because the credit will be gone. Where homes are not worth more than the cardboard they’re made of, and still don’t sell.

Where ships won’t sail because letters of credit won’t be issued, where stores won’t open in the morning because they can’t afford their inventory even if it arrives in a nearby port.

As for today’s reality, the Chinese leadership has been eclipsed by its own ignorance about economic systems, the limits of their control over them, and the overall hubris they live in on a daily basis. These people were educated in the 1960s and 70s China of Mao and Deng Xiaoping. In the same air of omnipotence that today betrays all central bankers. Why try to understand the world if you’re the one who shapes it?!

It was obvious this moment would arrive in Beijing as soon as the one millionth empty apartment was counted. There are some 60 million ’empties’ now, a number equal to half the total US housing contingent.

Beijing then heavily promoted the stock market for its citizens, as a way to hide the real estate slump. All the while, it kept the dollar peg going. And now all this is gone. And all that’s left is devaluation. As Bill Pesek put it: “China Adds a Chainsaw to Its Juggling Act”.

Ostensibly to improve the country’s trade position, for lack of a better word. Whether that will work is a huge question. For one thing, the potential increase in capital flight may turn out to be a bigger problem than the devaluation is a solution.

Moreover, one of the main reasons to devalue one’s currency is the idea that then people will start buying your stuff again. But in today’s deflationary predicament, one of the main failures of mainstream economics pops up its ugly head: the refusal to see that many people have little or nothing left to spend.

This as opposed to economists’ theories that people must be sitting on huge savings whenever they don’t spend “what they should”. Ignoring the importance of personal debt levels plays a major part in this. Any which way you define it, the result is a drag on the velocity of money in either a particular economy, or, as we are increasingly witnessing, a major spending slowdown in the entire global economy.

Seen in that light, what good could a 1.9% devaluation (or even a, what is it, super-cubed 5% one, now?!) possibly do when China producer prices fell for the 40th straight month, exports were down 8.3% in July, and cars sell at 30% discounts? Those numbers indicate a fast and furious reduction in spending.

Which in turn lowers the velocity of money in an economy. If money doesn’t move, an economy can’t keep going. If money velocity slows down considerably, so does the entire economy, its GDP, job creation, everything.

This of course is the moment to, once again, point out that we at the Automatic Earth define deflation differently from most. Inflation/deflation is not rising/falling prices, but money and credit supply relative to available good and services, and that, multiplied by the velocity of money.

When this whole debate took off, even before Lehman, there were only a few people I can remember who emphasized the role of deflation the way we did: Steve Keen, Mike Mish Shedlock and Bob Prechter.

And Mish doesn’t even seem think the velocity of money is a big factor, if only because it is hard to quantify. We do though. Steve is a good friend, he’s the very future of economics, and a much smarter man than I am, but still, last time I looked, stumbling over the inflation equals rising prices issue (note to self: bring that up next time we meet). Prechter gets it, but believes in abiotic oil, as Nicole just pointed out from across the other room.

So yeah, we’re sticking out our necks on this one, but after 8+ years of thinking about it, we’re more sure than ever that we must insist. Rising prices are not the same as inflation, and falling prices are but a lagging effect of deflation.

Spending stops when people are maxed out and dead broke. And then prices drop, because no-one can afford anything anymore.

We’ve had a great deal of inflation in the past decade or two, like in US housing. We still have some, for instance in global stock markets and Canada and Australia housing. But these things are nothing but small pockets, where spending persists for a while longer.

Problem is, those pockets pale in comparison to diving -consumer- spending in the US, China, Europe, Japan. Spending that wouldn’t even exist anymore if not for QE, ZIRP and cheap credit.

The yuan devaluation tells us the era of cheap credit is now over. The first major central bank in the world has conceded defeat and acknowledged the limits to its alleged omnipotence.

It always only took one. And then nothing would stand in the way of the biblical plague. It was never a question. Only the timing was. And the timing was always irrelevant.