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2012 – The year of living dangerously

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by Jim Quinn
of The Burning Platform
Posted on 8th January 2012 


“In retrospect, the spark might seem as ominous as a financial crash, as ordinary as a national election, or as trivial as a Tea Party. The catalyst will unfold according to a basic Crisis dynamic that underlies all of these scenarios: An initial spark will trigger a chain reaction of unyielding responses and further emergencies. The core elements of these scenarios (debt, civic decay, global disorder) will matter more than the details, which the catalyst will juxtapose and connect in some unknowable way. If foreign societies are also entering a Fourth Turning, this could accelerate the chain reaction. At home and abroad, these events will reflect the tearing of the civic fabric at points of extreme vulnerability –  problem areas where America will have neglected, denied, or delayed needed action.” – Strauss & Howe – The Fourth Turning – 1997

IN DECEMBER 2010 I WROTE AN ARTICLE CALLED Will 2012 Be as Critical as 1860?, THAT PONDERED WHAT MIGHT HAPPEN WITH THE 2012 presidential election and the possible scenarios that might play out based on that election. Well, 2012 has arrived and every blogger and mainstream media pundit is making their predictions for 2012. The benefit of delaying my predictions until the first week of 2012 is that I’ve been able to read the wise ponderings of Mike Shedlock, Jesse, Karl Denninger, and some other brilliant truth seeking analysts regarding what might happen during 2012. The passage above from Strauss & Howe was written fifteen years ago and captured the essence of what has happened since 2007 and what will drive all the events over the next decade. Predicting specific events is a futile human endeavour. The world is so complex and individual human beings so impulsive and driven by emotion, that the possible number of particular outcomes is almost infinite.

But, as Strauss and Howe point out, the core elements that created this Crisis and the reaction of generational cohorts to the implications of debt, civic decay and global disorder will drive all the events that will occur in 2012 and for as far as the eye can see. Linear thinkers in mega-corporations, mainstream media and Washington D.C. focus on retaining the status quo, their power and their wealth. They believe an economic recovery can be manufactured through monetary manipulation and Keynesian borrowing and spending. They are blind to the fact that history is cyclical, not linear. In order to have an understanding of what could happen in the coming year, it is essential to keep the big picture in focus. As we enter the fifth year of this twenty year Crisis period, there is absolutely no chance that 2012 will see an improvement in our economy, political atmosphere or world situation. Fourth Turnings never de-intensify. They exhaust themselves after years of chaos, conflict and turmoil. I can guarantee you that 2012 will see increased mayhem, riots, violent protests, recessions, bear markets, and a presidential election that will confound the establishment. All the episodes which will occur in 2012 will have at their core one of the three elements described by Strauss & Howe in 1997: Debt, Civic Decay, or Global Disorder.

Debt – On the Road to Serfdom

The world is awash in debt. Everyone is focused on the PIIGS with their debt to GDP ratios exceeding the Rogoff & Reinhart’s 90% point of no return. But, the supposedly fiscally responsible countries like Germany, France, U.K., and the U.S. have already breached the 90% level. Japan is off the charts, with debt exceeding 200% of GDP. These figures are just for the official government debt. If countries were required to report their debt like a corporation, their unfunded entitlement promises to future generations are four to six times more than their official government debt.

Any critical thinking person can look at the chart above and realize that creating more debt out of thin air to solve a debt problem is foolish, dangerous, and self serving to only bankers and politicians. The debt crisis took decades of terrible choices and bogus promises to produce. The world is now in the midst of a debt driven catastrophe. At best, the excessive levels of sovereign debt will slow economic growth to zero or below in 2012. At worst, interest rates will soar as counties attempt to rollover their debt and rolling defaults across Europe will plunge the continent into a depression. The largest banks in Europe are leveraged 40 to 1, therefore a 3% reduction in their capital will cause bankruptcy. Once you pass 90% debt to GDP, your fate is sealed.

“Those who remain unconvinced that rising debt levels pose a risk to growth should ask themselves why, historically, levels of debt of more than 90 percent of GDP are relatively rare and those exceeding 120 percent are extremely rare. Is it because generations of politicians failed to realize that they could have kept spending without risk? Or, more likely, is it because at some point, even advanced economies hit a ceiling where the pressure of rising borrowing costs forces policy makers to increase tax rates and cut government spending, sometimes precipitously, and sometimes in conjunction with inflation and financial repression (which is also a tax)?”Rogoff & Reinhart

The ECB doubling their balance sheet and funnelling trillions to European banks will not solve anything. The truth that no one wants to acknowledge is the standard of living for every person in Europe, the United States and Japan will decline. The choice is whether the decline happens rapidly by accepting debt default and restructuring or methodically through central bank created inflation that devours the wealth of the middle class. Debt default would result in rich bankers losing vast sums of wealth and politicians accepting the consequences of their false promises. Bankers and politicians will choose inflation. They believe they can control the levers of inflation, but they have proven to be incompetent, hubristic, and myopic. The European Union will not survive 2012 in its current form. Countries are already preparing for the dissolution. Politicians and bankers will lie and print until the day they pull the plug on the doomed Euro experiment.

The false storyline of debt being paid down in the United States continues to be propagated by the mainstream press and decried by Paul Krugman. The age of austerity storyline gets full play on a daily basis. Total credit market debt in 2000 was $27 trillion. It skyrocket to $42 trillion by 2005 as George Bush and Alan Greenspan encouraged delusional Americans to defeat terrorism by leasing SUVs and live the American dream by putting zero down on a $600,000 McMansion, financing it with a negative amortization no doc loan. Paul Krugman got his wish as a housing bubble replaced the dotcom bubble. Debt accumulation went into hyper-speed in 2006 and 2007 as Wall Street sharks conducted a fraudulent feeding frenzy by peddling their derivatives of mass destruction around the globe. By the end of 2007, total credit market debt reached $51 trillion.

In a world inhabited by sincere sane leaders, willing to level with the citizens and disposed to allow financial institutions that took world crushing risks to fail through an orderly bankruptcy process, debt would have been written off and a sharp short contraction would have occurred. The stockholders, bondholders and executives of the Wall Street banks would have taken the losses they deserved. Instead Wall Street used their undue influence, wealth and power to force their politician puppets to funnel $5 trillion to the bankers that created the crisis while dumping the debt on taxpayers and unborn generations. The Wall Street controlled Federal Reserve provided risk free funding and took toxic mortgage assets off their balance sheets. The result is total credit market debt higher today than it was at the peak of the financial crisis in March 2009.

Our leaders have done the exact opposite of what needed to be done to address this debt crisis. The country is adding $3.7 billion per day to the National Debt. With the debt at $15.2 trillion, we have now surpassed the 100% to GDP mark. The National Debt will be $16.5 trillion when the next president takes office in January 2013. Ben Bernanke has been able to keep short term interest rates near zero and the non-existent U.S. economic growth and European disaster has resulted in keeping long-term rates near record lows. Despite these historic low rates, interest on the National Debt totalled $454 billion in 2011, an all-time high. The effective interest rate was approximately 3%. If rates stay at current levels, interest will be between $400 and $500 billion in 2012. Each 1% increase in rates would cost American taxpayers an additional $150 billion. A rapid increase in rates to the 7% level would ratchet interest expense above $1 trillion and destroy the last remaining vestiges of Bernanke’s credibility. It can’t possibly happen in 2012. Right? The world has total confidence in pieces of paper being produced at a rate of $3.7 billion per day.

Confidence in Ben Bernanke, Barack Obama and the U.S. Congress is all that stands between continued stability and complete chaos. What could go wrong? Debt related issues that will likely rear their head in 2012 are as follows:

  • A debt saturated society cannot grow. As debt servicing grows by the day, the economy losses steam. The excessive and increasing debt levels will lead to a renewed recession in 2012 as clearly detailed by ECRI, John Hussman and Hoisington Investment Management.

“Here’s what ECRI’s recession call really says: if you think this is a bad economy, you haven’t seen anything yet. And that has profound implications for both Main Street and Wall Street.” – ECRI 

At present, we observe agreement across a broad ensemble of models, even restricting data to indicators available since 1950 (broader data since 1970 imply virtual certainty of recession). The uniformity of recessionary evidence we observe today has never been seen except during or just prior to other historical recessions.-  John Hussman 

Negative economic growth will probably be registered in the U.S. during the fourth quarter of 2011, and in subsequent quarters in 2012. Though partially caused by monetary and fiscal actions and excessive indebtedness, this contraction has been further aggravated by three current cyclical developments: a) declining productivity, b) elevated inventory investment, and c) contracting real wage income. In summary, the case for an impending recession rests not only on cyclical precursors evident in productivity, real wages, and inventory investment, but also on the disfunctionality of monetary and fiscal policy. – Van Hoisington 

  • The onrushing recession will send housing down for the count. With 2.2 million homes already in the foreclosure process and another 13 million homes with negative or near negative equity, the recession will push more people over the edge. As foreclosures rise a self reinforcing loop will develop. Home prices will fall as banks dump houses at lower prices, pushing millions more into a negative equity position. Home prices will fall another 5% to 10% in 2012, with a couple years to go before bottoming.
  • The recession will result in companies laying off more workers. It won’t be as dramatic as 2008-2009 because companies have already shed 6 million jobs. The working age population will increase by 1.7 million, the number of people employed will go up by 1 million, but the official unemployment rate will drop to 7% as the BLS reveals that 10 million people decided to relax and leave the workforce. Surely I jest. The government manipulated unemployment rate will rise above 9%, while the real rate will surpass 25%.
  • The American people rationally increased their savings rate to 6.2% in the 2nd Quarter of 2009. When you are over-indebted and the country heads into recession, spending less and saving more is a sane option. Consumer expenditures accounted for 69% of GDP in 2007, prior to the economic collapse. The “recovery” of 2010-2011 has been driven by Ben’s zero interest rate policy, the resumption of easy credit peddling by the Wall Street banks, and consumers convinced that going further into hock to attain the American dream is rational. Consumer spending as a percentage of GDP has actually risen to 71% and the savings rate has plunged to 3.6%. The 20% drop in gas prices since April bottomed in December. This decline temporarily boosted consumer spending, but prices are on the rise again. With the State and local governments reducing spending, do the Wall Street Ivy League economists really believe consumers will increase their consumption to 73% of GDP and reduce their savings rate to 1%? If you open your local newspaper you will see the master plan. Car dealers are offering 0% financing with nothing down for 60 months. The GMAC/Ditech/Ally Bank zombie lives as subprime auto loans are back. The “strong” auto sales are a debt financed illusion. Ashley Furniture is offering 0% financing for 50 months with no payments through Wells Fargo Bank. When the Federal Reserve provides the Wall Street banks with 0% funding, banks are willing to take big risks knowing that Uncle Ben and the naive American taxpayer will be there to bail them out when it blows up again.
  • With recession a certainty as fiscal stimulus wears off, home prices fall, employment stagnates, and consumer spending grinds to a halt, what will happen to the stock market? The Wall Street shills paraded on CNBC and interviewed by the multi-millionaire talking head twits assure you that stocks are undervalued and the market will surely be up 10% to 15% by 2013. It’s a mortal lock, just as it has been for the last twelve years, with the S&P 500 at the same level as January 1999. The fact is the stock market drops 30% on average during a recession. The talking heads declare that corporate profits are at record levels and will continue higher. Not bloody likely. Corporate profit margins are at an all-time peak about 50% above their historical norms. Profits always revert to their mean. These profits are not sustainable as they were generated by firing millions of workers, zero interest rates for banks, fraudulent accounting by the banks, and trillions in handouts from the middle class taxpayers to corporate America.

In a true free market excess profits will draw more competitors and profits will fall due to competition. When corporate profits exceed the mean by such a large amount, you can conclude that crony capitalism has replaced the free market. Government bureaucrats have been picking the winners (Wall Street, War Industry, Big Media, Big Healthcare) and the American people are the losers. Corporate oligarchs prefer no competition so they can reap obscene risk free profits and reward themselves with king-like compensation. Mean reversion will eventually be a bitch. Real S&P earnings have reached the 2007 historic peak. To believe they will soar higher as we enter a recession takes the same kind of faith shown by Americans buying a $600,000 McMansion in Stockton with no money down in 2005. The result will be the same. Do you ever wonder how corporations are doing so well while the average American sinks further into debt, despair and poverty?

The brilliant John Hussman captures the gist of an investor’s dilemma in his latest article:

“With 10-year Treasury yields below 2%, 30-year yields below 3%, corporate bond yields below 4%, and S&P 500 projected 10-year total returns below 5%, we presently have one of the worst menus of prospective return that long-term investors have ever faced. The outcome of this situation will not be surprisingly pleasant for any sustained period of time, but promises to be difficult, volatile, and unrewarding. The proper response is to accept risk in proportion to the compensation available for taking that risk. Presently, that compensation is very thin. This will change, and much better opportunities to accept risk will emerge. The key is for investors to avoid the allure of excessive short-term speculation in a market that promises – bends to its knees, stares straight into investors’ eyes, and promises – to treat them terribly over the long-term.”

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The Nightmare after Christmas

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by Detlev Schlichter
of The Cobden Center
Posted December 26, 2011

THE PATHETIC STATE OF THE GLOBAL FINANCIAL SYSTEM WAS AGAIN ON DISPLAY THIS WEEK. Stocks around the world go up when a major central bank pumps money into the financial system. They go down when the flow of money slows and when the intoxicating influence of the latest money injection wears off. Can anybody really take this seriously? On Tuesday, the prospect of another gigantic cash infusion from the ECB’s printing press into Europe’s banking sector, which is in large part terminally ill but institutionally protected from dying, was enough to trigger the established Pavlovian reflexes among portfolio managers and traders.

None of this has anything to do with capitalism properly understood. None of this has anything to do with efficient capital allocation, with channelling savings into productive capital, or with evaluating entrepreneurship and rewarding innovation. This is the make-believe, get-rich-quick (or, increasingly, pretend-you-are-still-rich) world of state-managed fiat-money-socialism. The free market is dead. We just pretend it is still alive.

There are, of course those who are still under the illusion that this can go on forever. Or even that what we need is some shock-and-awe Über-money injection that will finally put an end to all that unhelpful worrying about excessive debt levels and overstretched balance sheets. Let’s print ourselves a merry little recovery.

How did Mr. Bernanke, the United States’ money-printer-in-chief put it in 2002? “Under a paper-money system, a determined government can always generate higher spending…” (Italics mine.)

Well, I think governments and central banks will get even more determined in 2012. And it is going to end in a proper disaster.

Lender of all resorts

Last week in one of their articles on the euro-mess, the Wall Street Journal Europe repeated a widely shared myth about the ECB: “With Germany’s backing, the ECB has so far refused to become a lender of last resort, …” This is, of course, nonsense. Even the laziest of 2011 year-end reviews will show that the ECB is precisely that: A committed funder of states and banks. Like all other central banks, the ECB has one overriding objective: to create a constant flow of new fiat money and thus cheap credit to an overstretched banking sector and an out-of-control welfare state that can no longer be funded by the private sector. That is what the ECB’s role is. The ECB is lender of last resort, first resort, and soon every resort.

Let’s look at the facts. The ECB started 2011 with record low policy rates. In the spring it thought it appropriate to consider an exit strategy. The ECB conducted a number of moderate rate hikes that have by now all been reversed. By the beginning of 2012 the ECB’s policy rates are again where they were at the beginning of 2011, at record low levels.

So why was the springtime attempt at “rate normalization” aborted? Because of deflationary risks? Hardly. Inflation is at 3 percent and thus not only higher than at the start of the year but also above the ECB’s official target.

The reason was simply this: states and banks needed a lender of last resort. The private market had lost confidence in the ability (willingness?) of certain euro-zone governments to ever repay their massive and constantly growing debt load. Certain states were thus cut off from cheap funding. The resulting re-pricing of sovereign bonds hit the banks and made it more challenging for them to finance their excessive balance sheets with money from their usual sources, not least U.S. money market funds.

So, in true lender-of-last resort fashion, the ECB had to conduct a U-turn and put those printing presses into high gear to fund states and banks at more convenient rates. While in a free market, lending rates are the result of the bargaining between lenders and borrowers, in the state-managed fiat money system, politicians and bureaucrats define what constitutes “sustainable” and “appropriate” interest rates for states and banks. The central bank has to deliver.

The ECB has not only helped with lower rates. Its balance sheet has expanded over the year by at least €490 billion, and is thus 24% larger than at the start of the year. This does not even include this week’s cash binge. The ECB is funding ever more European banks and is accepting weaker collateral against its loans. Many of these banks would be bust by now were it not for the constant subsidy of cheap and unlimited ECB credit. If that does not define a lender of last resort, what does?

And as I pointed out recently, the ECB’s self-imposed limit of €20 billion in weekly government bond purchases (an exercise in market manipulation and subsidization of spendthrift governments but shamelessly masked as an operation to allow for smooth transmission of monetary policy) is hardly a severe restriction. It would allow the ECB to expand its balance sheet by another €1 trillion a year. (The ECB is presently keeping its bond purchases well below €20 billion per week.)

Deflation? What deflation?

It is noteworthy that there still seems to be a widespread belief that all this money-printing will not lead to higher inflation because of the offsetting deflationary forces emanating from private bank deleveraging and fiscal austerity.

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Gold, Eurodollars, and the Black Swan that will devour the US Futures and Derivatives Markets

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by Jesse at CaféAméricain
Posted December 3, 2011

THE EURODOLLARS ESTIMATE IN THE CHART BELOW IS BASED ON THE BIS BANKING ESTIMATES from Commercial Banks and may not include official reserves held by Central Banks. As you know the Federal Reserve stopped reporting Eurodollars some years ago, with the consequence that it also stopped reporting M3 money supply. I like to think of Eurodollars and banking system derivatives as the Fed’s off-balance-sheet method of monetization and policy implementation, with plausible deniability.

Swap lines are provided to other Central Banks, and they in turn make the loans to their member banks, and from there to their customers. So this eurodollar creation is made outside the real domestic economy, and therefore has no immediate effect on domestic money supply and prices at the end of the money chain. But the effect is there, and the smart money closer to the financial system sees it coming. I do not know if the Fed’s swap line activity actually shows up immediately in their Balance Sheet and therefore the Adjusted Monetary Base. But I think it is fairly obvious that if swaps are used to create dollars by foreign central banks, who in turn loan those dollars to their own members, the impact of that broader dollar creation will only be felt with a significant lag in the domestic US economy. But it will be felt at some point.

When the Fed was tracking Eurodollars, I believe that they were not counting certain assets, or liabilities from the banks point of view, as money.  What exactly those assets might be and how liquid they are is a open question.  How much of them were held in Agency debt, and how much in Treasury debt?  Is a liquid obligation held by a foreign source part of the broad money supply, or not?  Since it can be quickly converted into dollars, and then into another currency, leaves little question that it is potential money at least.

At least part of the problem being faced by Europe in this crisis is the sharp point of the deleveraging of US assets underlying dollar denominated debt.   And if foreign confidence in the US dollar debt breaks, the losses would be daunting for the holders of that debt, so there will first be a rush into Treasuries and away from Agency debt and CDOs.  This will be like the ocean retracting, causing people to flock to the shore in wonder at the cheapness of the debt.  But eventually the returning tsunami of US dollars may very well swamp the Fed’s Balance Sheet and the domestic US economy and the savings of many. The hyper-inflation of financial paper is happening quietly and  off the books. The growth rate in derivatives held by the Banks is mind boggling. And how this will manifest in the real world economy is not fully known. A good sized chunk of the financial system may simply vaporise.  And I suspect that the policy makers will heavily allocate the damage to the least powerful members of the private sector.

Ownership of the real economy will continue to be concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. Stagflation is the most likely outcome because of this lack of reform and the rise of a self-serving oligarchy. As for the US Dollar, as I have said on numerous occasions, inflation and deflation are at the end of the day a policy decision. Period. Those who see a hyper-deflation or a hyper-inflation as inevitable elude my knowledge of the facts as they are. The Fed owns a printing press, and it uses it selectively.

Speaking of lags, I think the unusually long lag between the growth in Eurodollars and the price of Gold can be attributed to the gold sales programs by the Western Central Banks. Once those programs were suspended, and the Banks turned again into net buyers, the gold price rose dramatically. The most recent Eurodollar operation of the Central Banks in relieving the Dollar short squeeze in euro is not yet in the totals.

It should also be noted that there are other correlations one can use in determining the gold price, most notable ‘real interest rates.’ However, there are linkages amongst all the variables, given a non-organic increase in the money supply and artificially low interest rates for example being among them. So, when will the price of gold stop rising? Most likely when the Central Banks stop printing money, and return to transparently set market based interest rates and a productively reformed financial system. ‘Not on the horizon’ does come to mind.

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Europe Doesn’t Get It

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by Peter Tchir
of TF Market Advisors
Posted December 7, 2011 

I STILL THINK THE MOST LIKELY SCENARIO IS THAT SOME AGREEMENT TO AGREE IS MADE AT THE SUMMIT, which is then followed up by increased printing from the ECB, coupled with new Fed policies and fresh IMF money.  Although that still seems the most likely, I am getting concerned that Europe is once again missing the point.

Many EU leaders seem to actually believe that the Treaty changes are important.  The reality is the market could care less about treaty changes.  The market cares about only one thing, that the ECB will announce new, bigger, more aggressive sovereign purchases.  That’s all the market cares about.  The market believes that the treaty changes provide an excuse for the ECB and IMF to ramp up their efforts.  The EU can do all the treaty changes it wants, but if it is not followed up with aggressive new printing policies, the markets will sell-off.

Not only are politicians acting as though the treaty changes mean much, there is even talk about being able to implement changes without national votes. That idea horrifies me on a personal level as it is yet again trashing any sense of democracy, but it is bad for the markets.  I have been assuming that the meeting will result in another agreement to agree. That is relatively easy to pull together. Since it doesn’t really mean much, any countries that aren’t really on board, can be cajoled into holding hands for the photo op and pretending they agree long enough for the ECB and IMF to throw more money at the problem.

Agreement is far less likely if real permanent changes are being implemented. It is one thing to agree to the plan on the condition that you have to go back and get approval. It is much more risky for someone to agree to permanent changes implemented using some backdoor legal technique. Talk of actually implementing policy action this week is actually a negative as it makes it less likely that they can announce a “successful” summit.

On a side note, my favorite part of the proposal is the fines for going over the approved limits. So countries that have the biggest deficits will be fined, adding to those deficits? Debtor’s prison never worked very well, so why this would accomplish much is beyond me and would likely be waived any time it could be used. But no one on Wall Street has bothered to read the treaty proposals because no one cares, all anyone cares about is that the ECB uses it as an excuse to print.

Yesterday’s FT rumor of ESM and EFSF working together was yet another reason to be afraid that Europe doesn’t get it. Not only would implementing both at the same time place the AAA rated countries at greater risk of downgrade, it ignores the fact that EFSF has been a total failure. I thought Europe had moved beyond floating yet another iteration of something that hasn’t worked. The fact that they haven’t is a potential indication that the printing presses aren’t going to be turned on as soon as the market would like.

Finally, there is more and more talk about what the national central banks can do. People are acting as though they were cleaning the living room, and found some money when they lifted up the cushions on the couch.  This is not “found” money. Participants and lenders are well aware of these reserves.  They can be used for example to fund loans to the IMF to lend back to some countries, though I don’t fully understand why they can’t just lend to the countries directly, but I assume there is some law that lending to the IMF lets them circumvent. But there will be a cost to these actions. There will be a consequence, and although it will later be viewed as “unintended” the consequences are actually foreseeable. The countries with large reserves at the national central bank level have a reduced cost of funds because of those reserves. Lenders are not always totally stupid. There is value that is being realized from having those reserves. Using them to create loans for the IMF will impact that country’s ability to borrow. Plain and simple.

The fact that many pundits are treating this as newfound money that can be used any which way, without consequences is absurd and is yet another example of why so many ideas have failed. Any plan that raids the national central banks for money for the PIIGS needs to be thought through more carefully and the potential costs need to be addressed. The cost/benefit analysis may be worth the risk, but I suspect serious analysis would show that it is a bad idea. The cost/benefit should be about zero since it is just shifting money from one place to another. There really is no obvious reason to believe that this is a net positive. In the real world it is likely negative because as we have seen time and again, these changes break the existing model and that causes confusion which more than offsets any potential benefit (not triggering CDS is a shining example).

So while we limp along towards the most likely outcome, the risk of disappointment or even outright failure continues to grow. The inability to hold yesterday’s rumor rally is a signal that the market has moved well past the short squeeze phase and is now trading long.

All the world’s a stage

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by Peter Tchir
of TF Market Advisors
Posted December 5, 2011

I CAN’T HELP BUT FEEL THAT WE ARE WATCHING A PERFORMANCE THIS WEEK. It feels like the actions, the meetings, and the statements are all very scripted. It seems reasonably clear which ending they are going for, but many of their actions also fit the “alternative” ending so it remains imperative to be cautious.

Roles for “bit” players have been cut

Last week, for the first time, the EU seemed to be able to muzzle the minor players and even limit the lines of the big players. The Finance minister summit was a failure. Nothing useful came out of it. EFSF was a total flop. The bank backstop plans are at a national level and revolve around the idea of getting banks to borrow even more in the short term and not extend their maturities.

In spite of the obvious failure, there were relatively few comments. Rather than getting headlines of disputes, or even headlines of bigger and better ways to leverage, they seemed to let it die a relatively calm death and move on. This was a chance for every finance minister to get their quotations in the news, but they seemed reasonably constrained. There were far fewer comments about the ECB or even from ECB members. To me, it seems that the big players (Merkozy and Draghi) have taken control of the play and are trying to get it to the ending they want.

The “Script”

Germany took great pains last week to distance themselves from ECB decisions. The speeches made it clear that the ECB should be “independent”.  This has been taken as a sign that Germany is relenting on letting the ECB print. By affirming the ECB’s independence, Germany can, in theory, explain that it wasn’t responsible for the printing. There is also a chance that this is a way to take the blame off of Germany if the ECB decides not to print.  That seems less likely, but not everyone, especially at the ECB, believes printing is a solution, so this could be a way for them to take the focus off of Germany’s “nein”.

According to the script, Merkel and Sarkozy will become the Merkozy again tonight so that they can ride into this week’s summit with a “renewed joint focus”, blah, blah, blah. There is no way that they don’t act as though they have some agreement (even if they don’t). We won’t know what is discussed, we won’t know how much time is spent working out plans for a summit failure, all we will get is another handholding moment meant to encourage the market. I suspect that more time “off screen” will be spent discussing preparations for a failed summit, but all we will see is smiling confident faces.

At this point, I will give the politicians some credit. For the first time in months they seem to be writing the script. They aren’t just taking whatever script Wall Street hands them, and trying to act that out. The Wall Street scripts haven’t worked and have been unbelievable. The  politicians are finally taking control and trying to develop their own plan, and selling Wall Street on how viable it is. Since they are politicians, they are actually trained at figuring out what can get done and selling it to the people.  It probably won’t work, but at least they are doing what they are good at, and it would be hard to do worse than listening to another round of self-serving Wall Street advice.  On a refreshing note, at least we have agreement on something, Wall Street and politicians now both think the other group doesn’t understand anything and has no sense of timing.

The “puppets” are pushing through austerity in Italy and Greece. They can be held up as shining examples to other countries of what needs to be done. They aren’t the heroes of the story, but are there so that the Merkozy can point them out and show that i) it can be done, and ii) when it is done, the EU and IMF will come through with additional funds.  The “it” they got done won’t be well defined (but this is a movie, not the real world anyways) but the reward those good countries receive will be highlighted.

So the meeting will have Merkozy telling the smaller and problematic countries what a great future lies ahead for the eurozone. They will talk about the sacrifices they are making to ensure the viability of the future. There will be no criticism of the plan as only “friends and family” reports will get the inside scoop, and the “trailer” will be played over and over as part of the advertising campaign. We, the audience, will suspect that all the best parts of the play are in the “trailer” but we won’t be able to dig deep enough to argue against it.

The puppets will tell the other countries how happy they are that they have finally adopted austerity with growth to move forward and that they are excited about this opportunity to be part of the renewed commitment to the eurozone. Anyone who tries to figure out how austerity and growth work together, or where the money is coming, or any other details, will be escorted from room, and will be Clockwork Oranged into reading “fringe blogging websites” until they accept that details are bad, and only vague notions and slogans can “solve” anything.

At the end of the day, any holdouts will get invited to special meetings with the Merkozy. This is where they will be asked what they want to get in order to support the agreement, and reminded, that it is only an agreement in principle so they might as well say yes now, and they can always reject it later. These dark little meetings where the bribes are given and the futility of the agreement are discussed will only be available on the director’s cut, but will make people cringe when they realize what went on.

So in the end, according to script, everyone will get a chance for a joint communiqué and photo up where they talk about their commitment to implement these progressive changes. Every person who truly thinks about it for more than a minute, will know that it is a sham. They will see what has gone on, but it won’t matter. The “critics” will fall all over themselves to proclaim the success of the summit and that we are witnessing the birth of a new and better Euro. For a few days at least, the airwaves will be filled with the excitement that the “great leadership” exhibited by the Merkozy, and the diligence of the puppets, has led to such a monumental agreement. The future will be so bright, some might even “wear shades” when they discuss what has been accomplished.  Tears wouldn’t even shock me.

Then before anyone can complain that the positive reviews were bought, or that the script is flimsy, we will see the next wave of activity. This will be like a giant publicity machine, trying to turn a horrible movie into an Oscar winner through the sheer strength of publicity and graft.

The ECB will cut rates by 50 bps. The ECB will announce further participation in the secondary markets and hint at the ability and willingness to print money. The IMF will announce some new programs. The EFSF will start participating in the primary market. Even the Fed might hint at future QE (if not actually doing anything).

Then the leaders can sit back and hope their magic works.  Hope that their story has been bought and that the markets can take off and that they won’t actually have to implement much.  Yes, I think this is the key here.  They know that the treaty agreement changes are unlikely to be implemented.  They know the ECB has limits, that the IMF is going to struggle to do what people seem to believe they can do, they just hope that this is enough to give the markets so much confidence that they don’t have to do anything.  A market that can swing 6% on a 50 bp rate cut, might be manipulated into going so high that confidence is regained, long enough to buy time.

The “alternative ending”

So far, the directors have rejected the alternative ending. They don’t think that America in particular is ready for a non Hollywood ending, but they are filming some scenes just in case.  Fortunately many of the scenes are exactly the same as in the preferred ending. In the alternative ending, Merkozy and the puppets can’t convince everyone to go along with the communiqué. They can’t convince them that it is really meaningless so there is no point to disagree. Somehow the summit ends without the decision to move forward.

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It’s your choice, Europe: rebel against the banks or accept debt-serfdom

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by Charles Hugh Smith
from Of Two Minds
Posted December 4, 2011

THE EUROPEAN DEBT BUBBLE HAS BURST, AND THE REPRICING OF RISK AND DEBT CANNOT BE PUT BACK INTO THE BOTTLE. It’s really this simple, Europe: either rebel against the banks or accept decades of debt-serfdom. All the millions of words published about the European debt crisis can be distilled down a handful of simple dynamics. Once we understand those, then the choice between resistance and debt-serfdom is revealed as the only choice: the rest of the “options” are illusory.

The euro enabled a short-lived but extremely attractive fantasy: the more productive northern EU economies could mint profits in two ways: A) sell their goods and services to their less productive southern neighbors in quantity because these neighbors were now able to borrow vast sums of money at low (i.e. near-“German”) rates of interest, and B) loan these consumer nations these vast sums of money with stupendous leverage, i.e. 1 euro in capital supports 26 euros of lending/debt.

The less productive nations also had a very attractive fantasy: that their present level of productivity (that is, the output of goods and services created by their economies) could be leveraged up via low-interest debt to support a much higher level of consumption and malinvestment in things like villas and luxury autos.

According to Europe’s Currency Road to Nowhere (WSJ.com):

Northern Europe has fueled its growth through exports. It has run huge trade imbalances, the most extreme of which with these same Southern European countries now in peril. Productivity rose dramatically compared to the South, but the currency did not.

This explains at least part of the German export and manufacturing miracle of the last 12 years. In 1999, exports were 29% of German gross domestic product. By 2008, they were 47%—an increase vastly larger than in Italy, Spain and Greece, where the ratios increased modestly or even fell. Germany’s net export contribution to GDP (exports minus imports as a share of the economy) rose by nearly a factor of eight. Unlike almost every other high-income country, where manufacturing’s share of the economy fell significantly, in Germany it actually rose as the price of German goods grew more and more attractive compared to those of other countries. In a key sense, Germany’s currency has been to Southern Europe what China’s has been to the U.S.

Flush with profits from exports and loans, Germany and its mercantilist (exporting nations) also ramped up their own borrowing – why not, when growth was so strong?

But the whole set-up was a doomed financial fantasy. The euro seemed to be magic: it enabled importing nations to buy more and borrow more, while also enabling exporting nations to reap immense profits from rising exports and lending.

Put another way: risk and debt were both massively mispriced by the illusion that the endless growth of debt-based consumption could continue forever. The euro was in a sense a scam that served the interests of everyone involved: with risk considered near-zero, interest rates were near-zero, too, and more debt could be leveraged from a small base of productivity and capital.

But now reality has repriced risk and debt, and the clueless leadership of the EU is attempting to put the genie back in the bottle. Alas, the debt loads are too crushing, and the productivity too weak, to support the fantasy of zero risk and low rates of return.

The Credit Bubble Bulletin’s Doug Nolan summarized the reality succinctly: “The European debt Bubble has burst.” Nolan explains the basic mechanisms thusly: The Mythical “Great Moderation”:

For years, European debt was being mispriced in the (over-liquefied, over-leveraged and over-speculated global) marketplace. Countries such as Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Italy benefitted immeasurably from the market perception that European monetary integration ensured debt, economic and policymaking stability.

Similar to the U.S. mortgage/Wall Street finance Bubble, the marketplace was for years content to ignore Credit excesses and festering system fragilities, choosing instead to price debt obligations based on the expectation for zero defaults, abundant liquidity, readily available hedging instruments, and a policymaking regime that would ensure market stability.

Importantly, this backdrop created the perfect market environment for financial leveraging and rampant speculation in a global financial backdrop unsurpassed for its capacity for excess. The arbitrage of European bond yields was likely one of history’s most lucrative speculative endeavors. (link via U. Doran)

In simple terms, this is the stark reality: now that debt and risk have been repriced, Europe’s debts are completely, totally unpayable. There is no way to keep adding to the Matterhorn of debt at the old cheap rate of interest, and there is no way to roll over the trillions of euros in debt that are coming due at the old near-zero rates.

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Your New American Dream

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by James Howard Kunstler 
Posted November 28, 2011

IT’S REALLY SOMETHING TO LIVE IN A COUNTRY THAT DOESN’T KNOW what it is doing in a world that doesn’t know where it is going in a time when anything can happen. I hope you can get comfortable with uncertainty. If there’s one vibe emanating from this shadowy zeitgeist it’s a sense of the total exhaustion of culture, in particular the way the world does business. Everything looks tired, played out, and most of all false. Governments can’t really pay for what they do. Banks have no real money. Many households surely have no money. The human construct of money itself has become a shape-shifting phantom. Will it vanish into the vortex of unpaid debt until nobody has any? Or will there be plenty of worthless money that people can spend into futility? Either way they will be broke.

The looming fear whose name political leaders dare not speak is global depression, but that is not what we’re in for. The term suggests a temporary sidetrack from the smooth operation of integrated advanced economies. We’re heading into something quite different, a permanent departure from the standard conception of economic progress, the one in which there is always sure to be more comfort and convenience for everybody, the economy of automatic goodies.

A big part of the automatic economy was the idea of a “job.” In its journey to the present moment, the idea became crusted with barnacles of illusion, especially that a “job” was a sort of commodity “produced” by large corporate enterprises or governments and rationally distributed like any other commodity; that it came with a goodie bag filled with guaranteed pensions, medical care to remediate bad living habits, vacations to places of programmed entertainment, a warm, well-lighted dwelling, and a big steel machine to travel around in. Now we witness with helpless despair as these illusions dissolve.

The situation at hand is not a “depression,” though it may resemble the experience of the 1930s in the early going. It’s the permanent re-set and reorganization of everyday life amidst a desperate scramble for resources. It will go on and on until there are far fewer people competing for things while the ones who endure construct new systems for daily living based on fewer resources used differently.

In North America I believe this re-set will involve the re-establishment of an economy centered on agriculture, with a lot of other activities supporting it, all done on a fine-grained local and regional scale. It must be impossible for many of us to imagine such an outcome – hence the futility of our current politics, with its hollow promises, its laughable battles over sexual behavior, its pitiful religious boasting, its empty statistical blather, all in the service of wishing the disintegrating past back into existence.

This desperation may be why our recently-acquired traditions seem especially automatic this holiday season. Of course the “consumers” line up outside the big box stores the day after the automatic Thanksgiving exercise in gluttony. That is what they’re supposed to do this time of year. That is what has been on the cable TV news shows in recent years: see the crowds cheerfully huddled in their sleeping bags outside the Wal Mart… see them trample each other in the moment the doors open!

The biggest news story of a weekend stuporous from leftover turkey and ceremonial football was a $6.6 billion increase in “Black Friday” chain-store sales. All the attention to the numbers was a form of primitive augury to reassure superstitious economists – more than the catatonic public – that the automatic cargo cult would be operating normally at this crucial testing time. The larger objective is to get through the ordeal of Christmas.

I don’t see how Europe gets through it financially. The jig is up there. Lovely as Europe has become since the debacles of the last century – all those adorable cities with their treasures of deliberately-created beauty – the system running it all is bankrupt. Europe is on financial death-watch and when the money stops flowing between its major organs, the banks, the whole region must either go dark or combust. Nobody really knows what will happen there, except they know that something will happen – and whatever it is portends disruption and loss for the worlds largest collective economy. The historical record is not reassuring.

If Europe’s banks go down, many of America’s will, too, maybe all of them, maybe our whole money system. I’m not sure that we will see a normal election cycle here in 2012. A few bank runs, bank failures… gasoline shortages here and there… the failure of some food deliveries to supermarkets in some region… these are the kinds of things that can bring down a political system drained of once-ironclad legitimacy. All that is left now is the husk of ritual – witness the failure of the senate-house “super-committee.” The wash-out was so broadly anticipated that it was greeted with mere yawns of recognition. It would be like pointing at the sky and saying, “air there.”

This holiday season spend a little time musing on what the re-set economy will be like in your part of the country. Think of what you do in it as a “role,” or a “vocation,” or a “trade,” or a “calling,” or a “way of life,” rather than a “job.” Imagine that life will surely go on, even civilized life, though it will be organized differently. Add to this the notion that you are part of a larger group, a society, and that societies evolve emergently according to the circumstances that their time and place presents. Let that imagining be your new American Dream.