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The future stealers

September 28, 2011 6 comments

There is much talk of a plan emerging for addressing the Eurozone’s current economic problems. The broad terms of the plan are that Greece may be permitted a partial default on its debts. But given the consequent impact this “haircut” would have on major banks in other European countries (such as France), plus the risk of default becoming the economic equivalent of herpes, we learn of the strategy for implementing a grand fiscal firewall (a modern day Maginot line as it were!). This takes the form of the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) being expanded to something like three trillion Euros.

Not much of the mainstream media has explained where this funding will come from, except for a perceptive interview on Radio 4 by Paul Mason this Sunday. The Eurozone plans to put forward something in the region of four or five hundred billion Euros, but leverage this up to the three trillion. It will achieve this by raising the money in the (private) Capital Markets by pledging various assets (presumably sovereign) as collateral against future tax revenues. In the words of Zerohedge “Europe has just boldly gone where even Goldman’s Abacus has not dared to go before courtesy of the ECB’s acceptance of a CDO squared Enron Special SPV”.

To anyone who has studied the wonders of modern finance, this shares some similarity to the Capital Asset Pricing Model (CAPM). The theory goes that the price of a company share (stockholding) reflects the summation of all future dividend payments (incorporating the dilution of dividends expected further in the future owing to money being devalued over time). Therefore the price of a share now, reflects all future income generating capacity of the underlying company. In a way, it states that you can have the full cash worth now which is equivalent to the amount it would take the company to earn in something like 10-15 years. So the mere act of selling the share realises this future value and you have the income that the real world hasn’t actually produced yet. All wrapped up with the almost zealous denial of uncertainty surrounding whether the future could turn out better or worse than expected. The theory says that the price now IS a complete and true reflection of the future.

Amazing! Finance has proclaimed itself capable of undertaking time-travel, alchemy and telepathy, all in one simple move.

But we know it isn’t really alchemy, telepathy or time travel. Instead, the future income of these sovereign states is about to be mortgaged beyond belief, rendering them perpetually (and undemocratically) in hock to the buccaneering money changers. This is in effect just another side door bailing out of the banks and their reckless lending. Not a true default as such (i.e. no debt destruction has occurred) but a further transfer of debts onto taxpayer shoulders. And this time a supra-national example of that poisonous strategy of “privatised profits and socialised losses”. But there is something even more sinister about this recent stab in the back to taxpayers. They are not just stealing the built up wealth, income and assets of the ordinary people of these countries (as in the privatisations and asset stripping of Greece), but they are cunningly filching the European citizens’ future too.

The ECB is probably being leaned on by Washington to do everything in its power to prevent debt destruction. Whenever any stresses occur in the system the Washington modus operandi is to fail to accept the losses and double down the bets. Ever since the financial crises of the 1980s onwards (e.g. Mexico, 1987 crash, S&L, LTCM etc.), the strategy has been to expand dollar liquidity & financial sector leverage. The cost for servicing this build-up of unsustainable debts is pushed outwards to the innocent citizens of periphery countries and onto the shoulders of future generations.

If the EU approves the plan to expand the EFSF then they are embarking on a gigantic Collateralised Debt Obligation, taking the yet-to-be earned income of European taxpayers and throwing it at the banks to prop up their traumatised balance sheets. Ultimately just lining the pockets of the wealthy bankers from this leveraged up booty.

In short, they are plundering from the future for its not around to protest against it.

Welcome to the Post-Growth Economy

September 21, 2011 4 comments

This post is an excerpt from Richard Heinberg’s recent newsletter (Museletter!). Apparently it is based on an op-ed which the mainstream press seemed reluctant to publish. Perhaps because it challenges the endemic assumption that as long as certain policy prescriptions are followed (Austerity from the Right, Stimulus from the Left) then economic growth will continue.

Both mainstream views miss the vital point that Richard lays out below:

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During recent weeks, evidence has piled up that U.S. and European economies, far from recovering, are swirling back into recession. Failure of American politicians to address the federal debt crisis, the U.S. credit rating downgrade, and increasing fragility of European economies have investors running for the hills.

Concern is being voiced that we may be at a fundamental economic turning point. Deutsche Bank’s strategist Jim Reid even suggests that the western world’s financial system might be “totally unsustainable.”

As it happens, I’ve just published a book, The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality, that reaches the same conclusion, and that foresaw the economic relapse that’s playing out in headlines. The book’s content was finalized in March, when economic data appeared to show the nation in a recovery. I suppose I’m justified in saying “I told you so,” but others are as well. Herman Daly, former World Bank economist, has pointed out the absurdity of expecting continual economic growth on a planet with limited resources. Paul Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International, explains in his book The Great Disruption why climate change and resource depletion are bringing world economic growth to a close. And Jeremy Grantham, co-founder of GMO (one of the world’s largest investment funds), argues that, with ever more humans competing for a finite supply of natural resources, rising prices of metals, oil, and food are decisively choking off GDP growth.

Even if we are being proven right, this is no time for victory laps. Here’s the point. Daly, Gilding, Grantham, and I are saying that as humanity has chewed through the low-hanging fruit of our natural resources and has turned to lower-grade and more expensive ores and fuels, managers of the economy have attempted to keep growth going by piling up debt in the mistaken belief that it is money that makes the economy run rather than energy and raw materials. Now we’ve reached limits to government and consumer debt, and the realization of that fact is sending financial markets into fibrillation. If energy supplies and debt are both stretched tight, that means more economic growth isn’t possible. Worse, if policy makers fail to realize this and continue assuming that the current crisis is merely another turning of the business cycle, then we lose whatever opportunity still remains to avert a crash that could bring civilization to its knees.

Admittedly this is still a minority point of view. After all, in the “real” worlds of politics and economics, growth is essential to creating more jobs and increasing returns on investments. Questioning growth is like arguing against gasoline at a NASCAR race.

Liberals believe that stimulus spending by government will boost employment and consumer spending, thus flipping the economy back to its “normal” growth setting. But stimulus packages of the past few years have produced only anemic results, and governments can’t afford more of the same.

Conservatives nurture faith that if government spending shrinks, that will liberate private enterprise to grow profits and jobs. Yet countries that implement austerity programs show less economic growth than those whose governments borrow and spend—until the spending spree ends in bond market mayhem.

Neither side wants to acknowledge that its prescription no longer works, because that would imply the other side is correct. But maybe both liberals and conservatives are wrong, and growth is finished.

If Daly, Gilding, Grantham, and I are right, this is scary business. But there will be life after growth, and it doesn’t have to play out under conditions of misery. With less energy to fuel globalization and mechanization, there should be increasing need for local production and labor. We can reorganize our financial and production systems so that everyone’s basic needs are met. Indeed, if we focus on improving quality of life rather than increasing quantity of consumption, we could all be happier even as our economy downsizes to fit Nature’s limits.

But that benign future is unlikely to transpire if we all continue living in a dream world where growth knows no bounds.

The alarm bells are ringing. Wake up to the post-growth economy.

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http://richardheinberg.com/museletter232

Categories: Economics, Energy

Guest post: Avoiding a Lehman 2 and a Second Great Depression – David Lilley

September 8, 2011 10 comments

I’m afraid a second Great Depression is a possibility.

The only doctor that can cure the problem is the G20.

The debt situation is far bigger than 1929 when many US citizens jumped on the stock bubble with credit. But many would be less than 10% unlike the many that jumped on the worldwide property bubble.

We cannot unilaterally change our interest rate without consequences affecting FOREX, capital movements and balance of trade. The US can.

The US is like the sun and the rest of us are like planets. If the US gets hot or cold the rest of us get hot or cold.

We have just witnessed a bubble busting, the tech bubble of 2001. We couldn’t possibly walk right into another, but we did.

The tech bubble burst thanks to tiny calculations showing that the emperor had no clothes and 90% of the new Internet companies disappeared overnight. It cost the US 2m jobs and Alan Greenspan took advantage of the US’s reserve currency status to reduce interest rates every 6 weeks 11 times in a row.

I’m not looking at any references. This is all from memory. I follow these things like a hawk.

Easy money put on 7m new US jobs.

When the US reduces interest rates we, and others, can follow and we did. We went down to 3.5% and it occurred to me that that was ¼ of the base rate when I bought here. Therefore, another person could get 4 times his mortgage for the same cost as his 1991 mortgage and that is what happened here and across the world.

The UK house price rose to 9.3 times average income when the norm is 3. US house prices went to 6.

We first heard the term sub-prime mortgagee in 2007. But the fact is that since Carter the NINJAs basically had to be given a mortgage and if he didn’t get one he could get legal assistance from Barack Obama, the solicitor, to get his right to a mortgage. The banks found a way of selling on sub-prime mortgages as securitized bonds (mortgages are securitized loans as the lender has his name on the title and can reposess the asset and sell it if the mortgagee fails to pay). The rip-roaring Northern Rock was giving 125% loans but it was selling them on and was outstanding in the building society market with a great business model for many years.

Securitized bonds paid as much as 18% and there was massive appetite for them. The more sub-prime the better the bond paid and house prices just went up and up and up (as bubbles do). US banks were actively seeking NINJAs and Northern Rock was reaping them in with its 125% deals. In the US you got a three-year easy start to draw you in. These bonds were triple A and when you think that interest rates in Japan were 0% for seven years you can see where the appetite came from. Foreigners held 80% of US treasuries. They were AAA and paid 4% when your bank paid 0%. Buyers of Mortgaged Backed Securities (MBS) looked no further than the 18% and the word “securitized”.

So my point is that the US, with its reserve currency status, had a licence to reduce interest rates and it paid them well, putting on 7m extra jobs and expanding GDP. The cost of Medicare and Medicaid increased 10 fold in twenty years and Bush signed the cheques. The cost of Iraq was small fry by comparison. The US debt ceiling was increased with a nod some twenty times and no one was bothered.

That is what was happening to the world economy. The sun was getting hot and we all benefited from the low interest rates.

But back home we were wanting in parliamentary debate and scrutiny. This is what parliament does. The massive Labour majority of 1997 led to a situation where it was not necessary for Labour MPs to attend debate but only to attend for the vote. Typically few or no Labour backbenchers attended a Finance Bill debate. Try keeping Ken Clarke, John Redwood or Peter Lilley away when money was on the table. But Labour MPs, who actually thought that Gordon Brown was a super economist (when he only studied modern history), never received or contributed to debate and scrutiny.

Labour (when we talk about labour we are only talking about the handful of middle class privately educated politics, philosophy and economics graduates, PPEs, who traditionally take all the top jobs) (prior to 1965 every member of a conservative cabinet had a PPE from Oxford, you need a PPE to govern) jumped on the easy money decade. They borrowed £30-£40bn every year since 2003, grabbed £15bn pa from pension funds (forcing employers to scrap their defined benefit schemes or fund the missing £15bn from profits which in turn takes £15bn from investment in UK wealth creation), drove people into property as the FTSE suffered the loss of £15bn pa, ran up an off-balance sheet debt of £300bn in PFI, allowed mortgage debt to sky-rocket to £1.2tr, allowed £400bn of home equity release and allowed banks to multiply their lending reserve by as much as 30 times deposits.

The result is that today we have personal debt of 1.06 x GDP, corporate debt of 1.26 x GDP and sovereign debt of 89% of GDP. All affordable when interest rates are low but all having to be paid back.

Debt is where you go when you cannot make ends meet. It is bringing forward future earnings. It is like earning £100 per week and taking a one-week sub and telling everyone you are on £200 per week.

GDP is measured in three ways that all give the same answer. It is basically the summation of all transactions. It peaked at £1.5tr in 2007, as did personal debt (£1.2tr of which was mortgages).

Nevermind Gordon Brown’s claim of 53 quarters of growth and the best chancellor ever. Just looking at a simple model; personal debt rising from 0 to equal to GDP between 1997 and 2007, and assuming it is linear, it takes real GDP from +3% to –7%. We were spending money and providing jobs that derived from home equity release, PFI, mortgages and personal, corporate and sovereign loans.

30,000 extra doctors, 90,000 extra nurses, 80,000 teaching assistants and 118 brand new schools in 2007. It all sounded great. A doubling in the spend on pupils pa and a tripling of NHS spend but all based on borrowing and not what we can afford but passed off as the latter.

The illusion was first broken when the Daily Mail ran the story that 90% of all the new jobs that Labour boasted about went to migrants who came here from 2004 onwards to get paid 6 times what they could get back home for the same work. The £ fell and the Zloty rose and many went home but we still have 1.35m doing work that Brits will not do because they are much better off on benefits. Then it transpires that many of the 5.2m Brits on benefits are basically unemployable and industry will always choose a migrant over a Brit because the Brit is less educated, less presentable and has a lower work ethic.

I broke the story that to halve the deficit in four years also meant to increase the national debt in five years. I put it on lots of financial sites prior to the election. Obama first used the phrase and I thought it was good news until I realised that he would be halving the deficit and not the debt. Labour picked up on it and even made it law and I knew it was a persuasive mantra.

You only had to add a few numbers together to understand that halving the deficit in four years meant doubling the debt in five. Debt was £700bn. Add £178bn, £130bn, £110bn, £89bn and a further year and you doubled the debt. I posted it on Jeff Randall’s Telegraph column and the following day was budget day. He never mentioned the budget on his Sky news show when every other channel was budget, budget, and budget. He just repeated that debt was different to deficit and the debt would double in five years. The Treasury Secretary, Steven Timms, was a guest and Jeff asked him what would happen to debt and Steve didn’t know. Jeff pointed out that it would double and that it was in the budget document that Steven had just written.

We are paying £43bn pa in debt service charges and this will grow to £63bn at the end of the coalition term. But we will miss this target, as it is so difficult to get the structural deficit down to 0 in a five year term.

Please ask yourself what you think about halving the deficit in four years? It does mean paying £120b pa in debt servicing in four years time, equal to the cost of the NHS.

The NHS costs £120b pa out of a total government spend of £700b pa of which £400b goes on benefits and pensions. Does any one really think that paying the cost of the NHS in debt service charges is a good idea?

The numbers are the key to understanding the problem and understanding a problem is the key to solving it.

Management is what we need.

Spending money on the most vulnerable in society was hard to control and ended up multiplying the poor and diverting money from the most vulnerable in society.

We introduced IB (incapacity benefit) for a target audience of 175,000 but soon there were 20 times that number claiming that they couldn’t work a day in their lives due to incapacity. Including 200,000 teenagers.

We went easy on single mums and their numbers grew by three fold in the last twenty years. Often due to LAT’s (live apparts). Those who choose to recover the lost income of the female when a child occurs by claiming to live apart and get everything funded by the state (or as I put it, by their neighbour).

We have to swallow some facts about Labour’s Britain that are not well aired by the media.

-The BBC delighted in telling us that the kids would go back to 118 brand new schools in September 2007 but omitted to tell us that even the primary school children would have to pay the PFI (generally 17% pa over 20 years) as it would load their council tax in years to come.

-600,000 LAT’s all getting all their home bills paid by the taxpayer.

-a career choice for 3.5m, less 175,000, was to graduate from JSA (job seeker’s allowance) to IB for the extra money and to save Labour the embarrassment of high unemployment figures. The most common illness being depression.

-1.35m guest workers doing the work we refuse to do.

-14,000 children excluded from school who will never learn to read and write.

-the average cost of a truant was £2m some 15 years ago. Yet we have more truancy today than ever
-15% leave school with no qualifications despite a doubling of the spend on schooling.

-public sector workers get 43% greater remuneration than private sector workers doing the same work when their 7% extra wages, lower hours, longer holidays, earlier retirement and better pensions are accounted for. The reason being that for 13 years the union (Labour) has sat in the employer’s chair.

-only 64% of working age men work, one in four children live in a home without a father (2m children), 5.2 m of working age do not work, one in four households of working age has no worker.

This list is endless.

I have not mentioned all the assaults on employers. We are beginning to realise that we quite like employers as they provide employment. That is what it says on the can. If you kill an employer you lose the tax they provide and the rest of us have to pick up the tab for benefits necessary to fund the workers that he funded before you hit him with CGL (climate change levy), NMW (national minimum wage) and increased employer NI and UBR (uniform business rates).

None of the Labour stimulus went to employers.

Going forward.

Before going forward let us please get the problem properly identified. There is no point in trying to solve the wrong problem.

Do we all agree that the above is the correct characterisation of the problem?