There is a very clear relationship between economic growth and sufficient quantities of high quality energy. A crude measure of energy quality is its price. The lower the price for a unit of energy, the higher its quality (or net energy), but this is a very crude measure that can and often is heavily distorted by subsidies, market pressures, and other factors. As we squint at the world price for oil and note that Brent today is trading at $120 per barrel, it is clear that this high price is signaling that energy is now more expensive than it used to be. By adopting the belief that Peak Oil has been debunked, one runs the risk of missing the larger story that our current economic model is unsustainable. And that stocks and bonds and other traditional investments that derive a large portion of their current value from expectations of future growth simply may not perform anything like they have in the past. And worse, that recent and continuing efforts to revive the old economy by printing money risk the destruction of the money system itself. Given this all-too-human tendency to attempt to preserve the status quo, in this case by printing money, I must reiterate my advice to be sure that gold forms a significant portion of your core portfolio.
Highly paid shills for the status quo on Wall Street have recently been wheeled out to observe the fundamental ugliness of western government bonds. They are correct. This is an asset class that has managed to defy the laws of economics in becoming ever more expensive even as its supply swells. Their response has been to recommend piling into stocks instead. The logic here is not so pristine. If Napier's thesis is correct, the West faces a period of outright deflation, which will be deeply traumatic for exactly the sort of speculative stocks that have lately done so well. Admittedly, the picture is confused, and prone to all sorts of political horseplay, as observers of the long-running euro zone farce can attest. Nevertheless, when faced with a) huge underlying uncertainties; b) structurally unsound banking and government finances; and c) central banks determinedly priming the monetary pumps, we conclude that the last free lunch in investment markets remains diversification. G7 government bond markets are a waste of time (though you may end up being cattle-prodded into them regardless). But there are still investment grade sovereign markets offering positive real yields. Stock markets are partying like 1999. Which, in many cases, it probably is. We would normally advise to enjoy the party but dance near the door.
One of the dirty little secrets of the stock market rally is that the rising corporate profits that powered it are largely phantom profits. Why are they phantom? Because they are artifacts of currency devaluation, not an increase in efficiency or production of goods and services. Though few domestic observers make mention of it, the large, global U.S.-based corporations are now dependent on non-U.S. sales for about 40% of their revenues (50% and up for many companies) and virtually all their profit growth. Overseas sales are made in the local currency: the euro, yen, renminbi, Australian dollar, Canadian dollar and so on, and the profits are stated in U.S. dollars on corporate profit and loss statements. In 2002, 1 euro of profit earned by a U.S. global corporation equaled $1 in profit when converted to U.S. dollars. That same 1 euro profit swelled to $1.60 in 2008 as the U.S. dollar depreciated against the euro. That $ .60 of profit was phantom, an artifact of the depreciating dollar; it did not result from a higher production of goods and services or greater efficiencies.
Guest Post: Scale Invariant Behaviour In Avalanches, Forest Fires, And Default Cascades: Lessons For Public PolicySubmitted by Tyler Durden on 02/21/2012 13:14 -0400
We have lived through a long period of financial management, in which failing financial institutions have been propped up by emergency intervention (applied somewhat selectively). Defaults have not been permitted. The result has been a tremendous build-up of paper ripe for burning. Had the fires of default been allowed to burn freely in the past we may well have healthier financial institutions. Instead we find our banks loaded up with all kinds of flammable paper products; their basements stuffed with barrels of black powder. Trails of black powder run from bank to bank, and it's raining matches.
A massive 150bn euro bill exclusively reserved for the EU-IMF funding of the "official" (OSI) and the private (PSI) sector participations in the Greek writedown on Greek debt may be the key factor behind the ongoing delays in the eurozone finance ministers' approval of a second bailout for Greece. This factor remains concealed behind media hysteria about the supposed failure of Athens to comply with a brutal austerity diktat by the EU-IMF-ECB 'troika'....The question is how will the Eurogroup approve these PSI participation costs that far exceed the supposed gain from the 100bn euro "haircut" but also leave nothing to cover Greece's debt servicing obligations for 2012-2014 of at least another 70bn euros to say nothing of possible budget deficits due to the collapse of public revenues in the fifth consecutive year of a Greek depression. All the histrionics about forcing Greece to set up a separate “escrow account that would give legal priority to debt and interest payments over paying for government expenses”, is nothing but a smokescreen for piling massive sums of fresh public debt on Greece's shoulders without lending a single penny to make up for the economic catastrophe meted out on the country.
If the last 12 years have revealed anything, they have shown beyond reasonable doubt that both Status Quo political parties in the U.S. are hopelessly, ruinously corrupt and thus beyond any reform or redemption. We all know why: it now takes millions of dollars to run costly mainstream media election campaigns, and the only source for contributions of that scale is the financial/corporate Elite. It doesn't matter how you arrange the taxonomy of the financial aristocracy that rules the nation or how you subdivide it--old money, new money, family money, corporate money, etc.-- the bottom line is these campaign contributions are viewed by the aristocratic donors as investments that yield gargantuan returns in tax breaks, subsidies, bailouts, sweetheart contracts, "get out of jail free" cards for the shadow banking system, and so on.
Let’s be honest, quite a few Americans love a good war, especially those Americans who have never had to bear witness to one first hand. War is the ultimate tribally vicarious experience. Anyone, even pudgy armchair generals with deep-seated feelings of personal inadequacy, can revel in the victories and actions of armies a half a world away as if they themselves stood on the front lines risking possible annihilation at the hands of dastardly cartoon-land “evil doers”. They may have never done a single worthwhile thing in their lives, but at least they can bask in the perceived glory of their country’s military might. This attitude of swollen ego through proxy is not limited to the “Right” side of the political spectrum as some might expect. In fact, if the terrifyingly demented presidency of Barack Obama has proven anything so far, it is that elements of the “Left” are just as bloodthirsty as any NeoCon, and just as ready to blindly support the political supremacy of their “side” regardless of any broken promises, abandoned principles, or openly flaunted hypocrisies. No matter how reasonable or irrefutable the arguments against a particular conflict are, there will ALWAYS be a certain percentage of the populace which ignores all logic and barrels forward to cheerlead violent actions which ultimately only benefit a select and elite few.
Nothing appears as ugly as unmasked raw propaganda, or seems as fashionable as well-crafted deception. Yet, the catwalk for both forms of propaganda is one and the same, deception wearing the most titillating togs provided by the top fashion house, the House of Public Relations. And the deceptive PR isn’t limited to multinational firms or businesses in general; it is part and parcel of our daily existence, having infiltrated most if not all institutions, totally poisoning politics, and eroding away whatever little honesty might still be left in our elected officials. During the past century we have seen the transformation of the raw epithet known as propaganda, and all its implied vilification, to that of an accepted social science with full academic accreditation, unashamedly sitting at the same table with all reputable and time-honored professions. We, members of society, have swallowed lock, stock and barrel the presumed need by notable individuals and institutions to receive help from specialized professionals to show us all the good things about them, their positive contribution to society. But much of what we get is tainted with deceit.
All the pseudo-scientific yada-yada on economic theory are just hollow bones thrown to journalists and pundits to have something to “chew” on and write about. The only thing that matters is the monetization of more and more government debt, and how to sell it to the public. Paul Krugman would argue that despite all the “quantitative easing” inflation has not really picked up. At zero percent interest rates, money has no preference – there is no opportunity cost of just “lying around” without interest. Investing money for 4 years for 0.15% return is not “riskless return” – it’s “return-less risk”. Perversely, the Fed has created a situation where raising interest rates would probably lead to inflation. It is boxed into ZIRP (zero interest rate policy) for infinity. Things will get serious once the Fed adopts a policy called N-GDP targeting. Instead of inflation, the Fed will try to “target” nominal GDP. If real GDP growth is zero, the nominal GDP growth will be made up entirely of inflation. Debt is a nominal unit, and it is supported by nominal GDP. In order to keep the ratio between GDP and debt halfway bearable, GDP must be inflated. It is a tax on everybody holding dollars, since the value of those will decline. Meanwhile, the Japanese are resorting to stealth interventions to break the Yen’s strength. Currency wars have gone from “cold” to “hot”. The Fed’s printing of dollars is forcing other central banks to purchase them and selling their own currency in the hope of stemming their own currency’s rise. This makes them involuntary buyers of Treasury bills and bonds, making it easier for the US government to finance its deficit.
The ethics of debt, at least in the officially sanctioned media, boils down to: nobody made them borrow all those euros, and so their suffering is just desserts. What's lost in this subtext is the responsibility of the lender. Yes, nobody forced Greece to borrow 200 billion euros (or whatever the true total may be), but then nobody forced the lenders to extend the credit in the first place. Consider an individual who is a visibly poor credit risk. He would like to borrow money to blow on consumption and then stiff the lender, but since he cannot create credit, he has to live within his means. Now a lender comes along who can create credit out of thin air (via fractional reserve banking) and offers this poor credit risk $100,000 in collateral-free debt at low rates of interest. Who is responsible for the creation and extension of credit? The borrower or the lender? Answer: the lender. In other words, if the lender is foolish enough to extend huge quantities of credit to a poor credit risk, then it's the lender who should suffer the losses when the borrower defaults. This is the basis of bankruptcy laws--or used to be the basis. When an over-extended borrower defaults, the debt is cleared, the lender takes the loss/writedown, and the borrower loses whatever collateral was pledged. He is left with the basics to carry on: his auto, clothing, his job, and so on. His credit rating is impaired, and it is now his responsibility to earn back a credible credit rating....The potential for loss and actually bearing the consequences from irresponsible extensions of credit was unacceptable to the banking cartel, so they rewrote the laws. Now student loans in America cannot be discharged in bankruptcy court; they are permanent and must be carried and serviced until death. This is the acme of debt-serfdom.
Although no one can be sure of Buffett's motives, it would be naïve to believe that someone as intelligent as Buffett has not considered the benefits of pushing through this tax structure. Higher taxes are always problems for entrepreneurs and regular people in the economy. However, they're often beneficial to the well-connected, who receive government bailouts and favors. And with Buffett even on the president's lips, he is becoming more connected to the power mechanism in D.C. every day. With many of Berkshire's companies, your loss as a taxpayer will be their gains.
In the past week we have seen the Banks of Japan and China join the queue for printing ink along with the Fed, the Bank of England, the ECB and the Swiss National Bank; many other minor central backs have either cut rates or are about to. Admittedly the Chinese have not actually cranked up the Hewlett Packards but PBOC Governor Zhou said that “China will continue to invest in EU countries’ government bonds, and will continue, via possible channels, including the IMF, the EFSF and the ESM, to be involved in resolving the euro-zone crisis”. He added that he hopes Europe can offer “more attractive investment products”. I wonder what he has in mind. With the support he can muster Greek 2 year bonds on a 200% yield should do the trick surely…
The equities market is acting like we know Greece's default will be orderly and no threat to financial stability. It is also acting like we know the U.S. economy can grow smartly while Europe contracts in recession. Lastly, the high level of confidence exuded by market participants suggests we know central bank liquidity is endlessly supportive of equities. What do we really know about the coming default of Greece? Whether we openly call it default or play semantic games with "voluntary haircuts," we know bondholders will absorb tremendous losses that are equivalent to default. We also suspect some bondholders will refuse to play nice and accept their voluntary haircuts. Beyond that, how much do we know about how this unprecedented situation will play out?
This one's hot off the presses. Just yesterday, our friends at the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) issued a press release on its latest ruling related to foreign 'money service businesses (MSBs).' An MSB is a private company that provides certain financial services like check cashing, money orders, title pawn, payday loans, travelers' checks, prepaid stored value cards, tax refund payments, etc. Frequently, traditional MSB clients tended to be individuals without bank accounts or access to credit. But increasingly, the US government is looking at companies engaged in electronic payments, crowdsourced funding, and even microcredit finance as money service businesses. The implication? They should all be regulated. Even if they're not even US companies. That's right. FinCEN's latest ruling suggests a foreign MSB may now be subject to US regulations AND CRIMINAL PENALTIES "even if none of its agents, agencies, branches or offices are physically located in the United States."
The task of the financial/political/media Status Quo is to convince Americans to overlook the abundant evidence of economic deterioration and focus on heavily juiced "evidence" of robust "growth." The game plan is this: if the Status Quo can convince you that the economy has righted itself and from here on in everything will get better and better, every day and in every way, then we will abandon financial rationality and start buying homes we can't afford on credit, cars we can't afford on credit and boatloads of stuff from China that we don't need on credit (of course looking cool is a "need," i.e. having an iPad to carry around). In other words, believing it is so will make it so. That is the essence of the campaign to stimulate "animal spirits" confidence: though the economy is actually tanking, if they can only convince us the Dow is moving to 15,000 and then on to 20,000, jobs are being created left and right and things are looking up everywhere, then the resulting piranha-like shopping-feeding-frenzy will create the expansion that is currently chimerical.