Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Burrito Index Update: Burrito Cost Triples, Official Inflation Up 43% from 2001

Welcome to debt-serfdom, the only possible output of the soaring cost of living.
Long-time readers may recall the Burrito Index, my real-world measure of inflation. The Burrito Index: Consumer Prices Have Soared 160% Since 2001 (August 1, 2016). The Burrito Index tracks the cost of a regular burrito since 2001. Since we keep detailed records of expenses (a necessity if you’re a self-employed free-lance writer), I can track the cost of a regular burrito at our favorite taco truck with great accuracy: the cost of a regular burrito has gone up from $2.50 in 2001 to $5 in 2010 to $6.50 in 2016.
It's time for an update: the cost of a regular burrito has now reached $7.50, triple the 2001 cost. That's a 200% increase in 17 years. According to the federal government, inflation since 2001 has risen about 40%: what $1 bought in 2001 now costs $1.43, according to the BLS Inflation calculator.
The Burrito Index is five times the official inflation rate. As I noted in The Disaster of Inflation--For the Bottom 95% (October 28, 2016) and Inflation Isn't Evenly Distributed: The Protected Are Fine, the Unprotected Are Impoverished Debt-Serfs (May 25, 2017), the gross under-reporting of inflation (i.e. the loss of purchasing power of "money" and labor) is only part of the distortion: some of the populace is protected by subsidies from the real ravages of inflation, while those exposed to the unsubsidized real-world costs are being savaged by supposedly benign inflation.
Lest you reckon only burritos have tripled in cost since 2001--have you checked out college tuition or rents lately? Consider a typical public university:
University of California at Davis:
2004 in-state tuition $5,684
2018 in state tuition $14,463
So tuition at a state university soared 2.5 times while official inflation rose by a mere 35% since 2004. If UCD tuition had only risen by 35%, it would total $7,673, not $14,463. The cost above and beyond what we would expect had tuition tracked official inflation adds up to $27,000 per four-year bachelor’s degree per student. Now multiply that by millions of college students, and you get a sense of the enormity of the gulf between real-world inflation and the official inflation rate of 2.5% annually.
In regions with hot job markets, rents have doubled since 2001. As for the unsubsidized costs of healthcare insurance: many of those paying the unsubsidized costs would be happy if their premiums had only doubled since 2001:
But the cost of health care is a growing burden for MCS and its 170 employees. A decade ago, Master said, an MCS family policy cost $1,000 a month with no deductible. Now it’s more than $2,000 a month with a $6,000 deductible. MCS covers 75 percent of the premium and the entire deductible. Those rising costs eat into every employee’s take-home pay.
And here's how the bottom 95% of American households pay for soaring tuition/fees: with borrowed money:
Welcome to debt-serfdom, the only possible output of the soaring cost of living for the unprotected who are ruled by a hubris-soaked, Protected Elite. Our job is to shoulder the higher prices by taking on more debt--debt which is immensely profitable for the Protected Elite.
Here's what you're supposed to swallow: big-ticket expenses such as rent, healthcare and higher education cost tens of thousands of dollars more, but TVs cost a few bucks less, and as a result, official inflation is 2.1% annually.
As long as we accept this travesty of a mockery of a sham, we deserve what we get.


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Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Why the Eurozone and the Euro Are Both Doomed

Papering over the structural imbalances in the Eurozone with endless bailouts will not resolve the fundamental asymmetries.
Beneath the permanent whatever it takes "rescue" by the European Central Bank (ECB) lie fundamental asymmetries that doom the euro, the joint currency that has been the centerpiece of European unity since its introduction in 1999.
The key imbalance is between export powerhouse Germany, which generates huge trade surpluses, and its trading partners, which run large trade and budget deficits, particularly Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain.
Those outside of Europe may be surprised to learn that Germany's exports are roughly equal to those of China ($1.2 trillion), even though Germany's population of 82 million is a mere 6% of China's 1.3 billion. Germany and China are the world's top exporters, while the U.S. trails as a distant third.
Germany's emphasis on exports places it in the so-called mercantilist camp, countries that depend heavily on exports for their growth and profits. Other (nonoil-exporting) nations that routinely generate large trade surpluses include China, Japan, Germany, Taiwan and the Netherlands.
While Germany's exports rose an astonishing 65% from 2000 to 2008, its domestic demand flatlined near zero. Without strong export growth, Germany's economy would have been at a standstill. The Netherlands is also a big exporter (trade surplus of $33 billion) even though its population is relatively tiny, at only 16 million.
The "consumer" countries, on the other hand, run large current-account (trade) deficits and large government deficits. Italy, for instance, has a $55 billion trade deficit and a budget deficit of about $110 billion. Total public debt is a whopping 115.2% of GDP.
Spain, with about half the population of Germany, has a $69 billion annual trade deficit and a staggering $151 billion budget deficit. Fully 23% of the government's budget is borrowed.
This chart illustrates the dynamic between mercantilist and consumer nations:
Although the euro was supposed to create efficiencies by removing the costs of multiple currencies, it has had a subtly pernicious disregard for the underlying efficiencies of each eurozone economy.
Though German wages are generous, the German government, industry and labor unions have kept a lid on production costs even as exports leaped. As a result, the cost of labor per unit of output -- the wages required to produce a widget -- rose a mere 5.8% in Germany in the 2000-09 period, while equivalent labor costs in Ireland, Greece, Spain and Italy rose by roughly 30%.
The consequences of these asymmetries in productivity, debt and deficit spending within the eurozone are subtle. In effect, the euro gave mercantilist, efficient Germany a structural competitive advantage by locking the importing nations into a currency that makes German goods cheaper than the importers' domestically produced goods.
Put another way: By holding down production costs and becoming more efficient than its eurozone neighbors, Germany engineered a de facto "devaluation" within the eurozone by lowering the labor-per-unit costs of its goods.
The euro has another deceptively harmful consequence: The currency's overall strength enables debtor nations to rapidly expand their borrowing at low rates of interest. In effect, the euro masks the internal weaknesses of debtor nations running unsustainable deficits and those whose economies had become precariously dependent on the housing bubble (Ireland and Spain) for growth and taxes.
Prior to the euro, whenever overconsumption and overborrowing began hindering an import-dependent "consumer" economy, the imbalance was corrected by an adjustment in the value of the nation's currency. This currency devaluation would restore the supply-demand and credit-debt balances between mercantilist and consumer nations.
Absent the euro today, the Greek drachma would fall in value versus the German mark, effectively raising the cost of German goods to Greeks, who would then buy fewer German products. Greece's trade deficit would shrink, and lenders would demand higher rates for Greek government bonds, effectively pressuring the government to reduce its borrowing and deficit spending.
But now, with all 16 nations locked into a single currency, devaluing currencies to enable a new equilibrium is impossible. And it leaves Germany facing with the unenviable task of bailing out its "customer nations" -- the same ones that exploited the euro's strength to overborrow and overconsume. On the other side, residents of Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal and Ireland now face the unenviable effects of government benefit cuts aimed at realigning budgets with the productivity of the underlying national economy.
While the media has reported the Greek austerity plan and EU promises of assistance as a "fix," it's clear that the existing deep structural imbalances cannot be resolved with such Band-Aids.
Either Germany and its export-surplus neighbors continue bailing out the eurozone's importer/debtor consumer nations, or eventually the weaker nations will default or slide into insolvency.
Germany helped enable the overborrowing of its profligate neighbors by buying their government bonds. According to BusinessWeek, German banks are on the hook for almost $250 billion in the troubled eurozone nations' bonds.
Now an inescapable double-bind has emerged for Germany: If Germany lets its weaker neighbors default on their sovereign debt, the euro will be harmed, and German exports within Europe will slide. But if Germany becomes the "lender of last resort," then its taxpayers end up footing the bill.
If public and private debt in the troubled nations keeps rising at current rates, it's possible that even mighty Germany may be unable (or unwilling) to fund an essentially endless bailout. That would create pressure within both Germany and the debtor nations to jettison the single currency as a good idea in theory, but ultimately unworkable in a 16-nation bloc as diverse as the eurozone.
Be wary of endless "fixes" to a structurally doomed system.
EDITOR'S NOTE: a version of this essay was published here on June 23, 2011. Nothing structural has changed in the seven years since the original publication.


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Monday, May 28, 2018

How Systems Collapse

This is how systems collapse: faith in the visible surface of abundance reigns supreme, and the fragility of the buffers goes unnoticed.
I often discuss systems and systemic collapse, and I've drawn up a little diagram to illustrate a key dynamic in systemic collapse. The key concepts here are stability and buffers. Though complex systems are never static, but they can be stable: that is, they ebb and flow within relatively stable boundaries supported by reserves, i.e. buffers.
In ecosystems, this ebb and flow is expressed in feedback loops between the weather, environment and plant/animal species which inhabit the ecosystem. Ideal weather/food conditions may spark a rise in an insect population, for example, which then enables an increase in insect-predator populations (fish, birds, frogs, etc.) which then increases the consumption of the insects and reduces the impact of the higher insect population.
Fluctuations within this dynamic generate feedback that tends to reduce extremes and restore dynamic equilibrium.
In the human sphere, ideal weather increases crop yields which then enables a larger human population. When lean years replace fat years, the populace suffers from a lack of calories and births decline and deaths from disease rise as weakened individuals are more vulnerable to infections, etc.
In this example, reserve supplies of water and food are buffers that smooth out periods of want and instability. Suppose the populace depends on a river for irrigation and human consumption (cooking, bathing, etc.). If the river runs low, the populace relies on wells for reserves of water. In good harvests, grain is set aside for lean harvests; the wells and grain stores are buffers which can be drawn down to restore stability to a stressed system.
We all see the surface system, but few see the buffers. The relative abundance of grain is visible to all, but the quality and quantity of the stored grain (the buffer) is only visible to those checking on the stores.
The populace is easily lulled into a sense of false security by a surface abundance. If rodents have eaten much of the stored grain, and the rest has spoiled, few notice. When the river is flowing, few check the quantity and quality of the water in the wells (the buffer).
The buffers are largely invisible and of little common interest in times of abundance. When water and grain are well-supplied, who cares if the stores have spoiled and the well water tastes bad?
A system with thin buffers looks robust on the surface but is highly vulnerable to collapse. In our example, the first lean harvest and low water flow completely drain the reserves, and the second year of drought triggers a collapse of the system: to survive, the populace must abandon the site.
In our complex socio-economic system, the buffers are largely invisible. As a general rule, "money" is our all-purpose buffer: if something becomes scarce and threatens the system, we print/ borrow into existence more "money" which is distributed to buy whatever is needed.
But "money" is an illusory buffer. If the well has run dry, no amount of money will restore ground water. If the fisheries have collapsed due to overfishing, no amount of "money" issued by the Federal Reserve will restore the fisheries. In other words, the natural world provides hard limits that money can only fix if buffers are available for purchase.
"Money" is itself a system, a system with financial buffers, buffers that have been consumed by the speculative excesses of the private sector and the financial repression of central banks. These buffers are largely invisible; few know what's going on in global liquidity markets, for example. Yet when liquidity dries up, for whatever reason, markets go bidless and asset prices go into freefall.
Flooding the financial system with "free money" only restores the illusion of stability. As noted in my diagram, restoring and maintaining an apparent stability thins buffers to the point of dangerous fragility.
When buffers are paper-thin, a crisis that would have been overcome with ease in the past triggers the collapse of the entire system. Everyone who based their faith in the system on its surface stability is stunned by the rapidity of the collapse, for how could such a vast, apparently robust system implode with so little warning?
The financial system's buffers have been thinning for 10 long years, but nobody seems to notice or care. The quality of risk, debt, borrowers and speculative gambles have all declined, but faith in the "Fed put"--that the Federal Reserve can fix anything and everything by printing "money"-- is quasi-religious: few doubt the limitless power of the Fed's "money"-printing machinery to quickly overcome any crisis.
This is how systems collapse: faith in the visible surface of abundance reigns supreme, and the fragility of the buffers goes unnoticed.


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Friday, May 25, 2018

America 2018: Dicier by the Day

Scrape all this putrid excrescence off and we're left with a non-fantasy reality: everything is getting dicier by the day.
If we look beneath the cheery chatter of the financial media and the tiresomely repetitive Russian collusion narrative (that's unraveling as the Ministry of Propaganda's machinations are exposed), we find that America in 2018 is dicier by the day.
The more you know about the actual functioning of critical subsystems, the keener your awareness of the system's fragility, reliance on artifice and an unceasing flow of "free money." Keynesian economics boils down to a very simple premise: a slowing or stagnant economy can be goosed by distributing plenty of "free money" which can be freely blown on either speculation or goods and services.
The "free money" (either created out of thin air or borrowed into existence at rates of interest so low that they're less than zero when adjusted for inflation) dumped into speculation gooses assets higher, generating the "wealth effect" beloved by Keynesians, and the "free money" dumped into goods and services gooses consumption, tax revenues, hiring and so on.
The catch is "free money" is never actually free. Creating trillions out of thin air reduces the purchasing power of all existing currency, and pretty soon you're following Venezuela into "our money has lost all its value" territory.
Borrow trillions into existence and at some point even ludicrously low rates of interest start piling up serious sums of interest due, and the system eventually collapses under the weight of defaults and interest payments that stripmine the economy's productive capacity.
Every subsystem in America has compensated for structural stagnation and increasing friction by reducing redundancy and buffers. Have you noticed how many airline flights are now delayed by mechanical issues? Nobody keeps spare parts in stock, and servicing is now concentrated in a handful of hubs; there's no spare aircraft or flight crews available. All the buffers and redundancy have been stripped out to lower costs and maintain profits, lest the management team be fired for missing a quarterly earning target.
If you think America's healthcare system is functioning wonderfully, you need to hear some unvarnished, frank reports from nurses and doctors who are speaking off the record. Healthcare is increasingly fragile as physicians and nurses bail out by retiring early. A destructive feedback is taking hold in rural America and other under-served "markets": chronic shortages of physicians and nurses overload the overworked frontline care providers, burning them out as the workloads becomes impossible to manage without leaving widening cracks in care and infrastructure.
As for education: virtually every school district is screaming for more money while its budget is increasingly devoted to soaring pension contributions. The same can be said for many public agencies and institutions. The unwelcome reality is there isn't enough money in the Universe to fund all the pension obligations and increase funding to meet the demands for more of everything-- unless you just create vast sums out of thin air, in which case you follow Venezuela down the monetary black hole to the point that 1 million units of central bank/government-issued "money" equals one loaf of bread.
Public services are stripmined to meet pension obligations, and this zero-sum reality will only become more apparent as the excesses of speculation, debt, malinvestment and asset bubbles decay into the inevitable business-cycle recession--a recession that will be made worse by the issuance of more "free money," as the increasing reliance on the marginal speculator and borrower will hasten the avalanche of defaults and malinvestments that will bring down the entire house of cards.
As the tent cities of the homeless proliferate, cities and counties are finding their revenues are devoted to pension obligations, leaving less and less to education, filling potholes, addressing the homeless crisis, the opioid crisis, etc. When the "everything bubble" pops and assets crater, the impossibility of fulfilling promises made in "good times" will be apparent to all but those demanding "their fair share."
About that "cheap abundant energy" provided by fracking: it's only cheap if we overlook the $250 billion in losses racked up by the sector, and it's only abundant if we ignore the rapid depletion of the majority of wells.
We're supposed to take Facebook's ease in brushing off its blatant exploitation of users' data as proof all is well in social-media-land, but the reality is sobering: America's devotion to Facebook is evidence of the populace's desperate yearning for a connection, any connection, no matter how thin or artificial, to a sense of community in a society stripped of authentic community by the dominance of maximizing profit (Facebook, Amazon and Google's raison d'etre) and centralized power.
This chart of total debt reveals the system's profound fragility--a fragility the Powers That Be are trying to mask with a tsunami of artifice: the system is now so dependent on the heroin hit of "free money" that even the slightest pause in credit growth will collapse the entire global financial system. This is why central banks have created trillions out of thin air--TINA: there is no alternative:
Between the ceaseless Ministry of Propaganda hysteria, the childish fantasy of super-hero films (we're gonna be saved by somebody, no effort on our own behalf required) and the disgorging of zero-credibility economic statistics, the distractions are 24/7. But scrape all this putrid excrescence off and we're left with a non-fantasy reality: everything is getting dicier by the day.


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Tuesday, May 22, 2018

The Next Recession Will Be Devastatingly Non-Linear

The acceleration of non-linear consequences will surprise the brainwashed, loving-their-servitude mainstream media.
Linear correlations are intuitive: if GDP declines 2% in the next recession, and employment declines 2%, we get it: the scale and size of the decline aligns. In a linear correlation, we'd expect sales to drop by about 2%, businesses closing their doors to increase by about 2%, profits to notch down by about 2%, lending contracts by around 2% and so on.
But the effects of the next recession won't be linear--they will be non-linear, and far more devastating than whatever modest GDP decline is registered. To paraphrase William Gibson's insightful observation that "The future is already here — it's just not very evenly distributed"the recession is already here, it's just not evenly distributed-- and its effects will be enormously asymmetric.
Non-linear effects can be extremely asymmetric. Thus an apparently mild decline of 2% in GDP might trigger a 50% rise in the number of small businesses closing, a 50% collapse in new mortgages issued and a 10% increase in unemployment.
Richard Bonugli of Financial Repression Authority alerted me to the non-linear dynamic of the coming slowdown. I recently recorded a podcast with Richard on one sector that will cascade in a series of non-linear avalanches once the current asset bubbles pop and the current central-bank-created "recovery" falters under its staggering weight of debt, malinvestment and speculative excess.
The Intensifying Pension Crisis (37-minute podcast)
The core dynamic of the next recession is the unwind of all the extremes:extremes in debt expansion, in leverage, in the explosion of debt taken on by marginal borrowers, in malinvestment, in debt-fueled speculation, in emerging market debt denominated in US dollars, in financial repression, in political corruption--the list of extremes that have stretched the system to the breaking point is almost endless.
Public-sector pensions are just the tip of the iceberg. What happens when the gains in equities and bonds that have nurtured the illusion that public-sector pension funds are solvent and can be funded by further tax increases reverse into losses?
Pushing taxes high enough to fund soaring public pension obligations will spark taxpayer revolts as the tax increases will be monumental once the delusion of solvency is stripped away in the upcoming recession.
The entire status quo rests on the marginal borrower/buyer. All the demand for pretty much anything has been brought forward by the central banks' repression of interest rates and the relentless goosing of liquidity: anyone who can fog a mirror can buy a vehicle on credit, get a mortgage guaranteed by a federal agency, or pile up credit card and student loan debts.
Those with stock portfolios can gamble with margin debt; those with access to central bank credit can borrow billions to fund stock buy-backs or the purchase of competitors, the better to establish a cartel or quasi-monopoly.
What's not visible in all the cheery statistics is how many enterprises and households are barely keeping their heads above water as inflation shreds the purchasing power of their net incomes. Inflation is supposedly tame, but once again, following Gibson's aphorism, inflation is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.
While employees with employer-paid health insurance are dumbstruck by $50 or $100 increases in their monthly co-pays, those of us who are paying the unsubsidized "real cost of health insurance" are being crushed by increases in the hundreds of dollars per month.
The number of cafes, restaurants and other small businesses with high fixed costs that will close as soon as sales falter is monumental. Add up soaring healthcare premiums, increases in minimum wages, higher taxes and junk fees and rising rents, and you have a steadily expanding burden that is absolutely toxic to small businesses.
The first things to go are marginal employees, overtime, bonuses, benefits, etc.--whatever can be jettisoned in a last-ditch effort to save the company from insolvency. The first bills cash-strapped households will stop paying are credit cards, auto loans and student loans; defaults won't notch higher by 2%; they're going to explode higher by 20% and accelerate from there.
Here are a few charts that reveal the extremes that have been reached to maintain the illusion of "recovery" and normalcy: total credit has exploded higher, after a slight decline very nearly brought down the global financial system in 2008-09:
The massive expansion of assets purchased by central banks will eventually be slowed or even unwound, removing the rocket fuel that's pushed stocks and bonds to the moon:
As governments/central banks borrow/print "money" in increasingly fantastic quantities to keep the illusion of "recovery" alive, the currencies being debauched lose purchasing power. Venezuela is not an outlier; it is the first of many canaries that will be keeling over in the coal mine.
Wide swaths of the economy won't even notice the recession devastating the rest of the economy, at least at first. Public employees will be immune until their city, county, state or agency runs out of money and can no longer fund its obligations; shareholders of Facebook et al. who cashed out at the top will be doing just fine, booking their $18,000 a night island get-aways, and those few willing to bet on declines in the "everything bubbles" of real estate, stocks and bonds will eventually do well, though the Powers That Be will engineer massive short-covering rallies in a last-ditch effort to mask the systemic rot.
The acceleration of non-linear consequences will surprise the brainwashed, loving-their-servitude mainstream media. The number of small businesses that suddenly close will surprise them; the number of homeowners jingle-mailing their "ownership" (i.e. obligation to pay soaring property taxes) to lenders will surprise them; the number of employees being laid off will surprise them, and the collapse of new credit being issued will surprise them.
Don't be surprised; be prepared.


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Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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