Wednesday, April 24, 2019

The Feedback Loop of Doom: When Mobile Creatives and Capital Abandon Unaffordable, Dysfunctional Cities

When the 4% who generate the jobs and tax revenues have had enough and leave, the effects quickly impact the 64%.
At the end of any trend, everyone's a true believer: this trend is so enduring, so broad-based, so based on unchanging fundamentals that it will never ever reverse.
One such trend is the white-hot growth of housing, employment, tax revenues, etc. in major urban magnets for global capital and talent: you know the usual suspects: Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle, Portland OR, Denver, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, New York City and so on.
What these urban regions offer are strong job markets, a very desirable dynamic.
For example, over 400,000 jobs have been added to the San Francisco Bay Area in the past few years, basically an entire new city of workers. Very few states have added 400,000 jobs in the past few years, and fewer still have added so many high-wage jobs.
The synergies created by global capital, research universities, a flood of fresh talent and the entrepreneurial drive to conjure up the next IPO Unicorn have been beaten to a pulp. What hasn't been glorified is the net result of these synergies:
1. Infrastructure that wasn't designed to handle an extra million residents, and that can only be expanded at tremendous cost and in timelines of a decade or two.
2. Soaring wealth and income inequality as these urban economies become increasingly "winner take most" and housing has skyrocketed out of reach for all but the top 10%.
3. A zeitgeist of self-congratulatory hubris in which locals are confident "we're so special" that talent and capital will continue to pour in regardless of how fast the quality of life is dropping.
What few seem to realize is much of the talent and capital are mobile and don't actually have to put up with the declining quality of life in unaffordable, dysfunctional cities: the people and the capital can go elsewhere.
I call this class Mobile Creatives, and they are not just another set of workers.I described this class back in 2014, and it has expanded under the mainstream radar over the past five years.
the New Class: Mobile Creatives (May 1, 2014) The Mobile Creative credo: trust the network, not the corporation or the state.
America's Nine Classes: The New Class Hierarchy (April 29, 2014)
Though the Mobile Creative class wields little conventional financial or political power, it has a potentially large leadership role in social and technical innovations. This is the 4% Pareto Distribution that can exert outsized influence on the 64%.
The other eight classes are hidebound by conventions, neofeudal and neocolonial arrangements and a variety of false choices and illusions of choice, including democracy itself.
If capital is treated poorly, it famously goes elsewhere. The same is true of Mobile Creatives. Here's an example that will be familiar to most urban dwellers in these high-growth urban regions: the hot new chef and his/her investors who want to open the hot new bistro in town.
Unbeknownst to the mass of employee-residents, they quickly run into a buzzsaw of regulatory delays and costs. Permits take months, then more months. No apologies are extended: we are doing you a favor to even accept your pathetic little permit application in our fantastic city.
Meanwhile, lease payments muct be made monthly because landlords reckon they can charge an arm and a leg due to the demand for space in "good" locations.
Due to all the regulations and sky-high labor costs, renovation expenses quickly soar into the hundreds of thousands. The new homeless encampment on the sidewalk right outside isn't helping, either.
Pencil in the new minimum wages, the mandatory labor overhead and minimum staffing, new surcharges, and woah, the charge per plate is pushing $40 just to keep the doors open--and this was supposed to be an affordable, casual dining place.
Then there's the hundreds of competing eateries already fighting to survive. A few give up the ghost every month but fools rush in and new entrants continue to gamble they can somehow succeed where more experienced restaurateurs have failed.
When capital and Creatives who can go elsewhere decide the odds of success are simply too low, they bail out and move on. These are the people who generate the jobs, the tax revenues and the "buzz" that draws customers and PR.
The average employee in unaffordable, dysfunctional cities is an immobilized tax donkey: they can't move because they have their job, their mortgage, their kid is in school, and so on. The cities and counties can jack up fees, taxes and surcharges and count on the vast majority of employee-residents staying put and paying the higher taxes.
Even as billions of dollars in new bonds and taxes are poured into problems such as public education, traffic congestion, crumbling infrastructure and homelessness, nothing actually get better. Local politicos can count on the Tax Donkeys to resign themselves to a fast-declining quality of life and pony up the ever higher taxes and fees.
But the average employee-residents aren't starting enterprises, creating jobs or putting capital to work. They are consumers of services, public and private, but they are not in a position to move elsewhere or influence the flow of capital and tax revenues.
So what happens when capital and Creatives start abandoning unaffordable, dysfunctional cities? They start a feedback loop of doom. When the latest trendy cafe closes, the space stays empty. The place next door closes and lays off its employees, who discover jobs are now scarce. Big construction projects are put on hold and then cancelled. Tech incubators that were crowded are now empty.
When the 4% who generate the jobs and tax revenues have had enough and leave, the effects quickly impact the 64%. Political leaders who felt invincible suddenly awaken to declining tax revenues, and as they quickly raise taxes to cover the shortfall, they trigger a larger exodus of Creatives and capital who were hovering on the edge of whether to stick it out or leave.
The increasing taxes and dysfunction make the decision easy: they sell out and leave, and other Creatives take note: better to exit now while there's still a bid for the house, office lease, etc. The trickle becomes a flood, and as the demands for government spending only click higher, tax revenues are in freefall. Welcome to the feedback loop of doom.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


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Tuesday, April 23, 2019

If "Getting Ahead" Depends on Asset Bubbles, It's Not "Getting Ahead," It's Gambling

Given that the economy is now totally and completely dependent on inflating asset bubbles, it makes no sense to invest for the long-term.
Beneath the endlessly hyped expansion in gross domestic product (GDP) of the past two decades, the economy has changed dramatically. The American Dream boils down to social and economic mobility, a.k.a. getting ahead through hard work, merit and wise investments in oneself and one's family.
The opportunities for this mobility in the post World War 2 era broadened as civil rights and equal rights expanded. The 1970s saw a disruption of working-class mobility as high-paying factory jobs disappeared, leaving services jobs that paid less or required more training, i.e. a college degree.
The U.S. economy took off in the 1980s for a number of reasons, including computer technologies, federal stimulus (deficit spending) and financialization (a topic I've covered many times). With millions more college graduates entering the workforce and the Internet creating entire new industries, the opportunities to "get ahead" increased across the social and economic spectrum.
But something changed in the aftermath of the dot-com bubble bursting. The fruits of financialization--highly leveraged debt gambled for short-term gains in markets--were extended to everyone with a job (or a willingness to lie) via liar loans, no-document loans and subprime mortgages.
Just like bigshot financiers on Wall Street, J.Q. Citizen could leverage a couple thousand dollars in cash (or even better, borrow the closing costs via a 105% of value mortgage and put nothing down) and buy a McMansion worth $250,000 or even $500,000.
The only difference between bigshot financiers and J.Q. Citizen was the scale of the leverage and gamble: J.Q. Citizen could leverage a few grand into hundreds of thousands, while the financier could leverage a bit of collateral into mega-millions.
The goal wasn't homeownership, the purported "official" goal of subprime mortgages: it was short-term speculative gains via "flipping" the house in a few months. Just like the bigshot financiers, the subprime mortgage market enabled marginal borrowers to take control of assets far in excess of their actual capital and sell them to a greater fool for a quick profit far in excess of their earnings.
Wall Street loved this distribution of financialization to the masses because Wall Street made a fortune packaging (securitizing) this toxic debt and selling it to unwary, credulous investors as "low risk" (heh) assets.
After the mortgage-securitization-fraud-housing bubble popped, a secular trend-- wages for the bottom 95% of wage earners stagnating--accelerated. "Getting ahead" via earning a college diploma, working hard and counting on merit no longer worked; families with privileges and capital got wealthier, and everyone else found the purchasing power of their earnings declined even as stocks and housing soared.
The only way to "get ahead" in a globalized, financialized economy is either 1) earn at least $200,000 a year from one's labor or 2) gamble in the inflating bubbles of stocks and housing. In high-cost regions, even $200,000 isn't enough to get ahead (i.e. buy a crumbling bungalow on a tiny lot for $800,000) if the wage-earner has student loans and/or children; the household needs two earners making top-5% salaries.
The more money the central banks throw at stock-housing asset bubbles, the higher they loft, a process that has pushed housing in high-cost regions out of reach of all those with average jobs and incomes. So much for "getting ahead."
The economy has changed dramatically for the worse: getting a graduate degree no longer guarantees getting ahead (millions of other workers globally have the same credentials); working hard is equally iffy, and traditional investments in one's family either no longer yields gains (higher education) or they are gambles in the guise of "investments" (housing).
Given that the economy is now totally and completely dependent on inflating asset bubbles, it makes no sense to invest for the long-term: a short-term gambling mentality is required to avoid getting destroyed when the bubble-du-jour pops.
Everyone who believes bubbles never pop, they only expand forever and ever, has never looked at a chart of the S&P 500 (SPX), which illustrates that bubbles always pop, destroying the capital of all who neglected to sell at the top.
If "getting ahead" depends on playing asset bubbles, it's not getting ahead, it's gambling.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
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Sunday, April 21, 2019

America's Forced Financial Flight: Fleeing Unaffordable and Dysfunctional Cities

The forced flight from unaffordable and dysfunctional urban regions is as yet a trickle, but watch what happens when a recession causes widespread layoffs in high-wage sectors.
For hundreds of years, rural poverty has driven people to urban areas: cities offer paying work and abundant opportunities to get ahead, and these financial incentives have transformed the human populace from largely rural to largely urban in the developed world.
Now a new set of financial pressures are forcing a migration of urban residents out of cities which are increasingly unaffordable and dysfunctional.As highly paid skilled workers and global capital have flooded into high-job-growth regions, living costs and the costs of doing business have skyrocketed: where not too long ago $1,000 a month would secure a modest one-bedroom apartment in major urban job centers, now it takes $2,000 or $3,000 a month to rent a modest flat.
Wages for the average worker have not doubled or tripled, and this asymmetry between soaring living costs and stagnant incomes is driving the exodus out of cities that are only affordable to the top 10% of wage earners, or those who bought a house decades ago and have locked in low property taxes.
Gordon Long and I discuss this forced migration in a new video program. It's important to note that we're not talking about economy-wide inflation or the general rise in the cost of living; we're talking about the hyper-drive cost increases that characterize high-cost urban areas.
I've addressed economy-wide real-world inflation many times,for example:
In high-cost urban regions, burritos aren't $7.50; they're $10 or $12. Parking tickets aren't $15, they're $60, and so on.
Consider this chart of rents in the San Francisco Bay Area: unless the household's income has shot up in parallel with rents, this cost of living is simply unaffordable.
Here are the dynamics driving this financially forced flight, which hits the young especially hard: who can afford to buy a house when cramped, decaying 100-year old bungalows are $900,000 and property taxes are $15,000 or more? Who can afford to have kids when childcare costs a small fortune?
The elderly retired who don't own a house free and clear are also being priced out of these regions.
1. Household income is stagnating as real-world inflation erodes the purchasing power of income: rent, housing, childcare, healthcare, dining out are all rising far faster than "official" inflation of 2% annually.
2. Prices in high-cost urban zones are increasing faster than in less pricey regions. Areas with job growth are experiencing supply-demand imbalances in rent and housing. Only top earners can afford to buy a home.
3. Young households are burdened with student loan debt, making it financially difficult to buy a home in a pricey urban zone and start a family. The only way to afford a home and children is to move to a region with affordable housing and living costs.
4. Income in high-cost urban areas is more heavily skewed by "winner take most" dynamics of finance and technology; the Pareto Distribution of 20% earn 80% of the income is extended so the top 4% take 64% the income. Even above-average incomes are not enough to support a traditional middle-class lifestyle.
5. Local government services cost more in high-cost urban areas, and so cities and municipalities are relentlessly increasing taxes, fees and licensing, pressuring all but the top tier of households.
6. The sacrifices required to live in high-cost urban areas are no longer worth it: traffic congestion, long commutes, high-stress jobs, homelessness and decaying infrastructure are outweighing the benefits of hipster urbanism.
Although it's verboten to mention this in the we're so fabulous local media, many of these high-cost urban regions are hopelessly dysfunctional. Taxpayers have ponied up billions of dollars in new taxes, fees and bond measures, and yet none of the problems that make daily life miserable ever get better.
At some point, the urban hipsterism that seemed so cool and appealing becomes just another example of the Haves and Have-Nots: how many households can afford $200+ for a meal and drinks at the latest foodie-fusion bistro? What level of sainthood is required to tolerate the traffic or crowded public transport to get to the hipster paradise, including avoiding the bodies, needles and other detritus of the entrenched homeless on the sidewalks?
The forced flight from unaffordable and dysfunctional urban regions is as yet a trickle, but watch what happens when a recession causes widespread layoffs in high-wage sectors and suddenly the hipster bistro that was always jammed is empty, and then shuttered. To replaced the taxes lost to layoffs and closed businesses, the political class will have no choice but to launch a frenzy of higher taxes, fees and surcharges on those left behind.
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

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Friday, April 19, 2019

How Empires Fall: Moral Decay

There is a name for this institutionalized, commoditized fraud: moral decay.
Moral decay is an interesting phenomenon: we spot it easily in our partisan-politics opponents and BAU (business as usual) government/private-sector dealings (are those $3,000 Pentagon hammers now $5,000 each or $10,000 each? It's hard to keep current...), and we're suitably indignant when non-partisan corruption is discovered in supposed meritocracies such as the college admissions process.
But we're less adept, it seems, at discerning systemic moral decay, which infects the very foundations of the economy and society.
Consider America's favorite pastime, corrosive partisan politics. This distemper is often traced back to (surprise!) extreme partisans, but as the chart below shows, political partisanship has risen in near-perfect correlation with wealth-income inequality, which it itself the hallmark of deeply systemic corruption, as the system is rigged to benefit the few at the expense of the many. (Chart courtesy of Slope of Hope.)
There's a phrase that describes a socio-economic system becoming the means for personal aggrandizement at the expense of civil society itself: moral decay.How else can we describe a system whose inputs and processes are rigged so the output is the vast majority of all income gains flow to the top 0.1%? (See chart below.)
When a socio-economic system institutionalizes the extralegal privileges of wealth and power, that is moral decay. When government only responds in ways that first serve the interests of entrenched insiders, that is moral decay. When the financial system is rigged to sluice income and wealth to the top of the wealth-power pyramid while stripmining the productive class below via inflation and taxes, that's moral decay. (See chart below of workers' share of the national income.)
What are initial public offerings (IPOs) of unprofitable Unicorns but a form of institutionalized, commoditized fraud based on the sale of worthless securities to greater fools who are gambling that a second wave of even greater fools will pay a premium to gamble that the worthless shares can be sold to a third wave of supremely greater fools?
There is a name for this institutionalized, commoditized fraud: moral decay.
What are stock buy-backs but a form of institutionalized, commoditized fraud in which insiders borrow vast sums to reduce the number of shares outstanding to boost the per-share profits and hence the valuation of their portfolios and stock options? How does civil society benefit from this hyper-financialized concentration of wealth and thus political power?
There is a name for this institutionalized, commoditized fraud: moral decay.America is fatally riddled with institutionalized moral decay, and so are the competing powers of the EU, Japan, Russia and China.
Moral decay is the only possible output of systems that place the accumulation of personal wealth and political power above all other civic and economic values. When every system is nothing but a means to institutionalize and commodify fraud and extralegal privilege, there is no saving such a perversely asymmetric system from internal collapse.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print, $13.08 audiobook): Read the first section for free in PDF format.


My new mystery The Adventures of the Consulting Philosopher: The Disappearance of Drake is a ridiculously affordable $1.29 (Kindle) or $8.95 (print); read the first chapters for free (PDF)
My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

NOTE: Contributions/subscriptions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.
 
Thank you, Tim B. ($100), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site-- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
 

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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

The Next Financial Crisis Won't Be Caused by Fraud: This Time Will Be Different

Extreme levels of debt and overvaluation characterize the entire global economy, and are not limited to any one nation or sector.
Financial crises come in two flavors: fraud and credit-valuation over-reach.Fraud-based financial crises may differ in particulars, but they share many traits: perverse incentives are institutionalized; the perverse incentives reward figuring out how to evade oversight via fraud, embezzlement, masking risk, etc. which are soon commoditized; regulations are gutted by insider-funded lobbying; regulators fail to do their job in hopes of getting lucrative positions in the industry they're supposed to be regulating; reports of systemic, commoditized fraud are ignored because everyone's getting rich, and so on.
The resolution has to 1) eliminate the perverse incentives that fueled the crisis; 2) institutionalize oversight that actually functions to limit dangerous excesses and 3) all the malinvestment / bad debt must be liquidated and the losses taken / distributed.
Correspondent David E. recently sent me this insightful outline of how the Texas Savings & Loan financial crisis arose and was slowly and painfully resolved in the 1980s:
"The S&L crisis provides an excellent example of both how to make a problem worse and how to resolve it in the end. (note: I watched this play out in Texas; some of your readers may have a different perspective).
1. Prior to the mid-1970s, S&Ls lived by the 3-6-3 rule – pay depositors 3%; make home loans at 6%; and be on the golf course at 3 o’clock. This cozy little world had been in place since the 1950s.
2. Inflation in the 70s wrecked this calculation. The loans (long term home mortgages) still paid 6%, but the S&L’s were having to pay the depositors more – often more than the 6% they were making on the loans. Bankruptcy loomed.
3. The S&L owners were some of the more prominent local business people, especially in smaller towns scattered across the US – and more importantly, in Congressional districts scattered across the US.
4. They went to Congress and said, "we’re in trouble, but if we could only invest in commercial real estate, we could grow our way out of this mess, and it won’t cost the taxpayer a dime."
5. Congress, faced with a $50 billion problem as well as the prospect of alienating multitudes of prominent local citizens, agreed, and thus kicked the can down the road.
6. At least in Texas, this is when the “cowboys” moved in. The smarter S&L owners saw what was happening and realized the game was up. They sold their institutions to the cowboys (and the smart ones took the highest cash offer, ignoring any stock or profit-sharing).
7. The predictable and well documented abuses took off (“fiduciary pornography” in the words of one regulator afterward).
8. Things went on for a few years but were beginning to unravel even before the Saudis flooded the oil market in early 1986 and drove the price of crude down to $9.
9. Now for what was done right – if only by accident. Texas was the first to tumble, and people in other states remembered our oil boom bumper stickers. “Drive 90 and freeze a Yankee” among others. As a result, there was ZERO sympathy for Texas’ economic problems.
10. Federal regulators thus had a free hand to clean house. Even large banks were declared insolvent. Shareholders lost everything. Over 1000 bank executives went to prison. I personally know at least two who slithered free in the end, but many did not. A lawyer friend spent a couple of years in the late 1980s doing little other than foreclosing houses in Highland Park (old money Dallas).
11. It was a rough 3-4 years in Texas, but two decades of accumulated rot had been burned away, setting the stage for the economic boom that followed.
The other big factor was the tax reform of 1986. People today need to be more cognizant of what really happens when marginal rates go up to 70%. Do the rich pay more tax? NO. Instead the world becomes infested with tax shelters and other avoidance schemes, which produce tremendous waste.
In late 70s/early 80s Texas, a lot of this tax shelter money intersected with the S&L pirates in the form of commercial real estate, especially apartment complexes, in an orgy of malinvestment. I still remember the TV ads in Houston marketing yuppie-villes: gorgeous women in bikinis by the pool, and one unending party. After the bust, these complexes turned into Section 8 housing almost overnight and many remained blighted for a couple of decades before they were finally torn down.
If the next bust starts out affecting only one region, there may be a chance to do the right thing (basically, let her rip and things will settle out on their own). But that didn’t happen in 2008, and probably won’t happen next time."
Thank you, David, for a very insightful summary of how financial crises arise and how the scale of the crisis affects the resolution: in 2008, banking had become so centralized and the fraud/leverage so extreme that the implosion of a relatively marginal slice of the mortgage market (subprime mortgages) triggered a loss of faith and liquidity that very nearly brought down the entire global financial system.
Rather than clean house, politicos bailed out the banks and regulators added new regulations that left the system essentially unchanged. As was easily predictable, the regulations increased the banks' costs and created incentives to move mortgage origination into non-bank (and thus less regulated) entities.
Interestingly, modern financial crises seem to oscillate between fraud and over-reach: the S&L crisis resulted from the commoditization of mortgage fraud, the 2000 dot-com crash resulted from extremes of over-valuation and margin debt, the 2008 Global Financial Meltdown resulted from the globalized commoditization of securitization fraud, and now the pins are being set up for the next financial crisis triggered by extremes of credit and overvaluation.
The dot-com meltdown arose from unprecedented extremes of overvaluation for tech companies profitable and unprofitable alike. High levels of margin debt ensured that the sell-off would gather steam as punters were forced to liquidate portfolios to meet margin calls.
The dot-com meltdown was famously concentrated in the tech sector: while certainly a major part of the economy, tech and the Internet high-flyers were still a relatively modest share of total assets: all stocks, all bonds, all real estate, etc.
Sector rotation enabled capital to be preserved. As the Federal Reserve slashed interest rates, the value of bonds rose and real estate got a boost as assets flowed from stocks to housing. Simply put, not every asset crashed in unison.
The brewing financial crisis will be different: the twin sins of extreme levels of debt and extreme overvaluation of assets now characterize corporate bonds, many sovereign bonds, stocks and real estate. Pretty much the only traditional assets that aren't at nosebleed levels are precious metals and bat guano. (Cryptocurrencies are as yet non-traditional assets, though this may change in the next financial crisis.)
Extreme levels of debt and overvaluation characterize the entire global economy, and are not limited to any one nation or sector. When this crisis gathers steam, there will be few avenues of escape. Adding regulations won't stop it, adding liquidity won't stop it, waving chicken entrails and dancing the humba-humba around the MMT/Keynesian campfire won't stop it.
Attempting to force extremes to even more extended extremes won't stop it.
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My book Money and Work Unchained is now $6.95 for the Kindle ebook and $15 for the print edition. Read the first section for free in PDF format.


If you found value in this content, please join me in seeking solutions by becoming a $1/month patron of my work via patreon.com. New benefit for subscribers/patrons: a monthly Q&A where I respond to your questions/topics.

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