Saturday, February 16, 2019

Sometimes the Best Solution Is To Leave Things As They Are

We must distinguish between the oft-lauded creative destruction of what is obsolete and destruction in pursuit of fleeting fashion.
I recently received an insightful email from a reader who had come across my archives of free-lance articles and essays on home and urban design. I wrote dozens of articles for S.F. Bay Area newspapers from 1988 to 2006, and a handful are listed here.
The one the reader is responding to is Best Remodel Might Be None At All (2006). Here are the reader's comments:
"I thoroughly enjoyed the articles you penned for the SF Examiner that you've linked to on your website, these being written close to two decades ago.
Especially noteworthy was your response to the homeowner inquiring about a kitchen remodel where you recommended that the best course of action might be no course of action. This was an wonderful response and it caught my attention because it belies the common sales oriented suggestions generally offered by those writing about remodeling, and especially about kitchens. Usually you see writers busy extolling the gutting and replacement of a kitchen with wild zeal talking about how wonderful it will be to pour coffee or to butter toast once the kitchen area has been refurbished... and how in the sheer pleasure of a new kitchen you might even choose to drink two cups of coffee just for the fun of it!
In the old craftsman style house or bungalow it would mean new plumbing and upgrading the electrical wiring to go with new appliances and new cabinetry. In the era when that house was constructed the cabinets were typically built on site, matching the cabinetry to the design and work flow of the kitchen.
Kitchen cabinetry today is highly decorative with expensive hardware and finishes, but hardly as suitable as kitchen cabinets were once intended; that being to provide an unobtrusive and utilitarian storage and work area for the laborious processes involved in the preparation of food. Areas for preparing food were never intended to be decorative with expensive countertops and as a show-off space for the espresso machine, it was rather the equivalent of a laundry room or a home workshop, a place to do work on surfaces that were large and solid enough to take some abuse and that could be easily cleaned.
Instead of suggesting a complete remodel you appealed to the homeowners aesthetic appreciation for the unique design elements in maintaining the symmetry of the older house that would be destroyed with a new fashioned kitchen. That is the best advice I have ever read offered to someone that was apparently under the thralls of the renderings of the soulless antiseptic modern kitchen most of which are only suitable for microwave cookery or a place to unpack the delivery of fast food. Hopefully this individual took your advice to heart."
Thank you, Dear Reader, for the high compliment. It seems to me that this advice--appreciate what is, and leave it as it is rather than seek a frenzied make-over as a "solution"--can be applied to far more of life than remodeling.
As the reader so eloquently observes, mindless herd-like pursuit of the fashion of the day drives out practicality as well as destroying the integrity and aesthetics of the structure.
Ours is a commerce-and-credit society and economy. In an economy whose lifeblood is borrowing money to squander on consumerist pursuits of status, the tropism is always to rip out and demolish the old in favor of a faddish make-over.
We must distinguish between the oft-lauded creative destruction of what is obsolete and destruction in pursuit of fleeting fashion: how much of irreplaceable value has been demolished in favor of low-quality, brazenly superficial and instantly dated "new designs"?
The default "solution" in America now is to 1) borrow immense sums of money and 2) squander it heedlessly on self-serving cliches and false assumptions.Corporations, governments and entire populaces hurry after a chimera of "transformation" that transforms nothing of importance or value, but that generates vast revenues for lenders, profiteering shucksters and the government that depends on a frenzied pursuit of commerce-based status for its revenues and power.
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Thursday, February 14, 2019

What Happens When More QE Fails to Reverse the Recession?

The smart money is liquidating assets, paying off debt and moving capital into collateral that isn't impaired by debt or speculative valuations.
The Federal Reserve's sudden return to "accommodative" dovishness in response to the stock market's swoon telegraphs its intent to fire up QE once the recession kicks into gear. QE (quantitative easing) are monetary policies designed to ease borrowing and the issuance of credit, and to prop up assets such as stocks and real estate.
The basic idea is that the Fed creates currency out of thin air and uses the new money to buy Treasury bonds and other assets. This injects fresh money into the financial system and lowers the yield on Treasury bonds, as the Fed will buy bonds at near-zero yield or even less than zero in pursuit of its policy goals of goosing assets higher and increasing borrowing/spending.
This is pretty much the Fed's only lever, and it pulls this lever at any sign of weakness in stocks or the economy. That sets up an obvious question that few seem to ask: what happens when QE fails? What happens when the Fed launches QE and stocks fall as punters realize the rally is over? What happens when lowering interest rates doesn't spark more borrowing?
What happens is the smart money sells everything that isn't nailed down, a process that is arguably already well underway.
Why sell assets when QE has guaranteed gains in the past? Answer: exhaustion. There are limits to everything financial, and once those limits are reached, no amount of goosing will push the limits higher. Rather, further goosing only increases the fragility and vulnerability of the system.
Price-earnings ratios only go so high before reversing, rents only go so high before reversing, and so on. Once the trend has visibly stagnated, smart money sells out because the gains are minimal while the risk of reversal is rising by the day. Why wait for losses to pile up? Sell now and avoid the self-reinforcing decline as everyone starts selling.
The smart money is careful to mask the selling so as to avoid panicking the market. Smart money sells out slowly, in pieces small enough to avoid banging the bid lower. Alas, the Smart Money strategy is to count on greater fools to believe the shuck and jive of QE and the rest of the flim-flam: real estate never goes down, the economy will grow strongly through 2040, the next target for the S&P 500 is much higher, and so on.
Take a look at these charts of total liabilities/debt and federal income tax collected and ask yourself: are these trends sustainable in an economy growing by a few percent a year?
Federal income taxes collected have practically doubled from the recessionary nadir of 2009: does anyone really think they can double again in the next 9 years?
These geometrically rising trendlines are the acme of unsustainability. The limits have been reached and reversal looms. Ask yourself why multiple bids for real estate have vanished and why the Fed is so anxious to publicly trumpet its dovishness. If the limits were far from being reached, why the tone of desperation?
As I noted yesterday, every injection of stimulus weakens the response of the following dose. After a decade of never-ending stimulus, the positive effects of stimulus have been exhausted. Increasing the stimulus is toxic to an exhausted system pushing its intrinsic limits.
As I observed yesterday, the smart money is liquidating assets, paying off debt and moving capital into collateral that isn't impaired by debt or speculative valuations. The Smart Money has secured the good seats at the banquet of consequences, the seats reserved for those with no debt, unimpaired collateral and little dependence on central bank stimulus or central state statistical legerdemain.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print): 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.

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Wednesday, February 13, 2019

What Caused the Recession of 2019-2021?

The banquet of consequences is now being served, but the good seats have all been taken.
As I discussed in We're Overdue for a Sell-Everything/No-Fed-Rescue Recession, recessions have a proximate cause and a structural cause. The proximate cause is often a spike in energy costs (1973, 1990) or a financial crisis triggered by excesses of speculation and debt (2000 and 2008) or inflation (1980).
Structural causes are imbalances that build up over time: imbalances in trade or currency flows, capital investment, debt, speculation, labor compensation, wealth-income inequality, energy supply and consumption, etc. These structural distortions and imbalances tend to interact in self-reinforcing dynamics that overlap with normal business / credit cycles.
The current recession has not yet been acknowledged, but this is standard operating procedure: recessions are only declared long after they actually start due to statistical reporting lags. Maybe the recession of 2019-21 will be declared at some point in the future to have begun in Q2 or Q3, but the actual date is not that meaningful; what matters is what caused the recession and how the structural imbalances are resolved.
So what caused the recession of 2019-21? Apparently nothing: oil costs are relatively low, U.S. banks are relatively well-capitalized, geopolitical issues are on the backburner and stocks, bonds and real estate are all well-bid (i.e. there is no liquidity crisis).
This lack of apparent trigger will mystify conventional economists who generally avoid the enormous structural imbalances in our economy because those imbalances are the only possible output of our Neofeudal Power Structure in which a New Nobility/Oligarchy dominates financial and political power and skims the vast majority of gains the economy generates.
The cause of the recession of 2019-21 is exhaustion: exhaustion of the pell-mell expansion of credit (i.e. credit exhaustion/saturation), exhaustion in the household and small business sectors as real-world price increases continue exceeding wage and revenue gains, exhaustion of margin expansion in stocks, and exhaustion of Corporate America's policy of masking inflation by reducing quality and quantity: at some point, the toilet paper roll is so visibly diminished (i.e. stealth inflation) that companies can no longer reduce the quantity: at that point, they must raise prices to remain profitable, and this explains the recent surge in the sticker price of consumer staples.
Conventional economics has no answer for exhaustion: the only "solution" in a Keynesian universe is to goose borrowing by lowering interest rates and sluicing limitless liquidity into the financial system.
But if everyone who is qualified to borrow more has no interest in borrowing more, lenders turn to unqualified borrowers who will soon default. This sets up a destruction of debt, collateral and wealth that also has no policy answer. The credit impulse doesn't expire, it simply fades away, along with "growth," rising stock markets, higher tax revenues, etc.
The second "solution" is to substitute government spending for private spending. But in case nobody noticed, please observe that state/local and federal borrowing and spending has been soaring at insanely unsustainable rates since 2008.
Exhaustion overtook the global economy in 2016, but central banks injected massive doses of financial adrenaline to shock the comatose patient. This "solution" continues to this day, as China's central bank reportedly injected an unprecedented $1.2 trillion into credit markets in January alone.
The problem with financial adrenaline is that every dose reduces the impact of the next dose. At some point, the patient fails to respond. The positive effects of the stimulus become toxic, and attempts to increase dosage will only push the patient into collapse.
That's where the global economy is today. The exhaustion that was taking hold in 2016 was stimulated away by unprecedented injections of monetary stimulus. The response to current massive injections is between tepid and zero. Adding debt to stimulate "growth" no longer works, and injecting the patient with higher doses of stimulus will only cause collapse.
The banquet of consequences is now being served, but the good seats have all been taken by those with no debt, unimpaired collateral and little dependence on central bank stimulus or central state legerdemain. All that's left are the bad seats with horrendous consequences for perverse, distorting policies that refused to deal directly with painfully obvious imbalances.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print): 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.

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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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

The Corporate Lemmings Who Rushed into Mobile/Social Media Ads Are Running off the Cliff

Now the corporate lemmings have rushed into mobile advertising.
Given that corporations are run by people, and people are social animals that run in herds, it shouldn't surprise us that corporations follow the herd, too.Take the herd move to forming conglomerates in the go-go late 1960s: corporations suddenly started buying companies in completely different sectors in businesses they knew nothing about, because the herd was forming conglomerates--not because it made any business sense but because it was the hot trend.
Oil companies bought Hollywood studios, and so on. (Ling-Temco-Vought was one of the conglomerates whose success inspired the herd.)
Few if any of the conglomerates hastily assembled in the 1960s survived the 1970s intact. Once the lemming-like frenzy to assemble conglomerates wore off, managers discovered the conglomerates were mostly financial disasters: rarely did the expected synergies or economies of scale emerge, and inexperienced, tone-deaf hubris-soaked corporate managers often destroyed the acquired companies through ill-advised strategies or acquisitions.
In many cases, success was ephemeral: once the economy slumped, growth reversed and debt-laden conglomerates were forced to liquidate, often at a loss.
The dissolution of the conglomerate herd mentality set up the early 1980s frenzy of leveraged buy-outs as predatory financiers staked out the remaining carcasses of flailing conglomerates, bought the conglomerate and profited by selling off its constituent companies piecemeal. The stripped entity was then loaded with debt and sold to the public as an initial public offering (IPO).
Fast-forward to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when the corporate herd was offshoring production to east Asia. On one of my trips to China in the early 2000s, I sat next to a youthful corporate manager in the semiconductor equipment sector. The flight being long (10-11 hours), we were able to have an in-depth conversation about his company's dismal experience with offshoring production from the U.S. to China and other nascent manufacturing hubs in east Asia.
Since we had friends who worked in the industry, I knew enough to ask specific questions.
It turned out the offshoring had been pushed by top management over the objections of senior managers who actually knew what they were talking about. The herd was running, and top management wasn't going to take no for an answer.
The offshoring was a disaster. The company lost control of quality, and the units shipped from Asia were chockful of defects, defects that were extremely expensive to fix after manufacture. The company's intellectual property was stolen ("borrowed"?), triggering costly but useless legal actions against the thieves. Financially, the offshoring cost the company millions' in direct costs and indirectly in loss of reputation and IP.
Top management buried the disaster, of course, so only insiders knew just how catastrophic the running-with-the-herd had been.
This is not an outlier: many companies experienced catastrophes in following the offshoring-is-great lemmings off the cliff. I have first-hand accounts of pharmaceutical companies closing their China operations due to pirating (worthless knockoff medications sold in packages that were perfect replicas of the company's products), and of clothing manufacturers who left after entire runs of costly silk clothing lines were rejected for abysmal quality.
Nor was this experience limited to China; all sorts of similar disasters unfolded in SE Asia as the offshoring craze took hold.
Now the corporate lemmings have rushed into mobile/social media advertising. Never mind if the adverts work--we need a mobile presence now, and hang the cost!
The urgency was driven by the consumers' mass shift to mobile devices, fueled by the rising global addiction to small screens.
Now that tens of billions of dollars have been poured into mobile/social media adverts and marketing, enriching the quasi-monopolies (Facebook, Google et al.), sober managers are starting to ask: but do they work? Did all this treasure poured into mobile/social media adverts actually increase sales and profits? Which campaigns worked and which ones didn't? Nobody seems to know how much of their advert millions have been squandered on click fraud.
Is this any way to run a marketing division? Of course it isn't. The lemmings rushed into mobile anything / everything, heedless of cost or value, and now as the lemmings race off the cliff, questions are being asked about the efficacy of the headlong rush into mobile/social media advertising.
What if it turns out a significant chunk of sales derive from SMS (text) messages between consumers, i.e. "word of mouth"? (Thank you, Mark G., for alerting me to this largely unexplored topic.) What if all this "behavioral advertising" turns our to be high-falutin hooey?
We've already read about some corporations trying the most basic experiment: withdrawing their mobile campaigns from the quasi-monopolies and monitoring the withdrawal's effect on sales. All of this is of course a deep dark secret within HQ, because as we know, top managers will bury whatever reflects poorly on their lemming-like herd behavior, and the failure of mobile advertising is equally secret, amounting to a sort of marketing trade secret: let our competitors run off the cliff, wasting their marketing budgets on mobile/social media campaigns.
Reading the runes made public, it seems sales were unaffected by the withdrawal of huge chunks of mobile / search / social media adverts. Efforts to actually measure and track click fraud are turning up gigantic losses: advertisers' money is being siphoned off by click fraud on an immense scale.
What happens when the corporate herd wakes up the failure of mobile and social media advertising? The herd will dissipate, and actually making a profit will matter more than establishing a mobile/social media presence.
NOTE: it seems lemmings don't actually run off cliffs in herds, and so please note that I reference lemmings only as a popular cultural device, not as a reflection of biological fact. My abject apologies to any lemmings reading this essay.


Pathfinding our Destiny: Preventing the Final Fall of Our Democratic Republic ($6.95 ebook, $12 print): 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.

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Monday, February 11, 2019

We're Overdue for a Sell-Everything/No-Fed-Rescue Recession

We're way overdue for a sell-everything recession, one that the Fed will only make worse by pursuing its usual policies of lowering interest rates and goosing easy money.
As I noted last week, central banks, like generals, always fight the last war--until the war is lost. The global economy is careening into recession (call it a "slowdown" if you are employed by the Corporate-State Media), and while we don't yet know just how deep and wide this recession will be, we can make an educated guess that it won't be a repeat of any of the previous five recessions: 1973-74, 1981-82, 1990-91, 2001-02 or 2008-09.
Recessions triggered by energy or financial crises tend to be short and shallow as the crisis soon eases; recessions caused by structural imbalances tend to be enduringly brutal. Many recessions are structural, but the triggering event is a short-term crisis.
Some recessions savage specific sectors but leave most of the economy relatively unscathed. Others disrupt virtually everything, even the generally impervious-to-recession government sector.
Let's run down the general outlines of the previous five recessions. If you've lived long enough, you've experienced the suffering firsthand. Younger readers will have difficulty relating firsthand, but understanding the dynamics is the goal here, and so direct experience is a bonus, not an essential.
1973-74: the Oil Shock to the U.S. economy as OPEC raised prices and punished the U.S. for supporting Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war created havoc--long lines at gas stations and a sharp downturn (a.k.a. recession). Though the economy supposedly recovered statistically in 1975, the structural issues that were laid bare by the recession continued eroding the economy for the next six years.
The U.S. industrial base had become accustomed to getting away with rising prices and stagnant quality. The rise of competing industrial nations such as Germany and Japan (and the resulting imbalance in trade flows that undermined the U.S. dollar's gold-backed status) required a massive reset of America's financial and industrial sectors.
The higher cost of energy revealed the inefficiencies of the U.S. economy, and coupled with the public demand to clean up industrial pollution, the industrial sectors were forced into a disruptive and costly reset.
The Fed's only "solution" to any slowdown-- easy money--fueled runaway inflation. The key takeaway here was: the structural problems were not financial, and as a result the usual Fed tricks of easy money failed to fix what was broken.
Instead, loose fiscal and monetary policy made the situation much worse. On top of a major reworking of fundamental issues such as energy, pollution and global competition, the policies of the Fed and Congress added runaway inflation to an already dicey situation.
The next recession in 1981-82 was devastating, as the can could no longer be kicked down the road. Inflation destroys wealth, savings, industries that rely on credit, and trust in the institutions of the central bank and state. Fed chair Paul Volcker jacked up interest rates, laying waste to auto sales and housing, and slowly but surely, inflation was tamed--at great cost.
Although political credit is generally given to President Reagan, who took office in 1981, the painful decade-long structural reworking of the U.S. economy finally began to bear fruit in the 1980s. The counterculture techies and immigrants (Andy Grove of Intel, et al.) in Silicon Valley launched the digital revolution, energy prices dropped and stabilized as the petro-dollar system was institutionalized and the economy normalized high interest rates: home buyers cheered when mortgage rates slowly declined to a low, low 10%--a big improvement over 12% mortgages.
Booms tend to generate financial crises of excessive debt and speculation, aided and abetted by regulatory lapses, and the 1980s birthed the Saving and Loan Crisis, a completely foreseeable and needless implosion of fraudulent S&Ls which sprang up like evil weeds in the loosening of basic banking statutes. (It didn't take much to open an S&L in some states, sell a passel of $100,000 CDs, and burn the proceeds on housing speculation and high living).
The oil spike that preceded the First Gulf War was the boulder that started the landslide. The recession was brief, but it was enough to cost George Bush I the election of 1990. (People famously vote their pocketbooks.)
But the damage was relatively minimal in terms of fundamentals, and the Roaring 90s took off once President Bill Clinton declared the era of Big Government was over and fiscal restraint came back into vogue.
The explosive rise of the Internet fueled a spectacular stock market bubble in tech stocks, and as with all bubbles, the eventual popping of the dot-com bubble crushed the fortunes of anyone who bought near the top and held on to sell near the bottom. Hundreds of once high-flying companies vanished or were bought by survivors for fractions of their dot-com bubble valuations.
As usual, the Fed's "solution" to the 2001-02 downturn was to open the credit spigots and lower interest rates, even though liquidity and interest rates weren't what was wrong with the economy.
This monomaniacal policy inflated a monumental housing bubble in 2004-2008, and once again loosened regulations (liar loans, no-doc loans, 100% mortgages, fraudulent mortgage backed securities, etc.) plus low interest rates and abundant Fed liquidity created a bubble that was guaranteed to implode with devastating consequences.
No longer content with blowing one credit-speculative bubble at a time, central bankers coordinated their efforts in 2009-2018 and inflated the Everything Bubble. But the Everything Bubble didn't resolve or even address the multiple structural imbalances in the U.S. and global economies; it merely papered them over with a triple-whammy credit-speculative orgy of unprecedented enormity.
Unlike the 1970s, 80s, 90s and 2000s, wages (earned income) did not rise for the bottom 90% during the Central Bank Everything Bubble 2009-2018: it isn't just the stock buybacks and other financier speculations that are funded by debt--a great deal of consumption that was once paid out of earnings / revenues is now paid by debt: higher education, paving of roads, auto repairs, etc.
Rather than restructure the economy, the political and financial elites have papered over the imbalances with debt. Debt, we're assured, is harmless; we're going to "grow our way out of debt" by borrowing more. But borrowing more to consume more isn't increasing productivity, and this is one reason why wages have stagnated and prices have soared in the past decade.
The instabilities and imbalances of economies can be papered over with debt for a time, but debt and financialization tricks don't actually fix what's broken--they make the problems worse. Welcome to the recession of 2019-2021, when central bank policies are finally revealed as the' source of half our problems rather than the solution.
We're way overdue for a sell-everything recession, one that the Fed will only make worse by pursuing its usual policies of lowering interest rates and goosing easy money. The structural problems are now acute, and giving more free money to financiers and politically powerful corporations isn't going to fix what's broken in the U.S. economy.
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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