Wednesday, July 01, 2020

An Interesting Juncture in History

Just as the rewards of central-bank bubbles have not been evenly distributed, the pain created by the collapse of the bubbles won't be evenly distributed, either.
We've reached an interesting juncture in history, and I don't mean the pandemic. I'm referring to the normalization of extremes in the economy, in social decay and in political dysfunction and polarization.
Let's ask a very simple question. The S&P 500 stock index went up five-fold from its 2009 low at 667 to a recent high around 3,400. Did your income rise five-fold since 2009? Probably not.
Houses that sold for $150,000 in 2000 are now valued at $900,000, a six-fold increase since 2000. Did your income rise six-fold since 2000? Probably not.
State university tuition has risen about 2.5 times from 2004 to 2019. Did your income rise 2.5-fold since 2004? Probably not.
Even burritos from the local taco truck have tripled in price in the past 15 years. Did your income triple? Probably not.
The average household income in 2000 was about $42,000. To match the six-fold increase in urban housing valuations, that household would have to earn $252,000 this year. How many households saw their income soar from $42,000 to $252,000? Not many.
The average household income in 2009 was about $50,000. To match the five-fold increase in stock market valuations, that household would have to earn $250,000 this year. How many households saw their income soar from $50,000 to $250,000? Not many.
To keep up with tuition (never mind healthcare insurance), the household earning $45,000 in 2004 would have to bring home $112,000 this year.
The household earning $100,000 in 2004 would need to boost its income to $250,000 to keep up with college tuition. How many households boosted their income from $100,000 to $250,000 in the past 15 years? Not many.
In other words, what's been normalized over the past 20 years is the total subjugation of labor by central-bank inflated asset bubbles that benefit the top 0.1%. Labor has lost ground while assets have soared, leaving those whose income is earned less able to buy over-valued assets and more prone to borrowing money to maintain their lifestyle-- a situation I call debt serfdom.
Two generations ago, nobody knew the name of the Federal Reserve's chairperson. Now that chairperson is in the news virtually daily. The media exposure of the Fed chair far exceeds that of elected officials such as the Speaker of the House of Representatives or the Senate Majority Leader, or the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
In effect, the nation has become dependent on its central bankers and their limited agenda (expand the wealth and power of the financial sector). The elected government and the real-world production of goods and services both have taken a back seat to conjured "wealth."
The ascendance of finance and the decay of labor's value is the result of the ascendance of monetary stimulus as the core driver of "wealth" and thus "growth." It was once expected that consumption would be funded by wages earned by labor, and investment would be funded by savings set aside from earnings. That era is long past. What's been normalized is a systemic reliance on debt to fund consumption and on the euphoric "animal spirits" of the wealth effect generated by soaring assets such as homes and stocks.
History offers a number of parallels to the ascendance of borrowed capital over labor and central bank money-printing over the creation of productive value. History suggests eras that have normalized economic and financial extremes--extremes of inequality, policy, and decay--haven't ended well for anyone.
Just as the rewards of central-bank bubbles have not been evenly distributed, the pain created by the collapse of the bubbles won't be evenly distributed, either.
Recent Podcasts:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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.

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, June 30, 2020

The New Normal: Extremes of Neofeudalism, Incompetence, Authoritarianism and Relocalization

The pendulum swung to an extreme of globalization, financialization, centralization and monopoly, all of which created extreme systemic fragility.
Here's what to expect in the rapidly evolving New Normal: extremes become even more extreme as the status quo attempts to force compliance with its last-ditch schemes to preserve what was always unsustainable while painting a happy face on the stock market, the one thing they can push higher as the global economy unravels.
Mark, Jesse and I discuss this dynamic in Salon #10: Remember when Maximum Pessimism and Irrational Exuberance were mutually exclusive? (54 minutes): realistic pessimism is lashed to the mast with the irrational exuberance of stock market soothsayers, central bank cheerleaders and the organs of propaganda (Wall Street) and control of the narratives (social media and search monopolies).
Cognitive dissonance? Yes. Schizophrenia? Sure. Crazy-making? Undoubtedly. So the default "solution" is petty Authoritarianism to ensure we only see approved narratives, that we focus on the happy-happy signal of the glorious stock market (best rally ever!), that we pay higher taxes without complaint, and so on.
And of course, buy, buy, buy and borrow, borrow, borrow, lest the flimsy house of cards collapse.
As I explain in my book Why Our Status Quo Failed and Is Beyond Reformthe only possible output of central bank monetary stimulus is financialization, and the only possible output of financialization is unprecedented wealth and income inequality.
As Max Keiser, Stacy Herbert and I discuss in Fractals of Incompetence (15:30), the problem with pushing extremes is the system is incompetent at every level, from school boards to the Federal Reserve. Rather than solve problems, our institutions have devolved into mechanisms to protect clerisy / insiders from transparency and accountability.
In the New Normal, systemic incompetence isn't going to magically transform into competence, it's going to reach new extremes of incompetence and self-serving hubris.
My term for servitude via debt and taxes is neofeudalism, and neofeudalism is the default setting of the New Normal as the super-wealthy can buy even more of the nation's assets thanks to the Federal Reserve's free money for financiers, leaving the peasantry the owners of debt rather than assets.
The only way to escape neofeudal servitude is to figure out some way to live on a fraction of what the conventional lifestyle requires, i.e. radical frugalityRadical frugality will also be a permanent part of the New Normal, either voluntary or imposed by circumstances.
The silver lining in all this is the potential to relocalize essential elements of our economy, a subject Richard and I discuss in The New Normal (37 minutes). The pendulum swung to an extreme of globalization, financialization, centralization and monopoly, all of which created extreme systemic fragility.
In the New Normal, the pendulum will finally start moving away from globalization, financialization, centralization and monopoly to decentralized, relocalized economic activity, which is the core dynamic in doing more with less and regaining agency.
The New Normal has yet to fully impact the global financial system, which is still in the eye of the hurricane, magnificently confident that the Federal Reserve's money-printing is the most powerful force in the Universe. The stock market's hubris is begging the gods for retribution, and we may not have to wait too long for the karmic hammer to crush the hubris and the irrational exuberance, as Adam, Mike, John and I discuss in Three major risks the markets are not pricing in yet (39 minutes).
The winds are picking up, and the flimsy shacks of the Fed and Wall Street are no match for the real world.
Recent Podcasts:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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.

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, James B. ($100), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.
 
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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Forget the V, W or L Recovery: Focus on N-P-B

The only realistic Plan B is a fundamental, permanent re-ordering of the cost structure of the entire U.S. economy.
The fantasy of a V-shaped recovery has evaporated, and expectations for a W or L-shaped recovery are increasingly untenable. So forget V, W and L; the letters that will shape the future are N, P, B: there is No Plan B.
All the hopes for a recovery were based on a quick return to the economy that existed in late 2019. All the bailouts and stimulus programs were based on this single goal: a quick return to The Old NormalThis was Plan A.
For all the reasons that have been laid out here over the past six months, The Old Normal is gone for good. The Old Normal economy was too precarious, too brittle and too fragile to survive the toppling of any domino, as the only Plan A "solution" was to push destabilizing extremes to new extremes, i.e. doing more of what failed spectacularly and increasing the fragility of precariously fragile systems.
A short list of what's been irreversibly destabilized due to a systemic collapse in demand, exponential rise in risk and uncertainty, dependence on over-indebtedness, imploding global supply chains, structural decline in income and employment and the rapid emergence of new business models that obsolete high-cost, inefficient, sclerotic, bureaucratic monopolies include:
1. Healthcare
2. Higher education
3. Commercial real estate
4. Tourism
5. Restaurants / live entertainment
6. Business travel / conferences
7. Office parks, commutes, urban work forces, etc.
8. High-cost urban lifestyles
We could also include entire sectors that have yet to recognize the tsunami that's about to wash away their Old Normal: marketing, finance, local governance, etc.
The problem is there's no Plan B for anything in the U.S. economy. There is only Plan A, a return to 2019 / The Old Normal. If that's no longer possible, there is literally nothing left on the policy / response plate.
What nobody dares even ask is: what businesses and industries will still be financially viable running at 50% capacity? How many cafes, restaurants, resorts, airlines, etc. will turn a profit operating at 50% capacity? How many can not just survive half of the seats being empty, but turn a profit?
The short answer is very few, because the operating costs of most businesses are unbearably high. The likely survivors are those enterprises with low fixed costs and low operating costs-- enterprises that own their facilities in locales with low property taxes, and enterprises that can be run by the owners without employees.
How many enterprises have these kinds of barebones cost structures? Very few.
For most enterprises, the only way they can lower their costs to a level that enables their survival is to cut costs by half: cut rent, mortgages, debt service, property taxes, fees, utilities, insurance, etc. by half.
That would mean everyone down the line would have to survive on half of their previous revenues: landlords, banks, local municipalities, service providers, and so on.
How many of these institutions and enterprises could survive on 50% of their previous revenues?
The only realistic Plan B is a fundamental, permanent re-ordering of the cost structure of the entire U.S. economy. Call it DeGrowth, or creative destruction, or disruption if you prefer, but whatever name we use, the reality will be extraordinarily disruptive, uncertain, risky and unpredictable.
As many of us has explained over the years, unstable, brittle, fragile systems characterized by soaring inequality, pay-to-play political corruption and dependence on debt, leverage and speculative bubbles were unsustainable.
Plan B can be a chaotic mess of denial and failed half-measures that only make all the problems worse, or it can be a positive transformation that results in a society that does more with less. The choice is ours.
Unfortunately, the pandemic chart I composed on February 2, 2020 is still playing out, increasing uncertainty.
Recent Podcasts:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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.

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, Bob O. ($100), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.
 
Thank you, Kent ($100), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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Wednesday, June 24, 2020

The Depression Dominoes Are Toppling

Once you allow your economy to become dependent on extremes of debt, leverage, inequality, legalized looting, monopoly, pay-to-play politics and speculative asset bubbles, a depression is inevitable.
The pandemic lockdown will be blamed for the Greater Depression, but the lockdown only toppled all the dominoes that were already lined up. The lockdown would have been survivable if the economy hadn't been over-indebted, over-leveraged, burdened by insanely high costs, stripmined by greedy monopolies, dependent on stock market fraud, destabilized by extreme inequality, corrupted by political pay-to-play and addicted to speculation.
The apologists always blame depressions on central banks not printing money fast enough, while overlooking the real drivers: debt, high costs and dependence on speculative bubbles. As noted here many times, revenues and income can quickly slide lower, but debt must be serviced regardless of revenues and income.
Once debt payments dominate expenses, any wobble in revenues / income / cash flow triggers default.
Regarding unbearably high costs that only go higher, year after year: as noted here many times, Sickcare Will Bankrupt the Nation all by itself, never mind soaring higher education / student loan debt serfdom, skyrocketing rents, junk fees, taxes, etc.
The truth is the cost of living is unaffordable but we can't even acknowledge this obvious fact because even acknowledging it would threaten the entire house of cards. So instead we play-act as if we believe the bogus "inflation is dead" narratives.
The top 5% technocrat/managerial class have done very well for themselves in the speculative run-up of destabilizing inequality, and since they run the narrative machines, we're swamped with happy stories about the economy, all of which boil down to this absurd fantasy: since I'm doing so well, everyone else must be doing well, too.
Since the top 5% own the lion's share of the nation's productive assets--stocks, bonds, business equity, investment real estate, etc.-- the enormous asset bubbles have greatly boosted their wealth and income. This has enabled the wealthy to service their debt or pay it off. The bottom 95% aren't quite so well-placed to survive a decline in income.
Everyone who was barely keeping their head above water in making their debt payments is already in default or will soon be in default. Since the banks and shadow-banking lenders have gorged on the profits skimmed by loaning huge sums to marginal borrowers, now that these marginal borrowers are defaulting en masse the banks and lenders are about to be crushed by one wave of catastrophic losses after another.
Student loans--already in mass default. Credit cards--the wave is rolling in as we speak. Auto loans--looking like Waimea Bay on a big day. Mortgages--better not to look.
Corporate debt has exploded to unprecedented levels, and this is what will break the financial system. Zombie corporations are rushing to borrow billions of dollars (thanks to the Federal Reserve) but increasing their debt is only doing more of what created their fragility in the first place.
Being able to borrow more to service your old debts is not solvency, it's merely the semblance of solvency. We're in the eye of the hurricane right now, as everyone holds their breath and hopes some sort of magic will make all the debt that has to be serviced every month vanish.
It's worth recalling that every dollar of debt is someone else's asset and the source of their income. So when the defaults and bankruptcies sweep through the financial system, they'll obliterate all the "wealth" of those holding bundled student and auto loan securities, mortgage backed securities, corporate bonds, and destroy the income streams these trillions in debt generated.
All the linked fragilities and dependencies of our economy are like lines of dominoes: one default topples the entire line of dominoes of debt, leverage, derivatives, counterparty risk, credit default swaps and most devastating of all, any certainty that borrowers won't default in the future.
If banks and lenders can't lend with a high degree of certainty, lending dries up and profits collapse, along with the consumer spending that was enabled by the borrowing.
Despite their high incomes and net worth, some consequential percentage of top 5% households bringing in $300,000 a year are one layoff away from default: never mind their pristine 830 credit score; that was last month. Next month,next quarter, next year--all bets are off.
Once you allow your economy to become dependent on extremes of debt, leverage, inequality, legalized looting, monopoly, pay-to-play politics and speculative asset bubbles, a depression is inevitable. The only question is "when," and that's been answered, though nobody wants to hear it: 2020 and beyond.
It didn't have to end this way. If our leadership / Power Elites had acted to reduce all these painfully obvious speculative extremes, dependencies and fragilities and made even modest efforts to limit the exploitation of predatory parasites that generated unprecedented inequality and corruption over the past 12 years, the economy would have been much less brittle / fragile.
Unfortunately, the pandemic chart I composed on February 2, 2020 is still playing out, increasing uncertainty.
What's the price of systemic fragility and uncertainty? I fear it will be steeper than we're prepared to pay.
Recent Podcasts:
Money and Work Unchained $6.95 (Kindle), $15 (print) Read the first section for free (PDF).


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.

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, Mike G. ($100), for your outrageously generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.
 
Thank you, Robert J. ($50), for your magnificently generous contribution to this site -- I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

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