May 5, 2008
The Risk Economy

      As the West's industrial regime sputters toward a cheap-energy-crackup conclusion, there have been attempts to recast what our economy is actually about, how to account for whatever wealth we manage to produce, and project what our society will actually be organized to do in the years ahead.
      For a while in the 1990s, the idea was a "service economy," kind of like the old fable of the town whose inhabitants made a living by taking in each other's laundry -- only in our case it was selling hamburgers to tourists on vacation from their jobs making hamburgers elsewhere, or something like that.
     Then came the idea of the "information economy" in which making things of value would no longer matter, only the processing and deployment of information (sometimes misidentified as "knowledge"). This model seemed to suggest a yin-yang of software engineers who made up games like "Grand Theft Auto" serving the opposite cohort of people who bought and played the game. If nothing else, it certainly explained how lifetimes could be frittered away on stupid activities.
     That illusion yielded to the housing bubble economy, which actually did produce a lot of things, but not necessarily of value -- for instance, houses made of particle board and vinyl 38 miles outside of Sacramento. It was a tragic and manifold waste of resources, as well as an insult to the landscape. But the darker side of the housing bubble lay in the world of finance, where a vast empire of swindles was constructed to support the Potemkin facade of production homebuilding.
     Now we are in a strange period when those swindles are unwinding. The people who run the finance sector -- the Wall Street investment banks, hedge funds and ratings agencies, the Federal Reserve, and the US Dept of the Treasury -- in desperately trying to prevent the unwind, have rapidly ramped up another new economy based entirely on the buying and selling of risk. Risk, as a pure abstraction unconnected to any real capital activity, is all that's left to buy and sell after all other plausibly practical vehicles for finance have failed.
     While a lack of transparency in the individual risk vehicles has been an object of complaint over the past year, the system as whole is transparently absurd. The system is also abstruse enough to prevent most mortals (including many employed in the system) from understanding its operations. But the general public and the news media are virtually helpless to intervene in this last gasp racket, so the probability increases that it will do tremendous damage to whatever remains of the US economy.
     One feature of the risk economy is the Federal Reserve's new willingness to absorb any sort of crap collateral in exchange for massive cheap loans to insolvent companies and institutions. The Fed has, in effect, made itself the world's largest financial shit-magnet. It has already taken in a few hundred billion in securities based on non-performing real estate loans, and has now opened the window to securities based on non-performing credit card debt, car loans, and other miscellaneous IOUs still drifting un-hedged in the banking ether.
      It's a mark of our collective desperation to avoid the consequences of so much reckless behavior that no credible authorities have stepped up to denounce this racket -- no Fed governor, no politician of standing (including the candidates for president), no newspaper-of-record. The Attorney-general of New York, Andrew Cuomo, may be quietly cooking up some cases in the deep background, but the SEC and the federal banking regulators hung up their "out-to-lunch" signs on this long ago.
     Meanwhile, the basic situation is this: the world is awash with bad investment paper. The standard of living in the US can't be supported on debt anymore. The people of the US don't produce enough real value to service their debts. Institutions can no longer be supported on debt gone bad. Something's got to give -- meaning something has to bring the US standard of living down to a level consistent with our declining actual wealth. 
      Everything else going on right now is a dodge. The Fed maneuvers, the "coordinated actions" of the western central banks, the postponements of default, the non-disclosure of contents in bank portfolios, the pretense that risk alone is a kind of fungible resource that can be endlessly traded to generate fees -- all this fucking nonsense will only make the eventual unwinding much worse.
     Personally, I doubt that it can go on more than a few more months. The velocity of everything is going up past the "red line" where things really fly apart. The increased velocity of non-performing mortgages and deadbeat credit card accounts is one thing that can't be hidden or escaped. America will feel and see very vividly when the repossession teams rush families from their homes, when the pickup truck is taken away, and when the pink slip appears in the pay envelope. Meanwhile all the higher-end banking shenanigans will only debase the dollar and make it more difficult for people already in distress to buy gasoline and food.
     If the bankers and treasury officials collude to prop up one more failing big bank a la Bear Stearns, the political fallout for Wall Street could be lethal. In any case, I think we will have a way different sense of ourselves as a society by the time the election comes.

April 28, 2008
Belief System

     A friend asked me how come the public apparently grasps the reality of climate change but can’t seem to wrap its collective brain around the unfolding oil crisis.
       I'm not convinced that the public does grasp climate change. It's perceived, perhaps, as a background story to daily life, which goes on regardless. Are you even sure Hollywood didn't invent it -- and maybe some boob at Time Magazine is selling it as though it were really happening?
      Few have anything to gain by espousing denial of climate change. It's hard for most people to tell if they have been affected by it. It doesn't quite seem real. Those who actually make gestures in the face of it –- screwing in compact fluorescent lightbulbs, buying Prius cars -- end up appearing ridiculous, like an old granny telling you to fetch your raincoat and rubbers because a force five hurricane is organizing iself offshore, beyond the horizon.
     The public appears aggressively clueless about the peak oil story. They do not accept any threats to the motoring regime. The news media is surely not helping sort things out. I saw a remarkable display of ignorance on CNN last week when the new resident idiot-maniac Glenn Beck hosted Teamster Union boss James Hoffa and they agreed that the oil companies were to blame for high fuel prices. To put it as plainly as possible, Beck doesn't know what the fuck he's talking about, and it's disgraceful that CNN gives free reign to this moron to misinform the public. It's perhaps equally amazing that Hoffa doesn't know we have entered a permanent global oil crisis based on demand having outrun supply. These two idiots think that if Exxon-Mobil built a new refinery down in Louisiana, everything would be fine, diesel fuel would go back down to 99 cents a gallon, and it would be Christmas every morning.
      This has been a pretty remarkable month, actually, with all the problems of "The Long Emergency" accelerating impressively. Oil is now testing the $120 mark, the airline industry is imploding (largely over fuel costs), the housing scene has reached a degree of collapse unseen since the 1930s, food shortages have strayed out of the Third World and begun to affect Japan and the USA, bats are dying of a mysterious disease in the Northeast, and the Arctic sea ice is shrinking away to nothing.
     We're in a strange collective psychic bubble. We'd like to forget about all these troubling rumors of hardship and bad weather and just get on with the daily task of making a living and paying for stuff and enjoying our customary entertainments. The comforting ceremonies of everyday life seem to continue. The freeways are still full of cars. Nancy Grace comes on TV dependably at 8 p.m. and is there deploring the latest pervert arrest. The baseball season has ramped up and the teams are criss-crossing the nation in their chartered airplanes. The stock market is actually going up -- what's wrong with that?
       But there's an equally eerie vibe out there that things are seriously out-of-whack. We're on the edge of something. We're at the entrance of a dark passage where some of the ceremonies of daily life meet resistance. You go to the WalMart and five of your six credit cards are refused. Uh oh. It begins to dawn on you that you're spending a quarter of your take-home pay filling up the gas-tank every week. There's no dial tone when you pick up the telephone. How could all the supermarkets in town be out of rice? The local hospital just declared bankruptcy. The neighbors down the street auctioned off all their furniture in the driveway last week. Why does the cat pick up so many ticks these days?
        Events are not through with us this year. They'll keep moving where they will whether we believe in them or not. I'm hardly even convinced that it matters who wins the presidential race this year. It could end up being the world's biggest booby prize.

April 21, 2008
Blind Spot

      I happened to be flying into Minneapolis the very day that Northwest Airlines announced its merger with Delta --Delta to be the more senior (more equal) partner -- in effect, to absorb Northwest and run its operations. Many observers are not optimistic that the merger will rescue these companies in any case, since both airlines are financial basket-cases, but it's a sort of last-ditch effort to save them both.
    It was less than great news up around Minneapolis, Northwest's corporate headquarters. A lot of people I talked to were anxious that Delta would cut service to a lot of little cities in the upper Great Lakes and northern prairie region, places like Duluth, Grand Forks, Green Bay, Traverse City and many other towns. Instead of one or two flights a day, they may end up with one or two a week, or none at all, they feared.
     The Northwest pilots were none too pleased, either, because Delta was making noises about their own pilots seniority counting for more than Northwest's pilot's seniority in terms of preferred assignments and scheduling. In fact, the Northwest pilots were so pissed off they threatened to scuttle the merger.
     That part of the country is a big region of wide open spaces Things are very far apart. You wouldn't want to drive a car from Des Moines to Rapid City, even if gasoline was a good bit less than the $3.50 a gallon it is now. Driving around the prairie is especially tedious -- and dangerous because of the tedium. The landscape is boring. The roads are dead straight and mostly dead flat.
     It happened, also, that I got a little guided tour of Minneapolis from the author-shlepping service that my publisher engaged. We rode past the old Minneapolis central train station. He said no trains stop there anymore (there's a dinky afterthought of a station next door in St. Paul). Anyway, the only train that comes through the Twin Cities is the pokey once-a-day Amtrak to Seattle.
     In other words, this region of the country has next-to-zero railroad service. Can we pause a moment here to ask: exactly how far does America have its head up its ass? Do you get the picture? Can you connect the dots? The airline industry is dying and absolutely no thought is being given to how people will get around this big country -- except to make the stupid assumption that we can just drive our cars instead. Even during the several days I was around Minneapolis, no news media or politician raised the subject of reviving passenger railroad service.
      In point of fact, these are exactly the kind of trips that would be better served by rail, anyway -- the towns that are less than five hundred miles apart. The travel time between trains and planes would be comparable, considering the two hours or so that you have to add to every airplane trip because of all the security crap, not to mention the delays. As a matter of fact, USA today ran a front page story two days after the Delta / Northwest announcement saying "Air Trips Slowest [now than] in Past 20 Years." Subhead: "Trend likely to persist as congestion worsens."
     One big reason for the airport congestion, of course, is that the runways are cluttered up with planes making trips of only a few hundred miles. This has been a problem for quite a while. Periodically, it gets so bad that the media gets all excited and sometimes (last summer, for instance) the President makes a statement deploring it. Since the current president is a knucklehead, it apparently hasn't occurred to him to get behind a revival of the passenger rail system. But Mr. Bush is apparently not the only elected knucklehead in this country, because absolutely nobody is talking about this.
     Now get this: we are sleepwalking into a transportation crisis. As I already said, the airline industry is dying. The price of petroleum-based aviation fuel is killing it. And forget the fantasies about running it on bio-diesel or used french-fry oil. Driving cars will not be an adequate substitute, either. It's imperative that this country gets serious about restoring the passenger rail system. We can't not talk about it for another year. We must demand that the candidates for president speak to this issue. If you who are reading this are active reporters or editors in the news media, you've got to raise your voices behind this issue.

April 14, 2008
Slip of the Tongue

      Barack Obama caught hell last week for daring to tell the truth about the ragged thing that the American spirit has become. He said that small-town Pennsylvania voters, bitter over their economic circumstances, “cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them” to work out their negative emotions. He might have added that the Pope wears a funny hat (see for yourself this week), and that bears shit in the woods (something rural Pennsylvanians probably know). Nevertheless, in the manner lately prescribed for those who slip up and speak truthfully in public (and in contradiction to the reigning delusions), Obama was pressured to apologize for his statements.
      The evermore loathsome and odious Hillary Clinton, co-owner of a $100 million personal wealth portfolio, seized the moment to remind voters what a normal, everyday gal she is -- who would never look down on the small-town folk of Pennsylvania the way her "elitist" opponent had -- forgetting, apparently, that the Clinton family's consigliere, James Carville, famously described the Keystone State as a kind of redneck sandwich with Pittsburgh and Philadelphia as the bread, and Alabama as the lunch meat in between.
     As I mull over all this, I begin to think that Hillary is exactly what the USA deserves and, that should she manage to winkle away the nomination and get elected president, the outcome would be instructive and salutary. For one thing, she will be buried under an avalanche of political woe, beginning with the basic financial insolvency of everything in the nation except the Clinton family. Then she would proceed straight into an oil-and-gas clusterfuck that could take this society back to the eighteenth century economically.
      This would have the positive effect of forcing the American public to look elsewhere for governance than the usual parties in Washington, D.C. It's time for a national purgative, anyway. In fact, it's way overdue. Are the Democratic and Republican parties anymore necessary than the Whigs? Neither of them can really articulate the problems we face (and when their honchos slip up and come close to the truth, they're persecuted for it).
      A President Hillary will also go a long way to defeating the popular delusion that a world ruled by female humans would be heaven-on-earth. (It would be more like one of those chaotic single-parent households in Section-8 housing, ruled by a harried and distracted mom, with a shadowy man in the background molesting the little ones while she was off working at the WalMart.)
      I'm very sorry that Barack Obama apologized for his remarks. It compromised his authority. They were truthful and correct. He might have added that the anxious and bitter lower classes were also neurotically hung-up on cars, and that his first act as president would be to shut down the Nascar tracks by executive order in the interest of national energy security.
     It's been illuminating to see how almost nobody has come to Obama's defense in this matter -- hardly anyone in the press, anyway. It shows what the mainstream media's interest in the truth is (close to zero).
     In the background of these sad and sordid campaign doings, the financial sector -- and the dog's-body economy that the wagging financial tail used to be attached to -- is whirling steadily down a big wide culvert, along with the rest of the debris shaken loose by the spring rains. Congressman Barney Frank and Senator Chris Dodd have been putting together mortgage rescue schemes that are gut-bustingly hilarious because they don't seem to take into account the basic fact that nobody knows who the lending parties to all those distressed mortgages really are. (Hint: they're not the "servicing" companies who send out the default notices.) So when they say that the government will "negotiate down" the principal owed on a house hemorrhaging dollar value, who exactly did they have in mind as the negotiating partner?
      These are issues that would, in a more mentally-healthy republic, occupy center stage of the political conversation -- not whether a cohort of Cheez Doodle addicted rural Pennsylvania morons prays out loud for God to shoot all the Mexicans.

April 7, 2008
Rust and Sun

      Last week I sojourned in two parts of the country that might have been separate nations: Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania, and Austin, Texas.
     Misfortune hit Wilkes Barre hard twice in recent history. The first time was one day in 1959 when coal miners working a vein under the Susquehanna River made an error in judgment and poked a hole up through the river bed, flooding miles of interconnected mineshafts under half the county. For days after that, workers threw in every kind of material at hand to close up the hole in the river bottom -- gravel, boulders, parts of old buildings, whole trucks -- but nothing availed until the mines drank up all the river water they could hold. That was the end of the anthracite industry in Wilkes Barre. More than 30,000 miners lost their paychecks forever.
     The second calamity was Hurricane Agnes in 1972, which strayed inland and lingered viciously in the folded hills of the Susquehanna watershed. This time the river flowed over its banks and drowned the city center. Something like 60 percent of the pre-WW2 architectural fabric went for a swim, a lot of it very grand stuff. Federal disaster aid completed the job. It paid to bulldoze the flood damaged buildings and replace them with the sort of awful concrete boxes (and lollipop street lamps) that expressed perfectly the bureaucratic loathing for the very idea of city life and almost guaranteed a failure to recover both economically and psychologically.
      The city remains in poor shape, with those bad newer buildings (now aging badly), and the "missing teeth" of more recent demolitions, and a sagging population base. But I liked the young professionals I met there who are working to revive this very damaged place. They were intelligent, and cheerful despite the difficulty of their task. They clearly loved their town. They were free to move elsewhere, had even been to college elsewhere, but had returned to their old city in the valley to make a stand. And they had worked tirelessly to actually get a few good new things built.
     A few days later, I flew off to Austin, Texas, to check in on the annual meeting of the Congress for the New Urbanism (the CNU) an organization of architects, town planners, and developers who have been working heroically for two decades to counter the death spiral of suburbia with a more sustainable vision of the human habitat. Each year the CNU moves its national meet-up to a different city so the members can see what's really going on around the country.
     For all of its reputation as a lively place, Austin's city center didn't add up to much. Of course, there was the famous Sixth Street strip of music joints, which in recent years has morphed into a perpetual party scene in the mold of Bourbon Street in New Orleans -- except in the case of Austin, the buildings themselves are little more than packing crates with bars and bandstands, while the side streets are adorned with rows of port-a-johns reeking in the impressive heat of the Texas spring.
     The rest of the city center is emblematic of all the blunders that poorly-trained municipal planners have imposed all over America -- overscaled office towers set back from the street behind meaningless landscaping fantasias, blocks of buildings that present blank walls to streets, and along one weird block, an extremely narrow sidewalk with new street trees planted right in the center, making it impossible for two people to walk together side-by-side. Here and there new condominium towers stood, with cafes on the ground floor, and a number of additional ones were under construction, which was well and good -- except they were gigantic towers. I'm not keen on towers. They deform the urban fabric and they will certainly lose functionality as we leave behind the fossil fuel age. There were plenty of vacant lots, too, between the state capitol dome and Lady Bird Lake. The downtown streets were all six-laners, of course, many of them one-way, which prompted the motorists to drive as if they were on an expressway.
     The convention center itself was a thing built to such a pharoanic scale that Rameses the Great might have commissioned it for his villa in Easthampton. It was a quarter-mile walk from the front of the ballroom to the coffee set-up in the rear -- and this was one of the smaller ballrooms. The larger ones were occupied by some kind of intramural sports association convention full of people wearing sideways hats and weird, calf-length athletic shorts. The Sunbelt is all about sports, where the social aggression seething below the surface has been channeled.
     All this was hardly the fault of the New Urbanists, who came there mostly to look and learn, and continue the process of refining their agenda for the years ahead. More and more they are coming to recognize the discontinuities we face in the form of peak oil and climate change. On these points, the leadership may be even more radically active than the membership. The ideas from meetings they held in Austin about how to meet these problems will continue to radiate through the country. They are probably the only group of professionals in America that I know of -- including the professional environmentalists -- who have a coherent vision of how America might physically arrange daily life in the terrible aftermath of the fossil fuel fiasco. Their ideas have the power to galvanize our otherwise lame political debates of the season. Nobody else in America is really thinking about what we'll do when the cardboard signs appear on the convenience store pump racks saying "out of gas...."
     Austin is exactly the kind of place in America that will get into trouble when that happens. It'll have to find something else to do with itself besides hosting drinking contests on Sixth Street every weekend night for visiting motorists. Much smaller Wilkes Barre, too, will struggle to find its way, but the one thing it surely isn't burdened with is an outsized sense of its own wonderfulness. How will these different regions of the nation find a common purpose as we slide into the long emergency? How will our political candidates find the language to articulate our predicament? They might start by listening to the New Urbanists.

March 31, 2008
Upscale

      Things continue to slip, slide, and shift strangely Out There.
     Last Wednesday, a bunch of peeved mortgagees protesting government favoritism in the Bear Stearns case entered the lobby of the company's (soon-to-be-former) headquarters building in midtown Manhattan. While it might not seem like much, I view the symbolic "penetration" of this corporate stronghold as the very first sign of a much broader citizen revolt against the extraordinary protections being shown to crapped-out investment banker boyz -- at the expense of millions of equally crapped-out poor shlubs facing the default and re-po of their McDwelling places.
     Occupying an office building lobby peacefully in broad daylight is one thing. Wait until summer gets underway and The New York Post gossip page resumes its coverage of hijinks in the Hamptons. The executives of Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan / Chase, and other dealers in fraudulent securities, plus the art world and show biz glitteratti who party together out there, might all find themselves the object of considerable grievance and resentment as the beaching season ramps up, and the limos roll around the charity lobster roasts, and the guests stray down the lawns, chardonays in hand, to plot divorce from their over-leveraged husbands.... God knows what seekers-of-vengence will be creepy-crawling the privet plantings along Gin Lane in the crepuscular gloom, searching for trophy wives to garrote.
     Perhaps a bankrupt landscaping contractor from Lake Ronkonkoma, recently stiffed by a hedge fund manager over the installation of a half acre of pachysandra, will be arrested on the Wantagh Highway with blood on his sleeves and a high-C piano wire in his pocket. The non-Hampton precincts of Long Island, which make up more than 90 percent of the fish-shaped appendage to New York State, will be full of angry re-po victims, and the Hamptons lie at the very dead-end tail of the geographical fish. Will the banker boyz attempt to flee by yacht? And where might they escape to? Newport, Rhode Island? Labrador. . . ?
      I maintain, of course, that the media (and the public itself) has no idea how quickly things might get weird in this country -- or how weird they might get.
      Now bear with me while I shift gears. The past five days I went to a pretty major environmental conference put on by the Aspen Institute in their odd little mountain town -- and nobody needs to tell me how un-correct it was that I flew all the way out to Denver and then drove a rent-a-car the size of a humpback whale deep into the heart of the Rocky Mountains to attend this thing. (I assure you, I wasn't paid to go.) The Institute grounds -- which looked like the set of a 1950s Raymond Massey movie about the future -- were thick with many eminentissimos of Climate Change (minus Al Gore) and activists in "green" politics, more generally. The latest frightful measurements of retreating glaciers, vanishing species, and creeping deserts were proffered and everybody was suitably impressed by the acceleration of scary conditions facing the human race.
        Being such a formal conference, though, with the putative mission to advance understanding and set agendas-for-action, a great effort was made through the medium of panel discussions to set forth various "initiatives" to deal with all the scariness, especially by enlisting the agencies of the US Government -- and most especially with the prospect of a new administration sweeping out the detritus of Bush-dom next January.
      I confess I found most of these well-intentioned proposals utterly implausible, along with their trains of hopes, wishes, and fantasies. The main conceit is that we can keep all the normal operations of the American Dream humming by some "non-carbon" related energy source -- in other words, run WalMart without oil, methane gas, or coal -- and that all the forces of government and capital can be marshaled to make that happen. The secondary conceit is that they would accomplish these things in an orderly process, harnessing "new technology," as though it were a higher sort of school science fair.
      My own opinion is that these birds have the scale issue wrong. The exigencies of the Long Emergency imply that virtually everything organized at the grand scale will tend to wobble and fail as the problems of energy scarcity and climate change converge. Institutions from the federal government to WalMart to the University of Arizona will face increasing impotence, incompetence, and bankruptcy. Vesting our hopes in propping up activities run at that scale is bound to be disappointing, to say the least, and the precursor to social upheaval to go a bit further. There's probably a lot we can do at the finer and more modest scale, but that is not the scale that conferences like this focus on-- in particular because so many of the participants are current or former high-up government wonks themselves. Anyway, the scale of global distress tends, by plain inference, to invoke the wish for global "solutions," however detached from reality they may be.
      At the center of all this conferencing was the movement's lead eco-guru, Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI), located just up Highway 82 from Aspen. Lovins's long-running emblematic project with that outfit is something they call the "hyper-car," a car that gets such supernaturally great mileage that it will save the human race's threatened Happy Motoring program from extinction. The hyper-car program, which RMI still trumpets to this day, has, of course, the unintended consequence of promoting future car dependency -- which is about the last thing that America needs -- but that hasn't prevented RMI from pushing it. Beyond that, Lovins's RMI program-for-America resembles an actuarial exercise in "carbon credits" and other statistics-based fantasies aimed at inducing theoretically rational behavior among the WalMart executives (and "greening" up WalMart has been another of RMI's consulting projects -- I'm not kidding).
      Here lies my third dissent from what I heard at the conference: since America is bankrupting itself so comprehensively at every level, the wished-for "funding" for the green rescue program will not be there in any case.  Capital, as represented by Wall Street, is itself flying to pieces this year as its stock-in-trade of paper certificates loses legitimacy in the face of the overwhelming fact that the society behind that paper will be decreasingly capable of producing surplus wealth -- which is what capital is. The unwind of "positions" now underway among the big bankz is the process of previously anticipated capital accumulation vanishing down a black hole. It will be gone forever.
     This is the year we find that out. Bear Stearns was not the only sick puppy in the kennel. When another one wobbles and crashes, will the Federal Reserve step in again and accept its worthless CDO paper as collateral on another $30 billion loan, and another, and another, and so on? And will the individual mortgage default homeowner shlubs just watch all this go down on CNBC without any action beyond "penetrating" the lobby of a Manhattan skyscraper? I don't think so. What goes down in the Hamptons will go down in Aspen, too.
      

March 24, 2008
Black Swans Everywhere

      After a one-day reprieve from total meltdown in the financial markets, news media cheerleaders for the most reckless gang of bankers in world history declared the crisis over on Good Friday (with the markets safely closed). Whew, that's a relief. Problem solved. And just in time for baseball season, too, so none of the Banker Boyz have to sell their sky box leases.

Commodities Drop, Rally in Dollar, Stocks Vindicate Bernanke

      What is meant by "meltdown," by the way, since the word is used so promiscuously by myself and others. I'd define it as the shock of recognition that many big institutions are worse than flat broke and are therefore powerless to conduct normal operations. By "worse than flat broke" I mean they are so deep in hock that all the accountants who ever lived, in the life of this universe and several others like it, using the fastest parallel processing computers ever built, could not keep up with their compounding accelerating losses (now approaching the speed of light).
     The current vacation from reality on Wall Street may last a few more days, or even a couple weeks, but it seems as though a whole flock of black swan events is circling the sky over Financial-land and is about to blot out the sun. By black swan, I refer to the concept popularized by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his recent book of that name, namely unexpected events of great power that tend to change the course of history.
     For the moment, with the crisis "contained," and the Boyz getting ready to air out their Hampton villas for the coming season, we are once again primed to be blindsided by potent random events that nobody saw coming. The trouble is, there are enough potent potential fiascos already visible on the horizon.
      The mortgage fiasco is still just gathering steam as it moves from the non-payment stage to the default and repossession level on the grand scale. Even the political wish to bail out feckless mortgage holders will stumble on the mammoth clerical task of administrating the process, especially since we've barely begun to sort out who actually holds the mortgages after they've been minced into a fine mirepoix of securities off-loaded onto countless dupe "investors" ranging from municipal funds in obscure corners of foreign nations to countless public employee retirement plans.
     No matter how the authorities try to "nationalize" the sucking chest wound of bad mortgages, the body of finance will flat-line -- and the American public will get stuck with the bill from the intensive care unit. Those who, for some weird reason, continue to pay their way and meet their obligations, will be none too pleased to pay for misdeeds of the deadbeats and their banker-lenders. This portends a taxpayer rebellion, which may translate into a voter rebellion.
      It's too bad the current presidential candidates have been unable to address the unfolding economic nightmare. Their collective silence on the matter suggests that they don't have a clue what to say about it. As the nightmare plays out and black swans flock in to blot out the sun, and the hedge funds come a'tumbling down, and more big banks blunder into black holes, and businesses big and small across the land shutter up their operations, and the unemployment rolls swell, and families are thrown out of their houses even when bailouts are supposed to be saving them (but the bureaucracy can't get the paperwork done in time) -- well now, they are going to be one pissed off bunch of people. What will they do at the conventions? Our outside the conventions?
      In the deeper background of all this is the all-important oil story that nobody in politics or the media wants to pay attention to. Notice that in the fervid unloading of assets this past week, as investors dumped their positions in the commodities markets, the price of oil remained stubbornly above $100-a-barrel when it was all over on Thursday afternoon. Well, maybe they'll ratchet down a little further this week, but the trend line will prove to continue remorselessly upward in the months ahead.
      Peak oil is for real. The supply can't keep up with global demand, even if it dips in the USA. And more portentous sub-plots develop in the story every month. Export rates are falling at a steeper rate than depletion rates. The exporting nations are not only buying more cars and running more air-conditioners, they also need to use more energy to lift the oil they've got out of the ground.
      Another sub-plot is the fact that the equipment used world-wide to drill for oil and recover oil and move oil around the planet -- all that equipment is now so old and rusty that it can barely do the job, and it is going to start failing altogether unless investments are made to replace it, which nobody is making.
   By the way, Americans blame the familiar private oil companies for all the trouble with oil in their lives -- Exxon-Mobil, Shell, et al -- but they don't seem to know that oil nationalism is in the driver's seat now. The old private "majors" are only producing five percent of the world's oil. The rest is coming from the national companies -- Aramco, Petrobras, Pemex, et blah blah -- and the very operations of the oil markets are entering a phase of radical instability as they move away from auctioning their stuff on the futures markets and start making long-term favored customer contracts instead.
      The bottom line is that high prices for oil is hardly the only thing America has to worry about. Pretty soon the US will have to worry about getting the oil at any price -- meaning, we're in for shortages and supply disruptions sooner rather than later.
      Also unbeknownst to most of America, the financial markets reflect all this instability around the basic resource of oil because industrial economies like ours are set up in such a way that they can't run without cheap and reliable supplies of the stuff. So the least little twitter in the reality-based world of peak oil means that everything to do with money and capital investment will naturally go batshit, since our expectations for increased wealth -- i.e. "growth" -- are predicated on the activities driven by oil.
     It will be interesting to see what new machinations are unveiled this week. Whatever else this catastrophe is, it's a good show from the cheap seats.

March 17, 2008
A Real Freak Out

      Things are getting very weird very fast -- and will probably get even weirder, faster, as the train wreck of bad debt meets the Saint Paddy's Day Parade of bacchanalian excess at the grade-crossing of destiny. The train is carrying America's financial system, but the engine driving it is peak oil, because declining energy resources necessarily means declining capital wealth -- and declining value of all the institutions, instruments, and markers that denote that wealth or hope to profit by trading in it. The fiasco leads straight to the necessary reinvention of American life on other terms and by other means.
     I've maintained for a long time that, even among those who recognize we have a big problem, there are many impediments to imagining a credible outcome. One thing I've noticed is that in any given public meeting (or lecture hall) you can divide participants into two groups: those who believe we will 'high-tech' our way out of this predicament; and those who believe we'll organize our way out.
     I don't subscribe to either point of view, strictly speaking. Both POV's assume that there will be an orderly transition between where we're at now and where we're headed. They're tainted by the kindergarten ethos of entitled happy endings and outcomes, which has been the chief operating system for the Baby Boomers, a therapeutic bias for placing 'good feelings' ahead of reality -- which also has obliterated the tragic sense of life that acts as the only brake on humanity's inherent hubris.
     Ultimately, in my view, the issue of what happens next will be settled not by the fantasies of the algae-biodiesel geeks or the wishful thinking of the sustainable futures organizers, but by the natural, self-organizing properties of a society responding 'emergently' to new circumstances. One of the implications of destiny-as-emergence is the probability that we will try any damn fool thing besides the right things to keep the old game going for a while -- even in the face of obvious failure.
     I'm sure our political leaders will mount a campaign to rescue the futureless infrastructure of suburbia. It will necessarily be an exercise in futility. But it has already started. That's what the swindle of ethanol has been all about. And the touting of hybrid cars, and the flimflam of "energy independence." Even the "environmental" crowd" squanders most of its attention these days on how to keep all the cars running on something other than gasoline. They don't question the assumption that we will remain a car-dependent society.
      As much as I loathe the suburbs in their grotesque late-stage efflorescence, I can understand why those stuck in them would wish to defend their misinvestments. I just hate to think of the political consequences when their disappointment catches up to the reality that the suburbs will not be rescued. And by that I mean not just the houses but the way-of-life associated with them and all its accessories, furnishings, and activities. Bewilderment will soon turn to rage out in the highway-strip-and-cul-de-sac empire.
     Now, apparently, we'll also opt for a bail-out of all those who tried to become rich by getting something for nothing at both ends of the Ponzi scheme called the housing bubble -- the "little guys" who signed mortgage contracts they could never hope to pay off, and the Wall Street playerz who bundled these hopeless contracts into fraudulent securities (and their enablers in the ratings agencies, plus the hedge fund smoothies who tried to cash in by using recondite algorithms to dissolve the risk associated with imprudent lending.) The bail-out is likely to accomplish nothing except the more rapid bankruptcy of government at all levels and a second Great Depression at ground level (worse than the first one).
     Over the weekend, the Federal Reserve engineered a $30-billion dollar Saint Paddy's day present for the JP Morgan bank by handing them the corpse of Bear Stearns. The object of the game is to prevent the "assets" of Bear Stearns from going to the auction block, on which they would be discovered to be nearly worthless, which would instantly render all similar assets held by the other big banks to be similarly worthless, and would result in a universal margin call that would pretty much unwind the hallucinated "wealth" acquired the past ten years.
      Despite the heroics around the fate of Bear Stearns, it looks like the financial system is tottering anyway. Perhaps the last trick left in the rescue bag will be the 100-basis-point drop in the Fed rate rumored to be announced tomorrow. It won't help any of the big banks, since their problem is holding liabilities in excess of assets. Almost certainly it would crater the US Dollar.
     The next thing in store for America, in my opinion, will be a rather new surprise: oil-and-gasoline shortages. While frightened money pours into the oil futures markets, driving the price up, strange behavior will start brewing in the actual physical allocation process. Imports of oil and gas to the US may not be as reliable as it had been when America seemed to be a solvent nation. The exporters may be changing their terms of doing business with us -- and that's nearly two-thirds of all the oil we need. The public would probably suck up oil price increases indefinitely, but shortages are going to be something else. A real freak out.

March 10, 2008
Going Going....

      The feigned cluelessness in Paul Krugman's Sunday New York Times column ("The Face-Slap Theory") about the meltdown in finance is a good index of the cringing mendacity now emanating from those in service to the centers of power. I doubt an editor, or the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger, had to whisper in his ear to soft-pedal the situation. I don't even believe anything like his job depends on it. Krugman's glossing-over the truth is just social cowardice. He doesn't want to be called out dissing fellow members of his club.
     Krugman avers to the Federal Reserve's two previous big efforts since August to bail out the insolvent banks, insurers, and hedge funds with cheap loans as "slaps in the faces" of these wobbling corporations -- "yo, wake the fuck up!" -- as if narcolepsy was their only problem. (Try that with a wino on the sidewalk outside the Port Authority bus terminal and see if he immediately signs up for rehab and a high school equivalency program.) Krugman calls the club's latest plan -- for the Fed to just suck up their impaired and worthless collateral in exchange for more cheap loans -- as a "third slap," saying, with all the panache of a midwestern Rotary Club secretary, that "the third time could be the charm." Had the monkeys already flown out of his butt as he wrote that, I wonder.
     The line in Krugman's column I love best, though is this one: "Last month another market you’ve never heard of, the $300 billion market for auction-rate securities (don’t ask), suffered the equivalent of a bank run." He presumes that his readers go along with his pretense of innocence. We've never heard of the municipal bond market and it's too complicated to explain so "don't ask." Is he writing for the "newspaper of record" or Highlights For Children? Maybe it would be a good thing if readers of The New York Times asked what the fuck was going on in these markets so they could yank their depreciating dollars out and deploy them elsewhere or convert them into something of value.
     Well it was a bad week on the money scene in what is sure to be a worsening year. Paul Krugman and his fellow club members can pretend that the hallucinated finance economy is not really flying to pieces. After all, he / they are trying to avert panic. But, as noted previously in this space, the only thing we have to fear is not fear itself. We have to fear the consequences of actions by a banking leadership that has shown the grossest irresponsibility (and an American public that has been conditioned to expect a steady diet of getting something for nothing).
      The US faces a pretty stark choice right now: it can let the losers take their losses -- both the big institutions who created and traded in fraudulent securities, and all the "little guys" who borrowed too much money trying to get rich quick, or trying to live like the millionaires they see on TV. We can let them go down, and suffer the consequences of their bad choices (and maybe prosecute some of the culpable bankers and corporate executives), OR, in an effort to let these losers off the hook we can wreck the whole machinery of capital by making our medium-of-exchange worthless.
     The people in charge -- both in and out of government -- can't face the losses, so for now they've apparently decided to wreck the currency. The dollar has lost two percent of its value against the Euro just in recent weeks, as cheap loans from the Fed pour into the black hole on Wall Street (never to be seen again). Other soft-pedalers in the media claim that the financial markets have "already priced in" yet another expected .75-point interest rate drop by the Fed this week, but I'm confident that such a move will only accelerate the dollar's vanishing act.
     I'll admit, it's hard to believe what's going on in the American finance sector. But incredulity in the face of a rare catastrophe isn't the same as pretending that it's not happening. A whole flock of black swans is flying in front of the sun. Don't expect to work on your tan this month.
     

March 3, 2008
Campaign Blues

      While it's gratifying to watch Hillary Clinton melt back into her senate seat -- in the process foiling the ascent of Emperor Bill the 1st -- one can't help but feel that that the contest for president is taking place in a different "world-line" (shall we say) than the melt-down of the US financial sector, and with it, the US economy.
       Whoever wins on November 5 will wake up to preside over a different America than the schematic one he was debating about during the primaries and the election. The long campaign will beat a path straight into the long emergency. The new president will inherit a wrecked banking system, an economy in freefall, a wobbling world oil market, and an American public extremely ticked off by its startling, sudden impoverishment. (This is apart from whatever melodramas spool out on the geopolitical scene.)
     The president-elect will quickly realize that the number one problem is not that Americans can't afford health care -- it's that they can't afford anything, because their income is evaporating in terms of both lost jobs and a dollar that is racing toward worthlessness. They'll be hard put to pay for food and gasoline, nevermind Grandma's emphysema treatments. They will be walking away from home ownership -- or yanked kicking and screaming by default-and-repo -- and any government scheme devised to abridge their mortgage contracts will only undermine basic contract law that has made mortgage lending a credible thing in the first place. And that too, of course, would redound straight to a real estate sector already in price free-fall, with no one willing or able to think about buying a house.
     As Obama and McCain go at it through the next eight months, they will likely focus on our situation in Iraq. (Calling it a "war" now is imprecise.) As merely one commentator among thousands, I'm not satisfied that either one of the contenders has defined his position on this coherently. Obama is disposed to get the US military out of there as quickly as possible. He's right that the sheer awful cost of the adventure is one big factor in wrecking US finances while it erodes our standing in the world. But with our Iraq garrison shut down, he'd better be prepared for a further breakdown in Middle East stability and the oil markets that depend on it -- meaning, the basis of American life for four generations, dependable oil imports, will sharply end. That would accelerate the disorderly abandonment of our massive misinvestment in suburban living, and also ramp up the anger and resentment of the public grieving over its lost entitlements.
     McCain's contrasting hundred-year plan does not take into account the severe impoverishment and exhaustion of the military itself, not to mention the overall purpose of the adventure -- to keep suburban life and all its accessories running in the homeland -- which is an exercise in futility under any terms. McCain would have to confront the terrible paradoxes of the war, namely that thousands of legs have been blown off for the sake of WalMart, which company will be hemorrhaging customers anyway, as incomes wilt, at the same time that WalMart's own operating system -- the "warehouse on wheels" -- surrenders to the reality of five or six dollar-a-gallon diesel fuel. In any case, the implosion of the US economy during the next eight months will overshadow whatever we decide to do in Iraq, and that cratering will be laid directly at the feet of the Republican party. If the party survives that, which I doubt, it would a long time before anybody trusted it again.
     Whoever wakes up as the next president on November 5 will have to preside over the comprehensive reorganization of American life. The big question is whether he can persuade the public to let go of its sunk costs, and all the sheer stuff that represents, and move ahead in a unified way that doesn't end up tearing the nation apart. The danger is that the public will want to mount a kind of last stand effort to defend a way of life that has no future under any circumstances, and they will ask the president to lead that last stand.
      To avoid that deadly outcome, the new president will have to be equipped with a realistic vision of what this society can actually do to survive the discontinuities that circumstances present. This will require him to confront the prevailing delusion that the US can become "energy independent" in the sense that we can run WalMart on something other than oil from foreign lands. The new president would have to carefully restate American expectations and goals -- for instance, not to keep all the cars running at all costs, but to get us living in places where driving is not mandatory. I'm concerned that the American people will hate the new president if he tells them the truth: that an old way of life is over and a new one has to begin now. We're about to find out how much "change" the public can really stand.
      

February 25, 2008
Still Pretending

      The maneuvers that the big banks are making nowadays, along with their enablers at the Federal Reserve and elsewhere in Washington, really amount to little more than the old Polish blanket joke -- in which (excuse my concision) the proverbial Polack wants to make his blanket longer, so he scissors twelve inches off the top and sews it onto the bottom. Only in this case, the banks are shearing x-billions of losses off the top of their blankets and re-attaching x-billions of new debt onto the bottom. This new debt, of course, goes to cover the old losses and only represents further losses-to-be-reported-later, since the banks are basically insolvent. Borrowing more money when you're broke doesn't make you less insolvent.
     The banks can probably keep this gag running a little longer, but not without consequences. My guess is that it spins out of control in March sometime when some more hedge funds blow up and at least one big bank, perhaps Citi, rolls belly up like a harpooned whale. The game is really over, and all the playerz know it. The consequence of continuing to pretend the meta-fiasco of Ponzi endgame is fixable will be an even more shattering depression than the one we're already in for.
     We are a much poorer nation than we thought we were and the reality is just too hard to face. Nobody from the most august banker (Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson) to the lowliest wanker (the WalMart inventory clerk who "bought" a house outside Phoenix with a no-money-down, payment-option, adjustable rate mortgage) can believe that this is happening. The candidates for president are pretty much assuming that vast financial resources will exist to be deployed against a range of problems. Everybody is going to be hugely disappointed.
    When you introduce perversities into an economic system, they invariably end up expressing themselves as distortions. The economy that evolved the past two decades, driven by the perverse securitization of wishes and frauds, will now express itself in a stark cratering of American living standards. Incomes and jobs will vanish, massive quantities of stuff will collect dust on the WalMart shelves, the fragile infrastructures of daily life will go to shit, and there will be political hell to pay. Every attempt to avoid a straight-up workout of our massive losses, will represent another layer of perversity and more consequent destructive distortions.
     I feel sorry for the next president. Even as he takes his oath of office, the nation will be flying apart like a seized-up engine. Since the fiasco in finance is happening in lock-step with Peak Oil (and very likely because of it at a fundamental level) we can expect one of the distortions to take the form of oil shortages. These shortages will come not just from demand bottlenecks in a stressed-out world oil allocation system, but because exporting nations will start demanding payment in Euros or something besides the depreciating currency that reflects our disintegration, and we'll have a problem coming up with payments that amount to at least fifty percent more than we're used to shelling out.
     Once the US gets into serious difficulties with our oil supplies. every other sector of the economy wobbles, including especially the food-growing sector, which cannot function without copious amounts of diesel fuel and hydrocarbon-based soil "inputs." Americans will go hungry, and not just the "underclasses."
     Along in this process somewhere, there is huge potential for armed conflict with other nations. If the unraveling gets traction while George W. Bush remains in charge, the US may answer bellicosity from oil-exporting nations, or energy-hungry rivals, with truculence of our own. Things can get out of control very fast in such a situation. Nations that were happily selling us salad shooters six months earlier may be targeting our naval vessels with a different sort of shooter, say a Sunburn missile. In any case, we will be acting with a bankrupt, exhausted, and over-extended military, and the best case outcome would leave us merely isolated and marooned geopolitically on our own continent, with dwindling energy and mineral resources and an angry, demoralized population.
     This time around we have more to fear than fear itself. The banking executives, government officials, and candidates for president are not doing the nation a service by concealing and ignoring our losses. Finance, as the driver of an economy, is finished, but the deployment of capital is still an indispensable arm of a real economy. Sooner or later we'll get back to money that stands for something and banks that function as credible repositories of wealth. But we haven't even started down the path to that place, and the longer we pretend that we don't have to go there, the worse the journey will be.

February 18, 2008
Dropping Shoes

      The fall of Britain's Northern Rock bank may be the first dropped shoe in a chorus line of big banks tap-dancing into oblivion. The British government's move yesterday to nationalize the insolvent mortgage lender's remaining operations leaves shareholders holding an empty bag. Their only resort now will be to call their lawyers. What we may be witnessing, in a movement that will surely spread to the US, is a changing of the guard at the top of the financial food-chain between bankers and lawyers.
     Shoes may have begun to drop in the US last week wit halting redemptions for its $500-million CSO mini hedge fund -- half a billion dollars being something less than walking-around-money in the Hamptons these days. Halting redemptions means that investors in the fund cannot withdraw their money -- the same as going to the bank and being told your account is frozen. Hedge funds can play rough with their investors because they are unregulated. The reason they remain unregulated is the presumption that anybody rich enough to "play" in a hedge fund can afford to lose (or be swindled) with no protection on the sidelines from government busybodies. What's more, the hedge fund managers do not have to make any of their operations open to public view, so that neither the investors nor any regulating authority knows what they are actually doing.
     What the big banks who run many hedge funds are doing is going broke. They are pretending to be solvent by borrowing money from the Federal Reserve, the nation's alleged superbank. But borrowed money is not capital, i.e. surplus wealth wholly owned. Borrowed money is an obligation, a liability, a negative on the balance sheet. You can't have an entire financial system based on nothing more than a giant daisy-chain of liabilities. Somewhere there has to be a "reserve" of assets, items of value owned by somebody.
      Through most of modern times, assets have been denoted by cash money. A given bank will hold in "reserve" say $10 billion in money that is not owed to anybody, allowing them to do things like pay depositors who show up at the window needing money for groceries. Up until a few decades ago, nations held an ultimate reserve of actual gold in a vault (Fort Knox, Kentucky, in the case of the USA) and the physical possession of this gold was said to "back up" the value of the certificates that circulated as a "medium-of-exchange" or currency.
      But that system was considered too awkward and "reserves" were then denoted in just currencies themselves, or certificates that represented the existence of currencies held elsewhere, or pixels on a screen representing the movement of alleged piles of currency from one place to another, or the intention to move a notional pile of currency to a theoretical destination, and then that became an algorithm purporting to represent the future arrival of a notional pile of money at theoretical destination to-be-named-later, and so on.... And after another while, the nature of money became so detached from anything real, so abstract, that its very existence became hypothetical. Even this "worked" for a while, in terms of the managers of this money being able to "cream" substantial amounts of this hypothetical money off the top of their notional operations and translate that hypothetical cream into Tribeca lofts, Gulfstream jets, and other real luxuries.
     The rest of the economic food chain -- and the social order that represented it -- got stripped of remaining asset value (and social value) until they had nothing left to trade with except debt, in one form or another, and this phase of the game turned out to have a short lifetime when the the only debts remaining to be monetized were the contracts on houses occupied by people with no hope of ever meeting their obligations -- and then the whole sorry racket started to go up in a vapor.
     This is roughly where we are, and where the banks stand today. They are pretending to have money and desperately cadging loans from all comers to keep appearances up, but the loans can't come in fast enough. The appearance of confidence is crucial (as it is, of course, in any "con" game) to keep the investors (depositors) at bay. If a bunch of investors (depositors) all got nervous about the solvency of a given bank, they might try to slip in there during business hours and withdraw or redeem their "money" and perhaps translate it into items of value like gold coins, bottles of vodka, or cases of 9 millimeter pistol ammunition. And if enough of this bunch showed up at the same time, we would see a phenomenon called a "run" on a bank. And after that started at one bank, the thing Franklin Roosevelt called "fear itself" could easily spread to depositors in other banks pretending to be okay... and that would be the magic moment that the USA discovered it was no longer a rich nation.
     That would be a very rude awakening. The whole world would know about it in about thirty seconds, and the rest of the world would be in a lot of trouble, too, since so much of its notional wealth is represented by piles of US dollars (or certificates denoting them). Then what you could see is a run by other nations (investor-depositors) on the United States of America as a whole, or an awkward global receivership process, in which all remaining assets were stripped -- including maybe even some of those Tribeca lofts and Gulfstream jets.
     Of course, the rest of the world would have a hard time getting any of this stuff out, or fencing it off at a discount. Rather, they'd probably just eat their losses and quarantine themselves off from the world's new financial-and-economic leper. They'd stop sending us Toyota Highlanders, plastic salad shooters, and, oh yes, oil. We'd be left with a lot of empty big box stores, vacant highways, and houses inconveniently deployed too far from any place of utility. One thing we'd have plenty of, though, is home-grown pissed-off people. Some of them may even be lawyers.

Note: my novel about America's post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is now shipping to booksellers everywhere.  Get one. You'll like it.

February 11, 2008
Burning Down the House

      Behind all the blather and bullshit about the Federal Reserve's rescue gambits and the machinations of the ratings agencies, and the wiles of foreign sovereign wealth, and the incomprehensible mysteries of markets, and the various weather forecasts of a gathering "recession" is the simple fact that the USA is a way poorer nation than we imagined ourselves to be six months ago. The American economy has been running on the fumes of "creatively engineered" finance (i.e. new-and-improved swindling) for years, and now these swindles are unraveling. In their aftermath, they leave empty wallets, drained bank accounts, plundered retirements funds, boiled away capital reserves, worthless stocks, bankrupt companies, vandalized housing tracts, ruined families, and Wall Street executives who are still pulling down multimillion-dollar pay packages despite running their companies into the ground.
     We're burning down the house and kidding ourselves that there is a remedy for it. All the rate cuts and loans to big banks and bank-like corporate organisms, and "monoline" bond insurers, and mortgage mills amount to little more than a final desperate shell game to conceal the radioactive pea of aggregate loss. The losses are everywhere, and when you add up seven billion here and eleven billion there they probably amount to something like a trillion dollars in sheer capital evaporation -- not counting the abstract "positions" that the capital was leveraged onto by the playerz and boyz who mistook algorithms for productive activity.
     The shell game may run a few more weeks but personally I believe the timbers are burning. The losses are no longer "contained" or concealable. A consensus has now formed that we're in for a "recession." The idea is that, yes, this seems to be the low arc of the business cycle. Fewer Hamptons villas will be redecorated in the interim. We'll gird our loins and get through the bad weather and when the sun shines again, we'll be ready with new algorithms for new sport-with-capital.
     Uh-uh. Think again. This is not so much financial bad weather as financial climate change. Something is happenin' Mr Jones, and you don't know what it is, do ya? There has been too much misbehavior and it can no longer be mitigated. We're not heading into a recession but a major depression, worse than the fabled trauma of the 1930s. That one occurred against the background of a society that had plenty of everything except money. Back then, we had plenty of mineral resources, lots of trained-and-regimented manpower, millions of productive family farms, factories that were practically new, and more than 90 percent left of the greatest petroleum reserve anywhere in the world. It took a world war to get all that stuff humming cooperatively again, and once it did, we devoted its productive capacity to building an empire of happy motoring leisure. (Tragic choice there.)
     This new depression, which I call The Long Emergency, will play out against the background of a society that has pissed away its oil endowment, bulldozed its factories, arbitraged its productive labor, destroyed both family farms and the commercial infrastructure of main street, and trained its population to become overfed diabetic TV zombie "consumers" of other peoples' productivity, paid for by "money" they haven't earned.
      There is a theory (see Nouriel Roubini's blog) that a reform process will now ensue in the financial realm, new regulation and oversight of the same old familiar activities. This too, I'm afraid, will prove to be wishful thinking. The financial system will not be reformed until it lies in smoking wreckage, and when that "re-form" happens the armature of the re-organizing society will barely resemble the one that the previous burnt-down-house was designed to dwell in. Among other things, it will not support capital enterprise at anything like the scale that we became accustomed to lately. Globalism will be over. The great nations of the world will be scrambling desperately for the world's remaining oil supplies. It will not be a friendly contest, and anyone who thinks that current trade relations and capital flows will continue despite that is liable to be disappointed. (Are you reading this Tom Friedman?)
      Long before the mathematical projections of oil depletion play out, the oil markets themselves -- and all the complex operations that they comprise, such as drilling and exploration, and the movement of tankers around the planet -- will destabilize and seize up. We will no longer be any oil exporter's "favored customer." Many of the exporters will enjoy watching us suffer. Contrary to the political platitude-du-jour, the USA will never become "energy independent" in the way we currently imagine. Rather we'll become energy independent by being deprived of imported oil, and we'll be thrown back on our own dwindling supplies -- which means that we're not going to run our system of daily life the way it has been set up to run. When Americans can no longer run their cars on a whim, they will simply go apeshit and you can kiss normal politics goodbye.
     The financial system that emerges from this cataclysm, and the economy it serves (which is supposed to be the master of its capital deployment "arm," not its servant) will likely be modest to a degree that will shock and embarrass everyone currently connected with what we have lately called finance. If it even trades in paper, that paper will have to stand for something based in reality, either a productive activity or a genuine asset. It may take decades for this society to even regain the confidence necessary to operate such an elementary system -- or it may not come back at all, at least as far as the horizon lies before us. That's how bad the mischief and the damage has been.
      It's not hard to understand why the Bernankes, Paulsons, Lawrence Kudlows and other public representatives of capital keep pretending that everything is under control. On the other side of their pretenses lies disorder and hardship. One wonders, of course, what they really see in their private minds' eyes. Do they actually believe that the statistics issued by their serveling agencies amount to a plausible picture of reality? Are they so lost in their fantasies of "management" that they think they're controlling events?
     My guess is that their credibility is spent. In the weeks ahead, nobody will know who or what to believe. We may even run out of questions to ask as we just all collectively stand there in a thrall of wonder and nausea, watching the nation's financial house burn down.
     

February 4, 2008
Serial Bubbles?

      Eric Janszen of iTuilip.com has made a splash in the mainstream media with his Harper's Magazine cover story on the "The Next Bubble." His thesis is that a new tidal wave of investment will shortly roll toward "infrastructure and alternative energy." By this Janszen means a revived nuclear power push, refurbishing highways, bridges, and tunnels, "high-speed rail," solar and wind power, and alternative liquid fuels. This coming boom, he says, would be driven by political fear about energy security.
      On the face of it, Janszen's proposition seems more promising and intelligent than the previous engineered boom in suburban houses. But it raises a lot of questions and flags.
     For one thing, the term "bubble" suggests something more like a financial Chinese fire drill than actual productive activity. It would be an excellent thing if Americans invested in a restored passenger rail system. But if it were merely a scheme for big banks to issue innovative new securities for gigantic fees without actually getting any trains running -- well that would be in the nature of just another old-fashioned swindle, as the bundling of mortgages into securitized debt paper has proven to be.
     In other words, does Janszen make a distinction between a boom and a "bubble?" He seems to understand that the previous two bubbles in dot-coms and houses were essentially frauds that generated imaginary wealth, which sooner later evaporated off the balance sheets and out of the financial system. A boom, it seems to me, is not the same as a "bubble." While perhaps wasteful and messy, booms at least produce something of value beyond the fees paid to bankers for arranging the deployment of capital. A boom that resulted in citizens being able to take a train from Boston to Albany would produce a substantial public good. The creation by Goldman Sachs of a company on paper that never accomplished anything would be something else. This, of course, leads to a deeper question as to whether the USA is actually a serious society or just a nation of hopeless, greedy clowns? Are we even capable anymore of distinguishing between purposeful activity and the art of the grift?
     This leads to a further consideration of where the capital for "the next bubble" supposedly comes from. Janszen doesn't account for the essentially bankrupt condition of the USA. The capital that was deployed and squandered in the previous two bubbles is not there anymore to be washed, rinsed, and recycled. It's gone. It was winkled out of hundreds of pension funds, millions of individual investors, and, in terms of eventual obligations, the federal government. There is a black hole of unresolved debt where that "capital" used to be.
      Janszen's idea seems to be that the new investment comes from simple credit reflation. I don't see how this is possible while the current bubble in housing remains only fractionally "worked out." It has a long way to unwind yet, and a lot of damage to do. It will bring down banks, insurance companies, hedge funds, municipal governments, and leave a lot of individuals impoverished, literally out in the cold. As long as trillions in losses remain concealed or unresolved, the basic system for deploying capital will remain paralyzed.
      I wonder if fixing all the infrastructure for happy motoring is not an exercise in futility and another layer of tragic misinvestment. After all, it's based on the assumption that we will still be running huge numbers of cars and trucks decades ahead, and I'm not convinced that this will be possible under any circumstances. The psychology of previous investment will exert a powerful pull to throw money at our highways. It might be more realistic to think of this as a triage process -- to ask ourselves how much of this stuff do we just let go of and which parts do we actually keep. Thousands of miles of suburban commercial strip highway six-laners may not be needed at that "level of service." What becomes of them? Do we run trains down the interstates? Surely, we don't want our bridges to crumble.
      By the same token, I wonder if our investments in alternative energy will prove to be chimerical -- things wished and hoped for but impossible to achieve. My own hunch is that our notions of scale are not consistent with what reality will permit in this field. I don't believe that we will build more than a few giant wind farm installations. Rather, I believe we'll discover that wind power is only really practical on the household or extremely local basis. Ditto solar. I also doubt that we will continue to get all the necessary exotic metals needed to fabricate the hardware for these things. Along similar lines, I believe our expectations for ethanol and bio-diesel fuel production will prove to be not only disappointing but destructive to the food production sector.
    All of which is to say that an investment campaign aimed at sustaining the unsustainable by other means would end in tears. Personally, I don't think there will be a "next bubble." I think we're out of bubbles and that our current mode of life in this nation is running out of time. We're facing such an array of potential instabilities that even assuming we continue to live in an orderly society may be too much. Like every other activity in our lives, finance, too, may be in for an epochal downscaling.

January 28, 2008
Race Doesn't Matter

      It does and it doesn't.
     It matters that a partly African-American man is being taken seriously as a candidate for president. I am not being facetious when I say it would be uplifting for the American public to elect someone for the content of his character. Mr. Obama's character seems at least as good as any president I've seen in action.
     I'm not sure how much it would really matter geopolitically, but it would seem advantageous if the US were represented on the world stage by someone with whom people in other nations could identify. It would surely entitle America to some claim of authentic moral high ground -- of real fidelity to our stated principles of fairness -- at a time when our international credibility is in a slough.
     I'm satisfied that Mr. Obama is comfortable with his own persona. He doesn't appear to be either hung up on his racial background or disregardful of its subtler meanings. Of course in a better world, where the old "one drop rule" didn't apply (the mentality that one drop of black blood makes someone "black"), Mr. Obama would would be justified in calling himself black or white. In any case, his own apparent comfort has allowed other Americans to feel comfortable with him, and about the better angels of our nature as a people.
    Lately, I have been reading Niall Ferguson's history of World War Two (War of the World). Though I have heard, seen, and read other versions of the story a zillion times, Ferguson freshly emphasizes the importance of the racialist ideas that motivated both the German Nazis and the Japanese in launching the war. These ideas appear to be utterly insane in a fresh new way, and the cruelty and carnage that grew out of them was so exorbitant that it comes close to negating any claim the human race ever might have made previously, through twenty-five-hundred years of history, to a moral standing above the dogs and crocodiles. The behavior of the Nazis themselves was bad enough, but they somehow managed to inspire nearly every other European nation, or ethnic group, or pseudo ethnic group to behavior so grotesque that one truly wonders how these groups recovered their bearings later on in the 20th century. Their demoralization should have been complete. Instead of just Herman Goring committing suicide in his jail cell at Nuremberg in 1945, one concludes after reading Ferguson, all German survivors of the Third Reich should have just marched off a cliff somewhere. The Japanese treatment of the Chinese, Malays, and every other Asian sub-group wasn't any better.
     The world can't afford to repeat that kind of thing. But the world is heading into a stressful situation that could provoke another wave of worldwide conflict -- not to mention the kind of internal conflicts that induce ethnic cleansings and genocides within nations. So, from my point of view, the further America removes itself explicitly from a collective racialist mentality, the better off we would be. But there is a catch: if perhaps Mr. Obama wins the Democratic Party's nomination, and goes on to win the White House, and the nation enters the socioeconomic convulsions I call The Long Emergency, and Mr. Obama is overwhelmed by its overwhelming problems... would he be singled out for blame? Surely there will be a lot of finger-pointing and scapegoating. Would Barack Obama become a tragic figure? The answer may be that anyone who occupies that office during the next term could end up a tragic figure.
      Anyway, Hillary was back out on the stump yesterday, in the pulpit of a black Baptist church in Memphis, sounding as phony as the day is long, and it was gratifying to know that she had just been beaten. She sounded and looked discouraged, her voice lingering in that lower-register monotone that makes her come off like a regional director of the State Department of Motor Vehicles. Mr. Edwards, who I have supported and continue to support, could not shake the look of a whipped dog, too, after losing badly in his birth state. But he swore to continue on further through the primaries, and his pluck seemed genuine enough.
     The night before, when the returns in South Carolina were final, Mr. Obama made a speech before his supporters, who were chanting "race doesn't matter! race doesn't matter!" as if to convince themselves as much as the TV viewing audience. The higher truth might be that it would matter if it didn't matter. But it does in many ways.   
     The winning candidate concluded his remarks that night by invoking the slogan "Yes we can!" It was stirring to hear, and of course it projected the simple message that his campaign would remain "positive," in the current popular therapeutic sense. But at some point, Mr. Obama will have to rise above the platitudes and generalities and answer some questions as to yes we can... do... what....? The candidates all yammer about "change," but I suspect they don't quite know how much change this nation is really in for.

 

January 21, 2008
Fullblown Panic

      Knees knocked last week from sea to shining sea as the shape-shifting monster of economic reality cut a swathe of destruction through the markets and financial ranks. The exact nature of this giant beast still remained largely concealed in a fog of accounting gambits, policy blusters, and reporting dodges, but a few intrepid scouts who glimpsed the behemoth up close said it looked like Godzilla with Herbert Hoover's face.
      George W. Bush, tried to appease the beast by offering each American adult the dollar equivalent of half a month's mortgage payment -- with the exhortation to drive forthwith to the nearest WalMart and blow it on salad shooters and plasma TV's -- but Hooverzilla just laughed at the offering and pounded the equity markets further into the dust of loss, while the "bank-like" guardians of wealth lay in the drainage ditches bleeding from their ears and eyes.
     My favorite moment was seeing Treasury Secretary Paulson and one of his fellow shaved-head deputies at a press conference rostrum frantically trying to calm the news media rabble like a couple of extraplanetary high priests from a Star Trek episode -- the batteries having run down in their laser wands, and their incantations ("liquidity! liquidity!) veering into mystifying glossolalia.
     I resort to such admitted extreme hyperbole because it may be the only language that an infotainment-drunk society can still process in the face of an epochal calamity that will transform the lush terms of everyday life as we've known it into something like a bleak surrealist landscape in the manner of Tanguy. That crashing sound out there is the armature of confidence needed to support an economy based on faith that borrowed money will be paid back. It's as simple as that. (Doesn't seem so exciting now, does it?)
     The United States is so broke, its people at every level from the Federal Reserve on down don't know whether to shit or go blind. The homeowners cringing in the media rooms of their 5000-square-foot personal family resorts don't know how long they can stay put microwaving pepperoni hot pockets with the default clock ticking. The mortgage "servicers" don't know how they will persuade interested parties like, say, the Illinois State Cafeteria Workers' Pension Fund (holder of X-amount of mortgage-backed securities underwritten by, say, Merrill Lynch or Deutsche Bank) to foreclose on properties scattered everywhere from Key West to Bainbridge Island -- or if there is actually any legal mechanism known to man that would make it possible to "work out" the sliced-and-diced collateral. The millions of maxed-out credit card holders and the issuers of their plastic are stuck together paddling a leaky tub in a sea of troubles every bit as wide, deep, and polluted as the one the mortgage junkies and their enablers are sinking in. The developers of malls, office parks, and power centers are weeping into their filing cabinets as the harsh daylight of insolvency stops the orgy of "consumption" and the retail tenants pack up their unsellable goodies for the liquidators, and the rent checks stop arriving in the mail, and the notes on this mall and that mall enter the eerie realm of "non-performance." And, of course, there are the genius wonder boyz and Wall Street playerz whose algorithms and turpitudes underwrote the script of this horror show -- for all I know they'll end up laughing into sugary skull drinks on a beach in the Cayman Islands, or doing Chinese fire drills in federal prison (or simply ass-fucked on the granite countertops of their Tribecca aeries by mobs of angry, repossessed, swindled former American dreamers pouring into Manhattan from the tract house dormitories of New Jersey and Long Island).
     There's a lot to be concerned about out there. I don't mean to be too cute about it. But, as the master once said, nothing is funnier than unhappiness.
     A whole closet full of "other shoes" is now waiting to be dropped. Surely the biggest clodhoppers in the closet belong to the hedge funds, representing trillions and trillions of dollar-denominated "positions" which, however hallucinatory, had previously yielded enough real "money" year-by-year to keep all the realtors and Humvee dealers in the Hamptons goose-stepping to Goldman Sachs's drumbeat. These "positions" can't help now from moving into counterparty crisis territory, especially as the bond insurers such as MBIA and Ambac go up in a vapor, and if that happens the damage could be so colossal globally that Stephen Hawking might have to be brought in to run the Federal Reserve.
     This is going to be a rough week. Fastening your seat belts may not be enough for this ride. Better superglue yourselves to the floorboards and pray for God's mercy.

January 14, 2008
Disarray

      The dark tunnel that the US economy has entered began to look more and more like a black hole last week, sucking in lives, fortunes, and prospects behind a Potemkin facade of orderly retreat put up by anyone in authority with a story to tell or an interest to protect -- Fed chairman Bernanke, CNBC, The New York Times, the Bank of America.... Events are now moving ahead of anything that personalities can do to control them.
     The "housing bubble" implosion is broadly misunderstood. It's not just the collapse of a market for a particular kind of commodity, it's the end of the suburban pattern itself, the way of life it represents, and the entire economy connected with it. It's the crack up of the system that America has invested most of its wealth in since 1950. It's perhaps most tragic that the mis-investments only accelerated as the system reached its end, but it seems to be nature's way that waves crest just before they break.
     This wave is breaking into a sea-wall of disbelief. Nobody gets it. The psychological investment in what we think of as American reality is too great. The mainstream media doesn't get it, and they can't report it coherently. None of the candidates for president has begun to articulate an understanding of what we face: the suburban living arrangement is an experiment that has entered failure mode.
     I maintain that all the "players" -- from the bankers to the politicians to the editors to the ordinary citizens -- will continue to not get it as the disarray accelerates and families and communities are blown apart by economic loss. Instead of beginning the tough process of making new arrangements for everyday life, we'll take up a campaign to sustain the unsustainable old way of life at all costs.
      A reader sent me a passle of recent clippings last week from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. It contained one story after another about the perceived need to build more highways in order to maintain "economic growth" (and incidentally about the "foolishness" of public transit).  I understood that to mean the need to keep the suburban development system going, since that has been the real main source of the Sunbelt's prosperity the past 60-odd years. They cannot imagine an economy that is based on anything besides new subdivisions, freeway extensions, new car sales, and Nascar spectacles. The Sunbelt, therefore, will be ground-zero for all the disappointment emanating from this cultural disaster, and probably also ground-zero for the political mischief that will ensue from lost fortunes and crushed hopes.
     From time-to-time, I feel it's necessary to remind readers what we can actually do in the face of this long emergency. Voters and candidates in the primary season have been hollering about "change" but I'm afraid the dirty secret of this campaign is that the American public doesn't want to change its behavior at all. What it really wants is someone to promise them they can keep on doing what they're used to doing: buying more stuff they can't afford, eating more shitty food that will kill them, and driving more miles than circumstances will allow.
     Here's what we better start doing.
     Stop all highway-building altogether. Instead, direct public money into repairing railroad rights-of-way. Put together public-private partnerships for running passenger rail between American cities and towns in between. If Amtrak is unacceptable, get rid of it and set up a new management system. At the same time, begin planning comprehensive regional light-rail and streetcar operations.
     End subsidies to agribusiness and instead direct dollar support to small-scale farmers, using the existing regional networks of organic farming associations to target the aid. (This includes ending subsidies for the ethanol program.)
     Begin planning and construction of waterfront and harbor facilities for commerce: piers, warehouses, ship-and-boatyards, and accommodations for sailors. This is especially important along the Ohio-Mississippi system and the Great Lakes.
     In cities and towns, change regulations that mandate the accommodation of cars. Direct all new development to the finest grain, scaled to walkability. This essentially means making the individual building lot the basic increment of redevelopment, not multi-acre "projects." Get rid of any parking requirements for property development. Institute "locational taxation" based on proximity to the center of town and not on the size, character, or putative value of the building itself. Put in effect a ban on buildings in excess of seven stories. Begin planning for district or neighborhood heating installations and solar, wind, and hydro-electric generation wherever possible on a small-scale network basis.
     We'd better begin a public debate about whether it is feasible or desirable to construct any new nuclear power plants. If there are good reasons to go forward with nuclear, and a consensus about the risks and benefits, we need to establish it quickly. There may be no other way to keep the lights on in America after 2020.
     We need to prepare for the end of the global economic relations that have characterized the final blow-off of the cheap energy era. The world is about to become wider again as nations get desperate over energy resources. This desperation is certain to generate conflict. We'll have to make things in this country again, or we won't have the most rudimentary household products.
     We'd better prepare psychologically to downscale all institutions, including government, schools and colleges, corporations, and hospitals. All the centralizing tendencies and gigantification of the past half-century will have to be reversed. Government will be starved for revenue and impotent at the higher scale. The centralized high schools all over the nation will prove to be our most frustrating mis-investment. We will probably have to replace them with some form of home-schooling that is allowed to aggregate into neighborhood units. A lot of colleges, public and private, will fail as higher ed ceases to be a "consumer" activity. Corporations scaled to operate globally are not going to make it. This includes probably all national chain "big box" operations. It will have to be replaced by small local and regional business. We'll have to reopen many of the small town hospitals that were shuttered in recent years, and open many new local clinic-style health-care operations as part of the greater reform of American medicine.
     Take a time-out from legal immigration and get serious about enforcing the laws about illegal immigration. Stop lying to ourselves and stop using semantic ruses like calling illegal immigrants "undocumented."
     Prepare psychologically for the destruction of a lot of fictitious "wealth" -- and allow instruments and institutions based on fictitious wealth to fail, instead of attempting to keep them propped up on credit life-support. Like any other thing in our national life, finance has to return to a scale that is consistent with our circumstances -- i.e., what reality will allow. That process is underway, anyway, whether the public is prepared for it or not. We will soon hear the sound of banks crashing all over the place. Get out of their way, if you can.
     Prepare psychologically for a sociopolitical climate of anger, grievance, and resentment. A lot of individual citizens will find themselves short of resources in the years ahead. They will be very ticked off and seek to scapegoat and punish others. The United States is one of the few nations on earth that did not undergo a sociopolitical convulsion in the past hundred years. But despite what we tell ourselves about our specialness, we're not immune to the forces that have driven other societies to extremes. The rise of the Nazis, the Soviet terror, the "cultural revolution," the holocausts and genocides -- these are all things that can happen to any people driven to desperation.

January 6, 2008
Beyond 'Coming Together'

     The Iowa caucus set into motion a curious self-reinforcing feedback loop of inspiration -- that an African-American political leader could win an important primary contest in a Wonder Bread state, and that all Americans (especially white Americans) could "feel good" about living in a country where such a thing is possible. This is an understandable sentiment. Whatever else Americans have been conditioned to be lately -- blubbery, debt-crushed, tattoo-etched, Jesus-haunted, multiply-addicted TV zombies -- a residual kernel of fairness seems to persist underneath all that cellulite and avarice. Catching a glimpse of our formerly better collective selves, we seem moved to discover that it's still there, although the element of self-congratulation gets tiresome quickly.
     In any case, it was satisfying to see Barack Obama whip Hillary Clinton's entitled, presumptuous ass in Iowa last week, and by a very healthy margin. All other things aside -- like, what he actually thinks about the state of the nation -- Obama is a more reassuring figure than the Lady Macbeth-like former first lady, with her retinue of policy earls and thanes, and the creepy figure of her husband, MacBill, ever-grinning upstage.
     I could get behind Obama, if it comes to it, but these days another feeling dogs me -- that we live in a nation where a lot more people than just Hillary Clinton need to get their asses whipped (and then some), and I like John Edwards a bit better in the role. On the night of the Iowa caucuses, John Edwards made an appeal to the audience that just seemed more reality-based to me than Obama's platitudes about bringing people together.
     Edwards seems to recognize that there are some people -- like the health care executive he cited who retired from his job with over $100 million in the policy-holders loot -- who don't deserve to come together with anything except a grand jury. Edwards is willing to gaze past the kindergarten emotions of primary politics and see the stupendous ugliness and unfairness of a land that is being sucked dry by corporate vampires. I believe he will righteously kick their asses, and that they need to get their asses kicked, so I'm more inclined to support Edwards. I believe he means it, too.
     I was impressed that night by the TV commercial that followed Obama's speech. The commercial promoted a hydrogen car that General Motors is pretending to develop. It was very slick, of course, since GM can get the best TV production talent money can buy. It featured a light-skinned African-American man (not unlike Obama) playing a sort of Mr. Science Teacher role among a flower-strewn meadow full of schoolchildren with a modest GM sedan at the center of the picture. Mr. Science Teacher was telling the kids how this new GM wonder car would run without any nasty gasoline, and out of its tailpipe would come nothing but pure clean water, and wasn't the future-according-to-General-Motors a fabulous thing! It was all very heartwarming, except it was complete mendacious bullshit. GM will never produce a commercial line of hydrogen-powered cars, and America will never set up a supporting infrastructure of hydrogen production and retail fueling stations. And GM knows all this.
      General Motors deserves to have its ass kicked for misleading the public so shamelessly. I think Edwards is the only candidate who would kick their ass. I'm not quite sure how he would do it, or what he would say, but here's how I suggest he should frame the issue. "General Motors, can you take some of the money and human capital that you devote to misleading the public about hydrogen cars, and see if you can apply it instead to producing some decent up-to-date rolling stock for the US railroad system, which we have got to get up-and-running again -- or I WILL KICK YOUR ASS." Something like that.
     I can see Edwards dealing effectively with Wall Street, too. As president he would probably find that there are some agencies all saddled up and ready to ride, like the Securities and Exchange Commission, and certain offices within the US Department of Justice, which could be motivated to ask the questions that various boards of directors have overlooked for some years now -- such as. . . how come Mr. Disgraced Executive is backing up his Lincoln Navigator to the loading dock of Acme Banking and Trust, and piling in sacks of the shareholders' money, after presiding over $10 billion worth of losses in acting as counter-party to an illegal trade in his company's own engineered fraudulent securities. . . ?
      So, these are some of my own dark thoughts coming out of Iowa and heading right smack into the New Hampshire primary. I'm reasonably confident that Hillary will stagger out of the Granite State with a stake through her heart. I hope Edwards can stay on his feet long enough to make make a run going into the SuperDuper gauntlet of primaries that follows. He may even condition Obama to toughen up some and realize that bringing people together (to be chumps and saps for the ghouls who sell them Cheeseburgers) is not the sovereign remedy for what ails Clusterfuck Nation.
     I don't much care for the moment what happens among the Republicans. Their party is doomed. They're the Whigs of the 21st Century, and their grandees will be remembered in the same way that we revere William Henry Harrison and Millard Fillmore (whose birthday is tomorrow, by the way -- NY State employees take note!). It's been fun following the adventures of Huckabee, but only in the way that it was fun following Elmer Fudd as a six-year-old.

 

Dec 31, 2007
Forecast 2008

     For the tiny fraction of people who actually pay attention to real events -- those, for instance, who know the difference between Narnia and Kandahar -- the final hours of 2007 leading into the fog-shrouded abyss of 2008 must induce great racking shudders of nausea. Has there ever been a society so exquisitely rigged for implosion? The whole listing, creaking, reeking edifice stands like one of those obsolete Las Vegas pleasure palaces awaiting a mere pulse of electrons to ignite a thousand explosive charges perfectly placed to blow away the structural supports.
     The inertia holding everything together that I described in last year's forecast finally melted away at mid-summer and events began spooling out of control. Specifically, the massive tonnage of debt-backed securities circulating through the financial sector stood revealed for the mostly worthless bales of paper they truly are, and the investment community was left suspended in mid-air, grinning unconvincingly, like Wile E. Coyote thirteen yards beyond the edge of the mesa, with a sputtering grenade in each hand and an anvil tied to his ankles.
     The whole second half of 2007 in the ranks of finance was a desperate rear-guard action to stave off the inevitable work-out. The fiasco over at Bear Stearns was instructive. Not long after two of their hedge funds blew up in August, the company announced that the funds had been chartered in the Cayman Islands and were therefore beyond the reach of official US legal machinery -- meaning, forget about lawsuits, you losers, chumps, and suckers who bought into our jerry-rigged scams... submit your complaints to the Tough Noogies desk and begone with you! This dodge might have benefited Bear Stearns in the short term, but in the long term it's hard to see why anybody would ever after cast one red cent in Bear Stearns' direction (in the life of this universe or several like it).
     The summer's blow-ups were followed by truckloads, boatloads, and helicopter loads of rescue "liquidity" delivered through autumn by the Federal Reserve and other central banks in a continuing effort to allow investment houses, mortgage originators, reinsurance firms, and other companies trafficking in suspect paper to avoid declaring greater losses. Then the foreign sovereign wealth funds jumped in with five billion here, ten billion there, coming away with big chunks of ownership, but of what? Of companies with liabilities in excess of assets? Mostly, these desperation moves worked to paper over virtual bankruptcy through the crucial Christmas holiday, when yearly bonuses are doled out, which spared the boards of directors from having to explain why executives were lined up at the loading docks filling their Lincoln Navigators with stupid dope piles and knots of the shareholders' loot.
    On the ground out in the heartland, in the anxiety-drenched, over-valued beige subdivisions of California and the ennui-saturated pastel McHousing tracts of Florida (not to mention the pathetic vinyl outlands of Cleveland and Detroit) a mighty keening welled forth as mortgage rates adjusted upward, and loans stopped "performing," and "for sale" signs failed to turn up buyers, and sheriff's deputies showed up with the rolls of yellow foreclosure tape, and actual ownership of the re-poed collateral entered a legal twilight zone somewhere north of the Florida State Teacher's Pension Fund and south of the Norwegian Municipal Councils' investment portfolios. What a mighty goddam mess was left out there by the boyz at the Wall Street genius desks, who engineered a magical system for eliminating risk from the capital markets -- only to see it leak back in from a million holes and seams and collapse the greatest bubble ever blown.
     In the background, the US dollar sank to record lows against the euro and the pound sterling, the price of oil jumped 56 percent across the year just grazing the $100-a-barrel mark, drought punished the American southeast and Australia's grain belt, floods ravaged Texas and England, the polar ice shrank dramatically, but the US escaped any major hurricane action for a second year in a row.
    Except for the murder of Mrs. Bhutto just a few days ago, the international scene was supernaturally quiet. Even Iraq fell into a torpor, variously attributed to utter exhaustion among the warring factions or to the US troop "surge" under general Petreus. Iran got a surprise clean bill-of-health on its nuclear bomb-making activity from America's own investigators, to the consternation of Mr. Bush & Co. The non-human denizens of Planet Earth didn't have such a good year. Honeybees, Yangtze river dolphins, and house sparrows took big hits, and Al Gore went up another suit size (as well as winning part of the Nobel Prize for his Powerpoint show). Which brings us finally to the heart of the matter: what's coming down the pike starting tomorrow, January 1, 2008?

Down and Dirty
    I shudder to imagine how things will play out now as we turn the corner into 2008. Not to put too fine a point on it, but my little walnut brain can't imagine any scenario in which the US economy doesn't end up on a gurney in history's emergency room. It's not necessary to rehash the particulars of the Greenspan bubble-blowing disaster. The outcome is what concerns us. The web cables have been blazing for months with arguments as to what form the workout will take. There's little disagreement about the fundamentals at the housing end of things.
      The housing market is in a death spiral. Eventually, the median price of a house will have to fall back to the median income, and it has a very long way to go, perhaps 50 percent. Until that happens, houses will be generally unsellable. At the same time, of course, an anxious finance sector will be offering fewer mortgages and on much more rigorous terms, so there will be far fewer qualified buyers even for distress sales. And the median income itself may soon not be what it has been. The whole equation has changed. As the painful re-pricing process plays out, many owners/sellers will be upside-down and under water in what they owe on the mortgage in relation to the value of the house they occupy. Quite a few may have lost jobs and incomes along the way. Most of these unfortunates would be better off just mailing in the keys and walking away. But in so far as these awful liabilities are peoples' homes, full of all their stuff and their childrens' stuff, not to mention being the repository of all their previously-imagined wealth, as well as their hopes and dreams, walking away is psychologically more easily said than done.
      Surely in this election year, schemes will be advanced to bail out these poor suckers. But the beneficiaries of such a putative bail out would be far outnumbered by the home-owners still making mortgage payments, plus property taxes jacked up during the recent orgy by greedy public officials, and I don't think this majority would stand for the unfairness of seeing their neighbors simply let off the hook on their obligations. Perhaps the one thing that congress could do is change the insane law that treats foreclosures like some kind of bizzaro capital gain and piles additional huge tax demands on people who can no longer afford to buy their kids a frozen burrito. The issue of what to do about the dispossessed will be so politically red-hot that it could upset the election process --but I get a bit ahead of myself.
     One thing the public doesn't get about the housing debacle is that it is not just the low point in a regular cycle -- it is the end of the suburban phase of US history. We won't be building anymore of it, and those employed in its development will have to find something else to do. Now, unfortunately the whole point of the housing bubble was not really to put X-million people in so many vinyl and chipboard boxes, but rather to ramp up a suburban sprawl-building industry as a replacement for America's dwindling manufacturing economy. This stratagem ran into the implacable force of Peak Oil, which not only puts the schnitz on America's whole Happy Motoring / suburban nexus, but implies a pervasive trend for contraction in everything from the daily distances we can travel to the the very core idea of regular economic growth per se -- at least in the way we have understood it through the age of industrial capital.
     But to return to my point, something like 40 percent of all new jobs after the year 2000 were created in the final burst of suburban expansion -- everything from the excavators to the framers to the sheet-rockers, and then the providers of granite countertops, the sellers of appliances and furnishings, and cars to service the far-out new subdivisions, and so on. This is the end, therefore, not only of the production "home-builders," but perhaps everything from Crate and Barrel to WalMart, too, eventually.
    By the way, the housing collapse was only one phase of a more generalized real estate debacle, because the commercial side of the business has also begun a nauseating slide into non-performance and equity destruction. In other words, we built way too many strip malls, power centers, and office parks. God knows what will happen to the owners of these white elephants, or the mortgage and lien holders of these things -- but as one wag remarked to me some years ago as we both gazed upon a forlorn abandoned strip mall outside of Tulsa, "...we don't need that many evangelical roller rinks...."
     What happens out there on the housing market scene will certainly redound in banking and finance and whatever still constitutes the US economy generally. The fears and uncertainties surrounding all credit-backed tradable securities derive first from the millions of troubled home mortgages dangling slowly in the wind. These fears and uncertainties will multiply as defaults commence in commercial real estate, and desperate individuals next enter a wave of credit card default, all of it, too, securitized and sprinkled all over the world. None of this stuff has yet been priced into the public disclosures of the many troubled banks and bank-like companies holding it. Nor does anyone really know how this is affecting the hedge funds, and their staggering leveraged positions in things that are looking more and more like quicksand. I can't imagine that quite a few major banks will not collapse in the first half of 2008. It is hard to escape the conclusion that many hedge funds will also blow up, given the unsoundness of their counter-parties' positions, not to mention the frailty of the bond reinsurers. But the death of more than a few hedge funds could easily unwind the entire global finance system -- meaning a period of destructive chaos followed by a set of severely different institutional arrangements, with untold loss of imagined capital wealth along the way and big changes in everyday life. The world has never really been in a situation like this before and it is impossible to say what it might lead to. But there is no doubt that the American public has enjoyed an artificially high standard of living in relation to the value of what we actually produce -- fried chicken, hair extensions, and the Flaver Flav Show -- so the conclusion is pretty self-evident.
     Others have said (and I concur) that 2008 will be the year that the issue of Peak Oil not only takes stage in the forefront of American politics, but pushes global warming aside as the most immediate threat to the "modern" way-of-life. There is every reason to believe that the world has arrived at its all-time oil production peak -- and some statisticians would even pin-point the exact moment as July 2006. Since then a few new and crucial story-lines have emerged to allow us to understand what is happening out there on the world oil scene.
     One story-line is that only "demand destruction" among the world's poorest nations has kept the oil markets functioning "normally" among the OECD nations and the rising Asian players. Even so, oil priced in US dollars more than doubled in 2007. It remains to be seen whether demand destruction in a wobbling US economy -- with the suburban builders crippled -- will keep oil prices from jumping into the uncharted territory beyond $100-a-barrel. But two other forces are in operation now.
     One is the growing oil export problem, soon to be a crisis. It now appears that exports, in nations with surplus oil to sell, are going down at an even steeper rate than production declines.  Why?  They are using more of their own oil.  The population is growing robustly.  The Saudi Arabians are building the world’s largest aluminum smelter and many chemical factories. This takes a lot of oil. Russia, another big exporter, saw its car sales jump by 50 percent in 2007.  Mexico is depleting so rapidly, and using so much more of its own oil, that it might be out of the export game altogether in three years. That will be bad news for the US, since Mexico is tied with Saudi Arabia as America's number two leading source of oil imports. Remember, the US now imports close to three-quarters of all the oil we use.
      The second new factor on the Peak oil scene is "oil nationalism." It is prompting countries like Norway and Russia to husband more of their own resources as the awareness hits that they are past peak and might want to keep their own motors humming further into the future.  Oil surplus nations are also trending more toward selling their oil on the basis of long-term contracts with favored customers rather than just auctioning the stuff off on the futures market. This makes oil a much more important element in geopolitical power politics. Note that the US may not enjoy "favored customer" standing among many of these nations.
      Matt Simmons, the leading investment banker to the oil industry, predicted at a major conference in October that the US is much closer to encountering a problem with chronic spot shortages of oil (and gasoline, of course) than the public realizes, and Simmons says that this supply problem will be extremely disruptive in every imaginable way -- economically, politically, and socially. Most of the commentators I take seriously see the price of oil oscillating in 2008 between $80 and $160-a-barrel. Simmons says Americans will keep sucking up the price increases, but they will probably freak out over spot shortages.
     I have no idea how presidential election politics will play out in 2008. It must be obvious that so many nasty pitfalls lie out there in the months ahead that something's got to shake up the current scripted mummery among the contenders. The current batch of candidates will soon find their story-lines and pre-cooked messages out-of-date as the nation faces crises in finance and energy (at least). Given the uneventful geopolitical scene of the past 18 months (since the Hezbollah-Israel War and up to the murder of Mrs. Bhutto in Pakistan), odds are that the US will have more rather than less trouble from the rest of the world in 2008-- especially if our own financial recklessness trips up the global economy.
     Back in the early days of George W. Bush, even before 9/11, I used to joke with my friends that Bill Clinton would return as the Emperor Bill the First. The joke doesn't seem so funny anymore with Hillary off and running. I never liked the way she muscled her way into a US senate seat -- sending the message, in essence, that there was not one genuine New York resident qualified for the job. But there is so much more about her I dislike now, starting with her presumption of dynastic entitlement to the annoyingly phony way she nods her head (like one of those old "drinky-bird" toys) to put across the idea that she is a fabulous "listener." I write this a few days before the Iowa caucuses and then the New Hampshire primary. New York's Mayor Bloomberg is suddenly making noises again about entering the race as an independent. That might lead to a situation as fractured as the one in 1860 that saw a multi-party scuffle send Lincoln into office (or the election of 1912 when Teddy Roosevelt made a credible run on the independent Bull Moose line). At the moment, I'd like to see both John Edwards and Barack Obama roll on. The mere thought of a president Huckabee gives me the chilblains, and the rest of the Republican pack I would not want to have as my county supervisor.
     In any case, whoever ends up in the oval office will preside over one king-hell of a clusterfuck. In the immortal words of TV's erstwhile "Mr. T," I pity da fool who gets elected into this mess. There will be a whole continent full of bankrupt, re-poed, and idle former WalMart shoppers, many of them with half of their skin tattooed and many of that bunch all revved up to "roll heavy and gun up" against the folks who screwed them.
      Which leads me to my penultimate observation of the moment: 2008 will be the year that celebrity wealth goes into hiding. A land full of people crying into their foreclosure notices will take a dim view of the Donald Trumps and P. Diddys luxuriating out there and may come looking for scalps -- though in the case of Mr. Trump they'll be sorry they woke up the wolverine that lives on his head. Basically, though, I'm not kidding. Conspicuous displays of wealth will be so "out" that Mr. Diddy might take to club-hopping in a 1999 Mazda. Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton may have to double-up living in a minuteman missile silo to keep the angry mobs of fans-turned-vengeful-berserkers away.
     Okay, my final comment. After being chastised endlessly about mis-calling the DOW in 2006 (I said 4000), I have learned my lesson about making numerical predictions for the stock markets. So let's just say there is no fucking way that the DOW, the NASDAQ, and the S & P will not end the year 2008 absolutely on their asses. The charade of permanent prosperity based on getting something for nothing is over. That sound you hear out there is reality knocking on the door. It has been standing out in the cold for a long time and it is not happy with us.

Dec 24, 2007
A Christmas Eve Story

   Two things happened over this weekend before Christmas that jarred me a little. One was when an old friend said I sounded crazy, and the second was when I read the galley proof of Dmitry Orlov's forthcoming book, Reinventing Collapse (New Society Press, Spring 2008).
     I ran into my old friend "G" on our town's main street, Broadway, on Saturday afternoon and we ducked out of the drizzle into a nearby coffee shop to catch up. G had worked the past twenty-five years in the software industry and recently bought the company that employed him. He was consumed now with plans for "growing" this company. I made a point not to antagonize him with my Long Emergency notions, since his obvious mental investment in the wish for a reliable "growth" economy was a bulwark of his current world view. But the conversation did get around to the various troubles in the capital markets and the possible connection of this with the global oil predicament.
     G doesn't believe we have a problem with oil. He said, if the fuel efficiency of every American vehicle on the road was increased five percent, we wouldn't have to import any oil. This assertion was, shall we say, not consistent with anything I understood about the situation, and I said so, pretty much in those words, to avoid ramping rhetorically into debate mode. G said, "Do the math." I suppose G had read this "formula" somewhere and was impressed by it. "The Market," he said, would "take care" of our motor fuel problems. Just wait and see. We talked for a while about getting the railroads working again. G said it would never happen. "This isn't Europe."
     I was content to let is drop, but G then said. "You know, you've been predicting all these catastrophes for years now, but we're still here, the cars are all rolling down Broadway out there, and life is going on. You're beginning to sound like a crazy person." It didn't bother me especially that G thought my my ideas were outlandish so much as being comprehensively written off by an old friend as a crazy person, someone who... I dunno... rummages through dumpsters and talks to himself on the street without any sign of a cell phone in hand. I didn't hasten to defend myself. G obviously needed to feel that the world would continue functioning like a well-oiled machine now that he was responsible for an operation that employed a hundred other people. We parted agreeing to acknowledge a difference in our view of things.
     Dmitry Orlov's publisher sent me the galley proof to get a blurb for the dust-jacket, and I'll furnish one in short order because Reinventing Collapse is an exceptionally clear, authoritative, witty, and original view of our prospects. The thesis is that the United States is headed for troubles as broad and deep as the ones that brought down the Soviet system in Russia, though we will get there via a somewhat different route. Orlov has been in the privileged position of living under both systems at critical times, and the parallels are striking, but the differences even more so.
     The Soviet experience was a collapse of consensual reality as much as of economy. Nobody could continue to support the credibility of a one-party, centrally-planned, "command" economy best represented by the joke: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." An economy in which nobody had any real stake other than ideological finally ground ignominiously to a halt. Once the state surrendered its authority, the society was stripped of assets. The social safety net dissolved. A lot of people on the margins slipped through the cracks and died. Eventually, the Russian economy (and government) reorganized on a different basis -- largely because its remaining oil resources and annual production exceed its domestic consumption. So, this reorganized new oil-exporting state, with its shocking poles of extreme wealth and poverty, will go on for a while until the oil is gone, and then it will face more transformations.
     The comparison with the American situation is chilling. For all its gross faults, the Soviet Russia was ironically better prepared for economic collapse and political turmoil than we will be. For one thing, all housing there was owned by the state, and allocated under bare nominal rents, so when the economy collapsed, people just stayed in their apartments. Nobody got evicted. There was scant private car ownership in pre-1990 Russia, so gasoline allocation problems did not paralyze movement. Train service was excellent and cheap, and the cities all had a rich matrix of underground metros, on-street electric trams, and trolley-buses, which continued to run even when central authority flickered out. There was no suburban sprawl to strand and isolate people (in homes owned by banks, that can be taken away after the third monthly failure to make a mortgage payment). Official Soviet agriculture was such a fiasco for half a century that the Soviet people were long-conditioned to provide for themselves. For decades, 90 percent of the food was coming from tiny household gardens, wherever it was possible to grow stuff. When America's just-in-time supermarket resupply system wobbles, and the Cheez Doodles disappear from the WalMart shelves, few Americans will have a Plan B.
     Perhaps most striking is that the Soviet collapse provoked almost no bloodshed (at least in Russia itself). The political failure was so comprehensive that the party leadership didn't even have the will to defend its prerogatives anymore, and for a while politics simply slipped into a vacuum -- until Mr. Putin came along and revived the oil industry and managed to get the police back on a payroll that inspired them to do their jobs. Meanwhile, the tremendous drain of the Soviet armed forces and all their equipment -- apart from the nuclear arsenal (as far as we know) -- was allowed to wither away, along with its monumental demands on the nation's resources.
     Whatever other differences there may be between Soviet Russia and Clusterfuck Nation, a big one here is that our domestic oil consumption long ago exceeded our production capacity, and when we run into just a little supply trouble with our oil imports (apart from mere rising prices) it will shake the foundations of our economic life. We are stuck with a physical infrastructure for daily living that has no future in an oil-scarce world. Our cities, for the most part, have imploded internally. Our public transportation is grossly unbalanced on the side of private cars and airplanes utterly dependent on imported oil. At the moment, our capital finance sector is cratering in the aftermath of an unprecedented surrender of responsibility in the management of securitized debt -- an event that may end up as a curious parallel to the looting of assets that occurred in the Soviet twilight.
     The biggest difference, though, between Soviet Russia and America today is the psychology of the people. Soviet citizens were prepared for trouble by lifetimes of comparative hardship. I won't even go into the Stalin terror and the agony of World War Two. In more recent Soviet times, money meant little in a system without real shopping -- but maintaining personal networks based on mutual trust or strength-of-character was the greatest asset in acquiring life's necessities. Americans didn't need political dictators to whip us into line -- we volunteered to become a nation of TV zombies. Our fantasies are arguably more disabling than the mere cognitive dissonance that reigned in Soviet times. Liberty itself has allowed the American public to freely choose passivity, illusion, and incompetence. Anyway, when it comes out in 2008, Dmitry Orlov's book will deserve the attention of whatever thoughtful people remain in the land of the free and the home of the brave.
     It was disheartening, of course, to be written off as sounding "like a crazy person," by an old friend. I don't doubt that his perception is genuine. I'm prepared to live with the disconnect between what my friends believe and what I think. I even reserve a portion of my mind for the possibility that their view may be more realistic than mine -- but I won't torture myself about it. Someday, surely, I'll meet this old friend again and perhaps he'll say something like "...things didn't work out quite the way I expected...."
     In the meantime, Christmas Eve is upon us, truly my favorite night of the year (Hebrew though I am), and I am very fortunate to be going to a warm house full of people tonight where the wassail will flow. I'll be back next week with a review of 2007 and my predictions (ha!) for 2008. In the meantime, God bless us every one.

Dec 17, 2007
Failure Beyond Finance

      Events are driving us now, not personalities or even policies. Ben Bernanke, Hank Paulson, and the other characters in the headlines might pretend that they are managing things, but the truth is that problems in the financial sector have spun wildly out of control. The wheels are coming off and we are in that long sickening moment of sideways sliding motion when no attempt at steering will avail to avoid the crash. That it is happening at the very height of the Christmas season, when events have previously been controllable -- the season of manufactured Santa Claus rallies and $50 million bonuses -- shows how perilous the situation is.
     The reason the financial sector is crashing is really pretty simple: it created too many fraudulent securities. What has been conspicuously absent so far is any sense of accountability for what may go down as history's greatest swindle. It's really impossible to imagine that a bunch of low-ranking worker bees in the banking hives spun out all these bundles of collateralized debt obligations, mortgage-backed securities, and similar trash on their own without the say-so of their bosses -- a group that includes the current Secretary of the Treasury, Mr. Paulson, formerly CEO of the Goldman Sachs organization. And, of course, the questions naturally follow: what about those in charge of the ratings agencies that awarded AAA status to high-risk junk investments; and where were the banking regulators when outfits like Countrywide Financial, Washington Mutual, and Ditech were handing out miracle mortgages to borrowers without normal qualifications; and where was the Securities and Exchange Commission when the wholesale trade in creatively-engineered debt instruments ramped up to high volume, and what was the board of directors at Merrill Lynch thinking when it allowed disgraced CEO Stan O'Neal to back a truck up to the company loading dock and fill it up with $160 million in bonus-and-termination payments after O'Neal presided over at least $8 billion in losses?
     What we're also seeing is a crisis of authority on top of a crisis of capital, and it will probably lead to a crisis of legitimacy -- by which I mean a catastrophic loss of faith that this society can govern itself at any level. Leadership across the board has failed, in government, in business, in what used to be called the press, and in education. Leadership in every sector went along with the program, marveling stupidly at their society's ability to get something for nothing.
      The general public did not perform any more honorably -- due to whatever failure of civic norms they operate within -- and indeed the nation as a whole may deserve all the suffering it faces. But however bad the general public's behavior, or dark their fate, a failure of civic norms is ultimately a failure of leadership, which is about clearly stating the boundaries and terms of behavior. When anything goes, nothing matters. Since that was our leaders' attitude, the public did what it naturally does: it follows the example set by leadership.
      We haven't begun to see where all this will lead yet. Since what is happening is basically the evaporation of trillions of dollars in supposed wealth. At the very least we're likely to see an impoverished nation very soon short of money to buy necessities. Historically this is known as a ruinous deflation. The last time America went through such an experience was the Great Depression of the 1930s. Like this situation, it came at the end of an extraordinary expansion of credit -- loans largely made in that day for the purchase of stock "on margin."
     One difference between then and now is that in 1929 a relative small minority of Americans were involved in stock purchases. Today, a relative large number of ordinary citizens own overpriced houses bought using extraordinarily risky loans, and a large number of institutions such as pension funds, banks, hedge funds, and money markets own fraudulent securities based on these house loans, worth a fraction of their face value. Some other differences this time around: in the background is a "real" economy of depleting natural resources (oil, soils, aquifers, etc) and the systematic disassembly of an industrial manufacturing infrastructure. In the 1930s, many people could return to family farms and get by, even with little money. Today there are far fewer family farms.
     The nation is acting just now like a crowd of bystanders watching a car wreck that has nothing to do with them -- as though they were just occupying the Nascar grandstand on a particularly bad day. They'll discover soon that it's their own society that's hit the wall out there on the track. It raises the question, under the circumstances, as to whether the next presidential election will have any legitimacy.

Dec 10, 2007
Spirit of the Season

     The clowns in charge of things understandably feel that they have to do something -- or pretend to -- in the face of what is shaping up to be not just a credit "crunch," but a potentially lethal illness in the credit system per se -- that is, in the very process of trading in paper that claims to represent faith in the future creation of wealth. That process underlies all of modern finance. Investments, currencies, economies, and nations hang in the balance.
     President Bush, seeming very much the clown-in-chief, led the way last week by proposing a mortgage crisis bail-out that would appear to have no chance whatsoever of working as advertised. He called it, arrestingly, the Hope Now Alliance. It blithely assumed that those "servicing" mortgages -- that is, collecting the monthly payments -- have the ability to suspend scheduled upward re-sets of adjustable mortgages for five years for certain select homeowner payees -- so that theoretically said homeowners could avoid foreclosure.
     What might have worked in 1934, when the originators of mortgages were local banks that also "serviced" them (i.e. collected the monthly payments) is unlikely to avail today since the mortgages have been sold off in bunches to pension funds, hedge funds, money markets, and foreign investment funds -- none of which have an interest or the ability to renegotiate loans with millions of schlemiels from Cleveland to Denver to Fresno -- while the companies "servicing" these contacts are mere errand boys, with no say over the terms of anything they collect on.
      So, what if these loans are not "restructured," that is, renegotiated on new terms by both parties on what is, after all, a contract?  What if the government just "declares" that the current terms are void? Since the mortgage contracts have been bundled into bonds and sold off, it means that the value of the bonds is no longer what they were sold to represent. So, while a command to suspend mortgage re-sets might give comfort to schlemiels who used bad judgment in signing mortgage contracts for houses they couldn't afford, it will further impair the value of the bonds dispersed throughout the investment markets and increase disarray in the basic system of creating future credit. That is, if it worked as advertised.
    But how can it work? The president said that this relief action would apply only to those who were current in their payments or no more than 60 days behind. Is it possible that a federal bureaucracy that could not even helicopter bottled water to desperate people trapped in plain sight on highway overpasses in New Orleans in 2005 can process millions of sheaves of relief applications in 60 days? Or even concoct the forms and print them?
     Even if the paperwork could be designed, printed, and distributed overnight, in reality, the applications would collect in the in-boxes for decades. Meanwhile there would be no way to meaningfully establish time-based qualifications for relief. The absurd process would quickly only cast more doubt on the market value of the bonds sitting "out there" while it would create a monumental disincentive for any financial enterprise to lend money for future mortgages (or perhaps anything else). So the New Hope Alliance would have the dual effect of killing the housing "industry" and the credit markets. It could easily have a third and not inconsiderable effect of destroying the credibility of the currency of the nation engaging in such obviously foolish political theatrics. And if the dollar goes, the entire global system of currencies could enter a state of dangerous instability.
     These are some of the hazards of suspending law as applied to financial markets, which can only function on the basis of contract law. Once contract law goes out the window, so does the faith of parties with reserve capital in lending out capital at interest. If the interest rate can be changed arbitrarily or capriciously by third parties, then those with capital would be better off buying gold or impressionist paintings or Manhattan apartments or private armies for protecting their Hampton estates, than lending money at interest established by contract.
     Anyway, this argument is academic because the Hope Now Alliance is just a political sham. The purpose of it is not to save the hapless occupants of over-leveraged houses, but first to buy a little more time so that the worker bees in the financial industry can justify awarding each other multi-million-dollar Christmas bonus packages, and second, to postpone the "workout" of all this bad investment as far into the future as possible.
     I have been wrong in the past about timing things, but I don't see any way on God's green earth that such a workout of mis-investment can be put off until somebody else is sworn in to lead the government in January 2009. The capital allocation system is already listing and groaning like a leaky ship in a hurricane.
      Maybe all the players really know that keeping the ship afloat until Christmas is really the best they can hope for. Christmas means a lot in this country. It represents all Americans' old hope that miracles can happen. Bums turn out to be Santa Claus. Old curmudgeons are transformed overnight into loving uncles. Angels save us when we jump despairingly into icy torrents. And Goldman Sachs executives pass out multi-million-dollar checks to the wizards who "innovated" an ingenious way for the rest of their country to commit financial suicide.

Dec 3, 2007
Magic Wand Finance

  For those of you concerned about my sense of pride -- yes, I sure got that eggy feeling all over my face last week after calling for a thousand-point Dow plunge, only to watch it put on the greatest two-day melt-up in five years. I suppose I underestimate the desperate moves of desperate people against the backdrop of an economy (and a finance sector) that remains unsound to the max despite the 700+ point sucker's rally or dead cat bounce, or whatever you want to call the giddy action in recent days.
     Whatever else you think of it, there is an awful lot at stake in manipulating the collective mood of those who traffic in capital. Beneath the momentary fugue of triumphalism, markets have never been so distressed in the lifetimes of most of us living. It's not just the folks in charge of things whose legitimacy is at stake, but the system itself. When the markets really do start to manifest their true state of extreme disorder, many will blame "capitalism," not the swindlers who have been gaming it in recent years.
     I would pause to remind readers how I regard capitalism in the first place: not as a belief system or a political ideology, but merely as a set of laws describing the behavior of surplus wealth and the "money" that represents it. Compound interest has worked for communists and Republicans alike. The trouble in our case today stems not from the inherent defects of capitalism which, like gravity, exerts its laws no matter how people think or feel, but from cavalier indifference to its laws. One of these is the idea that capital markets will perform credibly -- within reasonable limits of risk -- only if there is agreement that its tradable paper has some value. When markets work properly, fortunes are made and lost on the basis of relatively slight differentials in notions of value. In other words, people must have some idea what they are trading.
     This is referred to as "transparency," meaning that those working the markets can see through the blur of daily action and know, for instance, that IBM common stock is fundamentally valuable (as back in, say, 1969) because every single office in the nation was buying IBM Selectric typewriters and paying for the service contracts that went with them. Nobody doubted that IBM had value, only whether it was worth $57 or $63 a share in a given week, or about how many Selectrics IBM might sell in the next quarter.
     The action in the markets now all hinges on how certain species of "derivative" paper -- certificates based on the value of other certificates -- are valued. The certificates in question are mortgage-backed-securities (MBSs), collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), and other instruments based on debt rather than equity, that is loans rather than wealth. Of course, one problem associated with these things is that they exist now mainly in the forms of electrons in computer systems, represented by pixels on screens, not in paper contracts or promises to pay. Thus they are abstracted not just in derivation but in representation. The further and more crucial problem is not that there is necessarily disagreement over their value, but that, in fact, there's a growing consensus that their value is close to zero. And there is enough of the worthless crap to choke banks all over the world.
      The current distress in the markets derives from the frightening recognition of this problem and perhaps even more from the efforts to conceal it. There was a ton of action on that front last week, which ignited the fools' rally in stocks. For instance, Citicorp, like many other big banks, is choking on scores of billions of dollars denominated in pixels derived from bad loans. Citicorp is in the unhappy position of not being able to cover its losses on this dreck. It appears to have liabilities exceeding its capital assets. It is even having trouble "papering over" these losses -- i.e. borrowing more money to appear solvent. The loan of $7.5 billion it got last week from Abu Dhabi's sovereign investment fund (a nationalized enterprise) came at the cost of 11 percent interest, a rate more commonly associated with New Jersey racketeers than legitimate bankers.
     The event was greeted with triumphal sighs of relief on Wall Street. My guess is this was so only because the managers of money think it will keep appearances pasted together just long enough for them to crawl over the Christmas bonus finish line. It seems to me that there is still plenty of room left for things to go awry.
     Another big spur to last week's engineered rally was the chatter about a distressed mortgage bail-out scheme by Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson and others. It would be nice, perhaps, if some honcho-wizard could wave his magic wand and command the adjustable mortgages to magically stand pat for an indefinite period -- say, long enough to sort out the value of all those dubious MBSs and CDOs -- but despite the appearance of good intentions, such a program has no practical viability whatsoever.
     For one thing, nobody really knows where the actual ownership of the individual mortgages has actually landed. This is a major awful consequence of the scheme to disperse risk so widely in the creation of these derivatives. The scheme was so successful that now nobody knows which mortgage belongs to whom and how to begin renegotiating it. So any talk about restructuring these mortgages is absurd, since to do so would require agreement between the borrowers and the lenders. All the lawyers who ever lived would not be able to sort out this mess, and most of the money at stake would end up going to the lawyers now living if the process were to go forward.
     All this is apart, by the way, from the question as to whether insolvent homeowners could keep up with their payments whether the rates were frozen or not, not to mention the further unsettling prospect that the interest deferred would only end up being added to their principal even while the market value of their houses spiraled ever-lower in the ongoing bubble bust.
    A blanket freeze would further degrade the legitimacy of contracts between all borrowers and lenders, making it impossible to price in risk for any future lending contracts -- since they would now be susceptible to arbitrary changes-in-terms by authorities in charge. In the meantime, a court in Ohio has already ruled that one major bank (Deutsche Bank) which thought it held mortgages there, had no legal standing to foreclose on non-performing properties (story). Also meanwhile, public investment funds from Florida to Norway are hemorrhaging because of mortgage-associated derivatives clogging their portfolios. Meanwhile, moreover, credit markets have seized up because those supposedly holding capital can't say how much they really have, and are now terrified of loaning out "money" that might actually not be there, not in accounts receivable, not on or off any books, just... not... there... anymore....
     The recognition is growing that our financial markets have been subject to mischief so egregious that there will be hell to pay. The current "distress" is the inability of the markets to function -- no matter what the Dow Jones Industrial Average appears to say at any given moment. The legitimacy of the markets and those now pretending to preside over them hangs in the balance as we slide sickeningly into the holidays.