By Ilargi on The Automatic Earth.
There are a number of fallacies – or delusions, if you will- concerning our economies that are set to inflict enormous – in many cases lethal- damage in both our own rich lives and those of people elsewhere in the world who are far less well-off than we still are – for now. These fallacies are closely connected, which adds greatly to their insidiousness as well as the perverse influence they have both on ourselves, and on our awareness of what’s happening around us. And whatever there may be that we can’t change overnight, we can at least try to comprehend some issues, file them, and move on. Let’s do these first:
- Food prices
There is no economic recovery, there hasn’t been one in the past five years, and there won’t be one for a very long time to come. Claiming that we are seeing a recovery today equals claiming that a society can borrow its way into recovery. I’m not going there, and I strongly advise you to not do it either.
There will be a Keynesian faction which clings to the theory that says it is indeed possible to borrow your way up, but that’s a mere mirage, since it would require a surge in real productivity, i.e. outside of the service industry. Where and how have we increased production since the crisis started? Where have we created the great deal of additional value required to dig ourselves out of the hole? Obviously, nowhere. The vast majority of “jobs created” is in the service sector, while manufacturing today counts for less than 10% of US jobs. And no, flipping burgers does not create value.
For the US economy to recover for real, we would need to see hundreds of thousands of jobs created every month, on top of the 150-250,000 needed to just keep up with population growth. Not happening. It doesn’t matter if the BLS says the unemployment rate went from 9.8% to 9.4% on 103,000 jobs created. If and when it issues numbers like that, the BLS itself ceases to matter. To wit, Zero Hedge reports: “Initial Claims Surge To 445K, Not Seasonally Adjusted Claims Surge By 191,686 To 770,413 In One Week“.
What has happened that fools people into believing in a recovery are two things:
First, the US government and the Federal Reserve have injected more trillions of dollars into the system than anyone can keep track of. Moreover, they have done so only in those sectors that remain beyond the grasp of the average American. Which means that we see relative highs in the markets, as well as record or near record amounts paid out in bonuses on Wall Street, and at the same time there are record numbers of foreclosures and record or near record unemployment numbers.
While it’s true that stock markets have been rising lately, how anyone can see that as proof of a recovery is beyond me. The idea that if you just make the rich richer, the rest will follow, is not even something I want to discuss anymore.
Second, any attempt to maintain what could be considered accounting standards, such as those that would apply to you and me, was given up long ago. The reason for this is that the trillions upon trillions of dollars that were taken away from you and your offspring, and handed to the main banks, would still not have been enough by any stretch of the imagination to keep up even the slightest appearance of solvency for these banks. It’s important to let that sink in.
The untold trillions have been only sufficient to pay down the first “level” of debt the banks had accumulated, that part of the debt that could no longer be hidden from view. The rest of the debt, which is far greater than all the trillions handed out so far, remains in dark vaults, treated like some sort of state secrets that can’t be divulged for the next 50 or 100 years. The result is that hardly anyone realises how big the debt is, and the losses are, and that bank stocks have actually been going up. This is how zombie money is created.
You, too, if you’re a gambling addict, could live for a while pretending you’re rich, even after you’ve lost all you have and 10 times more, provided you’re capable of hiding your lost wagers. Charles Ponzi and Bernie Madoff did it on their own for years; JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America do it with the full aiding and abetting from Washington, which uses your money to comply with whatever it is Dimon, Blankfein and Moynihan say is needed to stave off a collapse.
In other words, the economy may seem to be recovering, and the banking system may seem to have recovered, but the illusion has come at a gigantic price to the American (and European) societies, and in the end it will not make one iota of difference for the outcome. Then again, let’s correct that: it will make a difference, but not – at all- in your favour: the multi-trillion dollar illusion will greatly enhance the misery and destitution on Main Street. All that money could have been used to mitigate and minimize the suffering of the herd; instead, it’s all gone to wolf packs and vampire squids. We’ll yet come to deeply regret this.
The fact that there’s all that zombie money around (or zombie credit, to be precise) leads many to believe the US witnesses inflation. Not true. First off, inflation is not the same as rising prices. Prices can rise because of different causes: scarcity, speculation and (real) inflation. And it’s important to be able to identify which of these causes is in play. If you call all price rises inflation, you lose the ability to distinguish between the causes, which means you lose a crucial analytical tool. There may be those who would like nothing better than for us to lose that tool, but it’s not smart to give in.
I know the media has force-fed the incorrect definition of inflation to the masses, and I know there are plenty of people who say rising prices is all they care about, not monetary theory. However, a clear view of causation is essential when it comes to defining your reaction to rising or falling prices, and prices that rise because of scarcity demand a totally different set of actions than those that do because of a rise in total supply of money and credit, combined with velocity of money, which is what inflation truly is.
The present, incorrect and force-fed “meaning” of inflation as all price rises no matter what their cause is, is relatively new. Rising prices used to be referred to as “(currency) devaluation”. Not perfect, but way better than what we have now, where terms like “monetary inflation”, “price inflation”, “consumer inflation”, “energy inflation” all the way down to “cookie inflation” fill the media.
Why is the distinction between the definitions important? Because today in the US both the money/credit supply and the velocity of money are falling (deflation), while some prices are rising, in particular those of food and energy. And no, you can’t have deflation in one sector and inflation in the other. That really turns the whole debate into obscure nonsense. It’s important that we can determine that if prices rise in times of deflation, the cause for those price rises must be something other than inflation.
In today’s world, that something else is speculation. But not of the ordinary kind. What we have right now is zombie money speculation. The same unrecognised losses in the financial system that our governments cover up with criminally negligent accounting non-standards cause prices of oil and food to rise, since that’s where the zombie money -inevitably- ends up. And it’s not just the banks that invest zombie money, it’s all of us.
If banks would have been forced to reveal their losses, the hammering of home prices would have been huge. Since this did not happen, a lot of people are still sitting pretty in their homes, which are way more overvalued -in free market terms- than just about anyone is ready to recognise. Also, if banks had revealed their losses, unemployment rates would have been far higher than they are today.
I know what many are thinking: maybe it’s not such a bad idea to cover up those losses. But you’re not seeing the whole picture. First, the cover-up has enabled the banks to access your money in order to pay down their debts. And second, zombie money is not the same as real money, as something that has been earned by adding real value. Zombie money is not real.
I read a piece at Zero Hedge the other day by a group that calls themselves the NIA, for National Inflation Association. But they don’t even know what inflation means. Hence their slogan: “Preparing Americans for Hyperinflation”. Hey, if you can’t define inflation, chances are you’ll miss the truth on hyperinflation too. Look, the US depends for its money and credit supply on international bond markets. Whenever Bernanke turns on his so-called “printing press”, which in actual fact is an “additional credit” press, it’s not as if free money is created. There’s interest to be paid on all of it. And while interest rates may be low right now, it’s not Bernanke who sets those rates, try as he might to make you think so.
If and when the bond markets decide that the risk on US debt rises enough -or too much-, they will decide what the interest rate is, not Bernanke, and not Geithner. Obviously, with every dollar printed, risk assessments will rise, and the outcome is inevitable: less appetite for US debt (don’t forget that there’s plenty zombie money in the bond markets too), and higher rates. And only if and when the US no longer has access to international markets does the option of hyperinflation come into play. Now, I may be quite negative on the prospects for the US economy, but a full separation from global debt markets is a while away yet, and that means the prospect of hyperinflation is as well.
Preparing for hyperinflation is not just useless at this point in time, it’s also damaging in that it makes people blind to the real problem: deflation. And before we get to hyperinflation, if we ever do, deflation will cause so much pain and grief and unrest and death, that the very thought of hyperinflation will come to be seen as a highly delusional non-issue.
So how long will the zombie money last? Can it last as long as Bernanke and Geithner and Obama and Dimon want it to? No, in fact, they’re fighting a lost battle against time itself.
The zombie money has to disappear, and it will. It all starts and ends with US and European real estate, the one biggest investment of those of us living on Main Street, by far. US home prices have now fallen for 53 consecutive months, despite the fact that Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac buy up and guarantee near 100% of all mortgages, and despite the fact that the Fed has purchased huge swaths of the securities allegedly backed by these mortgages.
All those trillions “worth” of your money haven’t been able to prevent that. And no amount of additional trillions will. Foreclosures are setting brand new records across the country, even as banks are ever more nervous about their paperwork, and their balance sheets. It doesn’t matter how much money Washington throws at the issue, other than it’ll make you a whole lot poorer, for you’ll never see it back.
A further deterioration in home prices can’t be prevented. Fannie and Freddie can’t buy 101% of mortgages; they’re buying close to a 100% right now and prices still fall. Wal-Mart greeters, burger flippers and the rest of the great unwashed will not be allowed back into the housing market. There are over 10 million homes on the market, and perhaps twice that if you count all foreclosed properties that banks sit on (and the millions they won’t foreclose on), plus all those that people would like to sell but can’t lest they go underwater. And the pool of potential buyers has shrunk with a vengeance since the 2005-6 “heydays”. Huge increase in supply, huge decrease in demand; e all know where this will go.
Now, take Fannie and Freddie out of this picture. What do you see? They’ll be taken out in some way, and at some time, and it won’t take years. I know what I see: the housing and mortgage situation in the US has turned into what I’ve always called the “Bulgaria model”, where you guarantee the mortgage on your neighbour’s home, and he guarantees yours; anything goes as long as it’s not the free market your politicians and media tell you about. And we know what happened to Bulgaria in the end, don’t we?
I’m all for a society, a government, that takes care of the weakest in its midst. I’m all against a government that props up the strongest in its midst, in this case the bankers with bonuses larger in one year than the weaker among us can make in a lifetime, the same bankers who lost more money in bad wagers than the entire country can cough up, and still be economically viable. We’re fast becoming zombie societies.
But first we’ll have to live through this:
3: Food prices
Let’s start with the news that the Tunisian president has fled his country, and the military’s taken over, according to Al Jazeera. Mass protests are ongoing in Morocco and Algeria. The riots in Tunisia are not all about food prices, but they were certainly a substantial factor. And more, much more, of the same is on the horizon, in many different places. But food prices this time around are not rising because of widespread dramatic shortages, at least not so far. And Lester Brown, much as I like the man, has it completely wrong:
[..] whereas in years past, it’s been weather that has caused a spike in commodities prices, now it’s trends on both sides of the food supply/demand equation that are driving up prices. On the demand side, the culprits are population growth, rising affluence, and the use of grain to fuel cars. On the supply side: soil erosion, aquifer depletion, the loss of cropland to nonfarm uses, the diversion of irrigation water to cities, the plateauing of crop yields in agriculturally advanced countries, and — due to climate change — crop-withering heat waves and melting mountain glaciers and ice sheets.
In the same vein, the peak oil crowd fails to see what drives up oil prices today. Yes, long term trends affect prices to some extent. But no, Lester, you can’t provide an accurate assessment of what’s happening if you don’t include the very obvious contribution of speculation, especially that which originates with zombie money. Ditto for oil prices.
Food prices are rising partly because, let’s not forget, China, unlike the US, does have inflation, with its money supply going through the roof. But much more than that they’re rising because we have elected to kill off the principles of our own western economic systems, which were once supposed to be based on free market ideas, that dictate that success is rewarded and failure punished.
They have since come to resemble some kind of sophomore notion of Darwinianism, where the upper alpha rhino gets all the girls and the rest get none at all. And that in turn is supposed to pose as justice in human societies, whereas in reality it’s nothing but what happened in Bulgaria for decades.
The consequence is that the zombie money is now allowed to drive up food prices to levels which make sure that millions of people around the world will go hungry, and will revolt as a result of that. Blankfein, Dimon et al have long since realised that they can’t maintain their velvet “God’s work” thrones just by robbing Americans of all they’re worth. Their losses are far too great. They need to have access to everyone’s wealth all over the world.
And since oil and food are traded on international commodity markets, and they have gotten hold of all the money America is worth, and then some, they can play these markets as much as they want, whether it’s wheat or natural gas or gold. People like to claim that gold will rise as the US dollar becomes worth less, but they forget that it’s zombie money that has been buying gold, and that has thus lifted gold prices. Once daylight comes and the zombies are gone, there’s only one way left to go for gold prices too.
So, once again, when will the zombie money see daylight?
This could be caused by any of a myriad of choices. We could force all banks to put foreclosed homes on the market, all at once. Or tell the same banks they have no right to foreclose on homes they have no perfect(ly legal) paper trail on. We could force all derivatives contracts out into the open. Or just the mortgage backed securities; that would do it. Provided we fold Fannie and Freddie, and not let the FHA or any of those guys take over.
As I wrote eons ago, even just closing down Fannie and Freddie for business one or two months would probably do the trick. China could wreck the US economy in 5 minutes simply by demanding to know what their purchases of Fannie and Freddie debt are worth (they have a lot of it). Or it could be a small country, maybe not Iceland, but surely Vietnam, or Belgium, or Denmark, insisting on knowing what that paper their banks and pension funds have so heavily invested in is really worth. MBS, or any other species of derivatives, the whole shebang only has a value attached to it by the grace of nobody trying to figure what that value is.
Is US housing debt, and the securities and derivatives based on that debt, a zombie, or a person? It may certainly seem confusing late at night. But then again, you can’t have meaningful relationships with zombies, they’re sort of one-dimensional. Funny how that resembles the person-rights US companies enjoy,
And frankly, does it really matter? What we know for sure is that the zombie money we elected to have flow through our financial systems is going to kill a lot of people this year. Want to plead innocence? How long do you think that excuse will be accepted?
Where our zombie money kills real people. Today.
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