Global policy trends in a financialised economy - Professor Michael Hudson, 21 October 2009:
(1) Wilbur Ross Sees ‘Huge’ Commercial Real Estate Crash
(2) Investors waiting to buy up when Commercial Real Estate crashes
(3) Banks' extend-and-pretend philosophy on Commercial Real Estate loans
(4) Commercial Real Estate Crash will cripple middle-sized banks
(5) China gear up to EXPORT more (not IMPORT more) - Robert Reich
(6) Richest Australian says the Capital (Money) is in China - not New York or London
(7) Dmitry Orlov: The Five Stages of Collapse
(1) Wilbur Ross Sees ‘Huge’ Commercial Real Estate Crash
By John Gittelsohn and Thomas R. Keene
Oct. 30 (Bloomberg) -- Billionaire investor Wilbur L. Ross Jr., said today the U.S. is in the beginning of a “huge crash in commercial real estate.”
“All of the components of real estate value are going in the wrong direction simultaneously,” said Ross, one of nine money managers participating in a government program to remove toxic assets from bank balance sheets. “Occupancy rates are going down. Rent rates are going down and the capitalization rate -- the return that investors are demanding to buy a property -- are going up.”
U.S. commercial property sales are forecast to fall to the lowest in almost two decades as the industry endures its worst slump since the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s, according to property research firm Real Capital Analytics Inc. The Moody’s/REAL Commercial Property Price Indices already have fallen almost 41 percent since October 2007, Moody’s Investors Service said Oct. 19.
Billionaire George Soros, speaking today at a lecture organized by the Central European University in Budapest, said a “bloodletting” may be coming for leveraged buyouts and commercial real estate.
“The American consumer will no longer be able to serve as the motor for the world economy,” said Soros, 79.
His comments came in the same week that Capmark Financial Group Inc. filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection after originating $60 billion in commercial property loans in 2006 and 2007.
Ross, the 71-year-old chairman and chief executive officer of WL Ross & Co. LLC, said in an interview on Bloomberg Radio that he would use “extreme caution” before putting money into commercial real estate, especially office space, because properties are losing tenants.
U.S. office vacancies hit a five-year high of almost 17 percent in the third quarter, while shopping center vacancies climbed to their highest since 1992, according to the property research firm Reis Inc.
“I think it’s going to take quite a while to work itself out,” Ross said. ...
(2) Investors waiting to buy up when Commercial Real Estate crashes
Fed Says CRE Loan Losses To Be 45% in 2010
By Jeff Harding.
... Many investors are sitting around waiting for the big commercial real estate crash, and they won’t be disappointed. As any property owner will tell you now, it’s a scramble to keep and find tenants. Rents are declining, buildings are starting to empty, and there is very little financing available. Everyone knows the debt refi burden that won’t peak until 2013.
We are patient.
This Wall Street Journal article speaks to that issue and reveals, which we knew in practice, that banks aren’t being realistic in valuing or writing down their loans. ...
(3) Banks' extend-and-pretend philosophy on Commercial Real Estate loans
Fed Frets About Commercial Real Estate
With Banks Slow to Take Losses, Fears of a Residential-Bust Repeat; 'More Pain Likely Lies Ahead'
Banks in the U.S. “are slow” to take losses on their commercial real-estate loans being battered by slumping property values and rental payments, according to a Federal Reserve presentation to banking regulators last month.
The remarks suggest that banking regulators are girding for a rerun of the housing-related losses now slamming thousands of banks that failed to set aside enough capital during the boom to cushion themselves when the bubble burst. “Banks will be slow to recognize the severity of the loss — just as they were in residential,” according to the Fed presentation, which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. …
In another sign that many U.S. financial institutions are inadequately protected against potential losses on commercial real-estate loans, banks with heavy exposure to such loans set aside just 38 cents in reserves during the second quarter for every $1 in bad loans, according to an analysis of regulatory filings by The Wall Street Journal. That is a sharp decline from $1.58 in reserves for every $1 in bad loans from the beginning of 2007.
The Journal’s analysis includes more than 800 banks that reported having more half of their loans tied up in commercial real-estate, ranging from apartments to office buildings to warehouses. …
Mr. Conway’s presentation painted a bleak picture of the sliding real-estate values and enormous debt that will need to be refinanced in the next few years. Vacancy rates in the apartment, retail and warehouse sectors already have exceeded those seen during the real-estate collapse of the early 1990s, Mr. Conway noted. His report also predicted that commercial real-estate losses would reach roughly 45% next year. Valuing real estate has always been tricky for banks, and the problem is particularly acute now because sales activity is practically nonexistent. …
These days, many U.S. banks have adopted a policy of extending loans when they come due even if they wouldn’t make those loans now. In some cases, values of the underlying property have fallen below the amount of the loan.
“There’s been an extend-and-pretend philosophy by banks to forestall hits to their balance sheets that might occur,” says Patrick Phillips, new chief executive of the Urban Land Institute, a real-estate industry group.
Matthew Anderson, a partner at research firm Foresight Analytics, adds: “It’s like taping paper over a hole in the wall.” ...
Commercial real-estate loans are the second-largest loan type after home mortgages. More than half of the $3.4 trillion in outstanding commercial real-estate debt is held by banks.
“Today, most of the borrowers are paying because interest rates are so low, but the question is whether the loans will get paid off when they come due,” said Michael Straneva, global head of Ernst & Young’s transaction real-estate practice.
Regulators are zeroing in on banks that use interest reserves to mask bad construction loans. When such loans are made, banks typically calculate interest that would be paid and set that money aside, basically paying themselves until the loan becomes due or the property generates cash flow.
Regulators want to make sure banks don’t have a false sense of security only because the interest reserve is paying the loan. Banks need to look at “the sources of repayment” to determine whether the loan will get repaid, says Darryle Rude, supervisor of industrial banks at the Utah Department of Financial Institutions.
We all know that the Fed is not surprised by this. It’s been talked about for over a year now, including many times in The Daily Capitalist. Investors ask, “What is the Fed going to do about it?” The correct question is: “What can they do about it?” Nothing. The best thing that can happen is that banks quit waiting for more bailouts and write down/off this debt now. By waiting they’ll just drag this re/depression longer than it has to be.
(4) Commercial Real Estate Crash will cripple middle-sized banks
Writer, founder of GlobalEconomicCrisis.com
Posted: July 15, 2009 11:00 AM
Commercial Real Estate Crash Would Cripple U.S. Banks
"Commercial real estate is the next shoe to drop."
James Helsel, Treasurer of the U.S. National Association of Realtors
Pennsylvania realtor and U.S. National Association of Realtors official James Helsel joined with other concerned parties in meeting with a congressional committee last week, conveying a collective message that was saturated with gloom and doom. A commercial real estate implosion has been predicted for months by many observers, including this writer. There is now mounting evidence that this sector of the economy is indeed in the grips of a severe contraction, with all indicators pointing to an accelerating price deflation spiral over a period that may extend to several years.
It has all happened before. In the early 1990s speculators drove the valuations on commercial space far beyond the bounds of prudence. When reality caught up, the worst crash in real estate prices ensued. It now seems increasingly clear that this early 90's disaster is about to be eclipsed by the commercial real estate crash of the current Global Economic Crisis. In fact, commercial real estate prices have already fallen from their 2007 peak valuation by a greater figure than that which has crippled the U.S. residential housing market. As with the housing market, the commercial real estate contraction will adversely affect the balance sheets of the nation's banks. However, the dynamics of that impact will be qualitatively different.
The subprime debacle in the housing market overwhelmingly impacted the largest U.S. banks and financial institutions. With commercial real estate, however, the pyramid becomes inverted. The bulk of the exposure to commercial real estate mortgages is held by financial institutions of small to medium size. Deutsche Bank real estate analyst Richard Parkus told the same congressional committee addressed by James Helsel that the four largest American banks have an average exposure of 2 percent to commercial real estate on their balance sheets. In contrast, the banking institutions that ranked between 30 to 100 in order of size had on average a 12 percent exposure to commercial real estate mortgages. What these figures suggest is that a massive collapse in the U.S. commercial real estate market will cripple a large number of regional and community banks, in comparison to a few "too large to fail" institutions stricken by the subprime housing disaster. ...
Many loans initiated when the prices of commercial properties were at their peak will be coming due over the next 3 years, including $400 billion by the end of 2009, and nearly $2 trillion by 2012. With unemployment skyrocketing, real disposable income shrinking and nearly 7% of income now being saved by the chastened American consumer, it is a foregone conclusion that a greater proportion of these loans will become non-performing. In the current economic climate, there are simply no options available in terms of refinancing and securitization. As with housing, a glut of foreclosed commercial properties will further depress prices, creating a vicious concentric circle of financial doom.
Ultimately, the coming collapse in the U.S. commercial real estate market is not only inevitable; it is round two of the banking crisis. ...
(5) China gear up to EXPORT more (not IMPORT more) - Robert Reich
Obama, China, and Wishful Thinking About American Jobs - Robert Reich
From: chris lenczner <email@example.com> Date: 23.11.2009 04:38 PM
Obama, China, and Wishful Thinking About American Jobs
from Robert Reich's Blog
Posted: November 17, 2009
President Obama says he wants to "rebalance" the economic relationship between China and the U.S. as part of his plan to restart the American jobs machine. "We cannot go back," he said in September, "to an era where the Chinese ...just are selling everything to us, we're taking out a bunch of credit-card debt or home equity loans, but we're not selling anything to them." He hopes that hundreds of millions of Chinese consumers will make up for the inability of American consumers to return to debt-binge spending.
This is wishful thinking. True, the Chinese market is huge and growing fast. By 2009, China was second only to the U.S. in computer sales, with a larger proportion of first-time buyers. It already had more cell-phone users. And excluding SUVs, last year Chinese consumers bought as many cars as Americans (as recently as 2006, Americans bought twice as many).
Even as the U.S. government was bailing out General Motors and Chrysler, the two firms' sales in China were soaring; GM's sales there are almost 50% higher this year than last. Proctor & Gamble is so well-established in China that many Chinese think its products (such as green-tea-flavored Crest toothpaste) are Chinese brands. If the Chinese economy continues to grow at or near its current rate and the benefits of that growth trickle down to 1.3 billion Chinese consumers, the country would become the largest shopping bazaar in the history of the world. They'll be driving over a billion cars and will be the world's biggest purchasers of household electronics, clothing, appliances and almost everything else produced on the planet.
So this will mean millions of American export jobs, right? No.
In fact China is heading in the opposite direction of "rebalancing." Its productive capacity keeps soaring, but Chinese consumers are taking home a shrinking proportion of the total economy. Last year, personal consumption in China amounted to only 35% of the Chinese economy; 10 years ago consumption was almost 50%. Capital investment, by contrast, rose to 44% from 35% over the decade.
China's capital spending is on the way to exceeding that of the U.S., but its consumer spending is barely a sixth as large. Chinese companies are plowing their rising profits back into more productive capacity--additional factories, more equipment, new technologies. China's massive $600 billion stimulus package has been directed at further enlarging China's productive capacity rather than consumption. So where will this productive capacity go if not to Chinese consumers? Net exports to other nations, especially the U.S. and Europe.
Many explanations have been offered for the parsimony of Chinese consumers. Social safety-nets are still inadequate, so Chinese families have to cover the costs of health care, education and retirement. Young Chinese men outnumber young Chinese women by a wide margin, so households with sons have to accumulate and save enough assets to compete in the marriage market. Chinese society is aging quickly because the government has kept a tight lid on population growth for three decades, with the result that households are supporting lots of elderly dependents.
But the larger explanation for Chinese frugality is that the nation is oriented to production, not consumption. China wants to become the world's preeminent producer nation. It also wants to take the lead in the production of advanced technologies. The U.S. would like to retain the lead, but our economy is oriented to consumption rather than production.
Deep down inside the cerebral cortex of our national consciousness we assume that the basic purpose of an economy is to provide more opportunities to consume. We grudgingly support government efforts to rebuild our infrastructure. We want our companies to invest in new equipment and technologies but also want them to pay generous dividends. We approve of government investments in basic research and development, but mainly for the purpose of making the nation more secure through advanced military technologies. (We regard spillovers to the private sector as incidental.)
China's industrial and technological policy is unapologetically direct. It especially wants America's know-how, and the best way to capture knowhow is to get it firsthand. So China continues to condition many sales by U.S. and foreign companies on production in China -- often in joint ventures with Chinese companies.
American firms are now helping China build a "smart" infrastructure, tackle pollution with clean technologies, develop a new generation of photovoltaics and wind turbines, find new applications for nanotechologies, and build commercial jets and jet engines. GM recently announced it was planning to make a new subcompact in China designed and developed primarily by the Pan-Asia Technical Automotive Center, a joint venture between GM and SAIC Motor in Shanghai. General Electric is producing wind turbine components in China. Earlier this month, Massachusetts-based Evergreen Solar announced it will be moving its solar panel production to China.
The Chinese government also wants to create more jobs in China, and it will continue to rely on exports. Each year, tens of millions of poor Chinese pour into large cities from the countryside in pursuit of better-paying work. If they don't find it, China risks riots and other upheaval. Massive disorder is one of the greatest risks facing China's governing elite. That elite would much rather create export jobs, even at the cost of subsidizing foreign buyers, than allow the yuan to rise and thereby risk job shortages at home.
To this extent, China's export policy is really a social policy, designed to maintain order. Despite the Obama administration's entreaties, China will continue to peg the yuan to the dollar--when the dollar drops, selling yuan in the foreign-exchange market and adding to its pile of foreign assets in order to maintain the yuan's fixed relation to the dollar. This is costly to China, of course, but for the purposes of industrial and social policy, China figures the cost is worth it.
The dirty little secret on both sides of the Pacific is that both America and China are capable of producing far more than their own consumers are capable of buying. In the U.S., the root of the problem is a growing share of total income going to the richest Americans, leaving the middle class with relatively less purchasing power unless they go deep into debt. Inequality is also widening in China, but the problem there is a declining share of the fruits of economic growth going to average Chinese and an increasing share going to capital investment.
Both societies are threatened by the disconnect between production and consumption. In China, the threat is civil unrest. In the U.S., it's a prolonged jobs and earnings recession that, when combined with widening inequality, could create political backlash.
(6) Richest Australian says the Capital (Money) is in China - not New York or London
Richest Australian Clive Palmer says money's in China
November 22, 2009 12:00am
CLIVE Palmer admits to the odd moment of quiet satisfaction at proving the nay-sayers wrong with the success of his burgeoning business empire. ...
Professor Palmer is $750 million better off this weekend, thanks to the Metallurgical Corporation of China deciding to take a 10 per cent stake in his $7.5 billion coal mine and rail project in central Queensland's Galilee Basin.
And a partial float of his Resourcehouse company on the Hong Kong stock exchange, expected in the next few weeks, could lift his paper worth to more than $10 billion, making him the wealthiest Australian. Broker valuations for Resourcehouse – which includes the coal project, an iron ore mine, and gas and oil assets – range from $5.3 billion to $16 billion.
"If you are trying to do big things and develop big resources, you have to go where the capital is – it's not New York or London, it's China."
(7) Dmitry Orlov: The Five Stages of Collapse
From: Paul de Burgh-Day <firstname.lastname@example.org> Date: 24.11.2009 02:45 AM
Published on Energy Bulletin (http://www.energybulletin.net)
The Five Stages of Collapse
Published Tue, 11/11/2008 - 08:00
Hello, everyone! The talk you are about to hear is the result of a lengthy process on my part. My specialty is in thinking about and, unfortunately, predicting collapse. My method is based on comparison: I watched the Soviet Union collapse, and, since I am also familiar with the details of the situation in the United States, I can make comparisons between these two failed superpowers.
I was born and grew up in Russia, and I traveled back to Russia repeatedly between the late 80s and mid-90s. This allowed me to gain a solid understanding of the dynamics of the collapse process as it unfolded there. By the mid-90s it was quite clear to me that the US was headed in the same general direction. But I couldn't yet tell how long the process would take, so I sat back and watched.
I am an engineer, and so I naturally tended to look for physical explanations for this process, as opposed to economic, political, or cultural ones. It turns out that one could come up with a very good explanation for the Soviet collapse by following energy flows. What happened in the late 80s is that Russian oil production hit an all-time peak. This coincided with new oil provinces coming on stream in the West - the North Sea in the UK and Norway, and Prudhoe Bay in Alaska - and this suddenly made oil very cheap on the world markets. Soviet revenues plummeted, but their appetite for imported goods remained unchanged, and so they sank deeper and deeper into debt. What doomed them in the end was not even so much the level of debt, but their inability to take on further debt even faster. Once international lenders balked at making further loans, it was game over.
What is happening to the United States now is broadly similar, with certain polarities reversed. The US is an oil importer, burning up 25% of the world's production, and importing over two-thirds of that. Back in mid-90s, when I first started trying to guess the timing of the US collapse, the arrival of the global peak in oil production was scheduled for around the turn of the century. It turned out that the estimate was off by almost a decade, but that is actually fairly accurate as far as such big predictions go. So here it is the high price of oil that is putting the brakes on further debt expansion. As higher oil prices trigger a recession, the economy starts shrinking, and a shrinking economy cannot sustain an ever-expanding level of debt. At some point the ability to finance oil imports will be lost, and that will be the tipping point, after which nothing will ever be the same.
This is not to say that I am a believer in some sort of energy determinism. If the US were to cut its energy consumption by an order of magnitude, it would still be consuming a staggeringly huge amount, but an energy crisis would be averted. But then this country, as we are used to thinking of it, would no longer exist. Oil is what powers this economy. In turn, it is this oil-based economy that makes it possible to maintain and expand an extravagant level of debt. So, a drastic cut in oil consumption would cause a financial collapse (as opposed to the other way around). A few more stages of collapse would follow, which we will discuss next. So, you could see this outlandish appetite for imported oil as a cultural failing, but it is not one that can be undone without causing a great deal of damage. If you like, you can call it "ontological determinism": it has to be what it is, until it is no more.
I don't mean to imply that every part of the country will suddenly undergo a spontaneous existence failure, reverting to an uninhabited wilderness. I agree with John-Michael Greer that the myth of the Apocalypse is not the least bit helpful in coming to terms with the situation. The Soviet experience is very helpful here, because it shows us not only that life goes on, but exactly how it goes on. But I am quite certain that no amount of cultural transformation will help us save various key aspects of this culture: car society, suburban living, big box stores, corporate-run government, global empire, or runaway finance.
On the other hand, I am quite convinced that nothing short of a profound cultural transformation will allow any significant number of us to keep roofs over our heads, and food on our tables. I also believe that the sooner we start letting go of our maladaptive cultural baggage, the more of a chance we will stand. A few years ago, my attitude was to just keep watching events unfold, and keep this collapse thing as some sort of macabre hobby. But the course of events is certainly speeding up, and now my feeling is that the worst we can do is pretend that everything will be fine and simply run out the clock on our current living arrangement, with nothing to replace it once it all starts shutting down.
Now, getting back to my own personal progress in working through these questions, in 2005 I wrote an article called "Post-Soviet Lessons for a Post-American Century". Initially, I wanted to publish it on a web site run by Dale Alan Pfeiffer, but, to my surprise, it ended up on From The Wilderness, a much more popular site run by Michael Ruppert, and, to my further astonishment, Mike even paid me for it.
And ever since then, I've been asked the same question, repeatedly: "When? When is the collapse going to occur?" Being a little bit clever, I always decline to give a specific answer, because, you see, as soon as you get one specific prediction wrong, there goes your entire reputation. One reasonable way of thinking about the timing is to say that collapse can occur at different times for different people. You may never quite know that collapse has happened, but you will know that it has happened to you personally, or to your family, or to your town. The big picture may not come together until much later, thanks to the efforts of historians. Individually, we may never know what hit us, and, as a group, we may never agree on any one answer. Look at the collapse of the USSR: some people are still arguing over why exactly it happened.
But sometimes the picture is clearer than we would like. In January of 2008, I published an article on "The Five Stages of Collapse," in which I defined the five stages, and then bravely stated that we are in the midst of a financial collapse. And ten months later it doesn't seem that I went too far out on a limb this time. If the US government has to lend banks over 200 billion dollars a day just to keep the whole system from imploding, then the term "crisis" probably doesn't do justice to the situation. To keep this game going, the US government has to be able to sell the debt it is taking on, and what do you think the chances are that the world at large will be snapping up trillions of dollars of new debt, knowing that it is being used to prop up a shrinking economy? And if the debt can't be sold, then it has to be monetized, by printing money. And that will trigger hyperinflation. So, let's not quibble, and let us call what's happening what it looks like: "financial collapse".
So here are the five stages as I defined them almost a year ago. The little check-mark next to "financial collapse" is there to remind us that we are not here to quibble or equivocate, because Stage 1 is pretty far along. Stages 2 and 3 - commercial and political collapse, are driven by financial collapse, and will overlap each other. Right now, it is unclear which one is farther along. On the one hand, there are signs that global shipping is grinding to a halt, and that big box retailers are in for a very bad time, with many stores likely to close following a disastrous Christmas season. On the other hand, states are already experiencing massive budget shortfalls, laying off state workers, cutting back on programs, and are starting to beg the federal government for bail-out money.
Even though the various stages of collapse drive each other in a variety of ways, I think that it makes sense to keep them apart conceptually. This is because their effects on our daily life are quite different. Whatever constructive ways we may find of dodging these effects are also going to be different. Lastly, some stages of collapse seem unavoidable, while others may be avoided if we put up enough of a fight.
Financial collapse seems to be particularly painful if you happen to have a lot of money. On the other hand, I run across people all the time, who feel that "Nothing's happened yet." These are mostly younger, relatively successful people, who have little or no savings, and still have good paying jobs, or unemployment insurance that hasn't run out yet. Their daily lives aren't much affected by the turmoil on the financial markets, and they don't believe that anything different is happening beyond the usual economic ups and downs.
Commercial collapse is much more obvious, and observing it doesn't entail opening envelopes and examining columns of figures. It is painful to most people, and life-threatening to some. When store shelves are stripped bare of necessities and remain that way for weeks at a time, panic sets in. In most places, this requires some sort of emergency response, to make sure that people are not deprived of food, shelter, medicine, and that some measure of security and public order is maintained. People who know what's coming can prepare to sit out the worst of it.
Political collapse is more painful yet, because it is directly life-threatening to many people. The breakdown of public order would be particularly dangerous in the US, because of the large number of social problems that have been swept under the carpet over the years. Americans, more than most other people, need to be defended from each other at all times. I think that I would prefer martial law over complete and utter mayhem and lawlessness, though I admit that both are very poor choices.
Social and cultural collapse seem to have already occurred in many parts of the country to a large extent. What social activity remains seems to be anchored to transitory activities like work, shopping, and sports. Religion is perhaps the largest exception, and many communities are organized around churches. But in places where society and culture remain intact, I believe that social and cultural collapse is avoidable, and that this is where we must really dig in our heels. Also, I think it is very important that we learn to see our surroundings for what they have become. In many places, it feels as if there just isn't that much left that's worth trying to save. If all the culture we see is commercial culture, and all the society we see is consumer society, then the best we can do is walk away from it, and look for other people who are ready to do the same.
There is nothing particularly deep or magical about the five stages I chose, except that they seem convenient. They correspond to the commonly distinguished aspects of everyday reality. Each stage of collapse also corresponds to a certain set of beliefs in the status quo, that is about to go by the wayside.
It is always an impressive thing to observe when reality shifts. One moment, a certain idea is seen as preposterous, and the next moment it's being treated as conventional wisdom. There seems to be a psychological mechanism involved, where nobody wants to be seen as the last fool to finally get the picture. Everybody starts pretending that they've thought that way all along, or at least for a little while, for fear of appearing foolish. It is always awkward to ask people what caused them to suddenly change their minds, because with the fear of looking foolish comes a certain loss of dignity.
The most compelling example of lots of minds suddenly going "snap" is, to my mind, the sudden demise of the USSR. It happened with Boris Yeltsin standing atop a tank, and being asked the question: "But what will become of the Soviet Union?" And his answer, pronounced with maximum gravitas was: "Henceforth I shall only refer to it as the FORMER Soviet Union." And that was that. After that, whoever still believed in the Soviet Union appeared as not just foolish, but actually crazy. For a while, there were a lot of crazy old people parading around with portraits of Lenin and Stalin. Their minds were too old to go "snap".
Here in the US, we are yet to experience any of the really major, earth-shattering realizations, the ones that look preposterous immediately before and completely obvious immediately after they occur. We have had minor tremors, mostly relating to financial assumptions. Is real estate a good investment. Will private retirement allow you to retire? Will the government bail us all out? All the major realizations are yet to come, or, as my die-hard Yuppie friends keep telling me, "Nothing's happened yet."
But by the time something does happen, it will have been too late for us to start planning for it happening. It doesn't seem all that worthwhile for us to sit around waiting for the happy event of everybody else feeling foolish all at the same time. Arrogant though that may seem, we may be better off accepting their foolishness before they do, and keeping a safe distance ahead of the prevailing opinion.
Because if we do that, we may yet succeed in finding ways to cope. We may learn to dodge financial collapse by learning to live without needing much money. We may create alternative living arrangements and informal production and distribution networks for all the necessities before commercial collapse occurs. We may organize into self-governing communities that can provide for their own security during political collapse. And all of these steps put together may put us in a position to safeguard society and culture.
Or we can just wait until everyone starts agreeing with us, because we wouldn't want them to look foolish.
The important dynamic, when it comes to financial collapse, is obvious by now. It's the collapse of credit pyramids, "the whole house of cards" as President Bush put it. The technical term is "deleveraging," and the response is the bailout. The federal government will be bailing out the banks and the insurance companies, the auto companies, and state governments. Call it the bail-out treadmill: we are borrowing faster and faster just to keep from falling down. The treadmill is actually a good metaphor. Imagine what would happen if you went to a gym, got on a treadmill machine, and just kept punching up the speed, as high as it will go. What happens is you trip and fall, and find yourself flying backwards.
It is instructive to ask the question, Who are we borrowing this bail-out money from? People will tell you that we are borrowing it from "the taxpayer." But it's not as if federal tax receipts have automatically shot up by a few trillion over the past couple of months, and so this begs the question, Who is "the taxpayer" going to borrow this money from in the meantime? From other Americans? No, because our savings rate has been abysmally low for quite some time now, and what little we have saved is in housing equity, which is dwindling, and in stocks and bonds, through mutual funds and 401ks and such, which are down by a third or so. The value of these investments is crashing, and if we dumped these investments to raise the cash to fund this new debt, that would just make them crash even faster. In effect, we'd only be moving money from one pocket to another. So, really, the bailouts have to be financed by foreigners. And what if these foreigners decide not to trust us with any more of their savings? Then our only recourse is to "monetize" the debt: to print money.
And so the next question is, how much money would we have to print? The purpose of the bailouts is to provide liquidity to insolvent companies, to avoid deleveraging. To understand what that means, we have to understand that for every actual dollar within the economy, in the sense of it not being borrowed, there are over 13 dollars of borrowed money, which only exists while the debt can be rolled over. If our credit is maxed out while the economy is growing, that's bad enough, but the US economy is shrinking because of the recent oil shock. A smaller economy cannot carry as much debt, and this is part of the reason why we have deleveraging. Once the process of debt going sour gets started, it is hard to stop, and if deleveraging were to run its course, we would be down over 1300%. To monetize that much debt would require over 1300% inflation. And once that gets started, it becomes very hard to stop.
And, that, believe it or not, is actually the good news. Because most of our debt is denominated in our own currency - the US dollar - the US will not have to declare sovereign default, like Russia was forced to do in the 1990s. Instead, we can inflate our way out of national bankruptcy, by printing a lot of dollars. We will repay our national debt, but we will do so in worthless paper money, bankrupting our international creditors in the process. There is sure to be plenty of pain for everyone, especially everyone who is used to having plenty of money, because their money will no longer make the world go around. Once the US has to start earning foreign currency in order to pay for imports, you can be sure that imports will become quite scarce.
Here are before and after snapshots of the most salient characteristics of financial collapse, as they will affect the vast majority of the population. Here, I am assuming that commercial and political collapse are slower in arriving, and that government is still there to step in with emergency aid of various sorts, and that a market economy of some sort continues to function. It could come down to everyone walking around with their little food stamps debit cards, and the only place they can use them that's within walking distance is McDonalds, but I am assuming some semi-stable period during which other adjustments can occur before other stages run their course.
The adjustments would have to do with major aspects of the living arrangement, from where we live to how we grow food to how we relate to each other. With money scarce and not particularly potent, other ways of winning the cooperation of others would need to be evolved in a hurry. The financial realm can be seen as a complex system of fences: your bank account is fenced off from my bank account. This arrangement allows you and me to not worry too much about each other, provided each of us has enough to live on. Though this is largely a fiction, we can fancy ourselves to be independent economic players on a level playing field. But once these conceptual fences become irrelevant, because there is nothing behind them, we become each others' burden, in an immediate sort of way, that would come as a shock to most people. The indignity of such physical interdependence would be psychologically devastating to many people, raising the human toll from financial collapse beyond what you'd expect from a problem that really only exists on paper. This is going to be particularly hard for a nation brought up on the myth of rugged individualism.
Commercial collapse, when it arrives, will again cause much more of a psychological crack-up than you'd expect from a purely organizational problem. The quantities of immediately available goods and services right before and right after the collapse would remain about the same, but because market psychology is so ingrained in the population, no other ways of coping would be considered. Hoarding would become widespread, with looting as the obvious antidote. There would be an instant, huge black market for all sorts of necessities, from shampoo to vials of insulin.
The market mechanism works well in some cases, but it doesn't work at all when key commodities become scarce. It leads to profiteering, hoarding, looting, and other pernicious effects. There is usually a knee-jerk reaction to regulate the markets, by imposing price controls, or by introducing rationing. I found it quite funny that the recent clamoring for re-regulating the financial markets was greeted with cries of "Socialists!" Failing at capitalism doesn't make you a socialist, any more than getting a divorce automatically make you gay.
If by the time commercial collapse is upon us, there is still enough of the political system left intact to implement rationing and price controls and emergency distribution schemes, then we should count these among our blessings. Such heavy-handed governance is certainly not a crowd-pleaser during times of plenty, when it's also unnecessary, but it can be quite a life-saver during times of scarcity. The Soviet food distribution system, which was plagued with chronic underperformance during normal times, proved to be paradoxically resilient during collapse, allowing people to survive the transition.
If prior to commercial collapse the challenge is finding enough money to afford the necessities, afterward the challenge is getting people to accept money as payment for these same necessities. Many of the would-be sellers will prefer to be paid in something more valuable than mere cash. Customer service comes to mean that customers must provide a service. Given that most people won't have much to offer, other than their now worthless money, should they still have any, most purveyors of goods and services decide to take a holiday.
With the disappearance of the free and open market, even the items that still are available for sale come to be offered in a way that is neither free nor open, but only at certain times and to certain people. Whatever wealth still exists is hidden, because flaunting it or exposing it just increases the security risk, and the amount of effort required to guard it.
In an economy where the vast majority of manufactured items is imported, and designed with planned obsolescence in mind, it will be difficult to keep things running as imports dry up, especially imports of spare parts for foreign-made machinery. The pool of available equipment will shrink over time, as more and more pieces of equipment become used as "organ donors." In an effort to keep things running, entire cottage industries devoted to refurbishing old stuff might suddenly come together.
It is sometimes hard to discern political collapse, because politicians tend to be quite good at maintaining the pretense of power and authority even as it dwindles. But there are some telltale signs of political collapse. One is when politicians start moonlighting because their day job is no longer sufficiently gainful. Another is when regional politicians start to openly defy orders from the political center. Russia experienced plenty of each of these symptoms.
One thing that makes political collapse particularly hard to spot is that the worse things get, the more noise the politicians emit. The substance to noise ratio in political discourse is pretty low even in good times, making it hard to spot the transition when it actually drops to zero. The variable that's easier to monitor is the level of political embarrassment. For instance, when Mr. Nazdratenko, the governor of the far-east Russian region of Primorye, stole large amounts of coal, made strides in the direction of establishing an independent foreign policy toward China, and yet Moscow could do nothing to reign him in, you could be sure that Russia's political system was pretty much defunct.
Another telltale sign of political collapse is actual disintegration, where regions declare independence. In Russia, that was the case with Chechnya, and it led to a prolonged bloody conflict. Here, we might have a "Reconquista" where former Mexican territories become ever more Mexican, the South might rise again. New England, California, and the Pacific Northwest might decide to go their separate ways. Once the interstate highway system is no longer viable and the remaining domestic airlines are extinct, there is not much to keep the two coasts together. What once united the country was the construction of the continental railroad, but railroads have been too neglected to hold it together now. A country consisting of two halves tied together via Panama Canal is de facto at least two countries.
Yet another thing to watch for is foreign incursions into domestic politics. When foreign political consultants start stage-managing elections, as happened with Yeltsin's reelection campaign, you can be sure that the country is no longer in charge of its own political system. In the US, there is a gradual surrender of sovereignty, as sovereign wealth funds buy up more and more US assets. That sort of thing used to be considered akin to an act of war, but these are desperate times, and they are allowed to do so without so much as a nasty comment. Eventually, they may start making political demands, to extract the most value out of their investments. For instance, they could start vetting candidates for public office, to make sure that we remain friendly to their interests.
Lastly, the power vacuum created by the collapse of legitimate authority tends to be more or less automatically filled by criminal syndicates. These often try to commandeer the political establishment by getting their heads elected or appointed to political offices. Examples include Russian oligarchs, such as Boris Berezovsky, who got himself elected to Duma, the Russian parliament, and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who thought he could use his oil wealth to buy his way into the political establishment. Luckily for Russia, Berezovsky is in exile in England, and Khodorkovsky is in jail.
A great many people in the US insist that they do not need government help, and that they would do just fine if only the government would leave them alone. But this is really just a pose; there is a great deal that that government does to make their lives possible. In the United States, the federal government keeps many people alive through programs such as Medicaid, Social Security, and food stamps. Local governments provide for trash removal and water and sewer line maintenance, road and bridge repair, and so on. Police departments try to defend people from each other.
When all of that starts to unravel, it is likely to do so from the bottom, not from the top. Local officials are more accessible than remote Washington bureaucrats, and so they will be the first to be overwhelmed by the anger and confusion of their constituents, while Washington remains unresponsive. One likely exception may have to do with the use of federal troops. It seems almost a given that troops repatriated from the more than 1000 foreign military bases will see action right here at home. They will be reassigned to domestic peacekeeping duties.
Aside from the big government programs, there is little available in the US to help those in need. Again, Americans make a big show of their philanthropy, but, compared to other developed countries, they are in fact quite stingy when it comes to helping those in need. There is even a streak of political sadism, which, for example, shows up in people's attitudes toward welfare recipients. This sadism can be seen in the so-called welfare reform, which has forced single mothers to work jobs that barely cover the cost of daycare, which is often substandard.
Aside from the government, there are charities, many of which are church-based, and so they have the ulterior motive of recruiting people to their cause. But even when a charity does not make any specific demands, its real purpose is to reinforce the superiority of those who are charitable, at the expense of those who are the recipients. There is a flow of forced gratitude from the beneficiary to the benefactor. The greater the need, the more humiliating is the transaction to the beneficiary, and the more satisfying it is to the benefactor. There is no motivation for the benefactor to provide more charity in response to greater need, except in special circumstances, such as immediately following a natural disaster. Where the need is large, constant, and growing, we should expect charities to matter very little when it comes to satisfying it.
Since neither government largesse nor charity is likely to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, we should look for other options. One promising direction is a revival of mutual help societies, which take membership contributions and then use them to help those in need. At least in theory, such organizations are vastly better than either government aid or charities. Those who are helped by them do not have to surrender their dignity, and can survive difficult times without being stigmatized.
To make it intact through times of great need, the only reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to form communities that are strong and cohesive enough to provide for the well-being of all of their members, that are large enough to be resourceful, yet small enough so that people can relate to each other directly, and to take direct responsibility for each other's well-being.
If this effort fails, then the outlook becomes dire indeed. I would like to emphasize, once again, that we must do all we can to avoid this stage of collapse. We can allow the financial system, and the commercial sector, and most of the government institutions to collapse, but not this.
What makes this particularly challenging is that the existence of finance and credit, of consumer society, and of government-imposed law and order has allowed society, in the sense of direct, mutual help and of freely accepting responsibility for each others' welfare, to atrophy. This process of social decay may be less advanced in groups that have survived recent adversity: immigrant and minority groups, or people who served together in the armed forces. The instincts that underlie this behavior are strong, and they are what helped us survive as a species, but they need to be reactivated in time to create groups that are cohesive enough to be viable.
Culture can mean a great many things to people, but what I mean here is a specific very important element of culture: how people relate to each other face to face. Take honesty, for instance: do people demand it of themselves and others, or do they feel that it is acceptable to lie to get what you want? Do they take pride in how much they have or in how much they can give? I took this list of virtues from Colin Turnbull, who wrote a book about a tribe in which most of these virtues were almost entirely missing. Turnbull's point was that these personal virtues are also all but destroyed in Western society, but that for the time being their absence is being masked by the impersonal institutions of finance, commerce, and government.
I believe that Turnbull has a point. Ours is a cold world, in which the citizens are theoretically expected to fend for themselves, but in reality can only survive thanks to the impersonal services of finance, commerce, and government. It only allows us to practice these warm virtues among family and friends. But that is a start, and from there we can expand this circle of warmth to encompass more and more of the people who matter to us and we to them.
In his amazing book about the legacy of European colonialism, Exterminate all the Brutes, Sven Lindqvist makes the stunning observation that violence renders one unrecognizable. The aggressor, whether active or passive, becomes a stranger.
The violence does not have to be physical. One subtle type of mental violence that abounds in our world is the act of refusing to acknowledge someone's existence. We may believe that it makes us safer to walk past people without making eye contact. That is certainly true if our look is blank and indifferent, and it is then better to avert one's gaze than to look, and in effect to say: "I do not recognize you." That definitely does not make you any safer. But if your look says "I see you, you are OK," or even "I recognize you," then the effect is quite the opposite. Dogs understand this principle perfectly well, and so should people.
When I was doing a radio tour to promote my book, a lot of the AM radio motor-mouths who interviewed me would sum up the interview with something like "So this is all doom and gloom, isn't it." And then I would have maybe 15 seconds for a rebuttal. So here is my standard 15 second rebuttal: "No, my message is actually quite hopeful. I want to let people know that they can find ways to lead happy, fulfilling lives even as this doomed system crumbles all around them." Here, I can give you a longer answer.
I believe that the financial pyramid scheme and globalized consumerism are done. But I think that having no government at all is not an option. Forget entitlements, forget military bases on foreign soil, forget the three-ring circus that passes for representative democracy here, but we will still need agencies to print passports, to control the nuclear stockpile, as well as many other mundane but essential services that only a central government can provide. For most other needs, local self-government may be the best we can do, but that may not be bad at all.
Commercial collapse need not be final. It is quite possible that a new economy will arise spontaneously, one without all the frills and the waste, but able to provide for most of the basic needs. In the places that are socially and culturally intact, this is almost inevitable, as people take charge and start doing what's necessary without waiting for official sanction.
As far as social and cultural collapse, as I already mentioned, to some extent they have already happened, but this is being masked, for the time being, by the availability of finance, commerce, and government. But they can be undone, not everywhere, of course, but in quite a few places, because the instincts are there, and a dire common predicament can be the catalyst that changes society, bringing it closer to the human norm.
Knowing what to expect can provide us with peace of mind, even in the midst of collapse. Wallowing in nostalgia over the good old days, or denying that sweeping changes are before us -- these responses are definitely unhealthy.
If we know what's coming, we can start ignoring the things that we will not be able to rely on. If we do enough of this, we may find ourselves in a different world, quite possibly a better one, rather quickly. Here is a personal example. Some years ago, I decided to give up the car, finding it quite impractical, and started bicycling instead. It wasn't that easy at first, but once I got used to it, a strange thing happened to my perception: I started seeing cars quite differently. On the way to work in the morning, I would ride along a stretch of highway, which was always packed with cars. When you are driver, you see it as normal, because you are part of this herd of mechanized insects. But what I saw was sheet metal boxes with people imprisoned inside them, strapped down to a chair inside a tiny padded cell, and most of these poor crazies were just pictures of misery: an angry, desperate, lonely mob, condemned to move about in circles. And then I would happily pedal away, through a park and around a pond, and leave that horrible, dying world behind.
And so it is with a great many things. We can wait until the lifestyle that is killing the planet and is making us crazy and sick is no longer physically possible, or we can opt out of it ahead of time. And what we replace it with can be difficult at first, but quite a lot better for us in the end.
So let us summarize our findings. Financial collapse is already quite far along, and is guaranteed to run its course. Bailouts can make insolvent institutions look solvent for a time by providing liquidity, but one thing they cannot provide is solvency. For instance, no matter how much we bail out the auto companies, making any more cars will still be a bad idea. Similarly, no matter how much money we give to banks, their loan portfolios, loaded down with houses built in places that are inaccessible except by car, will still end up being worthless. By continuously nationalizing bad debt, the country will make itself into a bad credit risk, and foreign lenders will walk away. Hyperinflation and loss of imports will follow.
Commercial collapse is likewise guaranteed to happen. One key import is oil, and here the loss of imports will cause much of the economy to shut down, because in this country nothing moves without oil. But it should be possible to come up with new, far less energy-intensive ways to provide for the basic needs.
Political collapse is guaranteed as well. As tax receipts dwindle, municipalities and states will no longer be able to meet the minimal maintenance requirements for existing infrastructure: roads, bridges, water and sewer mains, and so forth. Municipal services, including police, fire departments, snow removal and garbage collection, will also be curtailed or eliminated. The better-organized communities may be able to find ways to compensate, but many communities will become impassable and uninhabitable, generating a flood of internal refugees.
Currently, the political class couldn't be farther from understanding what is about to happen. I listened in on one of the recent presidential debates (I don't have a television set, but I caught a chunk of it on NPR). It struck me that the two candidates spent most of the time arguing over ways of spending money that they don't have. For me, listening to them was a waste of time that I didn't have. I suspect that my book, would sell better if McCain got elected; nevertheless, I choose to remain selflessly apolitical. National politics is a distraction and a waste of time.
Actually, I should be gratified. A while ago I proposed a whimsical Collapse Party. The Collapse Party platform featured planks such as the freeing of prisoners to whittle down the prison population before a general amnesty becomes necessary due to lack of funds, a jubilee - forgiveness of all debts - to wipe the slate clean of all these bad loans, and a few others. Elsewhere, I proposed that it is a good idea to stop making new cars - just run down the ones we already have, and we'll run out of cars just as we run out of gas. I am happy to report that this has been banner year for the Collapse Party. Without fielding a single candidate, we managed to push through much of our agenda: many states are releasing prisoners due to the fiscal crisis, the federal government is now involved in avoiding foreclosures, a huge credit card debt write-off is in the works (not quite a jubilee, but still...) and now automakers are ready to consolidate or declare bankruptcy. Next year, perhaps we will repatriate troops and shut down overseas military bases, also in line with the Collapse Party platform.
Continuing with our recap, I see social collapse as avoidable, but not in all places. In many places, the task is to reconstitute society before the first three stages run their course, and it may already be too late. But this is where we need to make a stand, if only to be remembered for something more than the sum total of our mistakes.
Lastly, cultural collapse is something that's almost too horrible to contemplate, except that in some places it seems to have already happened, and is being masked by the various institutions that still exist, for the time being. But I believe that a lot of people will come around and remember their humanity, the better parts of their natures, when dire circumstances force them to rise to the occasion.
Also, there are some intact pockets of culture here and there that can be used as a sort of cultural seed stock. These are communities and groups that have seen some adversity in recent times, and have some social cohesion left over from the experience. They may also be those who made certain conscious decisions, to simplify their living arrangements in order to lead saner, more fulfilling lives. We must do all we can to avert this final stage of collapse, because what is at stake is nothing less than our humanity.
I hope that, if you have been following along, by this point this slide is self-explanatory. Collapse is not one monolithic thing. Each kind of collapse requires a response, be it jumping clear ahead of time, sitting it out, or opposing it with all you got. At this point, if anyone in this room got up and tried to tell us what to do to avoid financial collapse, we would probably find that quite funny. On the other hand, if we stand by and let social and cultural collapse unfold, then what's the point of any of this?
That's all. Thank you for listening.
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