Friday, October 31, 2008

"Fraud" and "Swindle" - Words Not to Be Spoken (Only Thought)

I'm still working on a considerably longer treatment of the following rant by one of my favorite financial guru mentors, and in lieu of that, which I hope will be finished soon, please enjoy (not really!) Jim Kunstler on what's been blowing around (in the wind) and up(!) until today. (Emphasis marks and some editing were inserted by moi.)

Easthampton Burning? In the typhoon of commentary that's blown around the world a step behind the financial tsunami that's wrecking everything, two little words have been curiously absent: "fraud" and "swindle." But aren't they really at the core of what has happened? Wall Street took the whole world "for a ride" and now a handful of Wall Street's erstwhile princelings have shifted ceremoniously into US Government service to "fix" the problem with a "toolbox" containing a notional two trillion dollars. This strange exercise in financial kabuki theater will shut down sometime between the election and inauguration day, when the inaugurate finds himself President of the Economic Smoking Wreckage of the United States. What will happen? I have thought for some time that things could get dangerously out of hand in America, despite our exceptionalist notion that we are immune to the common plot-lines of history. For starters, inauguration night will seem more like Halloween, as those two little words fly in to haunt the new president. So, a large and looming question is: who will be appointed the next attorney general of the US (to replace the human sash-weight currently occupying the office), and how soon will the federal marshals be scouring the wainscoted hallways of Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan Chase, not to mention a thousand Greenwich, Connecticut, hedge fund boiler rooms, with man-sized nets? A story-line is already emerging to the effect that these birds really didn't quite know what they were doing in grinding out that multi-trillion dollar basket of alphabet securities sausage (a theme on Sunday's "60-Minutes" broadcast). Nobody will buy that line of bullshit, though - and certainly not in the courtroom where, for instance, Mr. Hank Paulson will have to answer why his own firm of Goldman Sachs set up a special unit to short its own issues. It will be edifying to see how they answer. In the meantime, however, millions of Joe-the-Plumber types will have gotten their pink slips, slipped helplessly into foreclosure, watched the repo men hot-wire their Ford pickups, and eaten down the kitchen cupboard to a single box of Kellogg's All-Bran (which had been sitting there for eleven years infested with weevils). They will be watching the official proceedings in the federal courtrooms with jaundiced eyes as they hunch in their tent cities, in the rain, sipping amateur-brand raisin wine bartered for a few snared rock doves. How long before the hardier ones among them venture out to Easthampton with long knives and matches? It will bring little satisfaction though, and the disappointment could lead to a more inchoate outbreak of civil disorder that would be more like a free-for-all of vengeance and grievance. There will be a great outcry for the new government to "do something!" Perhaps that will finally bring the troops home from Iraq - only for them to find that the Homeland has become Iraq . . . . If the financial system completes its self-destruction - and that's looking more and more like a real possibility - there will be several pretty awful consequences. One is that the United States will be forced to declare bankruptcy by repudiating its own debt.

All those who took refuge in US Treasury bonds and bills will be like folks who sought shelter from a tornado in their out-house. That would go hand-in-hand with a massive currency inflation that is likely to follow the current phase of compressive liquidating deflation -- in which every possible asset is being sold off for less than its face value. That process is self-limiting due to the finite supply of real salable assets.

The trillions of dollars injected into (the) system while this is happening must eventually snap-back as people shed the last fungible article and compete for necessary commodities like food and fuel with dollars that are suddenly plentiful but worthless. At some point, the government may have to summon up a new currency. I don't think it will be anything like the "Amero" which the paranoid fringe incessantly mutters about as part of their fantasy in which the US, Mexico, and Canada all join up to become one country. But any "new dollar" would probably have to be backed by gold.

As we discover ourselves to be a much poorer nation, one of my correspondents put it: "the bogus risk-swapping economy must be replaced by a net value-added economy." That means actually making things, growing things, and rebuilding things, and that can only begin to happen if we do not stupidly sucker ourselves into a war with other nations who are liable to be extremely ticked off at us for destroying the global economy, but also competing with us for a dwindling supply of resources that are not equitably distributed around the world.

This means especially oil. I hope you're enjoying the temporarily cheap prices at the gas pumps, because this is purely a function of the compressive deleveraging that is going on right now, as contracts and positions held in energy markets are being dumped by everybody and his uncle to raise cash to meet margin calls. My guess is that oil and its byproducts will become much more difficult to get in the months ahead -- not just more expensive, but literally not available. The current falling price of oil has little to do with the real supply and demand fundamentals. It's simply a function of the markets being in near-total disarray. We're running on current inventory, and running it down. In the background, all kinds of peculiar and terrible things are happening. The entire apparatus of allocation and distribution is being thrown out of whack. The smaller tanker operations are going bankrupt. The "less-developed" nations are heading back to the 17th-century level of daily life without electricity. The oil exploration and development projects that were planned for hard-to-get oil netting $100-a-barrel minimum -- in places like the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, Siberia, and Central Asia -- are being shelved, which means the world has less of a chance to offset coming depletions in old fields.

The bottom line of all this is that we in the US could find ourselves in a situation of shortages, hoarding, and rationing. This would pretty much kill off whatever remains of the previous shuck-and-jive economy - hamburger sales, theme park visits, Nascar weekends - while it makes obvious the failures of our suburban living arrangements (and drives the value of housing there closer to zero).

The new president will have to be Franklin Roosevelt on steroids, with some Mahatma Gandhi and Florence Nightingale thrown in. My pet project of restoring the American passenger railroad system might seem pretty minor in the face of all this, but it's at least a place to start that will accomplish several things: allow people and things to get places without cars and trucks; put many thousands of people to work at many levels doing something of direct, practical value; and be a small step in rebuilding confidence that we are a society capable of accomplishing something. October 27, 2008 in Commentary on Current Events What Now? It's fascinating to read the commentators in mainstream journals like The Financial Times and The Wall Street Journal all strenuously pretending that "the worst is over" (maybe... we hope... fingers crossed... hail Mary full of grace... et cetera). The cluelessness would be funny if it didn't involve a world-changing catastrophe. All nations that have reached the fork-and-spoon level of civilization are now engineering a vast network of cyber-cables that lead directly from their central bank computers to the Death Star that is hovering above world financial affairs like a giant cosmic vacuum cleaner, sucking up dollars, euros, zlotys, forints, krona, what-have-you. As fast as the keystrokes create currency-pixels, the little electron-denominated units of exchange are sucked out of the terrestrial economies into the black hole of money death. That's what the $700-billion bail-out (excuse me, "rescue plan") and all its associated ventures are about.

To switch metaphors, let's say that we are witnessing the two stages of a tsunami. The current disappearance of wealth in the form of debts repudiated, bets welshed on, contracts canceled, and Lehman Brothers-style sob stories played out is like the withdrawal of the sea. The poor curious little monkey-humans stand on the beach transfixed by the strangeness of the event as the water recedes and the sea floor is exposed and all kinds of exotic creatures are seen thrashing in the mud, while the skeletons of historic wrecks are exposed to view, and a great stench of organic decay wafts toward the strand. Then comes the second stage, the tidal wave itself -- which in this case will be horrific monetary inflation -- roaring back over the mud flats toward the land mass, crashing over the beach, and ripping apart all the hotels and houses and infrastructure there while it drowns the poor curious monkey-humans who were too enthralled by the weird spectacle to make for higher ground. The killer tidal wave washes away all the things they have labored to build for decades, all their poignant little effects and chattels, and the survivors are left keening amidst the wreckage as the sea once again returns to normal in its eternal cradle.

So, that's what I think we will get: an interval of deflationary depression followed by a destructive wave of inflation that will wipe out both constructed debt and constructed savings, scraping the financial landscape clean. There's no question that stage one is underway. But we can be sure the giant wave of money recklessly loaned into existence in just a few weeks time will wash back through the global economy leaving a swath of destruction.

And then what? The societies of the world will be faced with the task of rebuilding systems of fruitful activity, i.e., real economies based on productive behavior rather than the smoke-and-mirrors of Frankenstein-finance con games. In fact, excuse me while I switch metaphors again, because the Frankenstein story -- the New Prometheus -- is yet another apt narrative to inform us what we have done. We have "played" with financial fire and brought to life a monster now bent on killing us. One question that this metaphor-narrative raises is: when will the angry peasant mob storm the castle with their flaming brands and cries for blood from the makers of this monster? Rather soon, I think. Perhaps, in some countries (maybe the USA, if we're lucky), this will take the more orderly form of systematic prosecutions, bringing to justice persons who perpetrated swindles involving the alphabet soup of investment "products" that have gone bad in so many accounts (and ruined so many individuals, institutions, and governments). I think it has already begun with the inquisitors summoning the shifty Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers - but there are hundreds of other characters like him out there, who scored untold millions of dollars in activities that were simply grand swindles. I wouldn't be surprised if, eventually, Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson found himself in the dock to answer how come, when he ran Goldman Sachs, there was a special unit in the company dedicated to short-selling the very mortgage-backed securities that another unit in the company was so busy pawning off to every pension fund on God's green earth.

Apart from orderly prosecutions (which can certainly turn harsh and cruel), there is the possibility of sociopolitical upheaval - revolution, violence, civil war, war between nations, the whole menu of monkey-human mischief that afflicts mankind. We are not necessarily immune to it here in the USA, despite our cherished notion of exceptionalism, which would have us inoculated against all the common vicissitudes of history.

Anyway, prosecution through the courts, while perhaps satisfying the hunger for justice (or, more particularly, revenge), is not a productive economic activity. So, the question begs itself again: what will we do?

Under the best circumstances we will reorganize our society and economy at a lower level of energy use (and probably a lower scale of governance, too). The catch is, it will have to be a whole lot lower. I think we'll be very lucky fifty years from now to have a few hours a day of electricity to do things with.

The energy story and its hand-maiden, the climate change situation, are both lurking out there beyond the immediate spectacle of the financial fiasco. Both these things imply pretty strongly that the economic relations currently unraveling will not be rebuilt - not the way they were before, or even close to it. The best outcome will be societies that can practice small-scale "process-intensive" organic agriculture and equally small-scale process-intensive modes of manufacture in the context of very local sociopolitical networks. An accompanying hope is that we can remain civilized in the process. Personally, while I recognize the appeal (to others, not me) of the "singularity" narrative, which has the human race making a sudden evolutionary leap into some kind of cyborg-nirvana, I regard it as an utter bullshit fantasy that has zero chance of occurring, given our stark predicament.

But returning to the short term, or "the present," shall we say, there is the matter of how the US gets through the election and then the first months of a new government, even while the larger fiasco continues. I'm voting for Mr. Obama. While I believe he will make a much better president than the addled old mad dog Mr. McCain has become, I feel sorry for anyone who is placed nominally "in charge" of things this coming year. The best a President Obama can do is offer some reassurance to a public that is totally unprepared for the convulsion now upon us. Mr. Obama will certainly not have "money" to "spend" on any of the promised social support programs that have been endlessly debated. But he could clearly articulate the reality we're facing, and ask not necessarily for "sacrifice," as the common plea goes, but for something more and better: for bravery and resolute spirit, for intelligence and resilience, for kindness and generosity -- among a people long unused to consorting with the better angels of their nature. He's already begun to set the example by appearing in public with his sleeves rolled up. The change that has been in the air all year - that Mr. Obama has talked so much about - is coming in a bigger dose than anyone expected. I hope we're ready to get with the program. My new novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available at all booksellers.

No back talk! You still need to vote. Suzan

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