Published on The Economic Collapse on March 8, 2017
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A Third Of All U.S. Shopping Malls Are Projected To Close As ‘Space Available’ Signs Go Up All Over America
If you didn’t know better, you might be tempted to think that “Space Available” was the hottest new retail chain in the entire country. As you will see below, it is being projected that about a third of all shopping malls in the United States will soon close, and we just recently learned that the number of “distressed retailers” is the highest that it has been since the last recession. Honestly, I don’t know how anyone can possibly believe that the U.S. economy is in “good shape” after looking at the retail industry. In my recent article about the ongoing “retail apocalypse“, I discussed the fact that Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy’s have all announced that they are closing dozens of stores in 2017, and you can find a pretty comprehensive list of 19 U.S. retailers that are “on the brink of bankruptcy” right here. Needless to say, quite a bloodbath is going on out there right now.
But I didn’t realize how truly horrific things were for the retail industry until I came across an article about mall closings on Time Magazine’s website…
About one-third of malls in the U.S. will shut their doors in the coming years, retail analyst Jan Kniffen told CNBC Thursday. His prediction comes in the wake of Macy’s reporting its worst consecutive same-store sales decline since the financial crisis.
Macy’s and its fellow retailers in American malls are challenged by an oversupply of retail space as customers migrate toward online shopping, as well as fast fashion retailers like H&M and off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx. As a result, about 400 of the country’s 1,100 enclosed malls will fail in the upcoming years. Of those that remain, he predicts that about 250 will thrive and the rest will continue to struggle.
Can you imagine what this country is going to look like if that actually happens?
Shopping malls all over the United States are literally becoming “ghost towns”, and many that have already closed have stayed empty for years and years.
The process usually starts when a shopping mall starts losing anchor stores. That is why it is so alarming that Sears, J.C. Penney and Macy’s are planning to shut down so many locations in 2017. According to one recent report, 310 shopping malls in America are in imminent danger of losing an anchor store…
Dozens of malls have closed in the last 10 years, and many more are at risk of shutting down as retailers like Macy’s, JCPenney, and Sears — also known as anchor stores — shutter hundreds of stores to staunch the bleeding from falling sales.
The commercial-real-estate firm CoStar estimates that nearly a quarter of malls in the US, or roughly 310 of the nation’s 1,300 shopping malls, are at high risk of losing an anchor store.
Once the anchor stores start going, traffic falls off dramatically for the other stores and they start leaving too.
Four years ago in “The Beginning Of The End” I warned that empty storefronts would soon litter the national landscape, and now that is precisely what is happening.
Now that the Christmas season is over, some retailers that have been around for decades have suddenly decided that it is time to file for bankruptcy. Sadly, one of those retailers is HHGregg…
HHGregg Inc., the 61-year-old seller of appliances and electronics, is moving closer to Chapter 11 after announcing a store-closing plan, according to people with knowledge of the matter.
The filing may come as soon as next week, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the matter isn’t public. Bloomberg previously reported that HHGregg might file for bankruptcy in March if it couldn’t reach an out-of-court solution.
Another retailer that was once riding high but is now dealing with bankruptcy is BCBG…
BCBG, the California-based fashion retailer that had acquired fashion design firm Herve Leger in 1998, and that once had more than 570 boutiques globally, including 175 in the US, and whose cocktail dresses and handbags were shown off by celebrities, filed for bankruptcy on Wednesday.
It is buckling under $459 million of debt. It has 4,800 employees. Layoffs have already started. More layoffs and other cost cuts are planned, according to court documents, cited by Bloomberg. It started closing 120 of its stores in January. It wants to sell itself at a court-supervised auction. If that fails, it wants to negotiate a debt-for-equity swap with junior lenders owed $289 million.
If the U.S. economy was actually doing as well as the stock market says that it should be doing, all of these retail chains would not be closing stores and going bankrupt.
But of course the truth is that the stock market has become completely disconnected from economic reality.
We live at a time when middle class consumers are tapped out. According to one recent survey, 57 percent of all Americans do not even have enough money in the bank to write a $500 check for an unexpected expense.
And people are falling out of the middle class at a staggering pace. The number of homeless people in New York City recently set a brand new record high, and city authorities plan to construct 90 new homeless shelters within the next five years.
On the west coast we are also seeing a dramatic rise in homelessness. The following comes from an article by Dan Lyman…
Citizen journalists have captured stunning images and video of homeless encampments that are spiraling out of control in the shadows of Disneyland and Anaheim Stadium in California.
The tent city has recently sprung up along the Santa Ana riverbed, near a busy convergence of three major California highways known as the “Orange Crush,” at the border of Anaheim and Santa Ana, the latter a “sanctuary city.”
Homeless activists estimate that as many as 1,000 people are camped in the region.
You can see some video footage of this homeless encampment on YouTube right here…
Incredibly, the Federal Reserve is almost certainly going to raise interest rates at their next meeting even though the U.S. economy is faltering so badly. That only makes sense if they are trying to make Donald Trump look as bad as possible.
Even though this giant bubble of false economic stability that we are currently enjoying has lasted far longer than it should have, the truth is that nothing has changed about the long-term economic outlook at all.
America is still heading for “economic Armageddon”, and the retail industry is a huge red flag that is warning us that our day of reckoning is approaching more rapidly than many had anticipated.
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Published on The Daily Impact on September 29, 2016
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While the planet’s air, water and land are heating to dangerous levels because of human pollution, the world’s trade is cooling off, slowing down and coagulating in the deepening chill, threatening the well-being of every country and virtually every person. I remember very well in 2008 watching the most powerful members of Congress emerge from a come-to Jesus meeting conducted by the Treasury Secretary on what was about to happen to the world’s financial institutions and America’s economy. They had the pale faces and staring eyes of people who had just been introduced to the angel of death.
The world of trade and finance is confronting such a moment now, and is every bit as much in denial as it was in 2008. This time it’s not America’s Lehman Brothers tottering into an early grave and pulling half the world in with it; it’s Deutsche Bank.
Germany’s largest bank is not doing well. Its operating loss last year was almost seven billion Euros; its share price has fallen almost 70% since April of 2015, and dropped over seven per cent in a single day this week, to just over 10 Euros. Go back to September of 2008 and read the news reports about Lehman, and feel the burn.
If Deutsche Bank’s share price drops another Euro, the total capitalization of the bank will be less than 14 billion Euros, which is the amount of a fine the U.S. Department of Justice has proposed to levy against the bank for its sins in handling subprime mortgage derivatives leading up to the deadly financial eruption of 2009. It’s not the only trouble the bank is in; it’s under investigation for transgression in currency trading, precious metals trading, and money laundering. It recently settled a massive case alleging manipulation of interest rates. (That’s it, I’m moving my money to Wells Fargo. Oh, wait….)
Masters of the Universe are talking openly about — and betting massively on — a Deutsche Bank failure (yes, it’s another Big Short). The German government has vowed not to bail it out, but the bank’s assets, ravaged though they may be, represent nearly 60% of Germany’s gross domestic product. This is the very definition of too big to fail.
Meanwhile Germany’s second-largest bank, Commerzbank, which has lost nearly 40% of its market value this year, has just announced a desperate reorganization plan. It’s firing 10,000 people and downsizing operations in a manner that strikes some as more like butchery than surgery. Moreover, the seven Landesbanken are hemorrhaging capital because the global shipping industry, in which they are heavily invested, is imploding.
Germany is hardly the only country whose banks are deeply troubled right now. This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development — comprising 34 member democracies committed to improving world trade — issued a stern warning about pursuing toward the brink of disaster the policies that led to the crash of 2009. The warning was not only to Germany, but to Japan and the United States as well.
“These developments [i.e. the awful performances of banks and corporations] exacerbate the challenges to improving well-being of people in both advanced and emerging economies.” The problem for the OECD is this: people are consumers, and if consumers don’t do well, they can’t consume enough, and in consumption-based economies, that’s a cardinal sin.”
The central banks, it seems to me, are trying to feed the wrong end of the horse; stuffing perfectly good hay in places where it doesn’t belong, while the animal starves. Making sure the banks and corporations have tons of money to play with, when they don’t use it to make products or hire people, helps no one but people who do not need help.
Of course, enormous forces are at work propping up these zombie banks and their pretensions, staving off any day of reckoning until the day after tomorrow, just as they were doing in 2008. How did that work out for them, anybody remember? But whatever they do, they cannot change the fact that out where stuff is manufactured, and shipped, and sold, the temperature is falling, the pipes are freezing up, and a new Ice Age has taken hold. Stop expecting us to congratulate you for giving away free ice cubes.
[Now, as the world churns, we return you to our regularly scheduled news programs, featuring Donald’s sniffles, Hillary’s emails and who’s running for president in 2020?]
Published on Peak Surfer on May 8, 2016
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In the May 2d New Yorker, Siddhartha Mukherjee wrote an ode to his mother and aunt, identical twins, taking the opportunity to dig into the roles of nature and nurture in shaping our lives, Going a step farther, he brought in one of our favorite topics here, epigenetics, or the ability of the same DNA strand to issue different instructions depending on external stimuli.
Last year, in our discussion of quantum entanglement, we observed how little of what we call our own bodies is actually our own DNA. More than 95 percent belongs to our unique, personal, coevolving microbiome that not only helps us breathe, digest, and heal illness, but influences our patterns of thought and intentions.
Mukherjee chronicled the gross result of this conspiracy, describing how two brothers, separated by geographic and economic continents, might be brought to tears by the same Chopin nocturne, as if responding to some subtle, common chord struck by their genomes, or perhaps by their epigenomes, and how two sisters — separated long before the development of language — had invented the same word to describe the way they scrunched up their noses: “squidging.”
Mukherjee overlooked the closely entangled microbial web of alien presences, but we’d observe that although these twins may have placed distance and culture between themselves, they had been together long enough to have nearly identical microbiomes from gestation, birth and infancy.
Nucleosome crystal structure at 2.8 angstrom resolution showing a disk-like shape. DNA helices at edge, histones and free proteins in center. The worm-like structures are RNA messengers. reasonandscience.heavenforum.org
It is a testament to the unsettling beauty of the genome that it can make the real world stick. Hindu philosophers have long described the experience of “being” as a web—jaal. Genes form the threads of the web; the detritus that adheres to it transforms every web into a singular being. An organism’s individuality, then, is suspended between genome and epigenome. We call the miracle of this suspension “fate.” We call our responses to it “choice.” We call one such unique variant of one such organism a “self.”
In his visits with various scientists Mukherjee probed the complex connections of the histones that occupy the empty spaces within the double helix and seem to possess a mysterious power to trigger or silence gene expressions. What he seems to overlook is the role of non-human microbiological agents in making these sorts of choices for their hosts. Indeed, his description of a histone begs comparison to other life forms:
In 1996, Allis and his research group deepened this theory with a seminal discovery. “We became interested in the process of histone modification,” he said. “What is the signal that changes the structure of the histone so that DNA can be packed into such radically different states? We finally found a protein that makes a specific chemical change in the histone, possibly forcing the DNA coil to open. And when we studied the properties of this protein it became quite clear that it was also changing the activity of genes.” The coils of DNA seemed to open and close in response to histone modifications—inhaling, exhaling, inhaling, like life.
These protein systems, overlaying information on the genome, interacted with one another, reinforcing or attenuating their signals. Together, they generated the bewildering intricacy necessary for a cell to build a constellation of other cells out of the same genes, and for the cells to add “memories” to their genomes and transmit these memories to their progeny.
While we were pondering these things, bicycling through a Spring rainstorm one morning, we tuned our mobile cyberamphibian prosthesis to Michael Hudson’s interview on Extraenvironmentalist #91. Hudson described how debt deflation is imposing austerity on the U.S. and European economies, siphoning wealth and income to the financial center while impoverishing the periphery. Its the theme of his latest book, Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy.
Crossing two hot wires in our rain soaked brain, the comparison between economic theory and genetics wafted a blue smoke that trailed out from under our bike helmet.
The system itself — the DNA code — is monetary policy, trade rules, labor, capital assets and other components of what we call “the economy.” The histones are the central banks and the FED that set the policies epigenetically by turning switches on or off. The wild cards are those alien protein agents that seem to bring about changes in the histones. A century ago those might have included J. D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan. Then came Henry Wallace and Franklin D. Roosevelt. Today they would include Jaime Dimon (Morgan Chase), Lloyd Blankfein (Goldman Sachs), Christine Lagarde (IMF), and Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz Al-Saud.
It is pretty clear from most indicators that since at least 2008, and likely much earlier, our economic DNA has been instructed to express a cancer. As Gail Tyerberg observes:
Both energy and debt have characteristics that are close to “magic” with respect to the growth of the economy. Economic growth can only take place when growing debt (or a very close substitute, such as company stock) is available to enable the use of energy products.
Back in the era of cheap energy less debt was required. In our era of expensive energy, gigantic and growing debt is required. But you can only build debt on itself up to the point where confidence in repayment by those who are owed the money falters. After that, watch out. No debt, no energy. No energy, no economy.
Greg Mannarino of Traders Choice says:
Let’s just look at the stock market… there’s no possible way at this time that these multiples can be justified with regard to what’s occurring here with the price action of the overall market… meanwhile, the market continues to rise. … Nothing is real. I can’t stress this enough… and we’re going to continue to see more fakery… and manipulation and twisting of this entire system… We now exist in an environment where the financial system as a whole has been flipped upside down just to make it function… and that’s very scary. … We’ve never seen anything like this in the history of the world… The Federal Reserve has never been in a situation like this… we are completely in uncharted territory where the world’s central banks have gone negative interest rates… it’s all an illusion to keep the stock market booming.
… Every single asset now… I don’t care what asset… you want to look at currency, debt, housing, metals, the stock market… pick an asset… there’s no price discovery mechanism behind it whatsoever… it’s all fake… it’s all being distorted. … The system is built upon on one premise and that is confidence that it will work… if that confidence is rattled the whole thing will implode… our policy makers are well aware of this… there is collusion between central banks and their respective governments… and it will not stop until it implodes… and what I mean by implode is, correct to fair value.”
It’s created a population boom… a population boom has risen in tandem with the debt. It’s incredible. So, when the debt bubble bursts we’re going to get a correction in population. It’s a mathematical certainty. Millions upon millions of people are going to die on a world-wide scale when the debt bubble bursts. And I’m saying when not if… … When resources become more and more scarce we’re going to see countries at war with each other. People will be scrambling… in a worst case scenario… doing everything that they can to survive… to provide for their family and for themselves. There’s no way out of it.”
Jason Heppenstall, who lives in Cornwall, England, writes in the 22billionenergyslaves blog:
Aside from the police and the shops closing, public toilets are closed virtually all of the time, and the Post Office too is soon to close down, having been privatised and now asset stripped. The council is being forced to raise its taxation rates by 4% this year to cover the shortfall caused by spiraling costs and diminished funding from central government. Clinics and charities are being squeezed out of existence and the local council tried (and failed) to privatise the town’s midsummer festival.
My wife works in the care sector. The stories I get to hear will make you never want to be dependent on the state in your old age. If you can’t rely on your kids to look after you in your dotage it might be wise to keep a bottle of whisky and a revolver in your bottom drawer. Or maybe you'd rather die of thirst lying in your own mess because the 19-year-old unqualified carer who works for minimum wage is too busy checking Facebook on her phone to hear you pressing the emergency button by the bed.
Former US Budget Czar David Stockman wrote this week:
Owing to the recency bias that dominates mainstream news and commentary, the massive expansion of the Fed’s balance sheet depicted above goes unnoted and unremarked, as if it were always part of the financial landscape. In fact, however, it is something radically new under the sun; it’s the footprint of a monetary fraud breathtaking in its magnitude.
In essence, during the last 15 years the Fed has gifted the US economy with a $4 trillion free lunch. Uncle Sam bought $4 trillion worth of weapons, highways, government salaries and contractual services but did not pay for them by extracting an equal amount of financing from taxes or tapping the private savings pool, and thereby “crowding out” other investments.
This is not Al Gore. It is Elon Musk, a beneficiary of govt largess
Instead, Uncle Sam “bridge financed” these expenditures on real goods and services by issuing US treasury bonds on a interim basis to clear his checking account. But these expenses were then permanently funded by fiat credits conjured from thin air by the Fed when it did the “takeout” financing. Central bank purchase of government bonds in this manner is otherwise and cosmetically known as “quantitative easing” (QE), but it’s fraud all the same.
In essence, Uncle Sam has gotten $4 trillion of “something for nothing” during the last 16 years, while the Washington politicians and policy apparatchiks were happy to pretend that the “independent” Fed was doing god’s work of catalyzing, coaxing and stimulating more jobs and growth out of the US economy.
What the Fed was actually doing was falsifying and inflating the price of financial assets. As Michael Hudson points out, the prime error is placing the financial sector in the same column as honest labor or capital contributions. Finance is actually a drain on those things. It is a withdrawal from productivity, not a contributor to GDP.
But financial engineering does not add to GDP or increase primary spending; it results in the re-pricing of existing financial assets. That is, it gooses stock prices higher, makes executive stock options more valuable and confers endless windfalls on the fast money speculators who work the financial casinos.
Last month, Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president, became the first central banker to take seriously the idea of helicopter money – the direct distribution of newly created money from the central bank to eurozone residents.
Germany’s leaders have reacted furiously and are now subjecting Draghi to nationalistic personal attacks. Less visibly, Italy has also led a quiet rebellion against the pre-Keynesian economics of the German government and the European commission. In EU councils and again at this month’s IMF meeting in Washington, DC, Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s finance minister, presented the case for fiscal stimulus more strongly and coherently than any other EU leader. More important, Padoan has started to implement fiscal stimulus by cutting taxes and maintaining public spending plans, in defiance of German and EU commission demands to tighten his budget. As a result, consumer and business confidence in Italy have rebounded to the highest level in 15 years, credit conditions have improved, and Italy is the only G7 country expected by the IMF to grow faster in 2016 than 2015 (albeit still at an inadequate 1% rate).
With England jumping ship and Germany saying nicht to every reform proposal, the EU is headed for a disaster but Italy seems to be able to still think outside the box. To us this suggests the potential for alien-led histone modification in the DNA of modern finance.
The irony of being called anti-European is that I am ardently pro-European. I’ve lived in four different EU countries, travelled all over and am married to an Italian Dane. Europe, to me, is the most diverse place in the world and has an amazing spread of history and culture. My ideal life would involve spending several months each year travelling around Europe in a camper van and getting to know it in an even more intimate manner. The EU is not Europe; it’s an abstract concept masking a faceless undemocratic organisation that funnels wealth from one place to another and keeps its modesty intact behind a fig leaf of supposed liberalism.
It doesn’t have to be that way. We could still have a Europe united around some core values other than money and power and capitalism. How about a Europe focused on an emerging eco-consciousness? Or what about remaking it as a loose cooperative of bioregions? Or perhaps, at the very least, we could all agree on a shared constitution founded on liberty, equality and fraternity. Former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis has suggested something along those lines, setting up a pan-European umbrella group called DiEM25 that aims to shake things up ‘gently, compassionately but firmly.’ Perhaps there could be more debate about what kind of Europe would be better suited to weathering the coming financial, ecological and energy shocks without causing so much collateral damage to both itself and other nations.
Until that happens we’ll just have to stand back and watch the fireworks. Big institutions like the EU are like skyscrapers; they don’t come crashing down to the ground without taking out plenty of other nearby buildings and the EU is like the leaning tower of Pisa on steroids. Big things are an artifact of the age of oil – the future is necessarily smaller and more local. The best course of action is to stop arguing over whether it is best to be stood on top of the creaking tower it or beside it, and simply get the hell out of the way before it goes over.
Draghi’s Italy, it should be recalled, was the country whose Supreme Court last month ruled that Roman Ostriakov, a young homeless man who had bought a bag of breadsticks from a supermarket but had slipped a wurstel – a small sausage – and cheese into his pocket, had acted out of an immediate need by stealing a minimal amount of food, and therefore had not committed a crime. Carlo Rienzi, president of Codacons, an environmental and consumer rights group, told Il Mesaggero, “In recent years the economic crisis has increased dramatically the number of citizens, especially the elderly, forced to steal in supermarkets to be able to make ends meet.” La Stampa said that, for supreme court judges, the right to survive still trumped property rights, a fact that would be considered “blasphemy in America.”
Hudson is another epigenetic secret agent. He advocates a debt jubilee similar to what Truman pushed on Europe after World War II, creating the “German Economic Miracle.” In Hudson’s view, the quickest route to reform would be shifting from taxing honest labor to taxing unearned income and capital gains; from burdening the shrinking middle class to shrinking the rentier class. Vital public services like health care, education, transportation and communication should be free.
Ellen Brown, who has been beating the drum for public banks from her Web of Debt page and books, notes that the Bank of North Dakota, the nation’s only state-owned depository bank, was more profitable last year than J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs, and that was after the fracked gas bubble burst. She urges local governments everywhere to bypass the Fed and the vulture banking system and create their own public banks.
North Dakota has led the way in demonstrating how a state can jump-start a flagging economy by keeping its revenues in its own state-owned bank, using them to generate credit for the state and its citizens, bypassing the tourniquet on the free flow of credit imposed by private out-of-state banks. California and other states could do the same. They could create jobs, restore home ownership, rebuild infrastructure and generally stimulate their economies, while generating hefty dividends for the state, without increasing debt levels or risking public funds – and without costing taxpayers a dime.
The ability of these foreign antagonists to infect the global economy with a new narrative is a relatively recent phenomenon. The false narrative embedded by Bretton Woods and the Chicago School are not that thoroughly ensconced that they can’t be evicted. There is no reason why the inane policies of economic astrologers could not be quickly reversed by protein protagonists with simple but compelling histological reforms, such as basing the future on a bioeconomy that sequesters carbon and runs on sunlight.
Next week: Epiconomics 102: The Sunlight Economy
Published on the Our Finite World on January 19, 2016
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
A person often reads that low oil prices–for example, $30 per barrel oil prices–will stimulate the economy, and the economy will soon bounce back. What is wrong with this story? A lot of things, as I see it:
1. Oil producers can’t really produce oil for $30 per barrel.
A few countries can get oil out of the ground for $30 per barrel. Figure 1 gives an approximation to technical extraction costs for various countries. Even on this basis, there aren’t many countries extracting oil for under $30 per barrel–only Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Iraq. We wouldn’t have much crude oil if only these countries produced oil.
2. Oil producers really need prices that are higher than the technical extraction costs shown in Figure 1, making the situation even worse.
Oil can only be extracted within a broader system. Companies need to pay taxes. These can be very high. Including these costs has historically brought total costs for many OPEC countries to over $100 per barrel.
Independent oil companies in non-OPEC countries also have costs other than technical extraction costs, including taxes and dividends to stockholders. Also, if companies are to avoid borrowing a huge amount of money, they need to have higher prices than simply the technical extraction costs. If they need to borrow, interest costs need to be considered as well.
3. When oil prices drop very low, producers generally don’t stop producing.
There are built-in delays in the oil production system. It takes several years to put a new oil extraction project in place. If companies have been working on a project, they generally won’t stop just because prices happen to be low. One reason for continuing on a project is the existence of debt that must be repaid with interest, whether or not the project continues.
Also, once an oil well is drilled, it can continue to produce for several years. Ongoing costs after the initial drilling are generally very low. These previously drilled wells will generally be kept operating, regardless of the current selling price for oil. In theory, these wells can be stopped and restarted, but the costs involved tend to deter this action.
Oil exporters will continue to drill new wells because their governments badly need tax revenue from oil sales to fund government programs. These countries tend to have low extraction costs; nearly the entire difference between the market price of oil and the price required to operate the oil company ends up being paid in taxes. Thus, there is an incentive to raise production to help generate additional tax revenue, if prices drop. This is the issue for Saudi Arabia and many other OPEC nations.
Very often, oil companies will purchase derivative contracts that protect themselves from the impact of a drop in market prices for a specified time period (typically a year or two). These companies will tend to ignore price drops for as long as these contracts are in place.
There is also the issue of employee retention. In a sense, a company’s greatest assets are its employees. Once these employees are lost, it will be hard to hire and retrain new employees. So employees are kept on as long as possible.
The US keeps raising its biofuel mandate, regardless of the price of oil. No one stops to realize that in the current over-supplied situation, the mandate adds to low price pressures.
One brake on the system should be the financial pain induced by low oil prices, but this braking effect doesn’t necessarily happen quickly. Oil exporters often have sovereign wealth funds that they can tap to offset low tax revenue. Because of the availability of these funds, some exporters can continue to finance governmental services for two or more years, even with very low oil prices.
Defaults on loans to oil companies should also act as a brake on the system. We know that during the Great Recession, regulators allowed commercial real estate loans to be extended, even when property valuations fell, thus keeping the problem hidden. There is a temptation for regulators to allow similar leniency regarding oil company loans. If this happens, the “braking effect” on the system is reduced, allowing the default problem to grow until it becomes very large and can no longer be hidden.
4. Oil demand doesn’t increase very rapidly after prices drop from a high level.
People often think that going from a low price to a high price is the opposite of going from a high price to a low price, in terms of the effect on the economy. This is not really the case.
4a. When oil prices rise from a low price to a high price, this generally means that production has been inadequate, with only the production that could be obtained at the prior lower price. The price must rise to a higher level in order to encourage additional production.
The reason that the cost of oil production tends to rise is because the cheapest-to-extract oil is removed first. Oil producers must thus keep adding production that is ever-more expensive for one reason or another: harder to reach location, more advanced technology, or needing additional steps that require additional human labor and more physical resources. Growing efficiencies can somewhat offset this trend, but the overall trend in the cost of oil production has been sharply upward since about 1999.
The rising price of oil has an adverse impact on affordability. The usual pattern is that after a rise in the price of oil, economies of oil importing nations go into recession. This happens because workers’ wages do not rise at the same time as oil prices. As a result, workers find that they cannot buy as many discretionary items and must cut back. These cutbacks in purchases create problems for businesses, because businesses generally have high fixed costs including mortgages and other debt payments. If these businesses are to continue to operate, they are forced to cut costs in one way or another. Cost reduction occurs in many ways, including reducing wages for workers, layoffs, automation, and outsourcing of manufacturing to cheaper locations.
For both employers and employees, the impact of these rapid changes often feels like a rug has been pulled out from under foot. It is very unpleasant and disconcerting.
4b. When prices fall, the situation that occurs is not the opposite of 4a. Employers find that thanks to lower oil prices, their costs are a little lower. Very often, they will try to keep some of these savings as higher profits. Governments may choose to raise tax rates on oil products when oil prices fall, because consumers will be less sensitive to such a change than otherwise would be the case. Businesses have no motivation to give up cost-saving techniques they have adopted, such as automation or outsourcing to a cheaper location.
Few businesses will construct new factories with the expectation that low oil prices will be available for a long time, because they realize that low prices are only temporary. They know that if oil prices don’t go back up in a fairly short period of time (months or a few years), the quantity of oil available is likely to drop precipitously. If sufficient oil is to be available in the future, oil prices will need to be high enough to cover the true cost of production. Thus, current low prices are at most a temporary benefit–something like the eye of a hurricane.
Since the impact of low prices is only temporary, businesses will want to adopt only changes that can take place quickly and can be easily reversed. A restaurant or bar might add more waiters and waitresses. A car sales business might add a few more salesmen because car sales might be better. A factory making cars might schedule more shifts of workers, so as to keep the number of cars produced very high. Airlines might add more flights, if they can do so without purchasing additional planes.
Because of these issues, the jobs that are added to the economy are likely to be mostly in the service sector. The shift toward outsourcing to lower-cost countries and automation can be expected to continue. Citizens will get some benefit from the lower oil prices, but not as much as if governments and businesses weren’t first in line to get their share of the savings. The benefit to citizens will be much less than if all of the people who were laid off in the last recession got their jobs back.
5. The sharp drop in oil prices in the last 18 months has little to do with the cost of production.
Instead, recent oil prices represent an attempt by the market to find a balance between supply and demand. Since supply doesn’t come down quickly in response to lower prices, and demand doesn’t rise quickly in response to lower prices, prices can drop very low–far below the cost of production.
As noted in Section 4, high oil prices tend to be recessionary. The primary way of offsetting recessionary forces is by directly or indirectly adding debt at low interest rates. With this increased debt, more homes and factories can be built, and more cars can be purchased. The economy can be forced to act in a more “normal” manner because the low interest rates and the additional debt in some sense counteract the adverse impact of high oil prices.
Oil prices dropped very low in 2008, as a result of the recessionary influences that take place when oil prices are high. It was only with the benefit of considerable debt-based stimulation that oil prices were gradually pumped back up to the $100+ per barrel level. This stimulation included US deficit spending, Quantitative Easing (QE) starting in December 2008, and a considerable increase in debt by the Chinese.
Commodity prices tend to be very volatile because we use such large quantities of them and because storage is quite limited. Supply and demand have to balance almost exactly, or prices spike higher or lower. We are now back to an “out of balance” situation, similar to where we were in late 2008. Our options for fixing the situation are more limited this time. Interest rates are already very low, and governments generally feel that they have as much debt as they can safely handle.
6. One contributing factor to today’s low oil prices is a drop-off in the stimulus efforts of 2008.
As noted in Section 4, high oil prices tend to be recessionary. As noted in Section 5, this recessionary impact can, at least to some extent, be offset by stimulus in the form of increased debt and lower interest rates. Unfortunately, this stimulus has tended to have adverse consequences. It encouraged overbuilding of both homes and factories in China. It encouraged a speculative rise in asset prices. It encouraged investments in enterprises of questionable profitability, including many investments in oil from US shale formations.
In response to these problems, the amount of stimulus is being reduced. The US discontinued its QE program and cut back its deficit spending. It even began raising interest rates in December 2015. China is also cutting back on the quantity of new debt it is adding.
Unfortunately, without the high level of past stimulus, it is difficult for the world economy to grow rapidly enough to keep the prices of all commodities, including oil, high. This is a major contributing factor to current low prices.
7. The danger with very low oil prices is that we will lose the energy products upon which our economy depends.
There are a number of different ways that oil production can be lost if low oil prices continue for an extended period.
In oil exporting countries, there can be revolutions and political unrest leading to a loss of oil production.
In almost any country, there can be a sharp reduction in production because oil companies cannot obtain debt financing to pay for more services. In some cases, companies may go bankrupt, and the new owners may choose not to extract oil at low prices.
There can also be systemwide financial problems that indirectly lead to much lower oil production. For example, if banks cannot be depended upon for payroll services, or to guarantee payment for international shipments, such problems would affect all oil companies, not just ones in financial difficulty.
Oil is not unique in its problems. Coal and natural gas are also experiencing low prices. They could experience disruptions indirectly because of continued low prices.
8. The economy cannot get along without an adequate supply of oil and other fossil fuel products.
We often read articles in the press that seem to suggest that the economy could get along without fossil fuels. For example, the impression is given that renewables are “just around the corner,” and their existence will eliminate the need for fossil fuels. Unfortunately, at this point in time, we are nowhere being able to get along without fossil fuels.
Food is grown and transported using oil products. Roads are made and maintained using oil and other energy products. Oil is our single largest energy product.
Experience over a very long period shows a close tie between energy use and GDP growth (Figure 3). Nearly all technology is made using fossil fuel products, so even energy growth ascribed to technology improvements could be considered to be available to a significant extent because of fossil fuels.
While renewables are being added, they still represent only a tiny share of the world’s energy consumption.
Thus, we are nowhere near a point where the world economy could continue to function without an adequate supply of oil, coal and natural gas.
9. Many people believe that oil prices will bounce back up again, and everything will be fine. This seems unlikely.
The growing cost of oil extraction that we have been encountering in the last 15 years represents one form of diminishing returns. Once the cost of making energy products becomes high, an economy is permanently handicapped. Prices higher than those maintained in the 2011-2014 period are really needed if extraction is to continue and grow. Unfortunately, such high prices tend to be recessionary. As a result, high prices tend to push demand down. When demand falls too low, prices tend to fall very low.
There are several ways to improve demand for commodities, and thus raise prices again. These include (a) increasing wages of non-elite workers (b) increasing the proportion of the population with jobs, and (c) increasing the amount of debt. None of these are moving in the “right” direction.
Joseph Tainter in The Collapse of Complex Societies points out that once diminishing returns set in, the response is more “complexity” to solve these problems. Government programs become more important, and taxes are often higher. Education of elite workers becomes more important. Businesses become larger. This increased complexity leads to more of the output of the economy being funneled to sectors of the economy other than the wages of non-elite workers. Because there are so many of these non-elite workers, their lack of buying power adversely affects demand for goods that use commodities, such as homes, cars, and motorcycles.1
Another force tending to hold down demand is a smaller proportion of the population in the labor force. There are many factors contributing to this: Young people are in school longer. The bulge of workers born after World War II is now reaching retirement age. Lagging wages make it increasingly difficult for young parents to afford childcare so that both can work.
As noted in Section 5, debt growth is no longer rising as rapidly as in the past. In fact, we are seeing the beginning of interest rate increases.
When we add to these problems the slowdown in growth in the Chinese economy and the new oil that Iran will be adding to the world oil supply, it is hard to see how the oil imbalance will be fixed in any reasonable time period. Instead, the imbalance seems likely to remain at a high level, or even get worse. With limited storage available, prices will tend to continue to fall.
10. The rapid run up in US oil production after 2008 has been a significant contributor to the mismatch between oil supply and demand that has taken place since mid-2014.
Without US production, world oil production (broadly defined, including biofuels and natural gas liquids) is close to flat.
Viewed separately, US oil production has risen very rapidly. Total production rose by about six million barrels per day between 2008 and 2015.
US oil supply was able to rise very rapidly partly because QE led to the availability of debt at very low interest rates. In addition, investors found yields on debt so low that they purchased almost any equity investment that appeared to have a chance of long-term value. The combination of these factors, plus the belief that oil prices would always increase because extraction costs tend to rise over time, funneled large amounts of investment funds into the liquid fuels sector.
As a result, US oil production (broadly defined), increased rapidly, increasing nearly 1.0 million barrels per day in 2012, 1.2 million barrels per day in 2013, 1.7 million barrels per day in 2014. The final numbers are not in, but it looks like US oil production will still increase by another 700,000 barrels a day in 2015. The 700,000 extra barrels of oil added by the US in 2015 is likely greater than the amount added by either Saudi Arabia or Iraq.
World oil consumption does not increase rapidly when oil prices are high. World oil consumption increased by 871,000 barrels a day in 2012, 1,397,000 barrels a day in 2013, and 843,000 barrels a day in 2014, according to BP. Thus, in 2014, the US by itself added approximately twice as much oil production as the increase in world oil demand. This mismatch likely contributed to collapsing oil prices in 2014.
Given the apparent role of the US in creating the mismatch between oil supply and demand, it shouldn’t be too surprising that Saudi Arabia is unwilling to try to fix the problem.
Things aren’t working out the way we had hoped. We can’t seem to get oil supply and demand in balance. If prices are high, oil companies can extract a lot of oil, but consumers can’t afford the products that use it, such as homes and cars; if oil prices are low, oil companies try to continue to extract oil, but soon develop financial problems.
Complicating the problem is the economy’s continued need for stimulus in order to keep the prices of oil and other commodities high enough to encourage production. Stimulus seems to takes the form of ever-rising debt at ever-lower interest rates. Such a program isn’t sustainable, partly because it leads to mal-investment and partly because it leads to a debt bubble that is subject to collapse.
Stimulus seems to be needed because of today’s high extraction cost for oil. If the cost of extraction were still very low, this stimulus wouldn’t be needed because products made using oil would be more affordable.
Decision makers thought that peak oil could be fixed simply by producing more oil and more oil substitutes. It is becoming increasingly clear that the problem is more complicated than this. We need to find a way to make the whole system operate correctly. We need to produce exactly the correct amount of oil that buyers can afford. Prices need to be high enough for oil producers, but not too high for purchasers of goods using oil. The amount of debt should not spiral out of control. There doesn’t seem to be a way to produce the desired outcome, now that oil extraction costs are high.
Rigidities built into the oil price-supply system (as described in Sections 3 and 4) tend to hide problems, letting them grow bigger and bigger. This is why we could suddenly find ourselves with a major financial problem that few have anticipated.
Unfortunately, what we are facing now is a predicament, rather than a problem. There is quite likely no good solution. This is a worry.
 For example, more dividend and interest payments are paid, tending to benefit the financial industry and the elite classes. More of the output of the economy goes to workers in supervisory positions or having advanced education. Other workers–those with more “ordinary” responsibilities–find their wages falling behind the general rise in the cost of living. As a result, they find it increasingly difficult to buy cars, homes, motorcycles, and other goods that use commodities.
Published on the Peak Surfer on November 8, 2015
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
The New York Times, which is quickly becoming to print media what Fox is to television news, has done what no first year news stringer should do. It buried the lead.
It buried the lead on what is likely to become one of the most important stories of all time.
Hidden in the science section of its November 6th daily edition is this headline from a story by Clifford Kraus: More Oil Companies Could Join Exxon Mobil as Focus of Climate Investigations. Kraus's lead is:
HOUSTON — The opening of an investigation of Exxon Mobil by the New York attorney general’s office into the company’s record on climate change may well spur legal inquiries into other oil companies, according to legal and climate experts, although successful prosecutions are far from assured.
The story goes on to describe the fraudulent activities undertaken by Exxon Mobil, Chevron and other oil majors from 1990 to 2001, using astroturf fronts with names like Global Climate Coalition and the American Legislative Exchange Council. The writer, and presumably the Times editorial team, assumes the reason NY Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman is investigating is because the companies spent millions or billions on a disinformation campaign, purchasing no fewer than four U.S. presidents and vast numbers of Congressmen and Senators. These disinformation campaigns cast doubt on climate science by parading shill pseudoscientists before legislative committees. The purchased politicians then went before the public and parroted the oil company line: "Climate Change? Nothing to see here, move along."
The Times seems to think the NYAG is after some kind of conviction for perjury or advertising fraud.
By now this spin on the story is so old and been told so many times, we are surprised that it is still considered news. Maybe that is why it got bumped to the science page. Everyone knew, despite the feigned shock of Bill McKibben, Naomi Klein and others, that Exxon had extensively researched the subject in the 1970s, concluded by the mid-80s that climate change was a serious threat, and then killed its own research program and financed opposition.
The real news story is something else. It is not what the investigation is but where it is. The New York Attorney General's office peers from its eyrie in Albany down the Hudson River, across the white plains and palisades to lower Manhattan, but it is only one of two such offices that watches. The other is located closer to the action, in the Federal Courthouse just below Wall Street, where dwells the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, a Mr. Preet Bharara. If you bike by there, however, you see that dog is chained by a very long chain that runs all the way to the back porch of a big white house in Washington. Lest we forget, the nation's last Attorney General came from and went back to Wall Street's Covington & Burling, after 6 years of hearing nothing, seeing nothing and saying nothing as the nation's top law enforcer.
Why should Exxon and Chevron be worried? That would be because what is of interest to a NYAG watchdog is not about buying politicians or suborning perjury. It's about stock manipulation. After a decade of pretty good in-house science, Exxon and the other majors knew by the 80s that the pace of global warming was accelerating and that very soon there would be a massive, increasingly desperate effort underway to shift from fossil fuels to carbon-free renewables in order to escape Cauldron Earth. The hotter it gets, the more frenzied this effort will become, and the less likely Exxon will be able to cash in its balance sheet of fossil assets.
Meadows, et al, 1971 Limits to Growth with overlay of
Bates 1990, Climate in Crisis
If you were a CEO of one of these companies, the math would trouble your mind. It would cloud your thinking as you set up for that long putt on the 8th green. It would creep into your internal dialog as you are eyeing that cocktail waitress at a swank restaurant. Your worth as a company, the basis for the company's share price, and your own compensation and stock option packages, all depend on the estimated and proven reserves of oil and gas still in the ground. If, for some reason, those reserves could never be withdrawn – never be burned – then you have a serious problem. Your company is overvalued, and likewise the share price, and your own personal net worth. This is what interests the NY Attorney General. It's the math. Its also the mens rea – your state of mind; what you knew and when you knew it.
It is one thing to have a company whose worth exceeds not only that of any company on Earth but also of any company in history. It is another entirely if that worth is overstated, perhaps by a factor of 100, 1000, or one million times. That becomes the biggest stock fraud in history. For a young or politically ambitious AG, it is a ticket to glory.
On Thursday the Times reported:
Attorneys general for other states could join in Mr. Schneiderman’s efforts, bringing far greater investigative and legal resources to bear on the issue. Some experts see the potential for a legal assault on fossil fuel companies similar to the lawsuits against tobacco companies in recent decades, which cost those companies tens of billions of dollars in penalties.
That whole shooting match in Syria, driving millions of refugees into Europe, is about whether Bashar al-Assad, an ally of Russia and Iran and a proponent of a gas pipeline from Iran across Kurdistan to the sea, will be deposed by ISIS terrorists trained by CIA in the Colonel Kurtz style of spectacular horror and funded by the Pentagon so that the US could instead build a pipeline to European markets through Syria from Iraq. The Russian Air Force, with a new generation of fighters that can fly circles around anything built by Lockheed Martin, is looking like it will decide that one. It is pulverizing ISIS.
You don't need 100,000 marines to secure windmills in North Dakota.
That is the story the Times is missing.
In the Thursday story, the Times had a link to a 29-page Exxon report for its shareholders. The company essentially ruled out the possibility that governments would adopt climate policies stringent enough to force it to leave its reserves in the ground, saying that rising population and global energy demand would prevent that. “Meeting these needs will require all economic energy sources, especially oil and natural gas,” it said. Here is an image from that report. We especially enjoyed the absurdity of their idea of what better farming looks like.
|World population is going to grow by 3 North Americas in 15 years.|
In their report, Exxon predicts that the world will add 2 billion more people in the next 15 years, or roughly four more North Americas if you include Mexico and Canada. This tracks similar assessments by the UN and the World Population Council. That increase is baked in the cake just from the number of adolescents reaching childbearing age in these coming years. Exxon believes GDP will grow at 3 times the rate of population if energy supply is adequate. "We see the world requiring 35 percent more energy in 2040 than it did in 2010."
"In analyzing the evolution of the world’s energy mix, we anticipate renewables growing at the fastest pace among all sources through the Outlook period. However, because they make a relatively small contribution compared to other energy sources, renewables will continue to comprise about 5 percent of the total energy mix by 2040."
While we don't buy the whole package, we find ourselves agreeing with Exxon about one thing. Business as usual is not possible with an all-renewables portfolio. We wonder where even the finance for such a build-out would come from? More debt? The world financial system came with in a hair's breadth of financial collapse in 2008. Since then the balloon has reinflated and stretched bigger. China just arrested its free-falling stock market by issuing even more debt. But sooner or later loans have to be repaid, with interest, and in a shrinking resource economy they cannot be. When the day of reckoning eventually arrives, our chances of avoiding collapse are very slim. Gail Tverberg says, "The change … is similar to losing the operating system on a computer, or unplugging a refrigerator from the wall."
Where we part company with Exxon is that Exxon thinks governments will choose to keep heating the planet and we think they will dispense with business as usual. Only time will tell, although the issue will be up for serious debate this December in Paris.
Business as usual will not be an easy thing to give up.
In terms of energy conservation, the leaps made in energy efficiency by the infrastructure and devices we use to access the internet have allowed many online activities to be viewed as more sustainable than offline.
On the internet, however, advances in energy efficiency have a reverse effect: as the network becomes more energy efficient, its total energy use increases. This trend can only be stopped when we limit the demand for digital communication.
In recent years, the focus has been mostly on the energy use of data centers, which host the computers (the “servers”) that store all information online. However, in comparison, more electricity is used by the combination of end-use devices (the “clients”, such as desktops, laptops and smartphones), the network infrastructure (which transmits digital information between servers and clients), and the manufacturing process of servers, end-use devices, and networking devices.
By 2017, the electricity use of the internet globally is expected to rise to between 2,547 teraWatt-hours (low case) and 3,422 tWh (high case). The high case is made more likely by underdeveloping nations bypassing wired communications to go directly to smart phones and other devices, which are increasingly dependent on cloud services. Under these circumstances electricity use for internet will likely double every 5 years, to 110000 tWh (110 petaWatt-hours) by 2040. This would add another USA in electricity consumers every 5 years three more USAs in 15 years. That, of course, assumes that cloud computing doesn't follow the exponential growth its proponents seek.
Can renewables meet this demand? Right now in the US, renewables account for 13.2 percent of domestically produced electricity. Wind turbine capacity is 65 GWe installed (0.07 tWe), but because of wind and load intermittency, the mills only turn about 32% of the time, producing about 180 million kWh last year (180 GWhr, or 0.2 TWh). That was one ten-thousandth of what was used globally by the internet. To build out renewables to power just the internet by 2040 would require 110 pWh, or more than a million times all the renewable electricity produced by the USA today.
How probable is that? Exxon is completely accurate in labeling it fantasy.
And speaking of fantasy, imagine for a moment that Mr. Schneiderman gets his teeth into Exxon's stock fraud and won't stop shaking until the company restates its book value, sans proven reserves. There has been a recent fall in oil price (owing less to fracking, as the popular narrative has it, than to China's deflationary spiral that has tanked world demand), but if you are a shareholder, this might be a good time to sell.
Or you could take your advice from the nation's paper of record and assume everything is hunky dory.
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The weather forecast says sunny and mild. Let’s go shopping. (Wikipedia Photo)
But the trade in the necessities of life, the trade that sustains economies instead of blowing them up, as the gamblers always do, is in desperate trouble, for one overwhelming reason. In most of the world today, the people who must buy the necessities of life don’t have the money to do so. Or to put it another way, the broad foundation of the pyramid is collapsing.
The Daily Impact
Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.
We hear every day from the bean counters whose jobs require them to play in the Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy Band, whose favorite numbers (by which I mean their favorites, not ours) are “Recovery is Bustin’ Out All Over,” “Happy Days are Here Again,” and “When I am a Rich Man.” The other, independent bean counters are hard to hear amid the blaring brass, but if you pay attention you can hear what they’re yelling: the next recession has already started.
When the federal government reported yesterday on the growth of retail sales last month, there wasn’t any. Growth, that is. April sales overall were flat compared with March, with declines in autos, department stores, electronics & appliances, furniture and food & beverages. The strongest growth was in internet, sporting goods, restaurants & bars, and health store sales. Overall sales increased year to year, but by less than one per cent, the slowest growth since 2008. Wait, wasn’t that the year the last recession hit stride? What a coincidence.
This is hardly the first or only indication that the U.S. economy is in serious trouble. Federal agencies have reported just in the past week or so that consumer confidence is plummeting, and household spending is expected to nosedive. Last month, statistics on the gross domestic product in the first quarter of the year showed consumer spending to be weaker than at any time since World War II, except for the fourth quarter of 2008. Another coincidence.
The GDP report, whose bottom line was a dismayingly tiny growth of 0.2%, included another stunner. During the first quarter, privately held, unsold inventories of stuff increased by $122 billion. Without the activity generated by putting all that stuff in storage somewhere, the GDP would have been down by 3% and all hell would have broken loose. The question now is, with consumer spending anemic and getting weaker, who is going to buy all that crap?
If American consumers suddenly decide to go shopping, by the end of this year they will have more than 6,000 fewer stores in which to do it. That’s how many store closings have been announced so far, including Radio Shack (1784), Office Depot/OfficeMax/Staples (625), Dollar Tree/Family Dollar (340), Barnes & Noble (223) Walgreen’s (200), Sears (77), see the full list here.
When the economy sputtered in January the apologists said don’t worry, it’s just a blip, lower gas prices will fix everything. When it was worse in February they said don’t worry, it’s the bad weather, spring will come and fix everything (but wait — doesn’t the small print on those guesstimates say “seasonally adjusted?”). When March missed expectations they said don’t you worry, April will blow your socks off. It’s mid-May and everyone’s socks are still on.
Without taking into consideration the collapse of oil fracking, now ongoing; or the frightening flight of money from the bond markets, now ongoing; or the imminent eruption of the overheated casino stock market, expected any minute; the economy’s fundamentals indicate that recession, at least, has begun. So it’s too late to ask whether we’re going to have one. What we need to ask now is, how bad is it going to be?
Quick — another chorus of “Happy Days.”
Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.
First published at The Daily Impact January 29, 2014
A couple of things to keep firmly in mind as we watch the Crash of 2015 unfold, pretty much on the schedule I’ve been writing about here for six months. First, the drop in oil prices is not the cause of this disaster, merely an accelerant. The fracking industry is succumbing to its inherent high expense, toxicity, rapid depletion rates and over-reliance on junk financing. Similarly, the stock market crash we expect to follow the fracking collapse would have come anyway because of its inherent instability, and indeed may yet occur before the chain reaction in the fracking fields has run its course. And finally, what is happening to fracking is also happening to the legacy oil business, only slower.
Ignore the noise about how this is all a plot by Saudi Arabia, or by all of OPEC, to destroy the gallant frackers of America. The Saudis control the world oil business the way the legendary horse trainer said he controlled his horse: “I look real close and see what he’s going to do,” he’s supposed to have said, “and then I tell him to do that.” The Saudis look real close and see where the market just went, and then say yeah, we did that.
To remind ourselves of the sequence we’re expecting to see in this crash, beginning in the fracking patch: layoffs, contractions, capital starvation, production declines, defaults, junk-bond market collapse, widening financial damage, stock market crash, recession. So, how are we doing so far?
Layoffs and contraction, check: The number of oil rigs operating in the United States has dropped to its lowest since 2013, and most of that decline came in the Bakken play in North Dakota. The total dropped by 49 in the week ending Jan. 23, bringing the total down to 1,317, according to Baker Hughes. In seven weeks, The number of US rigs has dropped by a record 258. If the trend continues a few more weeks, there will not be enough rigs operating to maintain production, and analysts such as John Kemp of Reuters foresee a sharp decline in fracking production beginning at midyear.
The numbers are even worse than they look at first glance when you take into account that current procedure in the fracking patch is to use rigs to drill up to four wells from a single pad, rather than moving the rig each time. Thus a stacked rig doesn’t just mean the loss of one well, then another and another, but four wells, then eight, 16 and so on in the same time frame.
In slower motion, the same disaster is spreading through the legacy oil business. More than 30,000 layoffs have been announced across the industry as companies slash budgets, according to Bloomberg News. Exploration and production spending is expected to drop by more than $116 billion, a 17 percent decline, because of falling crude revenues, according to an estimate from Cowen & Co. BP has frozen wages, Chevron has delayed its 2015 drilling budget and Shell has canceled a $6.5 billion Persian Gulf investment; New York-based Hess Corp. on Wednesday reported a fourth-quarter net loss of $8 million
Capital starvation, check: The fracking boom got this far with stock offerings, junk bonds, and “leveraged” loans. The stock prices of the operators have tanked, and the markets for more junk bonds and loans are essentially closed to frackers. (The reason we will continue to see production continue, even increase, in the short term is that the operators, in debt to their eyeballs, have to pump oil or die.)
The damage is already metastasizing to the general junk-bond market. The total value of such bonds issued is down one-third from last year; just this week, two offerings by companies not in the oil business — Presidio Holdings ($400 million) and Koppers Holdings ($400 million) — failed for complete lack of interest, even though they were offering as much as 11% return; investors in high yield mutual funds withdrew nearly a quarter of a billion dollars last week, a week that saw leveraged-loan funds bleed out nearly three-quarters of a billion.
Next, production declines and defaults. Stay tuned.
[UPDATE: Red flags up at Bloomberg Business News, which counts $390 billion vaporized by the oil implosion so far, with losses now “starting to show up in investment funds, retirement accounts and bank balance sheets.” Read it and run.}
Thomas Lewis is a nationally recognized and reviewed author of six books, a broadcaster, public speaker and advocate of sustainable living. He also is Editor of The Daily Impact website, and former artist-in-residence at Frostburg State University. He has written several books about collapse issues, including Brace for Impact and Tribulation. Learn more about them here.
First published at The Daily Impact January 21, 2015
The economy of the United States and the world is on fire, and with the flames and smoke visible in any direction one cared to look, the President of the United States declared last night that the worst is over, “the shadow of crisis has passed,” and happy days are here again. In reality (a state that presidents and candidates for president never seem to visit) 2015 is shaping up to be one of the worst any of us have ever seen.
It’s a potent mix of flammable situations, from an unhinged stock market to a drought-ravaged West to the fiscal convulsions of China, Russia and Europe. But for us in America, the collapse of the bogus New American Oil Revolution is the fire that’s burning hottest and spreading fastest. This is how it’s likely to go:
First, drill rigs are being shut down and workers laid off, especially in the fracking plays; as unemployment rises and income declines, production will start to fall; as fracking-company stock prices tank, their junk bonds will become worthless and their leveraged loans will go into default, their money sources will dry up and fracking production will virtually halt; as similar problems beset the legacy oil business world wide, the entire edifice of energy junk bonds, derivatives, hedges, credit default swaps and rabbits’ feet will collapse and the stock market will crash. Welcome to The Great Recession: the Sequel.
So, how are the frackers doing on Day 21?
1. Laying down rigs, shedding people.
- In October of last year, America had 1609 active oil rigs working. We’re down to 1366, and the last one-week decline was the largest since the last crash in 2008.
- The giant provider of oilfield services Baker Hughes announced yesterday it will lay off 7,000 employees, or 11% of its staff. CEO Martin Craighead said “we are taking proactive steps to manage the business through these challenges.” Which translates from PR-Speak as “Run! Run for your lives!”
- Another giant provider of oilfield services, Halliburton (which is about to acquire Baker Hughes) announced it will be laying people off but would not provide a number. Halliburton cut a thousand jobs in the last quarter of 2014.
- And the world’s biggest provider of oilfield services, Schlumberger, announced a few days ago it will cut 9,000 jobs, 8% of its workforce, after reporting fourth-quarter 2014 profits that were just 18% of the profits they racked up in the same period of 2013.
- North Dakota, responsible for nearly half the oil-fracking revolution in the United States, has been booming since development of its Bakken oil-shale formation hit stride in 2000. According to United Van Lines’ Annual National Movers Study, North Dakota now has the country’s fourth highest outbound migration rate.
2. Production Reduction
Those who are pumping oil have to keep pumping oil as long as they can. Simply stopping production and waiting for prices to rise is not an option because they are deeply in debt and mired in contract obligations. They may be only running in place, but if they stop running they vanish. So we won’t be seeing actual drops in production for a few months. But here’s how we know they’re coming.
The Bakken play in North Dakota is about 40% of the “new American oil revolution.” Its production has gone from 500 barrels per day in 2008 to just over a million barrels a day. They had to drill 6,000 wells to do that. The Achilles Heel of the fracking revolution is the hideous decline rate of fracked wells: production declines by about 90% in just three years. So if they drilled another 6,000 wells in the next three years (at an average cost per well of $8-$10 million) all they would do is keep production at a million barrels a day. And that’s assuming they found as many “sweet spots” in the next four years as they did in the last. And you can’t assume that. It’s also assuming they can find the cheap money — the junk bonds and junk stock and junk loans — that financed the first 6,000. And you can’t assume that.
To put it another way, if no new wells were drilled in the Bakken in 2015, by the end of the year its production would be about 550,000 barrels a day, or one half its current production.
3. To follow the money, you have to find it.
It was possible to satisfy the enormous appetite of the fracking industry for cash (see “decline rate”) as long as oil prices were high, money was cheap, and the Masters of the Universe were delirious about America achieving “energy independence” and becoming “number one in oil” again. The Masters are still delirious, but nothing else is true.
In the past, the oil companies either sold stock, issued bonds, or took out loans to stay on the drilling treadmill. How’s that working out for them? The Bloomberg index of North American oil producers finds that since last June, their value has declined by over half and their debt has increased by 85% — hardly a sustainable trajectory. Going public, up until last year a sure-fire way to cash in big and finance whatever the hell you wanted to do, is simply not an option in 2015. Not for anybody in the fracking oil business.
As for debt, interest rates on junk-rated energy bonds are over 10%, double what they were last June. Previously issued bonds are trading on the secondary market for dimes on the dollar. And more than 20 US exploration and production companies have used 60 per cent of their credit lines,according to Bloomberg.
A financial situation for frackers that could best be described as sour now will turn completely rancid in April (at the latest). That is the month that lenders conduct one of two annual reviews of the collateral they are holding for their lines of credit. Typically, the frackers turn to lenders only after exhausting the possibilities of issuing stock and junk bonds, so by the time they get to banks they need what are politely referred to as leveraged loans, or loans to a company that has all its assets locked up and is hemorrhaging cash. When the bankers review the cinders of the assets they accepted as “security,” there are going to be some cardiac arrests.
At that point the Crash of 2015, if it hasn’t already, will metastasize.
[UPDATE: DAY 22]
According to a story in Bloomberg News, which is not exactly one of your fringe Doomer news sources, not only oilfield service providers but oil drilling companies themselves are going to “begin to die” in the second quarter of 2015 as bigger and bigger dominoes fall toward a crash. The January 22 story begins:
Oil drillers will begin collapsing under the weight of lower crude prices during the second quarter and energy explorers who employ them will shortly follow, according to Conway Mackenzie Inc., the largest U.S. restructuring firm.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on January 6, 2014
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
The price of oil is down. How should we expect the economy to perform in 2015 and 2016?
Newspapers in the United States seem to emphasize the positive aspects of the drop in prices. I have written Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem. If our only problem were high oil prices, then low oil prices would seem to be a solution. Unfortunately, the problem we are encountering now is extremely low prices. If prices continue at this low level, or go even lower, we are in deep trouble with respect to future oil extraction.
It seems to me that the situation is much more worrisome than most people would expect. Even if there are some temporary good effects, they will be more than offset by bad effects, some of which could be very bad indeed. We may be reaching limits of a finite world.
The Nature of Our Problem with Oil Prices
The low oil prices we are seeing are a symptom of serious problems within the economy–what I have called “increased inefficiency” (really diminishing returns) leading to low wages. See my post How increased inefficiency explains falling oil prices. While wages have been stagnating, the cost of oil extraction has been increasing by about ten percent a year, described in my post Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending.
Needless to say, stagnating wages together with rapidly rising costs of oil production leads to a mismatch between:
- The amount consumers can afford for oil
- The cost of oil, if oil price matches the cost of production
The fact that oil prices were not rising enough to support the higher extraction costs was already a problem back in February 2014, at the time the article Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending was written. (The drop in oil prices did not start until June 2014.)
Two different debt-related initiatives have helped cover up the growing mismatch between the cost of extraction and the amount consumers could afford:
- Quantitative Easing (QE) in a number of countries. This creates artificially low interest rates and thus encourages borrowing for speculative activities.
- Growth in Chinese spending on infrastructure. This program was funded by debt.
Both of these programs have been scaled-back significantly since June 2014, with US QE ending its taper in October 2014, and Chinese debt programs undergoing greater controls since early 2014. Chinese new home prices have been dropping since May 2014.
Figure 1. World Oil Supply (production including biofuels, natural gas liquids) and Brent monthly average spot prices, based on EIA data.
The effect of scaling back both of these programs in the same timeframe has been like a driver taking his foot off of the gasoline pedal. The already slowing world economy slowed further, bringing down oil prices. The prices of many other commodities, such as coal and iron ore, are down as well. Instead of oil prices staying up near the cost of extraction, they have fallen closer to the level consumers can afford. Needless to say, this is not good if the economy really needs the use of oil and other commodities.
It is not clear that either the US QE program or the Chinese program of infrastructure building can be restarted. Both programs were reaching the limits of their usefulness. At some point, additional funds begin going into investments with little return–buildings that would never be occupied or shale operations that would never be profitable. Or investments in Emerging Markets that cannot be profitable without higher commodity prices than are available today.
First Layer of Bad Effects
- Increased debt defaults. Increased debt defaults of many kinds can be expected, including (a) Businesses involved with oil extraction suffering from low prices (b) Laid off oil workers not able to pay their mortgages, (c) Debt repayable in US dollars from emerging markets, including Russia, Brazil, and South Africa, because with their currencies now very low relative to the US dollar, debt is difficult to repay (d) Chinese debt related to overbuilding there, and (e) Debt of failing economies, such as Greece and Venezuela.
- Rising interest rates. With defaults rising, interest rates can be expected to rise, so that those making the loans will be compensated for the rising risk of default. In fact, this is already happening with junk-rated oil loans. Furthermore, it is possible that the US Federal Reserve will raise target interest rates in 2015. This possibility has been mentioned for several months, as part of normalizing interest rates.
- Rising unemployment. We know that nearly all of the increased employment since 2008 in the US took place in states with shale oil and gas production. As these programs are cut back, US employment is likely to fall. The UK and Norway are likely to experience drops in employment related to oil production, as their oil programs are cut. Countries of South America and Africa dependent on commodity exports are likely to see their employment cut back as well.
- Increased recession. The combination of rising interest rates and rising unemployment will almost certainly lead to recession. At first, some of the effects may be offset by the impact of lower oil prices, but eventually recessionary effects will predominate. Eventually, broken supply chains may become a problem, if companies with poor credit ratings cannot get financing they need at reasonable rates.
- Decreased oil supply, starting perhaps in late 2015. The timing is not certain. Businesses are likely to continue extraction where wells are already in operation, since most costs have already been paid. Also, some businesses have purchased price protection in the derivative market. They will likely continue drilling.
- Disruptions in oil exporting countries, such as Venezuela, Russia, and Nigeria. Oil exporters generally get the majority of their government revenue from taxes on oil. If oil prices remain low, oil-related tax revenue will drop greatly, necessitating cutbacks in food subsidies and other programs. Some countries may experience overthrows of existing governments and a sharp drop in oil exports. Central governments may even disband, as happened with the Soviet Union in 1991.
- Defaults on derivatives, because of sharp and long-lasting changes in oil prices, interest rates, and currency relativities. Securitized debt may also be at risk of default.
- Continued low oil prices, except for brief spikes, because of high interest rates, recession, and low “demand” (really affordability) for oil.
- Drop in stock market prices. Governments have been able to “pump up” stock market prices with their QE programs since 2008. At some point, though, higher interest rates may draw investors away from the stock market. Stock prices may also decline reflecting the poor prospects of the economy, with rising unemployment and fewer goods being manufactured.
- Drop in market value of bonds. When interest rates rise, the market value of existing bonds falls. Bonds are also likely to experience higher default rates. The combined effect is likely to lead to a drop in the equity of financial institutions. At least at first, this effect is likely to occur mostly outside the US, because the “flight to security” will tend to raise the level of the US dollar and lower US interest rates.
- Changes in international associations. Already, there is discussion of Greece dropping out of the Eurozone. Associations such as the European Union and the International Monetary Fund will find it increasingly difficult to handle problems, as their rich countries become poorer, and as loan defaults become increasing problems.
In total, eventually we are likely to experience a much worse situation than we did in the 2007-2009 period, although this may not be evident at first. It will be only over a period of time, after some of the initial “dominoes fall” that we will see what is really happening. Initially, economies of oil importing countries may appear to be doing fairly well, thanks to low oil prices. It will be later that the adverse impacts begin to take over, and eventually dominate.
Inability to restart oil supply, even if prices should temporarily rise. The production of oil from US shale formations has been enabled by very low interest rates. If there is a major round of debt defaults by the shale industry, interest rates are unlikely to fall back to previously low levels. Because of the higher interest rates, oil prices will have to rise to an even a higher price than required in the past–in other words, to more than $100 barrel, say $125 to $140 barrel. There will also be a lag in restarting production, meaning that high prices will need to be maintained for some time. Bringing oil prices to a high level for a long time seems impossible without crashing the economies of oil importers. See my post, Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.
Derivatives and Securitized Debt Defaults. The last time we had problems with these types of financial instruments was 2008. Governments around the world made huge payments to banks and other financial institutions, in order to bail them out of their difficulties. The financial services firm Lehman Brothers was allowed to go bankrupt.
Governments have declared that if this happens again, they will do things differently. Instead of bailing institutions out, they will make changes that will make these events less likely to happen. They will also make changes in how shortfalls are funded. In many cases, the result will be a bail-in, where depositors share in the losses by “haircuts” to their deposits.
Unfortunately, from what I can see, the changes governments have made are basically too little, too late. The new sharing of losses will have as bad, or worse, impacts on the economy than the previous government bailouts of banks. Regulators do not seem to understand that models used in pricing derivatives and securitized debt are not designed for a finite world. The models appear to work reasonably well when the economy is distant from limits. Once the economy gets close to limits, many more adverse events occur than the models would have predicted, potentially causing huge problems for the system.1
What we are likely to be encountering now is a combination of defaults of many kinds simultaneously–derivatives, securitized debt, and “ordinary” debt. Many of these risks will be shared among institutions, so that banking problems will be widespread. The sizes of the losses are likely to be very large. Businesses may find that funds intended for payroll or needed to pay suppliers are subject to haircuts. How can they operate in such a situation?
It is even possible that accounts under deposit insurance limits will be subject to haircuts. While deposit insurance is available in theory, the amount held in reserve is not very great. It could easily be exhausted by a few large claims (the scenario in Iceland a few years ago). If governments choose not to make up for shortfalls in funding of the insurance programs, the shortfalls could end up with depositors.
Peak Oil. There seems to be a distinct possibility that we will be reaching the peak in world oil supply very soon–2014 or 2015, or even 2016. The way we reach this peak though, is different from what most people imagined: low oil prices, rather than high oil prices. Low oil prices are brought about by low wages and the inability to add sufficient new debt to offset the low wages. Because the issue is one of affordability, nearly all commodities are likely to be affected, including fossil fuels other than oil. In some sense, the issue is that a financial crash is bringing down the financial system, and is bringing commodities of all kinds with it.
Figure 2 shows an estimate of future energy production of various types. The steep downslope is likely because of the financial problems we are headed into.2
Figure 2. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings. Renewables in this chart includes hydroelectric, biofuels, and material such as dung gathered for fuel, in addition to renewables such as wind and solar. (It is based on an IEA inclusive definition.)
A major point of this chart is that all fuels are likely to decline simultaneously, because the cause is financial. For example, how does an oil company or a coal company continue to operate, if it cannot pay its employees and suppliers because of bank-related problems?
Our Long-Term Debt Problem. Long-term debt is an important part of our current system because (a) it enables buyers to afford products, and (b) it helps keep commodity prices high enough to encourage extraction. Unfortunately, long-term debt seems to require economic growth, so that we can repay debt with interest.
Figure 3. Repaying loans is easy in a growing economy, but much more difficult in a shrinking economy.
Economists conjecture that economic growth can continue, even if the extraction of fossil fuels and other commodities declines (as in Figure 2). But how likely is this in practice? Without fossil fuels, we can exchange baby-sitting services and we can give each other back rubs, but how much can we really do to grow the economy?
Almost any economic activity we can think of requires the use of petroleum or electricity and the use of commodities such as iron and copper. A more realistic view would seem to be that without the materials we generally use, our economy is likely to shrink. With this shrinkage, long-term debt will become increasingly impossible. This is one of the big problems we are encountering.
Our Physics Problem. Politicians and businesses of all types would like to advance the idea that our economy will continue forever; the politicians and businesses of every kind are in charge. Everything will turn out well.
Unfortunately, history is littered with examples of civilizations that hit diminishing returns, and then collapsed. Research indicates that the when early economies underwent collapse, the shape of the decline wasn’t straight down–declines tended to take a period of years. Not everyone died, either.
Figure 4. Shape of typical Secular Cycle, based on work of Peter Turkin and Sergey Nefedov in Secular Cycles.
Physics gives us a reason as to why such a pattern is to be expected. Physics tells us that civilizations are dissipative structures. The world we live in is an open system, receiving energy from the sun. Examples of other dissipative structures include galaxy systems, the solar system, the lives of plants and animals, and hurricanes. They are born, grow, and eventually stop dissipating energy and die. New dissipative structures often arise, if sufficient energy sources are available to dissipate. Thus, there may be new economies in the future.
We would like to think that we can stop this process, but it is not clear that we can. Perhaps economies are expected to reach limits and eventually collapse. It is only if economies can add large amounts of inexpensive energy resources (for example, by discovering how to make use of fossil fuels, or by discovering a less-settled area of the world, or even by adding China to the World Trade Organization in 2001) that this scenario can be put off.
What Can We Do?
Renewable energy is has recently been advertised as the solution to nearly all of our problems. If my analysis of our problems is correct, renewable energy is not a solution to our problems. I mentioned earlier that adding China to the World Trade Organization in 2001 temporarily helped solve world energy problems, with its ramp up of coal production after joining (note bulge in coal consumption after 2001 in Figure 5). In comparison, the impact of non-hydro renewables has been barely noticeable in the whole picture.
Figure 5. World energy consumption by source, based on data of BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2014. Renewables are narrowly defined, excluding hydro-electric, liquid biofuels, and materials gathered by the user, such as branches and dung.
Guaranteed prices for renewable energy are likely to be an increasing problem, as the cost of fossil fuel energy falls, and as buyers become increasingly unable to afford high energy prices. Issues with banks, making it difficult to pay employees and suppliers, are likely to be a problem whether an energy company uses renewable energy sources or not.
The only renewable energy sources that may be helpful in the long term are one that do not require buying goods from a distance, and thus do not require the use of banks. Trees growing in a local forest might be an example of such renewable energy.
Another solution to the problems we are reaching would seem to be figuring out a new financial system. Unfortunately, debt–and in fact growing debt–seems to be essential to our current system. We can’t extract fossil fuels without a debt-based system, in part because debt allows profits to be moved forward, and thus lightens the burden of paying for products made with a fossil-fuel based system. If a financial system uses only on the accumulated profits of a system without fossil fuels, it can expand only very slowly. See my post Why Malthus Got His Forecast Wrong. Local currency systems have also been suggested, but they don’t fix the problem of, say, electricity companies not being able to pay their suppliers at a distance.
Adding more debt, or taking steps to hold interest rates even lower, is probably the closest we can come to a reasonable way of temporarily putting off financial collapse. It is not clear where more debt can be added, though. The reason current debt programs are being discontinued is because, after a certain level of expansion, they primarily seem to create stock market bubbles and encourage investments that can never pay back adequate returns.
One possible solution is that a small number of people with survivalist skills will make it through the bottleneck, in order to start civilization over again. Some of these individuals may be small-scale farmers. The availability of cheap, easy to use, local energy is likely to be a limiting factor on population size, however. World population was one billion or less before the widespread use of fossil fuels.
We don’t have much time to fix our problems. In the timeframe we are looking at, the only other solution would seem to be a religious one. I don’t know exactly what it would be; I am not a believer in The Rapture. There is great order underlying our current system. If the universe was formed in a big bang, there was no doubt a plan behind it. We don’t know exactly what the plan for the future is. Perhaps what we are encountering is some sort of change or transformation that is in the best interests of mankind and the planet. More reading of religious scriptures might be in order. We truly live in interesting times!
 Derivatives and Securitized Debt are often priced using the Black-Scholes Pricing Model. It assumes a normal distribution and statistical independence of adverse results–something that is definitely not the case as we reach limits. See my 2008 post that correctly forecast the 2008 financial crash.
 Points are plotted at five-year intervals, so the chart is a bit more pointed than it would have been if I had plotted individual years. The upper limit at 2015 is an approximation–it could be a year or so different.
Off the keyboard of Michael Snyder
Published on The Economic Collapse on December 1, 2014
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The Retail Apocalypse Accelerates: Collapsing Holiday Sales Are A Signal That A Recession Is Coming
Retail sales during the four day Thanksgiving weekend were down a whopping 11 percent from last year. This is a “make or break” time of the year for many retailers, and if things don’t turn around during the coming weeks we could see a tsunami of store closings in January and February. As you read this article, there is already more than a billion square feet of retail space sitting empty in the United States. Many have described the ongoing collapse of the retail industry as an “apocalypse”, and this apocalypse appears to be accelerating. Yes, the shift to online retailers is a significant factor, but as you will see below even online retailers struggled over the holiday weekend. The sad truth of the matter is that U.S. consumers are tapped out and are drowning in debt at this point, so they simply do not have as much money to spend as they once did.
According to the National Retail Federation, 5.2 percent fewer Americans shopped online or at retail stores over the past weekend. Those that did shop spent an average of 6.4 percent less money than consumers did last year.
So if less people shopped, and they spent less money on average, that means that total retail sales must have been way down.
And indeed they were. As the New York Times has reported, total retail sales were down an astounding 11 percent…
Sales, both in stores and online, from Thanksgiving through the weekend were estimated to have dropped 11 percent, to $50.9 billion, from $57.4 billion last year, according to preliminary survey results released Sunday by the National Retail Federation. Sales fell despite many stores’ opening earlier than ever on Thanksgiving Day.
And though many retailers offered the same aggressive discounts online as they did in their stores, the web failed to attract more shoppers or spending over the four-day holiday weekend than it did last year, the group said. The average person who shopped over the weekend spent $159.55 at online retailers, down 10.2 percent from last year.
No wonder there was less violence on Black Friday this year.
Traffic at retailers was way down.
Of course some analysts are trying to put a positive spin on all of this. For example, the CEO of the National Retail Federation says that this could actually be a sign that the economy is improving…
As the WSJ reports, NRF’s CEO Matt Shay attributed the drop to a combination of factors, including the fact that retailers moved promotions earlier this year in attempt to get people out sooner and avoid what happened last year when people didn’t finish their shopping because of bad weather.
Also did we mention the NRF is perpetually cheery and always desperate to put a metric ton of lipstick on a pig? Well, hold on to your hats folks:
He also attributed the declines to better online offerings and an improving economy where “people don’t feel the same psychological need to rush out and get the great deal that weekend, particularly if they expected to be more deals,” he said.
And of course the sprint vs marathon comparisons, such as this one: “The holiday season and the weekend are a marathon not a sprint,” NRF Chief Executive Officer Matthew Shay said on a conference call. Odd how that metaphor is never used when the (seasonally-adjusted) sprint beats the marathoners.
So there you have it: a 11% collapse in retail spending has just been spun as super bullish for the US economy, whereby US consumers aren’t spending because the economy is simply too strong, and the only reason they don’t spend is because they will spend much more later. Or something.
The retail industry is absolutely brutal at this point. It is flooded with very large competitors that are chasing fewer and fewer disposable dollars.
In order to thrive, retailers need financially healthy consumers. But over time, U.S. consumers have been getting deeper and deeper into debt. The chart posted below shows that consumer credit in the United States has doubled since the year 2000…
Meanwhile, the long-term trend for real median household income since the year 2000 has been down…
In order for Americans to spend money, they have to make money first.
Unfortunately, the quality of our jobs continues to plummet.
As I have written about previously, 50 percent of all American workers currently make less than $28,031 a year at their jobs. And here are some more numbers from a report that the Social Security Administration recently released…
-39 percent of American workers made less than $20,000 last year
-52 percent of American workers made less than $30,000 last year
-63 percent of American workers made less than $40,000 last year
-72 percent of American workers made less than $50,000 last year
So in order for a typical American family to bring in $50,000 a year or more both parents usually have to work.
Sometimes they both have to work more than one job.
And with the cost of living constantly rising, family budgets are being squeezed more than ever. That is why families have less money to spend at retail stores these days. For even more on the current financial condition of American families, please see my previous article entitled “Are You Better Off This Thanksgiving Than You Were Last Thanksgiving?”
It is time for retailers in America to face the fact that economic conditions have fundamentally changed. U.S. consumers simply are not in as good shape as they used to be.
In addition, online retailers are going to continue to steal sales from traditional retail locations. This means that more stores are going to close and more retail space is going to be abandoned.
As I mentioned above, more than a billion square feet of retail space is aleady sitting vacant in the United States. And retail consultant Howard Davidowitz is projecting that up to half of all shopping malls in the U.S. may shut down within the next couple of decades…
Within 15 to 20 years, retail consultant Howard Davidowitz expects as many as half of America’s shopping malls to fail. He predicts that only upscale shopping centers with anchors like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus will survive.
In the years ahead, it is going to become normal to see boarded up strip malls and abandoned shopping centers all over the country.
The golden age of retail is over, and now most retailers will have to work incredibly hard to survive the apocalypse that is unfolding right before our eyes.
Off the keyboard of John Ward
Published on The Slog on October 28, 2014
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NEOLIBERAL AUTOMATION & MASS DISTRIBUTION: the death of communities and the bankruptcy of governments
The following are now more or less consensus views on our current model of virtual bourse-fed globalist capitalism:
Prices fall but quality is reduced; offshore job relocation and automation destroy employment levels; service levels are cut to the bone; physical retail jobs disappear; social and healthcare budgets are cut; trickle-down wealth is nowhere near enough to retain mass consumption levels; recession and deflation are the inevitable end results; short termism reduces vital investment in everything from energy innovations to arts creativity; and cash-strapped governments are forced to turn to unelected money in order to survive.
Multiple retailing’s development after 1962 ensured that the life would be ripped out of small communities. But the internet has so trashed the physical retail model of distribution, our community high streets and village shops will soon implode….and even some multiples will go bust in the end – eg, Tesco.
The ISP rejection of call centres in favour of online automated after-sales ‘service’ has ensured the loss of millions of telephony jobs worldwide.
A report from the Oxford Martin School’s Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology concluded last year that the next the next two decades will see 45% of America’s workforce replaced by computerised automation.
Lost jobs in a welfare-based society are expensive. The policies we’re following are decimating jobs, and reducing tax income/welfare payments. Thus…
Nearly a quarter of the Crown’s state prosecutors have been cut as part of budget savings, leaving many in the justice system, including senior judges, expressing grave concerns about the state’s performance in some criminal trials.
Neoliberal mass-production globalism is dysfunctional on almost every dimension. It increases inequality, destroys communities, threatens liberty, trivialises democracy, and dilutes the most fundamental principle of civilisation: the equitable Rule of Law.
Why is there such a human race
to profit from the marketplace
and thus accelerate apace
away from any human face?
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on October 22, 2014
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
A person might think that oil prices would be fairly stable. Prices would set themselves at a level that would be high enough for the majority of producers, so that in total producers would provide enough–but not too much–oil for the world economy. The prices would be fairly affordable for consumers. And economies around the world would grow robustly with these oil supplies, plus other energy supplies. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem to work that way recently. Let me explain at least a few of the issues involved.
1. Oil prices are set by our networked economy.
As I have explained previously, we have a networked economy that is made up of businesses, governments, and consumers. It has grown up over time. It includes such things as laws and our international trade system. It continually re-optimizes itself, given the changing rules that we give it. In some ways, it is similar to the interconnected network that a person can build with a child’s toy.
Figure 1. Dome constructed using Leonardo Sticks
Thus, these oil prices are not something that individuals consciously set. Instead, oil prices reflect a balance between available supply and the amount purchasers can afford to pay, assuming such a balance actually exists. If such a balance doesn’t exist, the lack of such a balance has the possibility of tearing apart the system.
If the compromise oil price is too high for consumers, it will cause the economy to contract, leading to economic recession, because consumers will not be forced to cut back on discretionary expenditures in order to afford oil products. This will lead to layoffs in discretionary sectors. See my post Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem.
If the compromise price is too low for producers, a disproportionate share of oil producers will stop producing oil. This decline in production will not happen immediately; instead it will happen over a period of years. Without enough oil, many consumers will not be able to commute to work, businesses won’t be able to transport goods, farmers won’t be able to produce food, and governments won’t be able to repair roads. The danger is that some kind of discontinuity will occur–riots, overthrown governments, or even collapse.
2. We think of inadequate supply being the number one problem with oil, and at times it may be. But at other times inadequate demand (really “inadequate affordability”) may be the number one issue.
Back in the 2005 to 2008 period, as oil prices were increasing rapidly, supply was the major issue. With higher prices came the possibility of higher supply.
As we are seeing now, low prices can be a problem too. Low prices come from lack of affordability. For example, if many young people are without jobs, we can expect that the number of cars bought by young people and the number of miles driven by young people will be down. If countries are entering into recession, the buying of oil is likely to be down, because fewer goods are being manufactured and fewer services are being rendered.
In many ways, low prices caused by un-affordability are more dangerous than high prices. Low prices can lead to collapses of oil exporters. The Soviet Union was an oil exporter that collapsed when oil prices were down. High prices for oil usually come with economic growth (at least initially). We associate many good things with economic growth–plentiful jobs, rising home prices, and solvent banks.
3. Too much oil in too short a time can be disruptive.
US oil supply (broadly defined, including ethanol, LNG, etc.) increased by 1.2 million barrels per day in 2013, and is forecast by the EIA to increase by close to 1.5 million barrels a day in 2014. If the issue at hand were short supply, this big increase would be welcomed. But worldwide, oil consumption is forecast to increase by only 700,000 barrels per day in 2014, according to the IEA.
Dumping more oil onto the world market that it needs is likely to contribute to falling prices. (It is the excess quantity that leads to lower world oil prices; the drop in price doesn’t say anything at all about the cost of production of oil the additional oil.) There is no sign of a recent US slowdown in production either. Figure 2 shows a chart of crude oil production from the EIA website.
Figure 2. US weekly crude oil production through October 10, as graphed by the US Energy Information Administration.
4. The balance between supply and demand is being affected by many issues, simultaneously.
One big issue on the demand (or affordability) side of the balance is the question of whether the growth of the world economy is slowing. Long term, we would expect diminishing returns (and thus higher cost of oil extraction) to push the world economy toward slower economic growth, as it takes more resources to produce a barrel of oil, leaving fewer resources for other purposes. The effect is providing a long-term downward push on the price on demand, and thus on price.
In the short term, though, governments can make oil products more affordable by ramping up debt availability. Conversely, the lack of debt availability can be expected to bring prices down. The big drop in oil prices in 2008 (Figure 3) seems to be at least partly debt-related. See my article, Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis. Oil prices were brought back up to a more normal level by ramping up debt–increased governmental debt in the US, increased debt of many kinds in China, and Quantitative Easing, starting for the US in November 2008.
Figure 3. Oil price based on EIA data with oval pointing out the drop in oil prices, with a drop in credit outstanding.
In recent months, oil prices have been falling. This drop in oil prices seems to coincide with a number of cutbacks in debt. The recent drop in oil prices took place after the United States began scaling back its monthly buying of securities under Quantitative Easing. Also, China’s debt level seems to be slowing. Furthermore, the growth in the US budget deficit has also slowed. See my recent post, WSJ Gets it Wrong on “Why Peak Oil Predictions Haven’t Come True”.
Another issue affecting the demand side is changes in taxes and in subsidies. A change toward more taxes such as carbon taxes, or even more taxes in general, such as the Japan’s recent increase in sales tax, tends to reduce demand, and thus give a push toward lower world oil prices. (Of course, in the area with the carbon tax, the oil price with the tax is likely to be higher, but the oil price elsewhere around the world will tend to decrease to compensate.)
Many governments of emerging market countries give subsidies to oil products. As these subsidies are lessened (for example in India and in Brazil) the effect is to raise local prices, thus reducing local oil demand. The effect on world oil prices is to lower them slightly, because of the lower demand from the countries with the reduced subsidies.
The items mentioned above all relate to demand. There are several items that affect the supply side of the balance between supply and demand.
With respect to supply, we think first of the “normal” decline in oil supply that takes place as oil fields become exhausted. New fields can be brought on line, but usually at higher cost (because of diminishing returns). The higher cost of extraction gives a long-term upward push on prices, whether or not customers can afford these prices. This conflict between higher extraction costs and affordability is the fundamental conflict we face. It is also the reason that a lot of folks are expecting (erroneously, in my view) a long-term rise in oil prices.
Businesses of course see the decline in oil from existing fields, and add new production where they can. Examples include United States shale operations, Canadian oil sands, and Iraq. This new production tends to be expensive production, when all costs are included. For example, Carbon Tracker estimates that most new oil sands projects require a price of $95 barrel to be sanctioned. Iraq needs to build out its infrastructure and secure peace in its country to greatly ramp up production. These indirect costs lead to a high per-barrel cost of oil for Iraq, even if direct costs are not high.
In the supply-demand balance, there is also the issue of oil supply that is temporarily off line, that operators would like to get back on line. Libya is one obvious example. Its production was as much as 1.8 million barrels a day in 2010. Libya is now producing 800,000 barrels a day, but was producing only 215,000 barrels a day in April. The rapid addition of Libya’s oil to the market adds to pricing disruption. Iran is another country with production it would like to get back on line.
5. Even what seems like low oil prices today (say, $85 for Brent, $80 for WTI) may not be enough to fix the world’s economic growth problems.
High oil prices are terrible for economies of oil importing countries. How much lower do they really need to be to fix the problem? Past history suggests that prices may need to be below the $40 to $50 barrel range for a reasonable level of job growth to again occur in countries that use a lot of oil in their energy mix, such as the United States, Europe, and Japan.
Figure 4. Average wages in 2012$ compared to Brent oil price, also in 2012$. Average wages are total wages based on BEA data adjusted by the CPI-Urban, divided total population. Thus, they reflect changes in the proportion of population employed as well as wage levels.
Thus, it appears that we can have oil prices that do a lot of damage to oil producers (say $80 to $85 per barrel), without really fixing the world’s low wage and low economic growth problem. This does not bode well for fixing our problem with prices that are too low for oil producers, but still too high for customers.
6. Saudi Arabia, and in fact nearly all oil exporters, need today’s level of exports plus high prices, to maintain their economies.
We tend to think of oil price problems from the point of view of importers of oil. In fact, oil exporters tend to be even more affected by changes in oil markets, because their economies are so oil-centered. Oil exporters need both an adequate quantity of oil exports and adequate prices for their exports. The reason adequate prices are needed is because most of the sales price of oil that is not required for investment in oil production is taken by the government as taxes. These taxes are used for a variety of purposes, including food subsidies and new desalination plants.
A couple of recent examples of countries with collapsing oil exports are Egypt and Syria. (In Figures 5 and 6, exports are the difference between production and consumption.)
Figure 5. Egypt’s oil production and consumption, based on BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy data.
Figure 6. Syria’s oil production and consumption, based on data of the US Energy Information Administration.
Saudi Arabia has had flat exports in recent years (green line in Figure 7). Saudi Arabia’s situation is better than, say, Egypt’s situation (Figure 5), but its consumption continues to rise. It needs to keep adding production of natural gas liquids, just to stay even.
Figure 7. Saudi oil production, consumption and exports based on EIA data.
As indicated previously, Saudi Arabia and other exporting countries depend on tax revenues to balance their budgets. Figure 8 shows one estimate of required oil prices for OPEC countries to balance their budgets in 2104, assuming that the quantity of exported oil is pretty much unchanged from 2013.
Figure 8. Estimate of OPEC break-even oil prices, including tax requirements by parent countries, from APICORP.
Based on Figure 8, Qatar and Kuwait are the only OPEC countries that would find $80 or $85 barrel oil acceptable, assuming the quantity of exports remains unchanged. If the quantity of exports drops, prices would need to be even higher.
Saudi Arabia has set aside funds that it can tap temporarily, so that it can withstand a lower oil price. Thus, it has the ability to withstand low prices for a year or two, if need be. Its recent price-cutting may be an attempt to “shake out” producers who have less-deep pockets when it comes to weathering low prices for a time. Almost any oil producer elsewhere in the world might be in that category.
7. The world really needs all existing oil production, plus more, if the world economy is to grow.
It takes oil to transport goods, and it takes oil to operate agricultural and construction equipment. Admittedly, we can cut back world production oil production with lower price, but this gets us into “a heap of trouble”. We will suddenly find ourselves less able to do the things that make the economy function. Governments will stop fixing roads. Services we take for granted, like long distance flights, will disappear.
A lot of people have a fantasy view of a world economy operating on a much smaller quantity of fossil fuels. Unfortunately, there is no way we can get there by way of a rapid drop in oil prices. In order for such a change to take place, we would have to actually figure out some kind of transition by which we could operate the world economy on a lot less fossil fuel. Meeting this goal is still a very long ways away. Many people have convinced themselves that high oil prices will help make this transition possible, but I don’t see this as happening. High prices for any kind of fuel can be expected to lead to economic contraction. If transition costs are high as well, this will make the situation worse.
The easiest way to reduce consumption of oil is by laying off workers, because making and transporting goods requires oil, and because commuting usually requires oil. As a result, the biggest effect of a cutback on oil production is likely to be huge job layoffs, far worse than in the Great Recession.
8. The cutback in oil supply due to low prices is likely to occur in unexpected ways.
When oil prices drop, most production will continue as usual for a time because wells that have already been put in place tend to produce oil for a time, with little added investment.
When oil production does stop, it won’t necessarily be from high-cost production, because relative to current market prices, a very large share of production is high-cost. What will tend to happen is that production that has already been “started” will continue, but production that is still “in the pipeline” will wither away. This means that the drop in production may be delayed for as much as a year or even two. When it does happen, it may be severe.
It is not clear exactly how oil from shale formations will fare. Producers have leased quite a bit of land, and in some cases have done imaging studies on the land. Thus, these producers have quite a bit of land available on which a share of the costs has been prepaid. Because of this prepaid nature of costs, some shale production may be able to continue, even if prices are too low to justify new investments in shale development. The question then will be whether on a going-forward basis, the operations are profitable enough to continue.
Prices for new oil development have been too low for many oil producers for many months. The cutback in investment for new production has already started taking place, as described in my post, Beginning of the End? Oil Companies Cut Back on Spending. It is quite possible that we are now reaching “peak oil,” but from a different direction than most had expected–from a situation where oil prices are too low for producers, rather than being (vastly) too high for consumers.
The lack of investment that is already occurring is buried deeply within the financial statements of individual companies, so most people are not aware of it. Dividends remain high to confuse the situation. By the time oil supply starts dropping, the situation may be badly out of hand and largely unfixable because of damage to the economy.
One big problem is that our networked economy (Figure 1) is quite inflexible. It doesn’t shrink well. Even a small amount of shrinkage looks like a major recession. If there is significant shrinkage, there is danger of collapse. We haven’t set up a new type of economy that uses less oil. We also don’t have an easy way of going backward to a prior economy, such as one that uses horses for transport. It looks like we are headed for “interesting times”.
First published at The Daily Impact May 27, 2014
This was then (2009), but retail stores are right now closing at a rate not seen since then. Just one of many signs that the recovery is not recovering. (Photo by Ed Yourdon/Flickr)
Would it not be a hoot if we who expect the crash of industrial civilization, while we are staring intently at the usual suspects (peak oil, climate change, food shortages, grid failure, the San Andreas Fault) and waiting for one of them to start the avalanche, get sucker-punched by the Masters of the Universe? Would it not be excruciatingly funny if the very same people who almost burned the world alive in the first decade of this century managed not only to escape repercussions but to incinerate it in the second? The dial is moving from possible to likely as the ethically challenged whiz kids of Wall Street continue to play, unsupervised by adults, with the same matches in the same gasoline-soaked structure. Here’s what they’re doing, compared with what they did.
My house is my ATM: Back in the day, by which I mean ten years ago, people who owned houses were persuaded by financial jackals to treat their house as if it were an ATM, and take money out of it whenever they wanted. Housing prices would never go down, they were told, so they could always refinance. Today, investors who want a ten per cent return on their investment have been persuaded by financial jackals to treat houses as if they were ATMs, buying them cheaply (because ordinary people can’t afford them, or can’t get financing) for cash and renting them out.
Just as the jackals of old seemed really to believe that people who could not afford mortgages would be able to keep refinancing them, and that the music would never stop; so do today’s jackals seem to believe that being a landlord is a slam dunk. Gradually, they are learning that renters sometimes depart in the night; trash the houses that they don’t own; lose their jobs, or get sick, or have too many children; and far from being a slam dunk, landlordhood often sucks, financially. There are now signs that the smartest guys in this room are looking quietly but frantically for the exits, and when they find them — pop goes the bubble and the weasels.
As for real people in homes? Twenty per cent of American homeowners are under water (they owe more than their house is worth), and cannot refinance or sell. The number of people applying for mortgages with JPMorgan Chase and Citibank in the first quarter of 2014 was70% lower than the number one year ago. The rate of home ownership in the country is at its lowest in 19 years. The lesson: when the institutions bail, there will be no one else to prop up the bubble.
From “No-doc loans” to “Covenant-Lite.” Back in the day, the jackals were handing out “liar” loans (containing unverified and untrue statements about qualifications of the applicant), “Ninja” loans (applicant has no income, no job, no assets), “No-doc” loans (applicant has no documentation of anything). The jackals didn’t care: if they were originators, they sold the loan as soon as they closed it, collecting all their fees and waving it goodbye. If they were conglomeraters, they bundled the loans, issued derivatives on them, and got them out the door, first collecting all their fees. No one gave much of a thought to where they would sit when the music stopped, as it always does.
Now, the action is in commercial lending, with the money flowing to subprime companies, not individuals. The loan flavour du jour is now “covenant-lite” loans, meaning loans made without the usual stipulation that the business use the proceeds for business, not to enrich the business owners. These loans are beloved by private equity firms that like to buy a company, mortgage all its assets, suck out the cash in fees and dividends, then let the company go into bankruptcy and screw the lenders. A record $238 billion worth of these puppies were issued in 2013, according to Reuters, and the pace is accelerating in 2014.
Never mind things, we want derivatives of things. What broke the back of the system in the 2009 era (the contraction actually began in the fall of 2005) was not just subprime debt and overvalued assets, it was the enormous bets placed on the system by institutions acting is if they were drunk in a casino. These bets are called derivatives. For example, slices and dices (called “tranches”) of securitized packages of looney-tunes loans, which constituted bets for the success of the Ponzi scheme; and credit default swaps, bogus insurance that constituted a bet against the success of the scheme. Back in the day, collapsing derivatives brought down some of the biggest players, and very nearly the world’s economy.
Today, the derivatives market is 20 per cent larger than it was just before the music stopped the last time. The International Bank of Settlements estimates that the notional value (notional value: that is, the value of all the bets if everyone won) of outstanding derivatives is $710 trillion, or 44 times the gross domestic product of the United States. If J.P. Morgan Chase, with total assets of $2 trillion, lost all its derivative gambles, it would owe the casino more than $70 trillion. In Vegas, that kind of loss would get you a one-way ride into the desert; on Wall Street, it gets you a bailout because you’re too big to fail.
Bottom line: as long as the Masters of the Universe are allowed to play their firehoses of money on whatever they deem to be the Next Big Thing (“It’s rental houses! No, wait, farmland! In Iowa! or Africa! No, check that, it’s fracking wells!), they will continue to blow up and deflate bubbles until they blow up the world. Where can I get a credit default swap to cover me for that?
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on November 15, 2013
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
Nearly everyone believes that oil prices will trend higher and higher, allowing increasing amounts of oil to be extracted. This belief is based on the observation that the cost of extraction is trending higher and higher. If we are to continue to have oil, we will need to pay the ever-higher cost of extraction. Either that, or we will have to pay the high cost of some type of substitute, if one can be found. Perhaps such a substitute will be a bit less expensive than oil, but costs are still likely to be high, since substitutes to date are higher-priced than oil.
Even though this is conventional reasoning based on experience with many substances, it doesn’t work with oil. Part of the reasoning is right, though. It is indeed true that the cost of extracting oil is trending upward. We extracted the easy to extract oil, and thus “cheap” to extract oil, first and have been forced to move on to extracting oil that is much more expensive to extract. For example, extracting oil using fracking is expensive. So is extracting Brazil’s off-shore oil from under the salt layer.
There are also rising indirect costs of production. Middle Eastern oil exporting nations need high tax revenue in order to keep their populations pacified with programs that provide desalinated water, food, housing and other benefits. This can only be done though high taxes on oil exports. The need for these high taxes acts to increase the sales prices required by these countries–often over $100 barrel (Arab Petroleum Investment House 2013).
Even though the cost of extracting oil is increasing, the feedback loops that occur when oil prices actually do rise are such that oil prices tend to quickly fall back, if they actually do rise. We know this intuitively–in oil importing nations, deep recessions have been associated with big oil price spikes, such as occurred in the 1970s and in 2008. Economist James Hamilton has shown that 10 out of 11 US recessions since World War II were associated with oil price spikes (Hamilton 2011). Hamilton also showed that the effects of the oil price spike were sufficient to cause the recession of that began in late 2007 (Hamilton 2009).
In this post, I will explore the reasons for these adverse feedback loops. I have discussed many of these issues previously in an academic paper I wrote that was published in the journal Energy, called “Oil Supply Limits and the Continuing Financial Crisis” (available here or here).
If I am indeed right about the path of oil prices being down, rather than up, the long-term direction of the economy is quite different from what most are imagining. Oil companies will find new production increasingly unprofitable, and will distribute funds back to shareholders, rather than invest them in unprofitable operations. In fact, some oil companies are already reporting lower profits (Straus and Reed 2013). Some oil companies will go bankrupt. As an example, the number two oil company in Brazil, OGX, recently filed for bankruptcy, because it could not profitably find and extract Brazil’s off-shore oil (Lorenzi and Blout 2013).
Oil companies will increasingly find that the huge amount of debt that they must amass in the hope of producing profits sometime in the future is not really sustainable. The Houston Chronicle reports that an E&Y survey of Oil and Gas Companies indicates that the percentage of companies that expect to decrease debt to capital ratios jumped to 48% in October 2013 from 31% a year ago (Eaton 2013). If companies with huge debt loads cut back production to the amount that their cash flow will sustain, oil extraction can be expected to fall–just as it can be expected to fall if oil and gas companies go bankrupt or give back investment funds to shareholders.
The downward path in oil production is likely to be steep, if oil prices do indeed drop. The economy depends on oil for many major functions, including most transportation, agriculture, and construction. Increasingly expensive to extract oil is a sign of diminishing returns. As we utilize more resources for extracting oil (oil, steel, water, human labor, capital, etc.), there will be fewer resources to invest in the rest of the economy, reducing its ability to grow. This lack of economic growth feeds back as low demand, bringing down the prices of commodities, including oil. It is because of this feedback loop that I believe that the path of oil prices is generally lower. This path is the opposite of what a naive reading of “supply and demand” curves from economics textbooks would suggest, and the opposite of what we need if the economy is to continue on its current path.
Adverse Feedback 1: Wages stagnate as oil prices rise, tending to slow economic growth.
Suppose we calculate average US wages over time, by dividing “Total Wages” by “Total Population,” (everyone, not just those working) and bring this amount to the current cost level using the CPI-Urban inflation adjustment. On this basis, US wages flattened as oil prices rose, both in the 1970s and in the 2000s. The average inflation-adjusted wage is 2% lower in 2012 ($22,040) than it was in 2004 ($22,475), even though labor productivity rose by an average of 1.7% per year during 2005-2012, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. Between 1973 and 1982, average inflation-adjusted wages decreased from $17,294 to $16,265 (or 6%), even though productivity reportedly grew by an average of 1.1% per year during this period.
Figure 1. Average US wages compared to oil price, both in 2012$. US Wages are from Bureau of Labor Statistics Table 2.1, adjusted to 2012 using CPI-Urban inflation. Oil prices are Brent equivalent in 2012$, from BP’s 2013 Statistical Review of World Energy.
To see one reason why wages might flatten, consider the situation of a manufacturer or other company shipping goods. The cost of goods, with shipping, would rise simply because of the cost of oil used in transport. Companies using oil more extensively in producing their products would need to raise prices even more, if their profits are to remain unchanged. If these companies simply pass the higher cost of oil on to consumers, they likely will sell fewer of their products, since some consumers will not be able to afford the products at the new higher price. To “fix” the problem of selling fewer goods, companies would likely lay off workers, to reflect the smaller quantity of goods sold–one reason for the drop in wages paid to workers shown on Figure 1. (Note that Figure 1 will reflect reduced wages, whether it results from fewer people working or lower wages of those working.)
Another approach businesses might use to deal with the problem of rising costs due to higher oil prices would be to reduce costs other than oil, to try to keep the total cost of the product from rising. Wages are a big piece of a business’s total costs, so finding a way to keep wages down would be helpful. One such approach would be a wage freeze, or a cut in wages. Another would be to outsource production to a lower cost country. A third way would be to use increased automation. Any of these approaches would reduce wages paid in the United States. The latter two approaches would tend to have the greatest impact on the lowest paid workers. Thus, we would expect increasing wage disparity, together with the flattening or falling wages, as companies try to hold the cost of goods and services down, despite rising oil prices.
The revenue received by businesses and governments ultimately comes from consumers. If the wages of lower-paid consumers flattens, these lower wages can be expected to reduce economic growth, because with lower wages, these workers will have less income to buy discretionary goods and services. The higher-paid workers may have more income, but this won’t necessarily feed back into the economy well–it may inflate stock market prices, but not feed back as spending on goods and services, necessary for growth.
There is even a feedback with respect to debt. The portion of the population with falling inflation-adjusted wages will find it harder to borrow, making it more difficult to buy big-ticket items such as cars and houses.
Adverse Feedback 2: Consumers cut back on discretionary spending because of the higher cost of food and oil, leading to more layoffs and recession.
Clearly, based on Figure 1, consumers cannot expect wage increases to match oil price increases. Even workers who work in the oil industry cannot expect wage increases equal to the increase in the price of oil, because part of the increase in cost comes from the need for more workers per barrel of oil. For example, it is more labor-intensive to extract oil from a large number of small wells, each of which require fracking, than it is to extract oil from a few larger wells, none of which require fracking.
One cost that tends to increase with the cost of oil is the cost of food (Figure 2). The cost of food and the cost of commuting are necessities for most workers. They will cut down on discretionary expenditures, if necessary, to make certain these costs are covered.
Figure 2. FAO Food Price Index versus Brent spot oil price, based on US Energy Information Agency. *2013 is partial year.
If wages are inadequate, workers will cut back in such area as restaurant meals, vacation travel, and charitable contributions, leading to even more problems with a lack of jobs in these and other discretionary sectors.
It might be noted that even countries that export oil can encounter difficulties as oil prices rise. These countries need a way to get the extra revenue from selling high-priced oil over to the many residents who must buy higher-priced food, but do not benefit from the wages paid to oil workers. It is not a coincidence that the Arab Spring uprisings took place in several oil exporting nations in early 2011, when food prices peaked on Figure 2.
Adverse Feedback 3: Higher oil and food prices together with stagnating wages lead to cutbacks in spending for new cars and new homes, falling prices for new homes, defaults on home and car loans, and banks in need of bailouts.
Purchasing more-expensive homes and new cars are types of discretionary spending. If consumers find their incomes are squeezed by high oil prices, they will cut back on expenditures such as these as well, leading to layoffs in the home construction and auto manufacturing industries. Such cutbacks can also result in bankruptcies of auto and home builders.
If people buy fewer move-up homes, the price of resale homes will tend to fall. This in turn makes defaults on mortgages more likely. Layoffs will also tend to make defaults on mortgages more likely, as well as missed payments on auto loans.
Figure 3. S&P Case-Shiller 20-City Home Price Index, using seasonally adjusted three month average data. April 2006 is the peak month. Data is latest shown on website as of November 2013.
Most people do not associate the drop in US home prices with the rise in oil prices, but the latest rise in oil prices began as early as 2003 and 2004 (see Figure 2), and the drop in home prices began in 2006. Some of the earliest drops in home prices occurred in the most distant suburbs, where oil prices played the biggest role.
Banks increasingly found themselves in financial trouble, as defaults on mortgages and other loans grew. These defaults are often blamed on bad underwriting. While bad underwriting may have played a role (and may also have helped prevent the US from falling into recession even earlier, when oil prices began rising), the falling prices of homes created part of the default problem, as did job layoffs associated with higher oil prices.
All of these feedbacks led to a need for more government involvement–lower interest rates to try to hold the economy together, get spending back up, and raise home prices.
Adverse Feedback 4: Cutbacks in consumer debt combined with flat wages appear to have led to the decline in spending that precipitated the July 2008 drop in oil prices. Consumer debt still remains depressed.
Oil prices started falling in July 2008, and did not hit bottom until the winter of 2008 (Figure 4).
Figure 4. West Texas Intermediate Monthly Average Spot Price, based on us Energy Information Administration data.
What could have precipitated such a fall? Many people consider the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers on September 15, 2008 to be pivotal in the financial crisis of 2008, but the drop in oil prices started months earlier. What could have precipitated such a steep drop in oil prices?
It seems to me that the real underlying cause was a mismatch between what goods cost (such as high food and oil prices) and the amount consumers had available for spending. There are two basic sources of consumer spending–wages and increases in debt. If consumer debt suddenly starts decreasing, rather than increasing, consumer spending can be expected to fall (especially if wages are not rising).
In fact, consumer debt did start falling at precisely the time that oil prices crashed. Mortgage debt started falling in the third quarter of 2008, reflecting a combination of falling home prices and mortgage defaults. As noted previously, both of these were indirectly related to high oil prices.
Figure 5. US Home Mortgage Debt, based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.
Other consumer debt fell at the same time. Revolving credit (primarily credit card debt) hit a peak in July 2008, and began to fall (Figure 6).
Figure 6. US Revolving Credit outstanding (primarily credit card debt), based on Federal Reserve G.19 Report.
Adverse Feedback 5: Even after high oil prices have been in place for several years, many governments find themselves trapped by the need for deficit spending and ultra-low interest rates to cover up problems with stagnant wages and inadequate demand for homes and cars at “normal” interest rates.
With the slack in consumer debt, US government debt soared (Figure 7). Governments in Europe and Japan found themselves in a similar bind.
Figure 7. US government publicly held debt, based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.
Even as US Federal Government debt soared, it was not enough to fully make up for the cutback in debt elsewhere in the economy (Figure 8).
Figure 8. US Debt based on Federal Reserve Z.1 data.
How do governments get themselves caught in such a bind? Businesses can to a significant extent overcome their problems with high oil prices by laying off workers and finding lower cost methods of production. Individuals, however, find that the wage problems persist as long as oil prices remain high and businesses have the option of replacing their services with lower cost workers elsewhere. Globalization definitely makes this problem worse.
When workers have job problems, governments find themselves in the unfortunate position of trying to fix the situation by providing more unemployment benefits, food stamps, and disability benefits. Governments also find themselves with lagging tax revenue, because businesses increasingly are located in offshore tax havens, and workers’ incomes are lagging.
Adverse Feedback 6: Rising prices of oil have contributed to long term inflation. If oil prices start falling, this tends to create the opposite problem–deflation. Once oil price deflation starts, it may lead to a self-reinforcing debt default cycle.
Not all inflation is related to higher energy prices, but some of it is. This is one reason the US government sometimes gives an inflation estimate “excluding volatile food and energy prices.” Inflation over the years appears to be one way that a small amount of diminishing returns has fed into the economy.
The concern a person has is that deflation will tend to lead to debt defaults. Clearly lower oil and gas prices mean that oil and gas businesses will become less profitable, and loans in this area will tend to default. But loans related to other types of commodities may tend to default as well. There will also tend to be layoffs in these industries, and in surrounding communities.
Also, with deflation, the low interest rate policies of governments no longer have the stimulating impact that they would have without deflation. So governments will have to concoct negative interest rate plans, and see if they can make these work, to take the place of current plans.
One question is how effective today’s Quantitative Easing and ultra-low interest rate programs have been. We know that they have tended to blow bubbles in asset prices, such as stock market prices. But are ultra-low interest rates part of what allowed oil prices to re-inflate after the July 2008 drop? Certainly, they have helped hold up auto and home sales, and have supported oil drilling operations that rely heavily on debt.
To some extent, the current system appears to be held together with duct tape. It looks like it could fall apart on its own, or it could fall apart as governments try to reduce their deficits by higher taxes and lower spending (See Figure 7). Adding deflation to the combination would seem to be another way of making the current approach for covering up our problems even more vulnerable to collapse.
The frightening thing is that there is already some evidence that oil prices (and commodity prices in general) are starting to trend downward. The chart I showed in Figure 4 showed West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil prices–a price that is often quoted in the US. On Figure 9, I show WTI oil prices alongside Brent, another oil benchmark. Brent reflects world oil prices to a greater extent than WTI price does. It seems to be showing a recent downward trend in world oil prices. To the extent that this downward trend in prices feeds back into inflation rates and makes Quantitative Easing work less well, this downward trend becomes a potential problem. Its effect would tend to offset the stimulating effect on economies that lower oil prices would normally have.
Figure 9. Brent oil price compared to West Texas Intermediate oil price, based on EIA monthly average spot prices.
Oil and other fossil fuels are unusual materials. Historically, their value to society has been far higher than their cost of extraction. It is the difference between the value to society and their cost of extraction that has helped economies around the world grow. Now, as the cost of oil extraction rises, we see this difference shrinking. As this difference shrinks, the ability of economies to grow is eroding, especially for those countries that depend most heavily on oil–Japan, Europe, and the United States. It should not be surprising if the growth of these countries slows as oil prices rise. The trend toward globalization can only make this trend worse, because it gives businesses an opportunity to lower wage costs by outsourcing part of their production to lower-cost countries (that use less oil!). When costs are reduced in this manner, businesses are also able get the “benefit” of more lax pollution laws overseas.
We saw in Figure 9 that global oil prices seem already to be trending downward, as growth in countries such as China, Brazil, and India is faltering. At the same time, oil from easy to extract locations is depleting, and oil companies have no choice but move on locations where more resources of all kinds are required, leading to diminishing returns and ever-higher cost of extraction. The way I view our predicament is shown in Figure 10.
Figure 10. Our Oil Price Predicament. Over time, if we want to maintain constant oil consumption, the price consumers can afford tends to fall, while the price required by oil producers in order to earn a profit tends to rise.
Over time, in order to maintain constant oil production, the price consumers can afford tends to fall, because governments need to “take back” the huge deficit spending they are using now to prop up the system. At the same time, prices required by producers tend to rise, as the mix of oil production moves to more difficult locations.
While in theory oil prices could spike again because of rising demand of the less developed countries, it is hard to see how this price spike could be sustained. We would likely run into the same problems we had before, with more layoffs and plus credit contraction leading to a cutback in demand in the US, the European Union, and Japan. These users represent a big enough share of the total that their drop in demand would tend to bring world prices back down.
The problem this time, though, is that governments seem to be getting close to being “out of ammunition,” in trying to fight what is really diminishing returns of one of the major drivers of our economy. I don’t know exactly how things might play out, but experience with prior civilizations suggests that “collapse” might be a reasonable description of the outcome.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on October 23, 2013
Discuss this article at the Energy Table inside the Diner
How does the world reach limits? This is a question that few dare to examine. My analysis suggests that these limits will come in a very different way than most have expected–through financial stress that ultimately relates to rising unit energy costs, plus the need to use increasing amounts of energy for additional purposes:
- To extract oil and other minerals from locations where extraction is very difficult, such as in shale formations, or very deep under the sea;
- To mitigate water shortages and pollution issues, using processes such as desalination and long distance transport of food; and
- To attempt to reduce future fossil fuel use, by building devices such as solar panels and electric cars that increase fossil fuel energy use now in the hope of reducing energy use later.
We have long known that the world is likely to eventually reach limits. In 1972, the book The Limits to Growth by Donella Meadows and others modeled the likely impact of growing population, limited resources, and rising pollution in a finite world. They considered a number of scenarios under a range of different assumptions. These models strongly suggested the world economy would begin to hit limits in the first half of the 21st century and would eventually collapse.
The indications of the 1972 analysis were considered nonsense by most. Clearly, the world would work its way around limits of the type suggested. The world would find additional resources in short supply. It would become more efficient at using resources and would tackle the problem of rising pollution. The free market would handle any problems that might arise.
The Limits to Growth analysis modeled the world economy in terms of flows; it did not try to model the financial system. In recent years, I have been looking at the situation and have discovered that as we hit limits in a finite world, the financial system is the most vulnerable part because of the system because it ties everything else together. Debt in particular is vulnerable because the time-shifting aspect of debt “works” much better in a rapidly growing economy than in an economy that is barely growing or shrinking.
The problem that now looks like it has the potential to push the world into financial collapse is something no one would have thought of—high oil prices that take a slice out of the economy, without anything to show in return. Consumers find that their own salaries do not rise as oil prices rise. They find that they need to cut back on discretionary spending if they are to have adequate funds to pay for necessities produced using oil. Food is one such necessity; oil is used to run farm equipment, make herbicides and pesticides, and transport finished food products. The result of a cutback in discretionary spending is recession or near recession, and less job availability. Governments find themselves in financial distress from trying to mitigate the recession-like impacts without adequate tax revenue.
One of our big problems now is a lack of cheap substitutes for oil. Highly touted renewable energy sources such as wind and solar PV are not cheap. They also do not substitute directly for oil, and they increase near-term fossil fuel consumption. Ethanol can act as an “oil extender,” but it is not cheap. Battery powered cars are also not cheap.
The issue of rising oil prices is really a two-sided issue. The least expensive sources of oil tend to be extracted first. Thus, the cost of producing oil tends to rise over time. As a result, oil producers tend to require ever-rising oil prices to cover their costs. It is the interaction of these two forces that leads to the likelihood of financial collapse in the near term:
- Need for ever-rising oil prices by oil producers.
- The adverse impact of high-energy prices on consumers.
If a cheap substitute for oil had already come along in adequate quantity, there would be no problem. The issue is that no suitable substitute has been found, and financial problems are here already. In fact, collapse may very well come from oil prices not rising high enough to satisfy the needs of those extracting the oil, because of worldwide recession.
The Role of Inexpensive Energy
The fact that few stop to realize is that energy of the right type is absolutely essential for making goods and services of all kinds. Even if the services are simply typing numbers into a computer, we need energy of precisely the right kind for several different purposes:
- To make the computer and transport it to the current location.
- To build the building where the worker works.
- To light the building where the worker works.
- To heat or cool the building where the worker works.
- To transport the worker to the location where he works.
- To produce the foods that the worker eats.
- To produce the clothing that the worker wears.
Furthermore, the energy used needs to be inexpensive, for many reasons—so that the worker’s salary goes farther; so that the goods or services created are competitive in a world market; and so that governments can gain adequate tax revenue from taxing energy products. We don’t think of fossil fuel energy products as being a significant source of tax revenue, but they very often are, especially for exporters (Rodgers map of oil “government take” percentages).
Some of the energy listed above is paid for by the employer; some is paid for by the employee. This difference is irrelevant, since all are equally essential. Some energy is omitted from the above list, but is still very important. Energy to build roads, electric transmission lines, schools, and health care centers is essential if the current system is to be maintained. If energy prices rise, taxes and fees to pay for basic services such as these will likely need to rise.
How “Growth” Began
For most primates, such as chimpanzees and gorillas, the number of the species fluctuates up and down within a range. Total population isn’t very high. If human population followed that of other large primates, there wouldn’t be more than a few million humans worldwide. They would likely live in one geographical area.
How did humans venture out of this mold? In my view, a likely way that humans were able to improve their dominance over other animals and plants was through the controlled use of fire, a skill they learned over one million years ago (Luke 2012). Controlled use of fire could be used for many purposes, including cooking food, providing heat in cool weather, and scaring away wild animals.
The earliest use of fire was in some sense very inexpensive. Dry sticks and leaves were close at hand. If humans used a technique such as twirling one stick against another with the right technique and the right kind of wood, such a fire could be made in less than a minute (Hough 1890). Once humans had discovered how to make fire, they could use it to leverage their meager muscular strength.
The benefits of the controlled use of fire are perhaps not as obvious to us as they would have been to the early users. When it became possible to cook food, a much wider variety of potential foodstuffs could be eaten. The nutrition from food was also better. There is even some evidence that cooking food allowed the human body to evolve in the direction of smaller chewing and digestive apparatus and a bigger brain (Wrangham 2009). A bigger brain would allow humans to outsmart their prey. (Dilworth 2010)
Cooking food allowed humans to spend much less time chewing food than previously—only one-tenth as much time according to one study (4.7% of daily activity vs. 48% of daily activity) (Organ et al. 2011). The reduction in chewing time left more time other activities, such as making tools and clothing.
Humans gradually increased their control over many additional energy sources. Training dogs to help in hunting came very early. Humans learned to make sailboats using wind energy. They learned to domesticate plants and animals, so that they could provide more food energy in the location where it was needed. Domesticated animals could also be used to pull loads.
Humans learned to use wind mills and water mills made from wood, and eventually learned to use coal, petroleum (also called oil), natural gas, and uranium. The availability of fossil fuels vastly increased our ability to make substances that require heating, including metals, glass, and concrete. Prior to this time, wood had been used as an energy source, leading to widespread deforestation.
With the availability of metals, glass, and concrete in quantity, it became possible to develop modern hydroelectric power plants and transmission lines to transmit this electricity. It also became possible to build railroads, steam-powered ships, better plows, and many other useful devices.
Population rose dramatically after fossil fuels were added, enabling better food production and transportation. This started about 1800.
Figure 1. World population based on data from “Atlas of World History,” McEvedy and Jones, Penguin Reference Books, 1978 and UN Population Estimates.
All of these activities led to a very long history of what we today might call economic growth. Prior to the availability of fossil fuels, the majority of this growth was in population, rather than a major change in living standards. (The population was still very low compared to today.) In later years, increased energy use was still associated with increased population, but it was also associated with an increase in creature comforts—bigger homes, better transportation, heating and cooling of homes, and greater availability of services like education, medicine, and financial services.
How Cheap Energy and Technology Combine to Lead to Economic Growth
Without external energy, all we have is the energy from our own bodies. We can perhaps leverage this energy a bit by picking up a stick and using it to hit something, or by picking up a rock and throwing it. In total, this leveraging of our own energy doesn’t get us very far—many animals do the same thing. Such tools provide some leverage, but they are not quite enough.
The next step up in leverage comes if we can find some sort of external energy to use to supplement our own energy when making goods and services. One example might be heat from a fire built with sticks used for baking bread; another example might be energy from an animal pulling a cart. This additional energy can’t take too much of (1) our human energy, (2) resources from the ground, or (3) financial capital, or we will have little to invest what we really want—technology that gives us the many goods we use, and services such as education, health care, and recreation.
The use of inexpensive energy led to a positive feedback loop: the value of the goods and service produced was sufficient to produce a profit when all costs were considered, thanks to the inexpensive cost of the energy used. This profit allowed additional investment, and contributed to further energy development and further growth. This profit also often led to rising salaries. The additional cheap energy use combined with greater technology produced the impression that humans were becoming more “productive.”
For a very long time, we were able to ramp up the amount of energy we used, worldwide. There were many civilizations that collapsed along the way, but in total, for all civilizations in the world combined, energy consumption, population, and goods and services produced tended to rise over time.
In the 1970s, we had our first experience with oil limits. US oil production started dropping in 1971. The drop in oil production set us up as easy prey for an oil embargo in 1973-1974, and oil prices spiked. We got around this problem, and more high price problems in the late 1970s by
- Starting work on new inexpensive oil production in the North Sea, Alaska, and Mexico.
- Adopting more fuel-efficient cars, already available in Japan.
- Switching from oil to nuclear or coal for electricity production.
- Cutting back on oil intensive activities, such as building new roads and doing heavy manufacturing in the United States.
The economy eventually more or less recovered, but men’s wages stagnated, and women found a need to join the workforce to maintain the standards of living of their families. Oil prices dropped back, but not quite a far as to prior level. The lack of energy intensive industries (powered by cheap oil) likely contributed to the stagnation of wages for men.
Recently, since about 2004, we have again been encountering high oil prices. Unfortunately, the easy options to fix them are mostly gone. We have run out of cheap energy options—tight oil from shale formations isn’t cheap. Wages again are stagnating, even worse than before. The positive feedback loop based on low energy prices that we had been experiencing when oil prices were low isn’t working nearly as well, and economic growth rates are falling.
The technical name for the problem we are running into with oil is diminishing marginal returns. This represents a situation where more and more inputs are used in extraction, but these additional inputs add very little more in the way of the desired output, which is oil. Oil companies find that an investment of a given amount, say $1,000 dollars, yields a much smaller amount of oil than it used to in the past—often less than a fourth as much. There are often more up-front expenses in drilling the wells, and less certainty about the length of time that oil can be extracted from a new well.
Oil that requires high up-front investment needs a high price to justify its extraction. When consumers pay the high oil price, the amount they have for discretionary goods drops. The feedback loop starts working the wrong direction—in the direction of more layoffs, and lower wages for those working. Companies, including oil companies, have a harder time making a profit. They find outsourcing labor costs to lower-cost parts of the world more attractive.
Can this Growth Continue Indefinitely?
Even apart from the oil price problem, there are other reasons to think that growth cannot continue indefinitely in a finite world. For one thing, we are already running short of fresh water in many parts of the world, including China, India and the Middle East. Topsoil is eroding, and is being depleted of minerals. In addition, if population continues to rise, we will need a way to feed all of these people—either more arable land, or a way of producing more food per acre.
Pollution is another issue. One type is acidification of oceans; another leads to dead zones in oceans. Mercury pollution is a widespread problem. Fresh water that is available is often very polluted. Excess carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to concerns about climate change.
There is also an issue with humans crowding out other species. In the past, there have been five widespread die-offs of species, called “Mass Extinctions.” Humans seem now to be causing a Sixth Mass Extinction. Paleontologist Niles Eldredge describes the Sixth Mass Extinction as follows:
- Phase One began when first humans began to disperse to different parts of the world about 100,000 years ago. [We were still hunter-gatherers at that point, but we killed off large species for food as we went.]
- Phase Two began about 10,000 years ago, when humans turned to agriculture.
According to Eldredge, once we turned to agriculture, we stopped living within local ecosystems. We converted land to produce only one or two crops, and classified all unwanted species as “weeds”. Now with fossil fuels, we are bringing our attack on other species to a new higher level. For example, there is greater clearing of land for agriculture, overfishing, and too much forest use by humans (Eldredge 2005).
In many ways, the pattern of human population growth and growth of use of resources by humans are like a cancer. Growth has to stop for one reason or other—smothering other species, depletion of resources, or pollution.
Many Competing Wrong Diagnoses of our Current Problem
The problem we are running into now is not an easy one to figure out because the problem crosses many disciplines. Is it a financial problem? Or a climate change problem? Or an oil depletion problem? It is hard to find individuals with knowledge across a range of fields.
There is also a strong bias against really understanding the problem, if the answer appears to be in the “very bad to truly awful” range. Politicians want a problem that is easily solvable. So do sustainability folks, and peak oil folks, and people writing academic papers. Those selling newspapers want answers that will please their advertisers. Academic book publishers want books that won’t scare potential buyers.
Another issue is that nature works on a flow basis. All we have in a given year in terms of resources is what we pull out in that year. If we use more resources for one thing–extracting oil, or making solar panels, it leaves less for other purposes. Consumers also work mostly from the income from their current paychecks. Even if we come up with what looks like wonderful solutions, in terms of an investment now for payback later, nature and consumers aren’t very co-operative in producing them. Consumers need ever-more debt, to make the solutions sort of work. If one necessary resource–cheap oil–is in short supply, nature dictates that other resource uses shrink, to work within available balances. So there is more pressure toward collapse.
Virtually no one understands our complex problem. As a result, we end up with all kinds of stories about how we can fix our problem, none of which make sense:
“Humans don’t need fossil fuels; we can just walk away.” – But how do we feed 7 billion people? How long would our forests last before they are used for fuel?
“More wind and solar PV” – But these use fossil fuels now, and don’t fix oil prices.
“Climate change is our only problem.”—Climate change needs to be considered in conjunction with other limits, many of which are hitting very soon. Maybe there is good news about climate, but it likely will be more than offset by bad news from limits not considered in the model.
From the Keyboard of Surly1
Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on June 30, 2013
Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.
Reality is for people who can’t face drugs.~ Laurence Peter
“Imagine a society that subjects people to conditions that make them terribly unhappy then gives them the drugs to take away their unhappiness. . . In effect antidepressants are a means of modifying an individual’s internal state in such a way as to enable him to tolerate social conditions that he would otherwise find intolerable.” ― Theodore Kaczynski
With every news cycle we move into times more absurd and cruel then we could possibly imagine. The daily headlines have outstripped the creativity of satirists and humorists. The mainstream media lies, and reminiscent of the Soviet Union of bygone days, only comedians are able to tell the truth. Brain-eating amoebas! Plot to execute Occupy leaders abetted by FBI! This week we learned that an activist faces 13 years in prison for wielding sidewalk chalk, banksters caught dead to rights colluding in fraud face nothing, we connect the dots on species extinction, and we are shocked… shocked to learn that the last people that the NSA wants to surveil are terrorists. The president of Ecuador tweaks the New World Order, Phyllis Schafly rises from her crypt, and Fukushima continues to tick away, glowing in the dark with malevolent certainty. There is a reason the proverb has it, “many a truth is told in jest.” So, barkeep, for my friends here antidepressants all around with a Prestone chaser. Belly up to the Diner bar for yet another round.
California Man Faces 13 Years In Prison For Offending Bank of America With Kiddie Chalk
Yes friends, in the wake of last week’s whistleblower story about Bank of America comes this story about the wheels of justice. And no, we are not making this up. Daily Kos reports:
Jeff Olson, the 40-year-old man who is being prosecuted for scrawling anti-megabank messages on sidewalks in water-soluble chalk last year now faces a 13-year jail sentence. A judge has barred his attorney from mentioning freedom of speech during trial.According to the San Diego Reader, which reported on Tuesday that a judge had opted to prevent Olson’s attorney from “mentioning the First Amendment, free speech, free expression, public forum, expressive conduct, or political speech during the trial,” Olson must now stand trial for on 13 counts of vandalism.
In addition to possibly spending years in jail, Olson will also be held liable for fines of up to $13,000 over the anti-big-bank slogans that were left using washable children’s chalk on a sidewalk outside of three San Diego, California branches of Bank of America, the massive conglomerate that received $45 billion in interest-free loans from the US government in 2008-2009 in a bid to keep it solvent after bad bets went south.
The Reader reports that Olson’s hearing had gone as poorly as his attorney might have expected, with Judge Howard Shore, who is presiding over the case, granting Deputy City Attorney Paige Hazard’s motion to prohibit attorney Tom Tosdal from mentioning the United States’ fundamental First Amendment rights.
You read that correctly. By order of the judge, the defendant’s attorney may not mention that pesky free-speech-first-amendment thingy during the trial. Seriously. Can you say, “mistrial?”
The backstory was thus: apparently, Darell Freeman, Bank of America’s Vice President for Global Corporate Security, confronted Olsen and a friend as they were protesting in front of a B of A branch.
A former police officer, Freeman accused Olson and Daniels of “running a business outside of the bank,” evidently in reference to the National Bank Transfer Day activities, which was a consumer activism initiative that sought to promote Americans to switch from commercial banks, like Bank of America, to not-for-profit credit unions.
At the time, Bank of America’s debit card fees were among one of the triggers that led Occupy Wall Street members to promote the transfer day.
“It was just an empty threat,” says Olson of Freeman’s accusations. “He was trying to scare me away. To be honest, it did at first.”
Former cop Freeman repeatedly pressured the San Diego police to attack Olson’s chalk-based activism with the same legal force used to prosecute violent gang members. And, this being the America we no longer recognize from our youth, he got want he wanted.
More experiments in the laboratory of democracy.
Earlier this week, a story moved that went to prove everything you thought about the behavior of bankers but were unable to produce a smoking gun.
The Irish Independent, a Dublin-based newspaper, has uncovered tapes of an internal phone conversation from September 2008 between two executives at Anglo Irish Bank during its bailout deal and they sound pretty scandalous. The Irish Independent points out that the recordings show they misled the Central Bank.
The executives from the recording have been identified as John Bowe (head of the bank’s capital markets) and Peter Fitzgerald (director of retail banking).
However, Bowe “categorically denied” that he misled the Central Bank and Fitzgerald, who wasn’t involved in discussions with regulators, said he was unaware of any intention to mislead, the report said.
In this regard, we are reminded of Bill Clinton’s repeated denials about his serial infidelities and one notorious intern. But there’s more.
Bowe tells Fitzgerald that they met with the Irish Financial Services Regulatory Authority (IFSRA) the previous day about getting €7 billion. They laugh how they will never be able to pay it back.
Bowe: “So we went down … and we basically said. In Central, yeah. And I mean, to cut a long story short we sort of said. ‘Look, what we need is seven billion euros…and we’re going to give you and we’re going to give you, what we’re going to give you is our loan collateral so we’re not giving you ECB, we’re giving you the loan clause.
“We gave him a term sheet and we put a pro not facility together and we said that’s what we need. And that kind of sobered up everybody pretty quickly, you know.”
Fitzgerald: “And is that €7 billion a term?”
Bowe: “This is €7 billion bridging.”
Bowe: “So … so it is bridged until we can pay you back … which is never.” (Both laugh)
And we know you’re laughing, too. even though these fiduciaries are intent on committing a fraud, one would assume that they had at least done the math to compute the amount of their losses that the resulting fraud with sponge up, correct? Uhhh …
Fitzgerald asks Bowe how he came up with the 7 billion figure. Bowe responds that like then-CEO David Drumm, he picked it out of his “arse.”
Fitzgerald: “Ah we are, yeah, yeah and, em, what, how did you arrive at the seven?
Bowe: “Just, as Drummer would say, ‘picked it out of my arse’, you know. Em … I mean, look, what we did was we basically said: ‘What is the amount we can securitize over the next six months?’ And basically say to them: ‘Look our problem is time, it’s not our ability to create the liquidity, the enemy is time here.'”
Bowe: “So we can rebuild, in other words, we can rebuild the liquidity off our loan book, but what we can’t do, we can’t do it now and the balance sheet’s leaking now.”
So we will essentially torture Bradley Manning and subject him to a political show trial, and hunt Edward Snowden to the ends of the earth. We will prosecute those who reports wrongdoing though official channels to demonstrate the futility of using those channels, and to send a message to other potential whistleblowers. We will foment wars all over the earth in order to enrich a handful of arms manufacturers. And if American boys need to die in pursuit of that particular pocket of profit, so be it. But this scum, and their ilk on this side of the water, walk free, and proud knowing they’re doing “God’s work.”
As noted above, the Independent also has a media-filled story about how these two deceived the Irish government and cost Ireland sovereignty.
Humans ARE directly to blame for a rise in the number of endangered species
It might seem to be CFS, or “common fucking sense,” as re: would’ve her, to find a direct link between increase in population size and the number of life forms on planet Earth threatened with extinction. Yet in every gathering of sub-literates, whether it be the corner bar or Congress, there are those will argue otherwise. No more. Research findings just in from Ohio State University demonstrate that there is a direct link between human activity and the extinction and endangerment of certain animals.
Researchers from Ohio State University discovered that as human numbers rise, the number of animals and species in the same region decrease with the study predicting that 11% of animals will be endangered by 2050.
Previous studies have suspected that the number of threatened species could be linked to the size, density and growth of the human population yet research from Ohio State University is the first to have confirmed the theory.
. . .
They found that changes in human population density had ‘measurable consequences’ on changes in the number of threatened species by nation.
The average nation with a growing population can expect a 3.3 per cent increase in the number of threatened mammals and birds over the 10 years and a 10.8 per cent increase by 2050, based on human population growth alone.
The implications of the study are quite clear: human population density is at the very heart of extinction threats to both mammals and birds. The report does not directly suggest conservation efforts, but the future conservation efforts and certainly consider the impact of human population.
Surveillance not for terrorists
A Bloomberg article thankfully reminded us of the real issue at the heart of the NSA surveillance/Edward Snowden drama. As some of us have seen, to our horror, ordinary Americans seem to not mind the government’s digital monitoring of their communications as long as it seems to be genuinely targeted terrorists. That’s really not the case. The government’s monitoring of our communications and days of our digital privacy is really targeted at ordinary, law-abiding citizens.
The infrastructure set up by the National Security Agency, however, may only be good for gathering information on the stupidest, lowest-ranking of terrorists. The Prism surveillance program focuses on access to the servers of America’s largest Internet companies, which support such popular services as Skype, Gmail and iCloud. These are not the services that truly dangerous elements typically use.
In a January 2012 report titled “Jihadism on the Web: A Breeding Ground for Jihad in the Modern Age,” the Dutch General Intelligence and Security Service drew a convincing picture of an Islamist Web underground centered around “core forums.” These websites are part of the Deep Web, or Undernet, the multitude of online resources not indexed by commonly used search engines.
The Netherlands’ security service, which couldn’t find recent data on the size of the Undernet, cited a 2003 study from the University of California at Berkeley as the “latest available scientific assessment.” The study found that just 0.2 percent of the Internet could be searched. The rest remained inscrutable and has probably grown since. In 2010, Google Inc. said it had indexed just 0.004 percent of the information on the Internet.
Websites aimed at attracting traffic do their best to get noticed, paying to tailor their content to the real or perceived requirements of search engines such as Google. Terrorists have no such ambitions. They prefer to lurk in the dark recesses of the Undernet.
Undernet? Really? I’m not sure most Americans, including this writer, could find the undernet if provided a map and a Chilton’s Guide. Given the fact that no self-respecting terrorist would use the open Internet for communications of any sort, one is left to consider the implications of just why the government is hoovering up all manner of personal communications of law-abiding citizens. Perhaps it’s to create the “surveillance effect” of demoralizing an already cowed populace now used to serial fingering and probing by uniformed TSA goons?
…Monitoring phone calls is hardly the way to catch terrorists. They’re generally not dumb enough to use Verizon. Granted, Russia’s special services managed to kill Chechen separatist leader Dzhokhar Dudayev with a missile that homed in on his satellite-phone signal. That was in 1996. Modern-day terrorists are generally more aware of the available technology.
At best, the recent revelations concerning Prism and telephone surveillance might deter potential recruits to terrorist causes from using the most visible parts of the Internet. Beyond that, the government’s efforts are much more dangerous to civil liberties than they are to al-Qaeda and other organizations like it.
Surveillance societies exist to disrupt and prevent change to the status quo. Here’s a theory: having successfully prosecuted a 35 year class war to extract the accumulated wealth of the American middle class, the elites now have a militarized police force and a state surveillance apparatus in place to prevent social movements that will lead to change. Especially political movements, like Occupy. All the better for the 1% to keep their ill–accumulated gains off the table and safely in their Cayman Islands accounts.
A related story:
Add Michael Hastings
HuffPo moved an article last Monday about Michael Hastings’ last communications. Speculation continues about the circumstances of his death.
Hours before dying in a fiery car crash, award-winning journalist Michael Hastings sent an email to his colleagues, warning that federal authorities were interviewing his friends and that he needed to go “off the rada[r]” for a bit.
The email was sent around 1 p.m. on Monday, June 17. At 4:20 a.m. the following morning, Hastings died when his Mercedes, traveling at high speeds, smashed into a tree and caught on fire. He was 33.
Hastings sent the email to staff at BuzzFeed, where he was employed, but also blind-copied a friend, Staff Sgt. Joseph Biggs, on the message. Biggs, who Hastings met in 2008 when he was embedded in his unit in Afghanistan, forwarded the email to KTLA, who posted it online on Saturday.
Here’s the email, with the recipients’ names redacted.
Subject: FBI Investigation, re: NSA
Hey (redacted names) — the Feds are interviewing my “close friends and associates.” Perhaps if the authorities arrive “BuzzFeed GQ,” er HQ, may be wise to immediately request legal counsel before any conversations or interviews about our news-gathering practices or related journalism issues.
Also: I’m onto a big story, and need to go off the rada[r] for a bit.
All the best, and hope to see you all soon.
Hastings, an accomplished war correspondent and sharp political reporter, was best known for writing a critical Rolling Stone profile of General Stanley McChrystal that led to his resignation.
It’s unclear what “big story” Hastings was working on prior to his death, but it might have to do with yet another military bigwig, this time retired general David Petraeus.
The LA Times reported that Hastings was researching a story about a privacy lawsuit brought by Jill Kelley, the Florida socialite who took center stage in the Petraeus cheating scandal, against the Department of Defense and the FBI. According to a person close to Kelley, the paper said, Hastings had plans to meet a representative of hers to discuss the case next week.
Ecuador offers U.S. rights aid, waives trade benefits
For those of us following the Edward Snowden/NSA story with the avidity of a drama, the statements made this week by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa certainly compelled our attention. Correa rejected trade benefits and courted the risk of sanctions, plus tolerated threats from a number of American politicians as a result of considering asylum for Edward Snowden.
(Reuters) – Ecuador’s leftist government thumbed its nose at Washington on Thursday by renouncing U.S. trade benefits and offering to pay for human rights training in America in response to pressure over asylum for former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden.
The angry response threatens a showdown between the two nations over Snowden, and may burnish President Rafael Correa’s credentials to be the continent’s principal challenger of U.S. power after the death of Venezuelan socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
“Ecuador will not accept pressures or threats from anyone, and it does not traffic in its values or allow them to be subjugated to mercantile interests,” government spokesman Fernando Alvarado said at a news conference.
In a cheeky jab at the U.S. spying program that Snowden unveiled through leaks to the media, the South American nation offered $23 million per year to finance human rights training.
The funding would be destined to help “avoid violations of privacy, torture and other actions that are denigrating to humanity,” Alvarado said. He said the amount was the equivalent of what Ecuador gained each year from the trade benefits.
Ironies abound. Yet the fact that the president of a small, Latin American country can give voice to the many of us still inside the FSA who reject the Washington consensus is a thing of beauty. The wholly-owned corporate media simply gives no play to domestic critics of the new world order or any of its instrumentalities.
“They’ve managed to focus attention on Snowden and on the ‘wicked’ countries that ‘support’ him, making us forget the terrible things against the U.S. people and the whole world that he denounced. The world order isn’t only unjust, it’s immoral,” Correa continued, taking an aggressive new rhetorical tack on the case.
A sentiment now forgotten in most quarters within the FSA.
Deregulation Makes Things Blow Up
Charlie Pierce of Esquire made note of the fact that, when there is no oversight and regulation, owners won’t spend any money on safety or their people in pursuit of maximum profit.
Meanwhile, Congress seems to be getting interested in what happened in Geismar. Today, the Senate Committee On The Environment And Public Works held a hearing into what happened in both Texas and Louisiana. The committee’s chair, Barbara Boxer of California, said that, “This should be a wakeup call for all of us, and we must take steps to ensure that such a disaster never happens again. Here’s the good news: under existing law, EPA can strengthen safety at facilities that handle dangerous chemicals.”
If only the EPA had, you know, a director right now.
Meanwhile, Kim Nibarger, an environmental specialist for the United Steelworkers minced no words about what’s really going on here. Decades of deregulation and removing the dead hand of government from American corporations have turned far too many American factories and storage facilities into mini-Bhopals in waiting.
This is Rick Perry, Governor Of Texas, including the city of West,on the EPA and environmental regulations:
“… tell the EPA that we don’t don’t need you monkeyin’ around and fiddlin’ around and gettin’ in our business on every kind of regulation that you can dream up. You’re doin’ nothin’ more than killin’ jobs. It is a cemetery for jobs at the EPA.”
This is “Bobby” Jindal, governor of Louisiana, including the city of Geismar, on government regulations:
“We believe in planting the seeds of growth in the fertile soil of your economy, where you live, where you work, invest, and dream, not in the barren concrete of Washington. If it’s worth doing, block grant it to the states.”
This is Mike Pence, governor of Indiana, including the city of Union Mills, on the same topic:
“Over several decades the proliferation of administrative rules and regulations at all levels of government has increased the complexity and expense of economic life. Reducing this regulatory burden will promote citizens’ freedom to engage in individual, family and business pursuits.”
Yeah, that’ll work.
Self-reporting is a joke. Leaving it to the states is an open invitation to the wild kingdom, Right now, the occasional death of a worker or three is cheaper than installing sprinklers or something. When your state’s governor starts spouting off about creating a “business-friendly environment” in your state, this is what he’s talking about.
The blogging gods are good this week…
Conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly is still telling anyone who will listen that the Republican party should only pay attention to white voters (something that it is already pretty good at doing, according to recent data).
This is a popular refrain for Schlafy, even though, as Jordan Fabian at ABC News notes, this is precisely the strategy that lost Republicans the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections, to say nothing of how offensive it is to suggest the GOP disregard entire segments of the voting population based on race and ethnicity.
Schlafly was a guest on a conservative California radio show when she fired off her latest proclamation about the future of the GOP, announcing that courting Latino voters is a waste of the grand ol’ party’s time because they “don’t have any Republican inclinations at all,” and are “running an illegitimacy rate that’s just about the same as the blacks are.”
As Hunter S. Thompson would undoubtedly observed, Res ipsa loquitor.
The Accident Is NOT Contained
What better way to execute a “Great Culling” than to poison groundwater? Washington’s Blog moved this story. Record high levels of radioactive tritium have been observed in the harbor at Fukushima.
Japan Times notes:
The density of radioactive tritium in samples of seawater from near the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear plant doubled over 10 days to hit a record 1,100 becquerels per liter, possibly indicating contaminated groundwater is seeping into the Pacific, Tokyo Electric Power Co. said.
Tepco said late Monday it was still analyzing the water for strontium-90, which would pose a greater danger than tritium to human health if absorbed via the food chain. The level of cesium did not show any significant change between the two sample dates, according to the embattled utility.
On June 19, Tepco revealed that a groundwater sample taken from a nearby monitoring well was contaminated with both tritium and strontium-90.
During a news conference Monday in Tokyo, Masayuki Ono, a Tepco executive and spokesman, this time did not deny the possibility of leakage into the sea, while he said Tepco is still trying to determine the cause of the spike.
A sample collected Friday contained around 1,100 becquerels of tritium per liter, the highest level detected in seawater since the nuclear crisis at the plant started in March 2011, the utility said Monday.
The latest announcement was made after Tepco detected high levels of radioactive tritium and strontium in groundwater from an observation well at the plant.
Indeed, the amount of radioactive strontium has skyrocketed over the last couple of months at Fukushima.
The New York Times writes:
Tokyo Electric Power, the operator of the stricken nuclear power plant at Fukushima, said Wednesday that it had detected high levels of radioactive strontium in groundwater at the plant, raising concerns that its storage tanks are leaking contaminated water, possibly into the ocean.
The company has struggled to store growing amounts of contaminated runoff at the plant, but had previously denied that the site’s groundwater was highly toxic….
Very high radioactivity levels were detected in groundwater from an observation well at the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, said the plant operator Tokyo Electric Power Co. (TEPCO) Wednesday.
The observation well was set up on the Pacific side of the plant’s No. 2 reactor turbine building last December to find out the reasons why radioactivity levels in seawater near the plant remained high. The company said the sampled water could be from the contaminated water that seeped into the ground.
Just a reminder that weather patterns move West to East.
Brain-eating amoebas thrive in US lakes as global warming heats waterways
These deadly invaders from the deep are showing up in surprising locations
For some people, a fatal infection without any obvious treatment strikes the sufferer down. After a swim on a hot summers day, the swimmer inadvertently inhales and me big organism which travels through the nasal passage into the brain where it multiplies devours cerebral fluid and gray matter and causes death.
And if you live in the North, it’s coming to a theater near you.
These “brain-eating amoebas” — known to doctors and scientists as Naegleria fowleri, or N. fowleri — aren’t believed to kill often. In the US, researchers estimate that between three and eight people die from N. fowleri disease, commonly referred to as PAM (primary amebic meningoencephalitis) each year. But that might not be the case for long. In recent years, N. fowleri has popped up in unexpected locations, which some experts suggest is a sign that warmer waters — caused by brutal summer heat waves and rising temperatures across the country — are catalyzing their spread.
“The climate is changing, and let me tell you, so is this,” says Travis Heggie, an associate professor at Bowling Green State University who’s tracked the amoebas for several years. “If warm weather keeps up, I think we’ll see N. fowleri popping up farther and farther north.”
That speculation seems to be reinforced by recent cases of PAM, once a health woe confined to fresh water in southern states like Texas and Arizona. In Minnesota, public health officials were stunned to see two fatalities caused by N. fowleri — both young children — in 2010 and 2012.
And this from an earlier article:
Here’s a ghastly thing that has been making headlines lately: Naegleria fowleri, a.k.a. brain-eating amoebas. So far this summer, this microscopic mind-muncher has claimed the lives of three people in three different states: Virginia, Florida and Louisiana. According to MSNBC:
“Naegleria fowleri moves into the body through the nose and destroys brain tissue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bug causes primary amoebic meningoencephalitis, a nearly always fatal disease of the central nervous system, the CDC reported. … Naegleria fowleri is usually found warm, stagnant water in freshwater lakes, ponds and rivers. It can also be found in wells.”
The good news is that brain-eating amoeba infections are very rare, and there’s no sign of any sort of outbreak at this time. Nevertheless, the Naegleria fowleri is one of nature’s many ghoulish, nightmarish creepy-crawlies, ranking alongside flesh-eating bacteria, which destroys skin and muscle tissue by releasing toxins, and the human bot fly, and insect that implants its larvae into human skin. Parasite rex, indeed.
In a story that would strain credulity even in these credulity-straining times when the daily headlines outstrip The Onion for absurdity, comes this piece of journalism from Dave Lindorff.
“Would you be shocked to learn that the FBI apparently knew that some organization, perhaps even a law enforcement agency or private security outfit, had contingency plans to assassinate peaceful protestors in a major American city — and did nothing to intervene?
“Would you be surprised to learn that this intelligence comes not from a shadowy whistle-blower but from the FBI itself – specifically, from a document obtained from Houston FBI office last December, as part of a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request filed by the Washington, DC-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund?
“To repeat: this comes from the FBI itself. The question, then, is: What did the FBI do about it?”
Many will recall that the Occupy movement swept the US beginning in mid-September 2011, taking root in a number of urban areas. It was rare for a city of any note not to have a couple of bedraggled activists in residence, many of whom had visited the OWS encampment in Zuccotti Park to see how Occupy was done. In October of that year the movement came to Houston. Given the prevailing, uh, local political temperature, the local powers-that-be, including law enforcement, banking and oil execs reacted even more strongly than in some other places.
The push-back took the form of violent assaults by police on Occupy activists, federal and local surveillance of people seen as organizers, infiltration by police provocateurs—and, as crazy as it sounds, some kind of plot to assassinate the “leaders” of this non-violent and leaderless movement.
Here’s what the document obtained from the Houston FBI, said:
An identified [DELETED] as of October planned to engage in sniper attacks against protestors (sic) in Houston, Texas if deemed necessary. An identified [DELETED] had received intelligence that indicated the protesters in New York and Seattle planned similar protests in Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, Texas. [DELETED] planned to gather intelligence against the leaders of the protest groups and obtain photographs, then formulate a plan to kill the leadership via suppressed sniper rifles. (Note: protests continued throughout the weekend with approximately 6000 persons in NYC. ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests have spread to about half of all states in the US, over a dozen European and Asian cities, including protests in Cleveland (10/6-8/11) at Willard Park which was initially attended by hundreds of protesters.)
Occupiers Astounded—But Not Entirely
Paul Kennedy, the National Lawyers Guild attorney in Houston who represented a number of Occupy Houston activists arrested during the protests, had not heard of the sniper plot, but said, “I find it hard to believe that such information would have been known to the FBI and that we would not have been told about it.” He then added darkly, “If it had been some right-wing group plotting such an action, something would have been done. But if it is something law enforcement was planning, then nothing would have been done. It might seem hard to believe that a law enforcement agency would do such a thing, but I wouldn’t put it past them.”
Seeking confirmation, the reporters and asked the FBI about this document—which, despite its stunning revelation and despite press releases, was, per usual, generally ignored by mainstream and “alternative” press alike.
The FBI confirmed the authenticity of the document and that it originated in the Houston FBI office. (The plot is also referenced in a second document obtained in PCJF’s FOIA response, in this case from the FBI’s Gainesville, Fla., office, which cites the Houston FBI as the source.) That second document actually suggests that the assassination plot, which never was activated, might still be operative should Occupy decisively re-emerge in the area. It states:
On 13 October 20111, writer sent via email an excerpt from the daily [DELETED] regarding FBI Houston’s [DELETED] to all IAs, SSRAs and SSA [DELETED] This [DELETED] identified the exploitation of the Occupy Movement by [LENGTHY DELETION] interested in developing a long-term plan to kill local Occupy leaders via sniper fire.
Remington Alessi, an Occupy Houston activist, was one of the seven defendants whose felony charge was dropped because of police entrapment. He speculates that the plot could have been the work of a police or a private security group.
Alessi, who hails from a law-enforcement family and who ran last year for sheriff of Houston’s Harris County on the Texas Green Party ticket, garnering 22,000 votes, agrees with attorney Kennedy that the plotters were not from some right-wing organization. “If it had been that, the FBI would have acted on it,” he agrees. “I believe the sniper attack was one strategy being discussed for dealing with the occupation.” He adds:
I assume I would have been one of the targets, because I led a few of the protest actions, and I hosted an Occupy show on KPFT. I wish I could say I’m surprised that this was seriously discussed, but remember, this is the same federal government that murdered (Black Panther Party leader) Fred Hampton. We have a government that traditionally murders people who are threats. I guess being a target is sort of an honor.
This simply cannot go on.
This is a number of odd bits collected throughout the week. Some of these stories received national play, and need no attention here. As for the others, after you get past 5000 words, you simply need to quit.
New hero in Texas
Texas Abortion Bill Filibustered By State Senator Wendy Davis Is Dead
Who they are.
From the Keyboard of Surly1
Originally published on the Doomstead Diner on June 19, 2013
Discuss this article here in the Diner Forum.
In researching TWTWID, it is doom, doom, doom all the time. So for a break, let’s talk about movies about Doom.
It would be difficult to overstate just how oblivious I am to some aspects the world in which I live. While acutely aware of political developments on the local state and national scene, and while passionately devoted to a handful of vital causes,I am in fact one of the more popular-culture-ignorant people you could ever meet. There is an entire skein of knowledge about individuals and phenomena of which I am blissfully unaware. (Of course, any free time I have is devoted to reading the Diner Forum, a few other blogs, and eternal maintenance on my mouldering urban slum.)
With that admission in mind, consider this: on Fathers’ Day, my daughter took Contrary and I to the movies, which was a first, since I have been taking her since Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. The movie we saw was just fine, but what really struck me were the coming attractions.
I found, in the trailers we saw in the cool darkness, a remarkable reflection of the zeitgeist, and distinct echoes of topics and issues we have discussed in the recesses of the Forum. To that list I’ve added from a brief web search, so that you will have an idea when Doom is Coming To A Theatre Near You.
Now this is not a stretch, because we talk about EVERYTHING on the forum at one time or another. Yet I found the timing of the upcoming release of these films quite remarkable. Take a brief tour with me:
Due for release June 21
The story revolves around United Nations employee Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt), who traverses the world in a race against time to stop a pandemic that is toppling armies and governments and threatening to decimate humanity itself. The pandemic involves zombies. Given the rollicking “Zombie Rehab” thread inside the Diner Forum, this film is being released right on time.
Since Brad Pitt is starring, it is reasonable to expect boffo box office, as the Variety hacks might say.
Was released on May 10, but I never heard of it, and its plot is such that it deserves a mention here. Especially given RE’s predilection for “Orkin Man” solutions.
A security guard for an armored truck, Jim (Dominic Purcell) is a blue-collar New Yorker who works hard to earn a living. His wages support himself and his wife Rosie (Erin Karpluk), who is on the upswing recovering from a near-fatal illness. Yet things start to fall apart after Rosie’s health insurance stops covering her treatment and Jim’s life savings are lost via a disastrous investment his stockbroker had advised him to make. As a row of professional and personal dominoes falls, Jim is confronted by the realization that, after being abused and exploited by financial institutions for far too long, he has only one choice: to strike back.
Simply based on the trailer and description, this film promises to rettrace some of the ground broken in Falling Down, a 1993 crime drama film starring Michael Douglas in the lead role of a divorcé and unemployed former defense engineer who tears up LA in a violent rampage. This time, it’s the bankers’ turn. RE is already ordering the Blu-Ray version…
This film has been released in some markets as of June 7; and is actually playing here. Starring Ethan Hawke and Lena Headley, it touches upon themes of lawlessness, tight governocorporate supersision, and how much liberty people will trade for security. Newshawk Joe P. brought this film to our attention recently on his remarkable Newz page.
A thriller that follows one family over the course of a single night, four people will be tested to see how far they will go to protect themselves when the vicious outside world breaks into their home.
In an America wracked by crime and overcrowded prisons, the government has sanctioned an annual 12-hour period in which any and all criminal activity—including murder—becomes legal. The police can’t be called. Hospitals suspend help. It’s one night when the citizenry regulates itself without thought of punishment. On this night plagued by violence and an epidemic of crime, one family wrestles with the decision of who they will become when a stranger comes knocking.
When an intruder breaks into James Sandin’s (Ethan Hawke) gated community during the yearly lockdown, he begins a sequence of events that threatens to tear a family apart. Now, it is up to James, his wife, Mary (Lena Headley), and their kids to make it through the night without turning into the monsters from whom they hide.
Sounds like family fun, yes?
Scheduled for release on August 9, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster.
In the year 2159 two classes of people exist: the very wealthy who live on a pristine man-made space station called Elysium, and the rest, who live on an overpopulated, ruined Earth. Secretary Rhodes (Jodie Foster), a hard line government official will stop at nothing to enforce anti-immigration laws and preserve the luxurious lifestyle of the citizens of Elysium. That doesn’t stop the people of Earth from trying to get in, by any means they can. When unlucky Max (Matt Damon) is backed into a corner, he agrees to take on a daunting mission that if successful will not only save his life, but could bring equality to these polarized worlds.
From the trailer, this film promises to revisit themes familiar to Diners,especially H.G. Wells’ story, The Time Machine, including the tension between the Elois, who in this incarnation are aloft in another realm, and the Morlocks left behind in the rubble of a ruined planet.
Or it could just be Jason Bourne in space.
Wells’ story has spawned two feature films of the same name, and, according to Wikipedia,
…two television versions, and a large number of comic book adaptations. It indirectly inspired many more works of fiction in many media. This story is generally credited with the popularisation of the concept of time travel using a vehicle that allows an operator to travel purposefully and selectively. The term “time machine”, coined by Wells, is now universally used to refer to such a vehicle. This work is an early example of the Dying Earth subgenre.
I am planning to remain oblivious. But I surely intend to catch a couple of these films, in the dark, cool comfort of a local theatre, here at the end of the Age of Oil.
Off the keyboard of Michael Snyder
Published on Economic Collapse on April 17, 2013
Discuss this article at the Economics Table inside the Diner
Is the United States about to experience another major economic downturn? Unfortunately, the pattern that is emerging right now is exactly the kind of pattern that you would expect to see just before a major stock market crash and a deep recession. History tells us that when the price of gold crashes, a recession almost always follows. History also tells us that when the price of oil crashes, a recession almost always follows. When both of those things happen, a significant economic downturn is virtually guaranteed. Just remember what happened back in 2008. Gold and oil both started falling rapidly in July, and in the fall we experienced the worst financial crisis that the U.S. had seen since the days of the Great Depression. Well, a similar pattern seems to be happening again. The price of gold has already crashed, and the price of a barrel of WTI crude oil has dropped to $86.37 as I write this. If the price of oil dips below $80 a barrel and stays there, that will be a major red flag. Meanwhile, we have just seen volatility return to the financial markets in a big way. When volatility starts to spike, that is usually a clear sign that stocks are about to go down substantially. So buckle your seatbelts – it looks like things are about to get very, very interesting.
Posted below is a chart that shows what has happened to the price of gold since the late 1960s. As you will notice, whenever the price of gold rises dramatically and then crashes, a recession usually follows. It happened in 1980, it happened in 2008, and it is happening again…
A similar pattern emerges when we look at the price of oil. During each of the last three recessions we have seen a rapid rise in the price of oil followed by a rapid decline in the price of oil…
That is why what is starting to happen to the price of oil is so alarming. On Wednesday, Reuters ran a story with the following headline: “Crude Routed Anew on Relentless Demand Worries“. The price of oil has not “crashed” yet, but it is definitely starting to slip.
As you can see from the chart above, the price of oil has tested the $80 level a couple of times in the past few years. If we get below that resistance and stay there, that will be a clear sign that trouble is ahead.
However, there is always the possibility that the recent “crash” in the price of gold might be a false signal because there is a tremendous amount of evidence emerging that it was an orchestrated event. An absolutely outstanding article by Chris Martenson explained how the big banks had been setting up this “crash” for months…
In February, Credit Suisse ‘predicted’ that the gold market had peaked, SocGen said the end of the gold era was upon us, and recently Goldman Sachs told everyone to short the metal.
While that’s somewhat interesting, you should first know that the largest bullion banks had amassed huge short positions in precious metals by January.
The CFTC rather coyly refers to the bullion banks simply as ‘large traders,’ but everyone knows that these are the bullion banks. What we are seeing in that chart is that out of a range of commodities, the precious metals were the most heavily shorted, by far.
So the timeline here is easy to follow. The bullion banks:
- Amass a huge short position early in the game
- Begin telling everyone to go short (wink, wink) to get things moving along in the right direction by sowing doubt in the minds of the longs
- Begin testing the late night markets for depth by initiating mini raids (that also serve to let experienced traders know that there’s an elephant or two in the room)
- Wait for the right moment and then open the floodgates to dump such an overwhelming amount of paper gold and silver into the market that lower prices are the only possible result
- Close their positions for massive gains and then act as if they had made a really prescient market call
- Await their big bonus checks and wash, rinse, repeat at a later date
While I am almost 100% certain that any decent investigation by the CFTC would reveal that market manipulating ‘dumping’ was happening, I am equally certain that no such investigation will occur. That’s because the point of such a maneuver by the bullion banks is designed to transfer as much wealth from ‘out there’ and towards the center, and the CFTC is there to protect the center’s ‘right’ to do exactly that.
You can read the rest of that article right here.
There are also rumors that George Soros was involved in driving down the price of gold. The following is an excerpt from a recent article by “The Reformed Broker” Joshua Brown…
And over the last week or so, the one rumor I keep hearing from different hedge fund people is that George Soros is currently massively short gold and that he’s making an absolute killing.
Once again, I have no way of knowing if this is true or false.
But enough people are saying it that I thought it worthwhile to at least mention.
And to me, it would make perfect sense:
1. Soros is a macro investor, this is THE macro trade of the year
so far(okay, maybe Japan 1, short gold 2)
2. Soros is well-known for numerous market aphorisms and neologisms, one of my faves being “When I see a bubble, I invest.” He was heavily long gold for a time and had done well while simultaneously referring to it publicly as a speculative bubble.
3. He recently reported that he had pretty much exited the trade in gold back in February. In his Q4 filing a few weeks ago, we found out that he had sold down his GLD position by about 55% as of the end of 2012 and had just 600,000 shares remaining. That was the “smartest guy in the room” locking in a profit after a 12 year bull market.
4. Soros also hired away one of the most talented technical analysts out there, John Roque, upon the collapse of Roque’s previous employer, broker-dealer WJB Capital. No one has heard from the formerly media-available Roque since but we can only assume that – as a technician – the very obvious breakdown of gold’s long-term trend was at least discussed. And how else does one trade gold if not by using technicals (supply/demand) – what else is there? Cash flow? Book value?
5. Lastly, the last public interview given by George Soros was to the South China Morning Post on April 4th. He does not mention any trading he’s doing in gold but he does reveal his thoughts on it having been “destroyed as a safe haven”
It is also important to keep in mind that this “crash” in the price of “paper gold” had absolutely nothing to do with the demand for physical gold and silver in the real world. In fact, precious metals retailers have been reporting that they have been selling an “astounding volume” of gold and silver this week.
But that isn’t keeping many in the mainstream media from “dancing on the grave” of gold and silver.
For example, New York Times journalist Paul Krugman seems absolutely ecstatic that gold has crashed. He seems to think that this “crash” is vindication for everything that he has been saying the past couple of years.
In an article entitled “EVERYONE Should Be Thrilled By The Gold Crash“, Business Insider declared that all of us should be really glad that gold has crashed because according to them it is a sign that the economy is getting better and that faith in the financial system has been restored.
Dan Fitzpatrick, the president of StockMarketMentor.com, recently told CNBC that people are “flying out of gold” and “getting into equities”…
“There have been so many reasons, and there remain so many reasons to be in gold,” Fitzpatrick said, noting currency debasement and the fear of inflation. “But the chart is telling you that none of that is happening. Because of that, you’re going to see people just flying out of gold. There’s just no reason to be in it.Traders are scaling out of gold and getting into equities.”
Personally, I feel so sorry for those that are putting their money in the stock market right now. They are getting in just in time for the crash.
As CNBC recently noted, a very ominous “head and shoulders pattern” for the S&P 500 is emerging right now…
A scary head-and-shoulders pattern could be building in the S&P 500, and this negative chart formation would be created if the market stalls just above current levels.
“It’s developing and it’s developing fast,” said Scott Redler of T3Live.com on Wednesday morning.
Even worse, volatility has returned to Wall Street in a huge way. This is usually a sign that a significant downturn is on the way…
Call options buying recently hit a three-year high for the CBOE’s Volatility Index, a popular measure of market fear that usually moves in the opposite direction of the Standard & Poor’s 500 stock index.
A call buy, which gives the owner the option to purchase the security at a certain price, implies a belief that the VIX is likely to go higher, which usually is an ominous sign for stocks.
“We saw a huge spike in call buying on the VIX, the most in a while,” said Ryan Detrick, senior analyst at Schaeffer’s Investment Research. “That’s not what you want to hear (because it usually happens) right before a big pullback.”
The last time call options activity hit this level, on Jan. 13, 2010, it preceded a 9 percent stock market drop that happened over just four weeks, triggered in large part by worries over the ongoing European debt crisis.
And according to Richard Russell, the “smart money” has already been very busy dumping consumer stocks…
What do billionaires Warren Buffet, John Paulson, and George Soros know that you and I don’t know? I don’t have the answer, but I do know what these billionaires are doing. They, all three, are selling consumer-oriented stocks. Buffett has been a cheerleader for US stocks all along.
But in the latest filing, Buffett has been drastically cutting back on his exposure to consumer stocks. Berkshire sold roughly 19 million shares of Johnson and Johnson. Berkshire has reduced his overall stake in consumer product stocks by 21%, including Kraft and Procter and Gamble. He has also cleared out his entire position in Intel. He has sold 10,000 shares of GM and 597,000 shares of IBM.
Fellow billionaire John Paulson dumped 14 million shares of JP Morgan and dumped his entire position in Family Dollar and consumer goods maker Sara Lee. To wrap up the trio of billionaires, George Soros sold nearly all his bank stocks including JP Morgan, Citigroup and Goldman Sachs. So I don’t know exactly what the billionaires are thinking, but I do see what they’re doing — they are avoiding consumer stocks and building up cash.
… the billionaires are thinking that consumption is heading down and that America’s consumers are close to going on strike.
So what are all of those billionaires preparing for?
What do they know that we don’t know?
I don’t know about you, but when I start putting all of the pieces that I have just discussed together, it paints a rather ominous picture for the months ahead.
At some point, there will be another major stock market crash. When it happens, we will likely see even worse chaos than we saw back in 2008. Major financial institutions will fail, the credit markets will freeze up, economic activity will grind to a standstill and millions of Americans will lose their jobs.
I sincerely hope that we still have at least a few more months before that happens. But right now things are moving very rapidly and it is becoming increasingly clear that time is running out.
Off the keyboard of Gail Tverberg
Published on Our Finite World on January 6, 2013
Discuss this article at the Epicurean Delights Smorgasboard inside the Diner
We have been hearing a lot about escaping the fiscal cliff, but our problem isn’t solved. The fixes to date have been partial and temporary. There are many painful decisions ahead. Based on what I can see, the most likely outcome is that the US economy will enter a severe recession by the end of 2013.
My expectation is that credit markets are likely see increased defaults, as workers find their wages squeezed by higher Social Security taxes, and as government programs are cut back. Credit is likely to decrease in availability and become higher-priced. It is quite possible that credit problems will adversely affect the international trade system. Stock markets will tend to perform poorly. The Federal Reserve will try to intervene in credit markets, but if the US government is one of the defaulters (at least temporarily), it may not be able to completely fix the situation.
Less credit will tend to hold down prices of goods and services. Fewer people will be working, though, so even at reduced prices, many people will find discretionary items such as larger homes, new cars, and restaurant meals to be unaffordable. Thus, once the recession is in force, car sales are likely to drop, and prices of resale homes will again decline.
Oil prices may temporarily drop. This price decrease, together with a drop in credit availability, is likely to lead to a reduction in drilling in high-priced locations, such as US oil shale (tight oil) plays.
Other energy sources are also likely to be affected. Demand for electricity is likely to drop. Renewable energy investment is likely to decline because of less electricity demand and less credit availability. By 2014 and 2015, less government funding may also play a role.
This recession is likely be very long term. In fact, based on my view of the reasons for the recession, it may never be possible to exit from it completely.
I base the foregoing views on several observations:
1. High oil prices are a major cause of the United States Federal Government’s current financial problems. The financial difficulties occur because high oil prices tend to lead to unemployment, and high unemployment tends to lead to higher government expenditures and lower government revenue. This is especially true for oil importers.
2. The United States and world’s oil problems have not been solved. While there are new sources of oil, they tend to be sources of expensive oil, so they don’t solve the problem of high-priced oil. Furthermore, if our real economic problem is high-priced oil, and we have no way of permanently reducing oil prices, high oil prices can be expected to cause a long-term drag on economic growth.
3. A cutback in discretionary spending is likely. US workers are already struggling with wages that are not rising as fast as GDP (Figure 2). Starting in January, 2013, US workers have the additional problem of rising Social Security taxes, and later this year, a likely cutback in government expenditures. The combination is likely to lead to a cutback in discretionary spending.
4. The size of our current financial problems, both in terms of US government income/outgo imbalance and debt level, is extremely large. If high oil prices present a permanent drag on the economy, we cannot expect economic growth to resume in a way that would fix these problems.
5. The financial symptoms that the US and many other oil importers are experiencing bear striking similarities to the problems that many civilizations experienced prior to collapse, based on my reading of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov’s book Secular Cycles. According to this analysis of eight collapses over the last 2000 years, the collapses did not take place overnight. Instead, economies moved from an Expansion Phase, to a Stagflation Phase, to a Crisis Phase, to a Depression/Intercycle Phase. Timing varies, but typically totals around 300 years for the four phases combined.
It appears to me that the corresponding secular cycle for the US began in roughly 1800, with the ramp up of coal use. Later other modern fuels, including oil, were added. Since the 1970s, the US has mostly been experiencing the Stagflation Phase. The Crisis Phase appears to be not far away.
The Turkin analysis started with a model. This model was verified based on the experiences of eight agricultural civilizations (beginning dates between 350 BCE and 1620 CE). While the situation is different today, there may be lessons that can be learned.
Below the fold, I discuss these observations further.
Issue 1. High oil prices tend to lead to government financial problems.
Food prices tend to rise at the same time as oil prices, partly because oil is used in the production of food (for example, plowing, irrigation, herbicides and insecticides, harvesting, transport to market). Also, because oil is in short supply, corn is now being grown for use as ethanol to be used as a gasoline-extender. Growing additional corn puts pressure on food prices, because it drives up the price of land and encourages farmers to put more land into corn production, and less into other crops.
The reason governments are affected by high oil and food prices is as follows. When oil and food prices rise, buyers cut back in discretionary spending, so as to have enough for “basics,” including food and commuting expenses. Workers are laid off in discretionary industries, such as vacation travel and restaurants. These laid off-workers pay less taxes, and sometimes default on loans. Governments are quickly drawn into these problems, for two reasons:
- Their tax revenue is lower, because of layoffs in discretionary sectors.
- Their expenditures are higher, because of the need to pay more unemployment benefits, provide economic stimulus, and bail out banks.
Oil importers are especially affected, because they are also paying out funds to oil exporters. The countries with well-publicized financial problems (including several European countries, the United States, and Japan) tend to be major oil importers.
Oil exporters are not adversely affected to the same extent, because they have additional revenue from higher prices on oil they are exporting. They may still be somewhat affected because of rising food prices, and the fact that higher oil revenues do not necessarily go to those buying food. A recent study shows that food shortages helped trigger the Arab Spring protests.
Part of the reason that the impact of high oil prices is as severe as it is, is because there are many follow-on effects. For example, if oil prices rise, the price of shipping goods of all types rises. If businesses are able to pass through these higher costs, discretionary income of buyers for other goods falls. If not, businesses find that their higher costs lead to lower profits. To bring profit margins back up to an acceptable level, businesses may lay off workers.
As another example, prices of homes are likely to be adversely affected by high oil prices, because a family with inadequate discretionary income will forgo moving to a larger home, and may even default on a mortgage.
It should be noted that the impact of high oil prices doesn’t completely go away unless oil prices go down and stay down. Businesses can partly mitigate the impact of high oil prices by laying off workers in discretionary segments. Some businesses will fail completely, however. Replacement may be by an overseas company, with a lower cost structure that uses less oil. See my post on energy leveraging.
Workers generally must permanently adjust their budgets to higher food and oil prices. This is often difficult to do. The lack of jobs is a particular problem–something that workers cannot fix by themselves. Government programs can mitigate the job shortfall, by paying benefits to unemployed workers and by reducing interest rates, so that businesses can more easily make investments that will lead to more employment. These programs are costly, though, and are a major cause of the current mismatch between government income and expense.
Issue 2. World oil problems have not been solved.
There have been a number of reports this years, such as one by the International Energy Agency, seeming to suggest that the world oil problem has been solved. These analyses are incomplete. They do not recognize that our real problem is a financial problem. Our economy (everything from interstate highways to electric transmission to Social Security programs) was put in place using cheap ($10 or $20 barrel) oil. Shifting to today’s high cost of oil (up near $100 barrel) causes severe economic dislocations. There is no more cheap oil to be found, however, because oil companies extracted the cheapest to extract oil first and now the “easy oil” is gone.
The impression one gets from reading the papers is that US oil production is having a huge impact on world oil production. If a person looks at the numbers, world oil production is close to flat. Rising US production makes up for falling European production, but doesn’t do a whole lot more.
The rise in United States oil production is indeed somewhat helpful, but we are still many years away from being “energy independent” and even farther from becoming “oil independent.” The real issue is high oil prices, and these are not being fixed.
Our financial problems are here and now, in 2013. Promises of hoped-for higher oil production in several years at a still very high price don’t fix today’s financial problems. In fact, they will likely continue to contribute to financial problems in the future.
Issue 3. Declining wages and increased taxes can be expected to lead to a decline in discretionary spending.
As indicated at the beginning of the post, wages (including earnings of businesses owners considered as “proprietors,” but not including “transfer payments” such as Social Security and unemployment insurance) have not been growing as fast as GDP since 2000. Below is a repeat of Figure 2 shown at top of post.
There seem to be several reasons behind this decline. One reason, already mentioned, is high oil prices leading to US layoffs, because of decreased discretionary expenditures.
Another reason for the decline is increased automation. Electricity can often be substituted for human labor, reducing costs, but also reducing jobs. Economists seem to term this change higher labor productivity. They also seem to believe that new jobs will appear from somewhere, but in practice, this is not happening. Instead, lack of jobs is part of what is leading to recessionary influences.
Another reason for the decline is increased competition from countries with lower labor costs and lower fuel costs. China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, and its manufacturing (and thus use of fuels) increased dramatically shortly thereafter.
Another reason is demographic. Baby boomers are reaching retirement age. This has already begun affecting the number of individuals who retire each year. In the future, the number of retirees can be expected to increase further.
In total, we see a very large drop in the percentage of US citizens with jobs, starting about 2000 (Figure 6). This is very close to the time that China ramped up its growth (Figure 5).
In calendar years 2011 and 2012, workers’ contributions for Social Security funding were temporarily reduced by 2% of wages, as a way of stimulating the economy. As of January 1, 2013, this temporary reduction was removed. For a couple with combined wages of $100,000, take-home pay is thus being decreased by $2,000 per year. With less disposable income, workers can be expected to cut back somewhere–buying a larger home, buying a new car, or going out to eat.
So far, only a small amount of other tax increases have been put in place, and only a few cuts have been made. More tax increases or benefit cuts will be needed later this year to bring revenue and expense into better alignment. Any such change will tend to have a recessionary impact, because citizens’ discretionary incomes will be affected.
Issue 4. The spending gap and the amount of debt look too big to be fixable without excellent economic growth.
As noted above, wages have not been keeping up with GDP. The majority of federal taxes are based on wages, so in my comparisons, I use wages, rather than GDP, as a base.
If we use the wage base from Figure 2, the amount of government outgo vs income (all levels, not just federal) is as follows:
Based on Figure 7, the issue in recent years has been primarily rising expenditures. These higher expenditures would seem to be partly because of high-priced oil, but also because of other influences noted above that are leading to declining employment. The amount of the gap is close to 15% of wages–something that is very hard to fix. Even the current increase in Social Security taxes (“only” 2% of wages) will exert downward pressure on discretionary spending.
A related issue is that compared to wages (using the same wage base as in Figure 2), debt of all kinds is extremely high.
Government debt is in now more than household debt of all kinds, including mortgage, credit card, auto, and student loans. It is close to two times the wage base used in this analysis.
One issue with paying down debt is that during the pay-down period, the government (or individual) reducing the debt “feels poorer,” because funds available for spending on goods and services needed today is lower. This happens because some current tax revenue, or some current wages, must be used to pay down debt, and thus is not available for today’s spending. This is a turn-around from the increasing debt situation experienced many times in the past. For example, part of the reason times seemed good in the 2002-2006 period was because people were able to refinance their homes and use the funds to buy a new car or add on a family room. If we are forced to pay down debt, we have the reverse effect.
Issue 5. Similarity to “Secular Cycles” of Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov.
Throughout the ages, many economies that have experienced long-term expansion. Eventually, they reached limits of some sort and collapsed. The book Secular Cycles by Peter Turchin and Sergey Nefedov takes an analytical approach to looking such past cycle. They developed a fairly complex model of what they would expect over time, in terms of trends in wages, prices, population, income inequality, and other variables. They then examine historical records (relating to eight civilizations in four countries, with “start dates” between 350 BCE and 1620 CE) to see whether this predicted pattern was born out in practice. In general, the authors found good agreement with the predicted model.
Typically, civilizations analyzed were reaching upper limits in population growth because of limits on food availability, but sometimes limits on water or fuel also were important. The model predicted four phases (expansion, stagflation, crisis, and depression/ intercycle). The typical length of the entire cycle was 300 years. The length of the various segments was fairly variable. The stagflation stage often lasted 50 or 60 years. The crisis stage tended to be shorter, more often in the 20 to 50 year range. There often was overlap between phases, with a civilization seeming to cycle back and forth between, say, expansion and stagflation.
In the model, there are various feedback loops. For example, as the number of workers rises relative to the amount of land, the price of land and food tends to rise. Jobs outside of agriculture do not rise proportionately, so wages of common workers tend to fall in inflation adjusted terms. With lower wages for common workers, nutrition declines. Eventually, the population becomes weakened, and population declines. There are also other players–the elite and the state itself.
Some characteristics of the four phases are as follows:
- Expansion phase (growth) – Increasing population, relatively low taxes, political stability, low grain prices, and high real (inflation-adjusted) wages.
- Stagflation phase (compression) – Slowing population growth, much heavier taxes needed to support a growing elite class, low but increasing political instability, rising grain prices, declining real wages for most workers, increasing indebtedness, and increasing urbanization.
- Crisis phase (state breakdown) – Population declining from the peak (typically by disease or by deaths from warfare), high income inequality, political instability increasing to a peak, high but very variable grain prices, high urbanization, tax system in a state of crisis, peasant uprisings.
- Depression/intercycle – Low population, attempts to restore state, declining economic inequality, grain prices decreasing but variable.
It seems to me that the United States and much of the world are going through a cycle much as described by Turchin. The Growth Phase of our current cycle seems to have begun around 1800, with the rise of coal use. Stagflation in the United States seems to have started with the drop in US oil production in 1970. All of the government budget and debt problems now seem to suggest that we are reaching the Crisis Phase.
Obviously, there are differences from the civilizations modeled, because we now live in a much more integrated world. Furthermore, earlier societies did not depend on oil and other modern fuels the way we do today. We do not know how the current situation will play out, but the comparison is concerning.