Category Archives: Debtonomics

Jubilee, by Robert Gore

The debt dam is crumbling as central bankers and government officials frantically refill the escaping lake with eye droppers.

As background to this article, it would be helpful to read an article I wrote in 2015, “Real Money.”

The foundation of the world financial system is debt. Every currency in the world is debt whose value is not tethered to any real value. In a rare display of official truth-in-packaging, right there on the instrument itself a US dollar bill tells you it’s debt: Federal Reserve Note. A note is a debt. What do holders of Federal Reserve Notes, officially creditors of the Federal Reserve, get for repayment of the debt they hold?

Federal Reserve Notes have no maturity date, pay no interest, and can never be redeemed. If you go to a Federal Reserve branch and try to redeem one, they will either not accept it or they will exchange it for an identical Federal Reserve Note. Why would anyone accept this peculiar instrument? Because you cannot refuse it. Also right there on the dollar bill it says: THIS NOTE IS LEGAL TENDER FOR ALL DEBTS, PUBLIC AND PRIVATE. For American transactions, it’s reject the dollar, go to jail. The American government even levies punitive measures on foreign governments that just say no.

Because central banks and governments can repay their debt with more of their own debt, they have been unconstrained in the amounts they produce. You and I would do the same thing if we were so empowered. Governments, central banks, and debt are a ménage à trois from hell. The US ménage has debased the currency’s value against real goods and services at least 95 percent since the establishment of the central bank in 1913. The ménage’s ill-gotten gains are someone else’s loss—gullible savers and creditors who believe promises by politicians and central bankers that they will not engage in the debasement they have every incentive to promote.

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The Population Collapse Behind Interest Rates, Debt, & The Asset Price Explosion, by Chris Hamilton

It’s demographically baked into the cake that the population growth rates that have propelled so much economic growth will fall precipitously. From Chris Hamilton at economica.blogspot.com:

This may not be a surprise to many males, but human females are unlike the rest of the animals on earth.  Human females have a unique and totally differentiating factor from nearly all other animal life; their bodies cease being capable of pregnancy approximately half way through their life cycle.  This natural change to sterility (menopause) does not happen in the animal kingdom (nor in human males) essentially so long as they live (ok, actually there may be a couple of whales and porpoises that may also go through menopause…but I digress).  Animals and male humans are still able to reproduce nearly until the end.  But not human females.  Even before menopause fully takes over, typically around 50 years of age, fertility rates drop radically after 40 and miscarriages surge among those able to get pregnant.  By 45, pregnancies essentially cease.

What the hell does this have to do with economics, you may be asking yourself? Judging the size and change of humankinds population is quite different than any other species on earth because of this truncated period of fertility among human females. Thus, to gauge the direction of our species, and the future consumption and potential economic activity, we must focus on annual births versus the 20 to 40 year-old female population and understand that the post childbearing, 40+ year-old female population is, from a fertility perspective, simply an inert echo chamber. The 20 to 40 and 40+ year-old populations shown below through 2040 are not estimates or projections but actual persons which already exist and (absent some pandemic, world war, or change in life spans) will slide through the next 20 years.  All data (except where noted) comes from the UN World Population Prospects 2019 and they collect / compile all the data from the national and regional bodies.  The only real variables in what I’ll show below are immigration, deaths, and births over the next 20 years.  I also primarily focus on the world excluding Africa.  Africa consumes so little, has relatively very low emigration rates, is highly reliant on the rest of the world for it’s economic growth, but from a population perspective, is growing so rapidly as to skew the picture.

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Trump can’t be both the president of growth and the president of debt, by Daniel Horowitz

The US economy is well beyond the point where debt and debt service are impeding growth, which means the more we go into debt, the less the economy will grow. From Daniel Horowitz at conservativereview.com:

With the unemployment rate below 4 percent for 16 consecutive months, one would expect economic growth to be soaring. Yet even as we experience the best job market since the late 1960s, this is the first time in modern history that we have not experienced a year of 3 percent GDP growth. What gives?

Earlier today, the Bureau of Economic Analysis announced that the economy had grown just 2.1 percent during the second quarter of this year (ending June 30). It also revised Q4 of 2018 down to just 1.1 percent, which now means that growth during the 12 months ending Q4 of 2018 was only 2.5 percent, not 3 percent as previously thought. This means that the U.S. economy has now gone 14 years without a year-over-year growth of 3 percent.  It’s been 19 years since we’ve hit 4 percent, which was during 1997-2000.

While the numbers don’t portend a coming recession, it is highly unusual for us to go for 16 consecutive months with unemployment below 4 percent and 43 months below 5 percent, yet never attain 3 or 4 percent annual GDP growth. In fact, that has never happened before. During the late 1990s, the unemployment rate ranged from 5.3 percent to 3.9 percent – not even as good as today’s 3.7 percent – yet GDP growth was over 4 percent. Ditto for the late 1960s, when we saw years of 6 percent growth. During the mid 1980s, we saw this growth even with higher unemployment rates.

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The Burden Of Government Debt And James Buchanan’s Corrective, by Daniel J. Boudreaux

The article states some conclusions about debt that don’t require a PhD, or even a Bachelor’s, in economics to reach. From Daniel Boudreaux at aier.org:

Who bears the burden of government indebtedness? Prior to the Keynesian revolution in the mid-20th century, most economists understood that the burden of government (or “public”) debt falls on those citizens who, in the future, must repay the debt. The funds for such repayment can come in the future from higher taxes, from reduced government expenditures on programs other than debt servicing, or from some combination of the two.

But Keynesianism destroyed this consensus. According to what my late Nobel-laureate colleague James Buchanan called the “new orthodoxy” about government debt, all such debt that is owed to fellow citizens – that is, debt that “we owe to ourselves” – is no burden at all upon the generations who must service and repay it.

Three Prongs of the Keynesian Orthodoxy

There are three prongs to this Keynesian orthodoxy. The first prong is rooted in the Keynesian insistence that the main driver of economic activity is the volume of total spending, or what economists call “aggregate demand.” And so if American citizen Smith is taxed an extra $1,000 in order to retire a $1,000 U.S. government bond held by American citizen Jones, there’s no reason to believe that total spending in the American economy will change. While Smith’s spending will fall because his after-tax income falls by $1,000, Jones’s spending will rise upon his receipt of this $1,000. Retiring the debt, therefore, has no effect on economic activity as a whole.

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The Eurozone Banks’ Trillion Timebomb, by Daniel LaCalle

Trying to determine a bank’s true financial picture is virtually impossible, but what we do know about Europe’s banks is plenty unsettling. From Daniel LaCalle at dlacalle.com:

Eurozone banks have fallen dramatically in the stock market despite the results of the stress tests carried out by the ECB, and the EU Banks Index is down 25% on the year despite year-long bullish recommendations from almost every broker. This should not surprise anyone because we have seen in the past that these tests are only a theoretical exercise. Moreover, stress tests’ results are widely challenged, and rightly so, because the exercise starts with the most ridiculous premise in economics: Ceteris Paribus, or “all else remaining equal”, which never happens. Every asset manager knows that risk builds slowly and happens fast.

Disappointing earnings, rising risk in the eurozone as well as in their diversification markets such as emerging economies, weak net income margins and low return on tangible equity are factors that have contributed to the weak performance of European banks. Investors are rightly suspicious about consensus estimates for 2019 with expectations of double-digit EPS growth rates. Those growth rates look impossible in the current macroeconomic scenario.

Eurozone banks have done a good job of strengthening their capital structure, reaching almost a one per cent per annum increase in Tier 1 core capital. The question is whether this improvement is enough.

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The Nation’s Fiscal Doomsday Machine is Now Unstoppable, by David Stockman

The inexorable forces of mathematics and compound interest are creating their own ugly budgetary realities. From David Stockman at economic policy journal.com:

Earlier this year the Donald provoked a bleep-hole moment per the Fox “family channel” or what was otherwise known as the shit-hole moment across the rest of the MSM.

But whatever you called the contretemps spurred by the president’s crude utterance with regard to certain countries domiciled on the African continent, the claim this was evidence that he’s an incorrigible racist was risible. Actually, we already knew that the Donald is a semi-literate bully, who never got (read) the memo on racial comity—to say nothing of political correctness.

Still, there is a not inconsiderable share of Washington’s preening, self-important ruling class that indulges in that very same kind of gutter talk on a regular basis when puffing their chests and marking the objects of their displeasure. That’s why the shaming chorus which sprung up from all corners of the Swamp was enough to give hypocrisy a bad name.

But if we have to have a shaming of politicians, there is a far better reason for it than that unfortunate presidential slur.

To wit, Trump and the GOP deserve everlasting ignominy for literally shit-canning fiscal rectitude. So doing, they have completely abandoned the GOP’s fundamental reason for being— watch-dogging the US Treasury—in favor of immigrant-bashing, border hysteria and what boils down to crude nativism by any other name.

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Debt Alarm Ringing, by John Mauldin

Globally, debt is generating less and less growth and is getting more and more costly. From John Mauldin at mauldineconomics.com:

Is debt good or bad? The answer is “Yes.”

Debt is future spending pulled forward in time. It lets you buy something now for which you otherwise don’t have cash available yet. Whether it’s wise or not depends on what you buy. Debt to educate yourself so you can get a better job may be a good idea. Borrowing money to finance your vacation? Probably not.

Unfortunately, many people, businesses, and governments borrow because they can, which for many is possible only because central banks made it so cheap in the last decade. It was rational in that respect but is growing less so as the central banks tighten their policies.

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Are You Infuriated Yet? by Chris Martenson

There are rants and then there are rants. This is a first-class rant from Chris Martenson, focused on pensions and medical care. from Martenson at peakprosperity.com:

More and more, I’m encountering people who are simply infuriated with how our “leaders” are running (or to put it more accurately, ruining) things right now. And I share that fury.

It’s perfectly normal human response to be infuriated when an outside agent hurts you, especially if the pain seems unnecessary, illogical or random.

Imagine if your neighbor enjoyed setting off loud explosives at all hours of the day and night. Or if he had a habit of tailgating and brake-checking you every time he saw your car on the road. You’d been well within your rights to be infuriated.

Or to use a much more common example from the real world : When your politicians repeatedly pass laws that hurt you in favor of large corporations — that, too, is infuriating. Especially if those actions run directly counter to their campaign promises.

There’s a lot of be infuriated about in the world today, so go ahead and embrace your rage. By doing so, you’ll be in a better mindset to understand things like Brexit, Catalonia, and Trump, each of which is a reflection of the fury of your fellow citizens, who are finally waking up to the fact that they’ve been victims for too long.

An easy prediction to make is that this simmering anger of the populace is going to start boiling over more violently in the coming years. Welcome to the Age of Fury.

‘Over The Top’ Dumb

Do you ever get the sense that, as a society, we’re being dangerously reckless? Perhaps so dumb that we might not recover from the repercussions of our stupidity for many generations, if ever?

There are economic and financial idiocies in motion that are, by themselves, unsolvable predicaments without a peaceful solution. But when combined with resource depletion and declining net energy, they’re positively intractable.

Take for example the hundreds of trillions of dollars-worth of underfunded entitlement and pension promises. Those promises cannot be kept and they cannot be paid. Everybody with a basic comprehension of math can conclude as such.

Yet we continue to operate as if the opposite were true. We comfort ourselves that, somehow, all the promised future payouts will be made in full — even though the funds are insolvent, their returns are much lower than the actuarial projections require, and payout demand mercilessly rises each year.

Spoiler alert: This isn’t some future disaster lying in wait. It’s unfolding right now.

To continue reading: Are You Infuriated Yet?

The Illusion of Prosperity, by Michael Lebowitz

Current prosperity is nothing but a debt-fueled illusion. From Michael Lebowitz at 720global.com:

For the last 50 years, the consumer, that means you and me, have been the most powerful force driving the U.S. economy. Household spending now accounts for almost 70% of economic growth, about 10% more than it did in 1971. Household spending in the U.S. is also approximately 10-15% higher than most other developed nations.

Currently, U.S. economic growth is anemic and still suffering from the after-shocks of the financial crisis. Importantly, much of that weakness is the result of growing stress on consumers. Using the compelling graph below and the data behind it, we can illustrate why the U.S. economy and consumers are struggling.

Data Courtesy: St. Louis Federal Reserve (FRED) and Lance Roberts

The blue line on the graph above marks the difference between median disposable income (income less taxes) and the median cost of living. A positive number indicates people at the median made more than their costs of living. In other words, their income exceeds the costs of things like food, housing, and insurance and they have money left over to spend or save. This is often referred to as “having disposable income.” If the number in the above calculation is negative, income is not enough to cover essential expenses.

From at least 1959 to 1971, the blue line above was positive and trending higher. The consumer was in great shape. In 1971 the trend reversed in part due to President Nixon’s actions to remove the U.S. dollar from the gold standard. Unbeknownst to many at the time, that decision allowed the U.S. government to run consistent trade and fiscal deficits while its citizens were able to take on more debt. Other than rampant inflation, there were no immediate consequences. In 1971, following this historic action, the blue line began to trend lower.

By 1990, the median U.S. citizen had less disposable income than the median cost of living; i.e., the blue line turned negative. This trend lower has continued ever since. The 2008 financial crisis proved to be a tipping point where the burden of debt was too much for many consumers to handle. Since 2008 the negative trend in the blue line has further steepened.

You might be thinking, if incomes were less than our standard of living, why did it feel like our standard of living remained stable?

One word – DEBT.

To continue reading: The Illusion of Prosperity

Just Wait a Little While, by James Howard Kunstler

Prompted by the coming financial crisis, America and Americans will have to change dramatically. Better prepare yourself. From James Howard Kunstler at kunstler.com:

The trouble, of course, is that even after the Deep State (a.k.a. “The Swamp”) succeeds in quicksanding President Trump, America will be left with itself — adrift among the cypress stumps, drained of purpose, spirit, hope, credibility, and, worst of all, a collective grasp on reality, lost in the fog of collapse.

Here’s what you need to know about what’s going on and where we’re headed.

The United States is comprehensively bankrupt. The government is broke and the citizenry is trapped under inescapable debt burdens. We are never again going to generate the kinds and volumes of “growth” associated with techno-industrial expansion. That growth came out of energy flows, mainly fossil fuels, that paid for themselves and furnished a surplus for doing other useful things. It’s over. Shale oil, for instance, doesn’t pay for itself and the companies engaged in it will eventually run out of accounting hocus-pocus for pretending that it does, and they will go out of business.

The self-evident absence of growth means the end of borrowing money at all levels. When you can’t pay back old loans, it’s unlikely that you will be able to arrange new loans. The nation could pretend to be able to borrow more, since it can supposedly “create” money (loan it into existence, print it, add keystrokes to computer records), but eventually those tricks fail, too. Either the “non-performing” loans (loans not being paid off) cause money to disappear, or the authorities “create” so much new money from thin air (money not associated with real things of value like land, food, manufactured goods) that the “money” loses its mojo as a medium of exchange (for real things), as a store of value (over time), and as a reliable index of pricing — which is to say all the functions of money.

To continue reading: Just Wait a Little While