Tag Archives: Financialization

How “Wealthy” Would We Be If We Stopped Borrowing Trillions Every Year? by Charles Hugh Smith

Charles Hugh Smith asks the trillion dollar question. From Smith at oftwominds.com:

These charts reflect a linear system that is wobbling into the first stages of non-linear destabilization.
The widespread presumption is the U.S. is wealthy beyond words, and will remain so as far as the eye can see: wealthy enough to fund trillion-dollar weapons systems, trillion-dollar endless wars, multi-trillion dollar Medicare for all, multi-trillion dollar Universal Basic Income, and so on, in an endless profusion of endless trillions.
Just as a thought experiment, let’s ask: how “wealthy” would we be if we stopped borrowing trillions of dollars every year? Or put another way, how “wealthy” would we be if the rest of the world stops buying our trillions in newly issued bonds, mortgages, auto loans, etc.?
The verboten reality is our “wealth” is nothing but a sand castle of debt. Take away more borrowing and the castle melts away. I’ve gathered a selection of charts that show just how dependent we are on massive debt expansion that continues essentially forever, as any pause in debt expansion will collapse the entire system.
Corporate buybacks have powered rising corporate earnings–and the buybacks are funded by debt. Corporate debt has exploded higher in the past decade, enabling stock buybacks on an unprecedented scale.
Government debt–federal, state and local– is rising an exponential rates.We’re not paying for more government programs with earnings–we’re simply borrowing trillions and hoping we can borrow the interest payments that will also rise along with the debt.
Household debt, student loans, auto loans–all are soaring. The corporate sector, government and the household sector–all are living on borrowed money, and relying on magical thinking to mask the inevitable consequences.
Here’s debt to GDP. Yes, the economy expanded, but debt expanded much faster. Every additional dollar of GDP now requires multiple dollars of new debt.
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When Long-Brewing Instability Finally Reaches Crisis, by Charles Hugh Smith

Generally crises that come “out of the blue” have very long roots. From Charles Hugh Smith at oftwominds.com:

Keep an eye on the system’s buffers. They look fine until they suddenly collapse.
The doom-and-gloomers among us who have been predicting the unraveling of an inherently unstable financial system appear to have been disproved by the reflation of yet another credit-asset bubble. But inherently unstable / imbalanced systems can stumble onward for years or even decades, making fools of all who warn of an eventual reset.
Destabilizing systems can cling on for decades, as the inevitable crisis doesn’t necessarily resolve the instability. History shows that when systems had enough inherent wealth to draw upon, they could survive for centuries, thinning their resources, adaptability and buffers until their reservoirs were finally drained. Until then, they simply did more of what’s failed to maintain the sclerotic, self-serving elites at the top of the Imperial food chain.
If we want to trace back the systemic instabilities and imbalances that culminated in China’s revolution in 1949, we can start in 1900 with the Boxer Rebellion, which was itself a reaction to the Opium Wars of the 1840s that established Western influence and control in China.
But is this far enough back in time to understand the Communist Revolution in the 1940s? If we want a comprehensive understanding, we must go back to 1644 and the demise of the Ming Empire, and perhaps even farther back to the Mongol victory over the Song dynasties in the late 1200s.
In the same fashion, we can trace the current crisis of global-finance Capitalism back to the expansion of globalization, affordable fossil fuels and credit in the early 1900s. Affordable fossil fuels enabled rapid industrialization and the growth of transportation and communication networks. Add the expansionary effects of globalization and credit, and the consumer-finance economy took off like a rocket until the inevitable consequences of providing leverage and credit to marginal producers, buyers and speculators led to the Great Depression.
And so here we are in 2018, 25 years into an unprecedented technological and financial boom which is once again the result of cheap, abundant energy and credit and the global arbitrage of labor, yields, currencies and risk. And once again, the “solution” to every crisis is to do more of what’s failed because that’s the only option that doesn’t require sacrifices from the elites and a painful reshuffling of power relations.

The Gathering Storm, by Charles Hugh Smith

The only way you can’t see the storm clouds on the horizon is not to look. From Charles Hugh Smith at oftwominds.com:

The gathering storm cannot be dissipated with propaganda and bribes.
July 4th is an appropriate day to borrow Winston Churchill’s the gathering storm to describe the existential crisis that will envelope America within the next decade. There is no single cause of the gathering storm; in complex systems, dynamics feed back into one another, and the sum of destabilizing disorder is greater than a simple sum of its parts.
Causal factors can be roughly broken into two categories: systemic and social/economic. The central illusion of those who focus solely on social, political and economic issues as the sources of destabilization is that tweaking the parameters of the status quo is all that’s needed to right the ship: if only Trump were impeached, if only GDP hits 4% annual growth rate, if only the Federal Reserve started controlling the price of bat guano, etc., etc., etc.
The unwelcome reality is the systemic issues cannot be reversed with policy tweaks or shuffling those at the top of a crumbling centralized order. The systemic problems arise from the structures of centralization and monopoly capital, the institutionalization of perverse incentives and the depletion of natural capital: soil, water, fossil fuels, etc.
We can create “money” out of thin air but we can’t print fresh water, productive soil or affordable energy out of thin air.
Regardless of their ideological labels, centralized socio-economic systems follow an S-Curve of rapid expansion during a “boost phase,” a period of stable expansion (maturity) and then a period of stagnation and decline as the system’s participants do more of what’s failed, as they cannot accept that what worked so well in the past no longer works.
A successful model traps those within it; escape becomes impossible. That’s the lesson of the S-Curve:
The Ratchet Effect is another key reason why meaningful reform of the status quo is impossible. In flush times, budgets expand as easily as waistlines, ratcheting up to consume ever-higher revenues. But once revenues start declining, the administrative/consumerist status quo is fiercely resistant to any reduction.
Like a body which has grown fat from excessive consumption and a decline in vitality/ functionality, the status quo resists any reduction in staffing or spending, sacrificing muscle to keep its layers of fat untouched.
To continue reading: The Gathering Storm

Things To Come, by James Howard Kunstler

As exciting as Russia and Donald Trump and whatnot may be, it’s small change compared to the looming debt catastrophe. From James Howard Kunstler at kunstler.com:

As our politicos creep deeper into a legalistic wilderness hunting for phantoms of Russian collusion, nobody pays attention to the most dangerous force in American life: the unraveling financialization of the economy.

Financialization is what happens when the people-in-charge “create” colossal sums of “money” out of nothing — by issuing loans, a.k.a. debt — and then cream off stupendous profits from the asset bubbles, interest rate arbitrages, and other opportunities for swindling that the artificial wealth presents. It was a kind of magic trick that produced monuments of concentrated personal wealth for a few and left the rest of the population drowning in obligations from a stolen future. The future is now upon us.

Financialization expressed itself in other interesting ways, for instance the amazing renovation of New York City (Brooklyn especially). It didn’t happen just because Generation X was repulsed by the boring suburbs it grew up in and longed for a life of artisanal cocktails. It happened because financialization concentrated immense wealth geographically in the very few places where its activities took place — not just New York but San Francisco, Washington, and Boston — and could support luxuries like craft food and brews.

Quite a bit of that wealth was extracted from asset-stripping the rest of America where financialization was absent, kind of a national distress sale of the fly-over places and the people in them. That dynamic, of course, produced the phenomenon of President Donald Trump, the distilled essence of all the economic distress “out there” and the rage it entailed. The people of Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin were left holding a big bag of nothing and they certainly noticed what had been done to them, though they had no idea what to do about it, except maybe try to escape the moment-by-moment pain of their ruined lives with powerful drugs.

To continue reading: Things To Come

We’re in the Eye of a Global Financial Hurricane, by Charles Hugh Smith

You can buy growth with debt for awhile, but then you have to pay it back. From Charles Hugh Smith at oftwominds.com:

The only “growth” we’re experiencing are the financial cancers of systemic risk and financialization’s soaring wealth/income inequality.

The Keynesian gods have failed, and as a result we’re in the eye of a global financial hurricane.

The Keynesian god of growth has failed.

The Keynesian god of borrowing from the future to fund today’s consumption has failed.

The Keynesian god of monetary stimulus / financialization has failed.

Every major central bank and state worships these Keynesian idols:

1. Growth. (Never mind the cost or what kind of growth–all growth is good, even the financial equivalent of aggressive cancer).

2. Borrowing from the future to fund today’s keg party, worthless college diploma, particle board bookcase, stock buy-back, etc. (oops, I mean “investment”)–a.k.a.deficit spending which is a polite way of saying this unsavory truth: stealing from our children and grandchildren to fund our lifestyles today.

3. Monetary stimulus / financialization. If private investment sags (because there are few attractive investments at today’s nosebleed valuations and few attractive investments in a global economy burdened with massive over-production and over-capacity), drop interest rates to zero (or below zero) to “stimulate” new borrowing… for whatever: global carry trades, bat guano derivatives, etc.

Here is my definition of Financialization:

Financialization is the mass commodification of debt and debt-based financial instruments collaterized by previously low-risk assets, a pyramiding of risk and speculative gains that is only possible in a massive expansion of low-cost credit and leverage.

That is a mouthful, so let’s break it into bite-sized chunks.

Home mortgages are a good example of how financialization increases financial profits by jacking up risk and distributing it to suckers who don’t recognize the potential for staggering losses.

In the good old days, home mortgages were safe and dull: banks and savings and loans institutions issued the mortgages and kept the loans on their books, earning a stable return for the 30 years of the mortgage’s term.

Then the financialization machine revolutionized the home mortgage business to increase profits. The first step was to generate entire new types of mortgages with higher profit margins than conventional mortgages. These included no-down payment mortgages (liar loans), no-interest-for-the-first-few-years mortgages, adjustable-rate mortgages, home equity lines of credit, and so on.

This broadening of options (and risks) greatly expanded the pool of people who qualified for a mortgage. In the old days, only those with sterling credit qualified for a home mortgage. In the financialized realm, almost anyone with a pulse could qualify for an exotic mortgage.

The interest rate, risk and profit margins were all much higher for the originators. What’s not to like? Well, the risk of default is a problem. Defaults trigger losses.

Financialization’s solution: package the risk in safe-looking securities and offload the risk onto suckers and marks. Securitizing mortgages enabled loan originators to skim the origination fees and profits up front and then offload the risk of default and loss onto buyers of the mortgage securities.

To continue reading: We’re in the Eye of a Global Financial Hurricane

The Root of Rising Inequality: Our “Lawnmower” Economy (hint: we’re the lawn), by Charles Hugh Smith

In a global economy in which debt is the foundation (see Debtonomics Archive), it should come as no surprise that debt merchants have done better than most. It should also come as no surprise when myriad debt bubbles eventually pop and the global economy is put through the wringer. From Charles Hugh Smith at oftwominds.com:

This predatory exploitation is only possible if the central bank and state have partnered with financial Elites.

After decades of denial, the mainstream has finally conceded that rising income and wealth inequality is a problem–not just economically, but politically, for as we all know wealth buys political influence/favors, and as we’ll see below, the federal government enables and enforces most of the skims and scams that have made the rich richer and everyone else poorer.

Here’s the problem in graphic form: from 1947 to 1979, the family income of the top 1% actually expanded less that the bottom 99%. Since 1980, the income of the 1% rose 224% while the bottom 80% barely gained any income at all.

Globalization, i.e. offshoring of jobs, is often blamed for this disparity, but as I explained in “Free” Trade, Jobs and Income Inequality, the income of the top 10% broke away from the bottom 90% in the early 1980s, long before China’s emergence as an exporting power.

Indeed, by the time China entered the WTO, the top 10% in the U.S. had already left the bottom 90% in the dust.

The only possible explanation of this is the rise of financialization: financiers and financial corporations (broadly speaking, Wall Street, benefited enormously from neoliberal deregulation of the financial industry, and the conquest of once-low-risk sectors of the economy (such as mortgages) by the storm troopers of finance.

To continue reading: The Root of Rising Inequality: Our “Lawnmower” Economy (hint: we’re the lawn)

 

2015: The Last Christmas in America, by Charles Hugh Smith

From Charles Hugh Smith at oftwominds.com:

The game of enabling more debt by lowering interest rates and loosening lending standards is coming to an end.

If we define Christmas as consumer spending going up while earnings are going down, 2015 will be the last Christmas in America for a long time to come. In broad brush, Christmas (along with all other consumer spending) has been funded by financialization, i.e. debt and leverage, not by increased earnings.

The primary financial trick that’s propped up the “recovery” for seven years is piling more debt on stagnating incomes. How does this magic work? Lower interest rates.

In a healthy economy, households earn more money (after adjusting for inflation, a.k.a. loss of purchasing power), and the increased earnings enable households to save, spend and borrow more.

In an unhealthy, doomed-to-implode economy, earnings are declining, and central banks enable more borrowing by lowering interest rates to zero and loosening lending standards so anyone who can fog a mirror can buy a new pickup truck with a subprime auto loan.

The problem with financialization is that it eventually runs out of oxygen. As earnings decline, eventually there’s no more income to support more debt. And once debt stops expanding, the economy doesn’t just stagnate, it implodes, because the entire ramshackle con game of financialization requires a steady increase in debt and leverage to keep from crashing.

The trickery of substituting financialization for earned income–the trickery that fueled the last seven years of “recovery”–is exhausted.

To continue reading: 2015: The Last Christmas in America