James Howard Kunstler – Author of The Long Emergency
The great debate among those of us on the Economy Deathwatch seems to be whether the debacle we observe around us will resolve as a crash or a slow-motion financial train wreck. It seems to me that at every layer of the system, we're susceptible to both — in tradable paper, institutional legitimacy, individual solvency, productive activity, real employment, "consumer" behavior, and energy resources. Some things are crashing as I write.
The dollar is losing about a cent every three weeks against other currencies. A penny doesn't seem like much, but keep that pace up for another year and the world's "reserve currency" becomes the world's reserve toilet paper. Oil prices are poised to enter the triple-digit realm, the psychological effect of which may be jarring to 200 million not-so-happy motorists. The value of chipboard-and-vinyl houses is tanking beyond question. Of course, the government's consumer price inflation figures and employment numbers are dismissed broadly as lacking credence. But anybody who has bought a bag of onions and a jar of jam lately knows that things are way up in the supermarket aisles, and so many illegal Mexican migrants were employed in the Sunbelt housing boom, that their absence in the bust won't register on any chart.
It's hard to describe what constitutes the bulk of the stuff moving through the world's financial markets for the simple reason that it was purposely-designed to be so abstruse and provisional that traders would be too intimidated to ask what it represents — and the growing terrified suspicion is that it's mostly worthless. By this I refer to the global freak show of derivatives, concocted "plays" on hypothetical "positions," credit default swaps, arbitrages in imagined "differentials," nifty equations, hedges, promises, algorithms executed by robots, and "off-book" wishes chartered in the Cayman Islands. Probably all of them, in one way or another, are just scams, since they are unaffiliated with productive activity.
At a more fundamental level, these mutant "investments" were derived from a very tangible trade in loans and mortgages made to flesh-and-blood chumps, but even those are only the last in a long spiral of serial "bubbles," or market frenzies based on unreal expectations. And this leads into the very real realm of poor choices, fiscal and fiduciary irresponsibility, deliberately deceptive policy, criminal malfeasance, and the broad abandonment of standards in acceptable behavior by people in authority. A lot of observers attribute this to the Gordon Gecko ethos — the discovery back in the 1980s that "greed is good," which was meant to trump a previous ethos that life is tragic.
Anyway, the trade in mutant investment entities appears to be collapsing now as their worthlessness in market terms (as opposed to theoretical terms) becomes manifest. The major holders of this dreck are losing the ability to conceal their losses, but suspicion now reigns that the losses are far greater than even the massive multiple billions reported so far by the likes of Merrill Lynch, Citicorp, and others. I suppose that what we've been seeing lately is a desperate attempt to hold things together just long enough to cut those Christmas bonus checks so that when the pink slips do finally fly in 2008, at least some Big Boyz will walk away with enough cash to cover a hacienda in Uruguay and the salaries of a half-dozen private security goons to guard it.
But I must say, at the risk once again of sounding extreme, that the structural and systemic sickness in the finance realm is now so severe that it is hard to imagine we will get through the month of December without some major trauma in the markets. In fact, I'd go so far as to predict a thousand-point drop (or more) in the Dow just in this week after Thanksgiving. Real wealth "out there" is evaporating like popsicles dropped on the floor of Hell's fifth circle. It is coming out of the system whether the Big Boyz or anybody else likes it or not, and its absence will assert itself.
At the risk of sounding even more extreme, I would be hard put to believe any reports that "consumer" spending in the days following Thanksgiving will match the hopes and wishes of economic officialdom. My own hunch is that average Americans are so maxed out on debt that they don't know whether to shit or go blind. Perhaps lot of them are willing to take a last step into fatal insolvency in order to put a plasma TV screen under the Christmas tree and appear as heroes to their families. If that's the case, it would only imply a greater bloodbath in credit card default thundering through the system in February and March, which would only deepen the carnage in collateralized debt instruments further up the food chain.
That stuff probably has a long way to unwind, even as the "train" of losses hits the immovable obstacle of reality and the "boxcars" of consequence fly off the rails. The slow-motion train wreck could sweep away an awful lot of familiar things in its path — banks, companies, government-sponsored enterprises, whole industries, whole economies, nations, up to and including the prospects for civilized existence, if severe hardship leads to war, which it often does.
To some extent, the speed and severity of the financial train wreck will occur in a mutually reinforcing relation to what happens in the oil markets. The rise in price is only the mildest symptom of growing instability for the system that allocates the world's most critical resource. Even in the face of "demand destruction," weird changes are occurring in the way that the oil producers do business. The decline in export rates and the new spirit of "oil nationalism" will take center stage now, even if the US economy seizes up. These phenomena will represent a new cycle in world affairs: the global contest for remaining fossil fuel resources.
Sooner rather than later, the next symptom will appear: spot shortages around the US and hoarding behavior. This is what will finally wake the American public out of its long sleepwalk (and Matthew Simmons said this first, by the way) — when the lines form at the gas stations and the tempers flare and the handguns come out of the glove compartments. In the financial markets and the economies of nations, it's not a case of either / or. It's a matter of either / and.
James Howard Kunstler
November 27, 2007
Author of The Long Emergency
Jim Kunstler is the author of The Long Emergency, The Geography of Nowhere and many other books. He lives in upstate New York.