By Charles Hugh Smith: The Inevitability of DeGrowth

While there are no new ideas in this essay, I decided to post it because it is a well written primer on the intersecting issues of wealth, energy, debt, and limits to growth.

https://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/109555/inevitability-degrowth

chs-degrowth-chart1

Even though we don’t know precisely how the future will unfold, we know a few things about it:

  1. Of the 7.5 billion humans on the planet, virtually every individual wants to enjoy a high-energy consumption “middle-class” lifestyle. As a generous estimate, 1.5 billion people enjoy a high-energy consumption lifestyle today; the remaining six billion are aspirants hungry for all the goodies enjoyed by the 1.5 billion—all goodies based on affordable, abundant energy.
  2. Our dependence on debt to fuel growth—more extraction of resources, more energy, more manufacturing, more consumption and more earned income to pay for all this expansion of debt and consumption—has built-in limits: debt accrues interest and principal payments, which reduce the remaining income available to spend on consumption.  Our dependence on fast-rising debt just to maintain low rates of growth eventually limits our ability to pay for more consumption/growth. When most income is devoted to servicing debt, there isn’t enough left to buy more stuff or support additional debt.
  3. The debt needed to move the growth needle is expanding at a much higher rate than the growth it generates. While growth is stagnant, debt is expanding by leaps and bounds to unprecedented levels. (Global Debt Hits A New Record High Of $217 Trillion; 327% Of GDP)
  4. Wages are stagnating for the bottom 90% of the workforce. We can quibble about the causes, but there is no plausible evidence to support a belief that this trend will magically reverse.
  5. The cost of the most valuable energy–high-density, easy to transport—will slowly but surely become more expensive as the cheap, easy-to-extract energy sources are depleted, notwithstanding the temporary boost provided by the fast-depleting wells of the fracking “miracle.”
  6. There are limits on our exploitation of resources such as fresh water and wild fisheries. Humans can print currency (money) but we can’t print fresh water, energy, wild fisheries, etc. If one unit of currency currently buys one liter of petrol, printing 10 more units of money doesn’t create 10 more liters of fuel.
  7. Creating currency out of thin air isn’t free in our system: all new currency is loaned into existence and accrues interest. As a result, all currency is a claim on future earnings. If we borrow enough from the future, and earnings remain flat or decline, eventually there’s not enough income left to support the debt service and the expanding consumption the status quo needs to keep itself glued together.

Imagine You Are a Smart Leader

Note: I make a distinction between being wise and smart. I wrote about wise leaders and citizens here. Today I am talking about smart leaders of citizens in denial.

Imagine you are a smart leader with a good understanding of science and engineering, like many Chinese leaders, and unlike our idiot Western economists and lawyers.

You know cheap money policies have created the largest bubble in history.

You know there is not enough affordable energy left to grow out of the problem.

You know that austerity policies will cause a depression, at best, and will cause you to lose your job.

You know that thermodynamics and mathematics guarantees an economic reset in the not too distant future.

You know that there will be much less energy and other critical resources like food available after the reset.

You know that there will be much less credit available to purchase anything with after the reset.

You know that you will not be able to feed your people, and keep your job, without access to energy, food, and other critical resources.

You know that you cannot afford a massive military build-up to forcibly secure resources, and even if you could, the future shortage of energy to power it makes a big military an unwise investment.

You know that a few cheap nuclear weapons are probably sufficient to prevent someone with a bigger military from taking your resources.

You know that fiat currencies, like those every country uses, have value because they are a claim on energy that is expected to be burned in the future.

You know that there will not be enough energy in the future to fulfill claims made by fiat currencies, and therefore they will lose most of their value after the reset and will not be useful for purchasing resources.

You know that gold’s value comes from the energy that was burned in the past to produce it, and therefore other countries may exchange energy and food for gold after the reset.

What would you do?

You would print money to purchase gold from other countries with leaders that are too stupid and/or too deeply in denial to understand what is going on.

By Steve St. Angelo: CLOSE TO NEW GOLD STANDARD? Australia Exports Record Amount Of Gold To China

australia-us-gold-mine-suppy-vs-exports

Australia and the U.S. continue to export the majority of its gold to Hong Kong and China. For example, Australia and the United States exported 121 mt of gold to Hong Kong and China during the first quarter of 2017. Australia exported 57.4 mt, while the U.S. exported 63.3 mt. Thus, Hong Kong and China received 55% of all Australian and U.S. gold exports Q1 2017.

By Raúl Ilargi Meijer: I read the news today, oh boy (On Zombies and Bubbles)

The price of money affects everything.

When you artificially suppress the price of money dangerous bubbles emerge.

No one notices or cares because of inherited denial of reality.

Until the bubbles pop and everyone is forced to care.

This time is different because of its magnitude and global nature.

And because there is no cheap energy left to push us out of a depression.

https://www.theautomaticearth.com/2017/07/i-read-the-news-today-oh-boy/

zhstockbuyers

Reading the news on America should scare everyone, and every day, but it doesn’t. We’re immune, largely.

What we’re witnessing is the demise of the American political system, in real time. We just don’t know it. Actually, we’re witnessing the downfall of the entire western system. And it turns out the media are an integral part of that system. The reason we’re seeing it happen now is that although the narratives and memes emanating from both politics and the press point to economic recovery and a future full of hope and technological solutions to all our problems, people are not buying the memes anymore. And the people are right.

Tyler Durden ran a Credit Suisse graph overnight that should give everyone a heart attack, or something in that order. It shows that nobody’s buying stocks anymore, other than the companies who issue them. They use ultra-cheap leveraged loans to make it look like they’re doing fine. Instead of using the money/credit to invest in, well, anything, really. You can be a successful US/European company these days just by purchasing your own shares. How long for, you ask?

Why this rush by companies to buyback their own stock, and in the process artificially boost their Earning per Share? There is one very simple reason: as Reuters explained some time ago, “Stock buybacks enrich the bosses even when business sags.”

In other words, the system doesn’t only keep zombies alive, making it impossible for anyone to see who’s healthy or not, no, the system itself has become a zombie.

By Chris Martenson: The Looming Energy Shock

I have a lot of time for Chris Martenson. He’s well grounded in science and has a lot of integrity. My only criticism of late is his recent campaign to blame central banks which I suspect is a marketing strategy to increase subscriptions because blaming bankers sells better than blaming thermodynamics, overshoot, and inherited denial.

Chris is predicting that within 3 years we will either have an economic collapse that temporarily masks the underlying energy problem, or we will have oil shortages and a price shock that will trigger a credit crisis like 2008 but worse. He backs these predictions with the correct data, in my opinion.

I independently came to roughly the same conclusion, although I would add a 3rd possibility given rising stresses around the world: a major war.

I think the 3 possible outcomes are roughly equal in probability, although given the deceleration in credit growth apparent from the following graph, an economic collapse has the lead by a nose.

global-debt-2017-06-29_21-27-57

energy-and-economy-10-4-2016

oil-investments-global-2017-06-29

 

There will be an extremely painful oil supply shortfall sometime between 2018 and 2020. It will be highly disruptive to our over-leveraged global financial system, given how saddled it is with record debts and unfunded IOUs.

Due to a massive reduction in capital spending in the global oil business over 2014-2016 and continuing into 2017, the world will soon find less oil coming out of the ground beginning somewhere between 2018-2020.

Because oil is the lifeblood of today’s economy, if there’s less oil to go around, price shocks are inevitable. It’s very likely we’ll see prices climb back over $100 per barrel. Possibly well over.

The only way to avoid such a supply driven price-shock is if the world economy collapses first, dragging demand downwards.

Not exactly a great “solution” to hope for.

https://www.peakprosperity.com/blog/109505/looming-energy-shock

By Wolf Richter: What Happens When the Machines Start Selling?

This. Will. Not. End. Well.

It’s shocking what’s happened to the “free market” and invisible hand.

In the good old days not so long ago the price of a stock was determined by a company’s profit, growth potential, and balance sheet. With of course some irrational exuberance thrown in from time to time.

Today reality is irrelevant. Everything is now irrationally exuberant on steroids.

Take 5 minutes to read this if you have any investments.

http://wolfstreet.com/2017/06/15/what-happens-when-the-machines-start-selling/

The infamous FAANG stocks – Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Netflix, and Google’s parent Alphabet – along with other “tech” stocks have been getting “hammered,” to use a term that for now exaggerates their “plight.” The FAANG stocks are down between 1.7% and 2.5% at the moment and between 5.5% and 11% since their peak on June 8. Given how far these stocks have soared over the past few years, this selloff is just a barely visible dip.

But fundamental analysis has long been helpless in explaining the surge in stocks. The shares of Amazon now sport a Price-Earnings ratio of 180, when classic fundamental analyses might lose interest at a PE ratio of 18 for the profit-challenged growth company that has been around for over two decades. For them, the stock price might have to come down 90% before it makes sense.

Or Netflix, with a PE ratio of 195. Or companies like Tesla. Forget a PE ratio. There are no earnings. The company might never make any money. Its sales are so minuscule in the overall US automotive market that they get lost as a rounding error. It bought Elon Musk’s failing solar-panel company as a way to bail it out. And the battery-cell technology Tesla uses comes from Panasonic. So what should a company like this be worth? Fundamental analysis has been completely irrelevant: Tesla’s current stock price gives it a market capitalization of $61 billion.

So investors trying to sort through this mess by using fundamental analysis have been left in the dust years ago. Fundamentals no longer matter in this market. Valuations have been surgically removed from any sense of fundamental reality.

There are a lot of reasons for this, including the enormous amounts of liquidity in the markets, after the Fed, the ECB, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of England, and the Swiss National Bank have created $11 trillion out of nothing since the onset of the Financial Crisis and used that money to buy $11 trillion of securities – in the SNB’s and BOJ’s case even common stocks. They now sit on $15 trillion in assets.

Under such relentless buying pressure, fundamentals in the markets have become useless. People still truly engaged in it – rather than in churning out “fundamental” rationalizations for irrational stock prices – are being ridiculed. But algorithms have picked up the slack.

“The majority of equity investors today don’t buy or sell stocks based on stock specific fundamentals,” Marko Kolanovic, global head of quantitative and derivatives research at JPMorgan, explained in a note to clients, cited by CNBC.

“Fundamental discretionary traders” now account for only about 10% of trading volume in stocks, he said. Passive and quantitative investing account for about 60%; this share has more than doubled over the past decade.

These “big data strategies are increasingly challenging traditional fundamental investing and will be a catalyst for changes in the years to come,” he said.

Since fundamental analysis of specific stocks and companies no longer influences trading decisions, the sell-off in tech stocks can’t be the doing of those still hopelessly clinging to fundamental analysis. Instead, it was likely associated with some change in strategy by quantitative and algorithmic trading. The algorithms were reacting to something.

But these algorithms – many of them written by people who went to the same schools and learned the same things – and the vast amounts of data they churn through end up doing similar things, following similar strategies, and producing similar results. Hence, the surge of FAANG stocks and other stocks to where fundamentals are just a quaint reminder of a bygone era.

But without fundamentals, what will hold up stock prices, once the quantitative strategies shift without notice and see selling as the opportunity, and other algos react to those market data points and follow them or try to run ahead of them? No one knows.

This environment has amassed phenomenal risks. These shifts, as we have seen with the tech stocks, can occur without prior notice, without obvious trigger. They occur because an algo sets it off and other algos follow since they react to each other, and the whole machinery can suddenly go into reverse and get stuck in it.

Quant hedge funds – where trading is done by machines, not humans – now dominate stock trading.

Gigadenial

It takes gigadenial to believe gigafactories will save us.

Isn’t it interesting that the only scenario that might keep us below an extinction threatening 4-6 degrees C, and the only scenario that is probable, namely economic collapse, is the only scenario that climate scientists have not studied?

Economic collapse is an important scenario to study because most people in the developed world consume far more of everything than is required to subsist and therefore could survive some level of economic collapse.

On the other hand, most people will not survive if economic growth continues as desired (or even if growth slows) because the size of our economy is creating a climate incompatible with civilization.

Economic collapse will cut CO2 emissions (good) but also sun blocking pollution (bad). It’s not clear which force is the most powerful. This means economic collapse could save us, or it could make things worse.

It would be useful to know if economic collapse is on balance good or bad when we are asked to vote for candidates that promise to continue to print money to avoid collapse.

In case you are not aware, the amount of money printed by central banks to prop up assets recently increased to about $300,000,000,000 per month worldwide. That’s about $1.50 per day for every person on the planet conjured out of thin air, and is the only reason things seem to be sort of ok, and why real estate and stocks continue to rise despite poor fundamentals.

Unfortunately the printed money is not increasing the incomes of the poor and middle class because we’ve used up the inexpensive fossil energy needed to increase productivity.

Rising asset prices and stagnant incomes means the wealth gap between the rich and poor is widening which is causing social unrest to build as demonstrated by recent unexpected election and referendum outcomes around the world.

It’s an open question rooted in emotions and herd behavior as to how much longer money printing will stave off economic collapse.

By Nicole Foss: The Automatic Earth Primer Guide 2017

Nicole Foss has one of my favorite minds on the planet.

She used to write prolifically on our predicament but perhaps after having said most of what she thought needed to be said, and then attending to personal preparations by leaving Canada for the much safer New Zealand, she now writes infrequently.

Today Nicole published a greatest hits summary of her and her writing partner Ilargi’s essays.

If you are seeking to understand reality then I recommend you spend some time reading her catalog.

If you prefer to learn by video, then you might enjoy this interview with Nicole.

https://www.theautomaticearth.com/2017/05/the-automatic-earth-primer-guide-2017/

Nicole Foss has completed a huge tour de force with her update of the Automatic Earth Primer Guide. The first update since 2013 is now more like a Primer Library, with close to 160 articles and videos published over the past -almost- 10 years, and Nicole’s words to guide you through it. Here’s Nicole:

The Automatic Earth (TAE) has existed for almost ten years now. That is nearly ten years of exploring and describing the biggest possible big picture of our present predicament. The intention of this post is to gather all of our most fundamental articles in one place, so that readers can access our worldview in its most comprehensive form. For new readers, this is the place to start. The articles are roughly organised into topics, although there is often considerable overlap.

We are reaching limits to growth in so many ways at the same time, but it is not enough to understand which are the limiting factors, but also what time frame each particular subset of reality operates over, and therefore which is the key driver at what time. We can think of the next century as a race of hurdles we need to clear. We need to know how to prepare for each as it approaches, as we need to clear each one in order to be able to stay in the race.

TAE is known primarily as a finance site because finance has the shortest time frame of all. So much of finance exists in a virtual world in which changes can unfold very quickly. There are those who assume that changes in a virtual system can happen without major impact, but this assumption is dangerously misguided. Finance is the global operating system – the interface between ourselves, our institutions and our resource base. When the operating system crashes, nothing much will work until the system is rebooted. The next few years will see that crash and reboot. As financial contraction is set to occur first, finance will be the primary driver to the downside for the next several years. After that, we will be dealing with energy crisis, other resource limits, limitations of carrying capacity and increasing geopolitical ramifications.

The global financial system is rapidly approaching a Minsky Moment:

“A Minsky moment is a sudden major collapse of asset values which is part of the credit cycle or business cycle. Such moments occur because long periods of prosperity and increasing value of investments lead to increasing speculation using borrowed money. The spiraling debt incurred in financing speculative investments leads to cash flow problems for investors. The cash generated by their assets is no longer sufficient to pay off the debt they took on to acquire them.

Losses on such speculative assets prompt lenders to call in their loans. This is likely to lead to a collapse of asset values. Meanwhile, the over-indebted investors are forced to sell even their less-speculative positions to make good on their loans. However, at this point no counterparty can be found to bid at the high asking prices previously quoted. This starts a major sell-off, leading to a sudden and precipitous collapse in market-clearing asset prices, a sharp drop in market liquidity, and a severe demand for cash.”

This is the inevitable result of decades of ponzi finance, as our credit bubble expanded relentlessly, leaving us today with a giant pile of intertwined human promises which cannot be kept. Bubbles create, and rely on, building stacks of IOUs ever more removed from any basis in underlying real wealth. When the bubble finally implodes, the value of those promises disappears as it becomes obvious they will not be kept. Bust follows boom, as it has done throughout human history. The ensuing Great Collateral Grab will reveal just how historically under-collateralized our supposed prosperity has become. Very few of the myriad claims to underlying real wealth can actually be met, leaving the excess claims to be exposed as empty promises. These are destined to be rapidly and messily extinguished in a deflationary implosion.

While we cannot tell you exactly when the bust will unfold in specific locations, we can see that it is already well underway in some parts of the world, notably the European periphery. Given that preparation takes time, and that one cannot be late, now is the time to prepare, whether one thinks the Great Collateral Grab will manifest close to home next month or next year. Those who are not prepared risk losing everything, very much including their freedom of action to address subsequent challenges as they arise. It would be a tragedy to fall at the first hurdle, and then be at the mercy of whatever fate has to throw at you thereafter. The Automatic Earth has been covering finance, market psychology and the consequences of excess credit and debt since our inception, providing readers with the tools to navigate a major financial accident.

 

The second limiting factor is likely to be energy, although this may vary with location, given that energy sources are not evenly distributed. Changes in supply and demand for energy are grounded in the real world, albeit in a highly financialized way, hence they unfold over a longer time frame than virtual finance. Over-financializing a sector of the real economy leaves it subject to the swings of boom and bust, or bubbles and their aftermath, but the changes in physical systems typically play out over months to years rather than days to weeks.

Financial crisis can be expected to deprive people of purchasing power, quickly and comprehensively, thereby depressing demand substantially (given that demand is not what one wants, but what one can pay for). Commodity prices fall under such circumstances, and they can be expected to fall more quickly than the cost of production, leaving margins squeezed and both physical and financial risk rising sharply. This would deter investment for a substantial period of time. As a financial reboot begins to deliver economic recovery some years down the line, the economy can expect to hit a hard energy supply ceiling as a result. Financial crisis initially buys us time in the coming world of hard energy limits, but at the expense of worsening the energy crisis in the longer term.

Energy is the master resource – the capacity to do work. Our modern society is the result of the enormous energy subsidy we have enjoyed in the form of fossil fuels, specifically fossil fuels with a very high energy profit ratio (EROEI). Energy surplus drove expansion, intensification, and the development of socioeconomic complexity, but now we stand on the edge of the net energy cliff. The surplus energy, beyond that which has to be reinvested in future energy production, is rapidly diminishing. We would have to greatly increase gross production to make up for reduced energy profit ratio, but production is flat to falling so this is no longer an option. As both gross production and the energy profit ratio fall, the net energy available for all society’s other purposes will fall even more quickly than gross production declines would suggest. Every society rests on a minimum energy profit ratio. The implication of falling below that minimum for industrial society, as we are now poised to do, is that society will be forced to simplify.

A plethora of energy fantasies is making the rounds at the moment. Whether based on unconventional oil and gas or renewables (that are not actually renewable), these are stories we tell ourselves in order to deny that we are facing any kind of future energy scarcity, or that supply could be in any way a concern. They are an attempt to maintain the fiction that our society can continue in its current form, or even increase in complexity. This is a vain attempt to deny the existence of non-negotiable limits to growth. The touted alternatives are not energy sources for our current society, because low EROEI energy sources cannot sustain a society complex enough to produce them.

We are poised to throw away what remains of our conventional energy inheritance chasing an impossible dream of perpetual energy riches, because doing so will be profitable for the few in the short term, and virtually no one is taking a genuine long term view. We will make the transition to a lower energy society much more difficult than it need have been. At The Automatic Earth we have covered these issues extensively, pointing particularly to the importance of net energy, or energy profit ratios, for alternative supplies. We have also addressed the intersections of energy and finance.