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.

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.


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 of reasons associated with the depletion of inexpensive fossil energy that are discussed elsewhere on this blog.

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.

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.

By Erik Lindberg: Economic Growth – A Primer


Erik Lindberg thinks and writes about many of the issues I think and write about. Two differences between us are that Erik is more intelligent and is a much better writer.

Here is the impressive catalog of Lindberg’s work.

His most recent essay is a primer on economic growth and discusses:

  • relationships between the economy, energy, and environment
  • why we like and want economic growth
  • why economic growth is the greatest threat to humanity
  • the magnitude of human overshoot
  • why improvements in efficiency won’t help
  • how and why money is created
  • why the design of our system is brilliant (on an infinite planet)
  • why the design of our system requires economic growth
  • why economic growth must end
  • why the end of economic growth will be very painful
  • why the next economic depression will be different
  • why it is difficult to switch to a new economic system
  • why no one is to blame

I wrote a similar essay here, but I think Erik’s essay is the most accurate, complete, concise, unbiased, and well written treatment of the topic I’ve seen.

For anyone seeking to understand the most important issue we face, this is one of the best places to start:

The only topic that Lindberg does not discuss to my satisfaction is why, despite overwhelming evidence, do we not acknowledge or discuss, let alone attempt to act on, our predicament?

Lindberg acknowledges that denial is the reason we ignore facts, but does not explain the ubiquity and strength of denial in an otherwise intelligent species.

I remain the only person I know of that thinks Varki provides the best explanation for our collective denial of reality.

By Gail Tverberg: Elephants in the Room Regarding Energy and the Economy


Here is the latest version of Gail Tverberg’s thesis that limits to growth are causing too low energy prices which in turn will cause a decrease in energy extraction which in turn will cause the economy to collapse.

The economists’ choice of the word “demand” is confusing. A person cannot simply demand to buy a car, or demand to go on a vacation trip. The person needs some way to pay for these things.

Falling resources per capita makes it harder to earn an adequate living. Think of farmers trying to subsist on ever-smaller farms. It would become increasingly difficult for them to earn a living, unless there is a big improvement in technology.

Or think of a miner who is extracting ore that is gradually dropping from 5% metal, to 2% metal, to 1% metal content, and so on, because the best quality ore is extracted first. The miner needs to work an increasing number of hours, to produce the ore needed for 100 kilograms of the metal. The economy is becoming in some sense “worse off,” because the worker is becoming “inefficient” through no fault of his own. The resources needed to provide benefits simply are less available, due to diminishing returns. This problem is sometimes reported as “falling productivity per worker.”

Falling productivity per worker tends to lower wages. And lower wages put downward pressure on commodity prices, because of affordability problems.

We seem to have already gone though a long period of stagflation, since the 1970s. The symptoms we are seeing today look as if we are approaching a steep downslope. If we are approaching a crisis stage, our crisis stage may be much shorter than the 20 to 50 years observed historically. Earlier civilizations (from which these timeframes were observed), did not have electricity or the extensive international trade system we have today.

The big problem that occurs is that non-elite workers become too poor to afford the output of the economy. Adding robots to replace workers looks efficient, but leaves many unemployed. Unemployment is even worse than low pay.

Peak oilers recognized one important point: our use of oil products would at some point have to come to an end. But they did not understand how complex the situation is. Low prices, rather than high, would be the problem. We would see gluts rather than shortages, as we approach limits. Much of the oil that seems to be technologically extractable, will really be left in the ground, because of low prices and other problems.

Many people miss the point that economy must keep growing. (…) As the economy grows, we tend to need more energy. Growing efficiency can only slightly offset this. Thus, as a practical matter, energy per capita needs to stay at least level for an economy to grow.

The fact that energy prices can, and do, fall below the cost of production is something that has been missed by many modelers. Prices can go down, even when the cost of production plus taxes needed by governments rises!

It takes energy to have an intergovernmental organization, such as the European Union. In fact, it takes energy to operate any kind of government. When there is not enough surplus energy to go around, citizens decide that the benefits of belonging to such organizations are less than the costs involved. That is the reason for the Brexit vote, and the reason the question is coming up elsewhere.

Oil prices have been too low for producers since at least mid-2014. It is possible to hide a problem with low prices with increasing debt, for a few years, but not indefinitely. The longer the low-price scenario continues, the more likely a collapse in production is. Also, the tendency of international organizations of government to collapse (Slide 38) takes a few years to manifest itself, as does the tendency for civil unrest within oil exporters (Slide 39).

Once an incorrect understanding of our energy problem becomes firmly entrenched, it becomes very difficult for leaders to understand the real problem.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

Here is this year’s Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.

By Art Berman: Oil Prices Lower Forever? Hard Times In a Failing Global Economy

Art Berman is an oil industry expert worth listening to. I missed this Forbes article he published in July 2016. Thanks to Alice Friedemann for reviving it.

This is one of the better summaries I’ve read on the history of, and relationship between, energy and the economy.

Economic growth, without unsustainable and dangerous debt, is no longer possible. I explored the implications of no growth in this essay.

Berman wisely concludes by saying our best course of action is to face the beast.

Facing the beast would require us to break through our inherited denial of reality.

I wish but I do not expect.


Energy is the economy. Energy resources are the reserve account behind currency. The economy can grow as long as there is surplus affordable energy in that account. The economy stops growing when the cost of energy production becomes unaffordable. It is irrelevant that oil companies can make a profit at unaffordable prices.

Energy underlies and connects everything. We need energy to make things, transport and sell things and to transport ourselves so that we can work and spend. We need it to run our computers, our homes and our businesses. It takes energy to heat, cool, cook and communicate. In fact, it is impossible to think of anything in our lives that does not rely on energy.

When energy costs are low, the costs of doing business are correspondingly low. When energy prices are high, it is difficult to make a profit because the underlying costs of manufacture and distribution are high. This is particularly true in a global economy that requires substantial transport of raw materials, goods and services.

And this is precisely the problem with the almost universally held belief that technology will make all things possible, including making a finite resource like oil infinite. Technology has a cost that its evangelists forget to mention.

The reality is that technology allows us to extract tight oil from non-reservoir rock at almost 3 times the cost of high-quality reservoirs in the past. The truth is that we have no high-quality reservoirs left with sufficient reserves to move the needle on the high global appetite for oil. The consequence is that to keep consuming and producing as we always have will inevitably cost a lot more money. This is basic thermodynamics and not a pessimistic opinion about technology.

Renewable energy will be increasingly part of the landscape but its enthusiasts are also magical thinkers.

In 2015, renewables accounted for only 3% of U.S. primary energy consumption. No matter the costs nor determination to convert from fossil to renewable energy, a transition of this magnitude is unlikely in less than decades.

Solar PV and wind provide much lower net energy than fossil fuels and have limited application for transport–the primary use of energy– without lengthy and costly equipment replacement. The daunting investment cost becomes critically problematic in a deteriorating economy.  Although proponents of renewable energy point to falling costs, more than half of all solar panels used in the U.S. are from China where cheap manufacturing is financed by unsustainable debt.

The future for oil prices and the global economy is frightening. I don’t know what beast slouches toward Bethlehem but I am willing to bet that it does not include growth.The best path forward is to face the beast. Acknowledge the problem, stop looking for improbable solutions that allow us live like energy is still cheap, and find ways to live better with less.