Three Distinct Crises now Point to the Urgent Need for a New Economic System

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The current economic system, where money is created as interest bearing debt by banks, is coming to the end of its useful life. Three distinct movements all tell us this – those concerned about climate change, those concerned about global declining economic growth (the ones who understand its connection with peak oil), and those who know that rising private debt is dangerous and sure to end in tears.

1. The Demand for Economic Growth means Climate Change is not tackled properly.

In 1972 the world’s first whole-country environmental party, the New Zealand Values Party, questioned whether economic growth was making us better and happier. Economist Richard Douthwaite in his book The Growth Illusion wrote about the need for economic growth to be at least as high as the interest rate banks charged on money. Charles Eisenstein eloquently outlined the way the growth imperative financialises and thus depletes both our natural and our social capital. “The financial crisis we are facing today arises from the fact that there is almost no more social, cultural, natural, and spiritual capital left to convert into money.” 

The politics of climate change has highlighted the unfortunate situation where, given the choice between doing something meaningful about climate change and championing economic growth, governments will always opt for the latter and claim it is a matter of “balance”. The need for economic growth always trumps the need for climate action. As a result, according to the former United Nations climate chief Christiana Figueres we now only have three more years to turn around emissions or we will not reach the targets of the Paris Climate Accord. Carbon dioxide levels are flat at the moment, but an unprecedented effort is needed from all parties in the next three years.

Naomi Klein in her ground breaking book This Changes Everything says:

“Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.” 

2. We have reached peak efficiency in getting energy from using energy

We seem to have forgotten peak oil issues. Globally conventional oil production peaked in 2005 and unconventional oil peaked in 2015. But peak oil didn’t play out as we expected. We had omitted to factor in debt; because they had to spend more energy to get energy, fossil fuel firms had to go into debt and this kept growing. Two authors worth reading on this topic are Nafeez Ahmed and actuary Gail Tverberg. The former writes articles like this. It says we need a new economic system because we can no longer get the required economic growth. This is because the energy return on energy invested (EROI) has been on the decline since the 1940s. We used to get 50 times the amount of energy out of using 1 barrel full of oil to extract it. We now get only about 15 times that amount. This number will continue to decline. And it’s the same for gas and for coal. The decline is irreversible. The consequences for the global economy are profound and widespread.

Because we need more and more energy to keep the system going, less is left for the real economy. Tverberg carefully concludes that declining productivity growth is a result and also stagnant wages. Ahmed says James D Ward of South Australia argues that, although it was widely believed we could, GDP growth cannot really be decoupled from environmental impacts. Ward says what has happened is that we have financialised the GDP through the creation of new debt without increasing material or energy throughput. (That was done by Quantitative Easing. CNBC said it was a total of $12 trillion, and you can expect that to have a huge effect on the global economy. It did.) He also notes growing inequality of income and wealth. He demonstrates that GDP cannot be sustained indefinitely.

As far as growing inequality of wealth is concerned, Ward hasn’t yet spelt out that this is caused when we have a huge blowout of credit from QE at the same time as we fail to collect the land rent on rising land prices. The huge asset bubble created by QE has blown up house prices and the sharemarket. With a tax system that fails to tax assets (or at least land and natural resources) the wealth gap continues to rise.

Those without access to land and natural resources and natural monopolies fall into poverty and homelessness. Add the fact that wages remain low, jobs precarious and a punitive benefit system, many are in abject poverty.

All these factors combine for political instability resulting in the election of Trump and in Brexit. The growing section of population with casual work or precarious work are called the Precariat. Those with low wages with house buying beyond their wildest dreams are desperate. During elections they will now be clutching at straws, as there seems no hope for progress.

So we are now getting scholars who understand the fossil fuel energy issue and its effect on global growth saying we need a new economic model. This is new.

3. The third movement is those who know about the consequences of creating money as interest bearing debt. It produces instability as outlined by economists who follow the late Hyman Minsky.  The Minsky moment is the point at which excess private debt sparks a financial crisis. Minsky said that such moments arise naturally when a long period of stability and complacency eventually leads to the build up of excess private debt and overleveraging. At some point the system collapses and it can happen quickly.

Followers of the new economics movement are generally aware that there has to be a big system change and have been saying this for decades now. However with the demand coming from three different directions, it is  just a guess as to which will prevail. Maybe with the rise of the basic income movement something may change. Those who recognise the irony of politicians who turn a blind eye to $12 trillion dollars appearing from nowhere to rescue banks yet say we can't afford a basic income will push this thing forward. Maybe environmentalists will stick to their environmentalism and monetary reformers will continue on recommending the same thing decade after decade while the planet burns and fascism threatens. . 

Summary

The New Economics Movement people who met between 2011 and 2015 to discuss a new economic system have produced ideas. These are crystallised to the best of my ability in my book The Big Shift: Rethinking Money, Tax, Welfare and Governance for the Next Economic System whose website is deirdrekent.com It can be bought here

Bubble finance, junk energy bonds, oil derivatives being neglected by mainstream media

Those who still think the plummeting price of oil is a good thing for the economy are taken in by PR spin or the simple lack of coverage in the mainstream media. It is not about consumers having lower petrol prices and more in their pocket. It’s not even about the energy. It’s about the money, the financial structure of the oil industry, particularly for the wildly speculative ventures like shale oil extraction. Environmentalists will see low oil prices as bad news for climate change but they need also to look at the way these energy shale firms are financed and learn about things they don’t want to know about, like junk bonds, leveraged loans and derivatives. It causes more immediate pain and must be survived first.

WTI to 12 Dec 2014The relentless slide continues. As of Monday 15 December in New Zealand the price of WTI oil was $56.73, down over 47% since June this year.

Unfortunately in New Zealand we are being shielded from all this bad news. Bubble finance is not a sexy topic for a front page. During the last week the Dominion Post, national radio, Sunday Star Times had nothing, and a business programme on Radio Live on Sunday touched on everything but the junk energy bond issue or the derivative issue. The programme gave the impression the only place to invest was in shares, bonds or fixed interest. When the derivatives market is so enormous, this is a major omission. It’s not as though the media believe the public won’t be able to understand junk energy bonds or derivatives. The corporate owned media only gives us bad news when it is about crime.

OK let’s try and explain it.

There are four major risks of plummeting oil prices
. The first is the risk to junk energy bonds held by pension funds, mutual funds and governments. Second is the secondary oil market, including the risk associated with a variety of oil derivatives contracts held by big banks. The third is the social unrest in oil exporting countries like Venezuela, Russia. And a fourth is the ongoing and contagious decline in prices of a range of other commodities – iron ore, copper, milk powder. Let’s just deal with the first two, though the fourth one is dealt with in passing.

1. Junk energy bonds. What on earth are these, you might ask. They are the risky bonds that energy companies sell to help finance their operations. The bonds give you high returns but they are also high risk as they are unsecured loans. That risk-taking now comes home to roost. For a new venture now the bank will lend you less because the oil in the ground as their security is now worth less. In December 2014 the oil is worth only about half what it was six months ago. So you have to get more of your funding from junk bonds. You end up shelling out more in interest and what’s more you get less in revenue from the sale of your oil.

Michael Snyder says “The impact of lower oil prices has been felt directly by high yield energy bonds and since September they have posted a return of -11.2%. J P Morgan has warned that if oil prices stay at $60 a barrel for three years 40% of the junk bonds could be facing a default.”

Of course other companies finance themselves using junk bonds (as well as bank loans at a low interest rate and their own revenue stream). The energy sector accounts for over 17% of the high yield bond market (junk bonds) and when these are hammered apparently a stock market decline always follows. It’s not a small sector either. Analyst Wolf Richter says there are $210 billion of them.

So they have to sell more bonds. Unfortunately now fewer investors want to buy the risky bonds so that means the yields go up to make it more tempting for investors. As the debt markets dry up and profits fall due to cheaper oil, the funding gap widens.

It was all beautifully explained in October 2014 when oil prices were $85/barrel here

Who loses from this? The investors. And those employed in the oil industry as smaller or more indebted firms are less viable than others. And that is just the start.

But it isn’t only junk energy bonds being affected now. As the Financial Times told us on December 12,
“Investors are fleeing the US junk debt market as a selloff that started in low-rated energy bonds last month has now spread to the broad corporate debt market amid fears of a spike in default rates.” Woops, that wasn’t meant to happen.

2 Oil derivatives. Like other industries over the last few decades of financial wizardry, the oil industry has been financialised.

Remember when housing debt was bundled up by the banks, securitised, divided into tranches according to risk, and sold off? It was to increase the profits of the banks. You just pass the risk on. The bonds are sold to unwary buyers who don’t realise the risk for massive losses. The whole process was enabled by rating agencies who rated junk bonds (the risky ones have high returns) as A++. A great movie explaining all this was The Inside Job.

Now we have version 2 of the same script. Instead of CDOs (Consolidated Debt Obligations) we have got CLOs (Consolidated Loan Obligations) – just a different name this time. It’s what is called ‘leveraged loans.’

The 6 largest ‘too big to fail’ banks control $3.9 trillion in commodity derivatives contracts. A large portion of this is in energy. And the big banks of the world are on the other end of derivative contracts.

One of the headlines of a tweet going round is “Plummeting Oil Prices Could Destroy The Banks That Are Holding Trillions In Commodity Derivatives”

There is nowhere to hide. As the entire global economy is dependent on the six biggest banks, we will all be affected, even in New Zealand.

The Oil Industry is not just any old industry
Writing on Zero Hedge in October when oil was $75/barrel, Michael Snyder explains the huge investment of the energy industry in both capital expenditure and R&D.

He quotes the Perryman group on the economic effects of the oil industry in US alone:
If you think about the role of oil in your life, it is not only the primary source of many of our fuels, but is also critical to our lubricants, chemicals, synthetic fibers, pharmaceuticals, plastics, and many other items we come into contact with every day. The industry supports almost 1.3 million jobs in manufacturing alone and is responsible for almost $1.2 trillion in annual gross domestic product. If you think about the law, accounting, and engineering firms that serve the industry, the pipe, drilling equipment, and other manufactured goods that it requires, and the large payrolls and their effects on consumer spending, you will begin to get a picture of the enormity of the industry.

The combination of junk bonds and financialisation
Putting these two first effects together, former Reagan budget chief David Stockman, in an analysis on his "ContraCorner" website Dec. 9, wrote: “The now-shaking high-yield debt bubble in energy is $500 billion — $300 billion in leveraged loans and $200 billion in junk bonds. This is the same estimate EIR has made in recent briefings, of one-quarter of the $2 trillion high-yield market being junk energy debt. In that junk energy debt market, interest rates have suddenly leaped, in the past 45 days, from about 4% higher than "investment grade" bonds, to 10% higher; that is, credit in that sector has disappeared, triggering the start of defaults of the highly leveraged shale companies and their big-oil sponsors.”

“In the larger, $2 trillion high-yield debt market as a whole, interest rates have also risen sharply, so far by 2-2.5%: i.e., contagion. Whether the debt collapse will be "mini", or maximum, may be determined in the markets for $20 trillion in commodity derivatives exposure.

“So now we come to the current screaming evidence of bubble finance—–the fact that upwards of $500 billion of junk bonds ($200B) and leveraged loans ($300 B) have surged into the US energy sector over the past decades—–and much of it into the shale oil and gas patch.

“An honest free market would have never delivered up even $50 billion wildly speculative ventures like shale oil extraction million of leveraged capital—let alone $500 billion— at less than 400bps over risk-free treasuries to.”

The simple fact is low oil prices kill millions of jobs. Falling oil prices are dangerous. While readers of mainstream media, listeners to radio and watchers of television remain in blissful ignorance of the nightmares that fund managers are living through, they will celebrate Christmas as though nothing had happened – and then ask later why nobody warned them.

The first Global Financial Crisis came on us with little apparent warning. The Queen was famously known to ask “ Why did nobody see this coming?”

For the last five years since QE, energy companies have received super cheap financing. Quantitative easing, where the Fed created trillions of dollars for banks, was a gift to the capital-intensive energy industry. Moreover job creation has been huge. Bloomberg reports Employment in support services for oil and gas operations has surged 70 percent since the U.S. expansion began in June 2009, while oil and gas extraction payrolls have climbed 34 percent.

It doesn’t matter whether the trigger for this fall was OPEC punishing the shale industry, falling demand in China, the end of QE or what it was. It was going to happen anyway and the trigger might have been anything. The whole pack of cards simply has to tumble. It’s a cauldron of death brought to the boil.

But many have seen it coming – Nicole Foss and Raul Ilargi Meijer of The Automatic Earth, Michael Snyder, Gail Tverberg, Jesse Colombo, Wolf Richter, Yves Smith are a few names that spring to mind. It’s just that haven’t been listened to yet. Whether is it the Tulip Bubble, the South Sea Bubble or the housing bubble of 2007, bubbles have a nasty habit of bursting.

Derivatives for Dummies

This I found on the web. Sorry I can't acknowedge the writer. Others seem to have put it on their websites too. I asked a meeting of 35 people in New Plymouth the other day how many people know what a derivative is and only one person put up her hand. It is worrying that the shadow economy of at least $700 trillion is at least ten times as big as the real economy yet so few understand the shadow economy. A financial reporter in Australia said in 2009 all banks are exposed to toxic derivatives. If 1% of these contracts default because third parties get into trouble, the whole shareholder wealth would be wiped out and the banks could be broke. So here is the derivatives for dummies piece. Nice and easy. Derivatives for Dummies An Easily Understandable Explanation of Derivative Markets Heidi is the proprietor of a bar in Detroit . She realizes that virtually all of her customers are unemployed alcoholics and, as such, can no longer afford to patronize her bar. To solve this problem, she comes up with new marketing plan that allows her customers to drink now, but pay later. She keeps track of the drinks consumed on a ledger (thereby granting the customers loans). Word gets around about Heidi's "drink now pay later" marketing strategy and, as a result, increasing numbers of customers flood into Heidi's bar. Soon she has the largest sales volume for any bar in Detroit . By providing her customers' freedom from immediate payment demands, Heidi gets no resistance when, at regular intervals, she substantially increases her prices for whiskey and beer, the most consumed beverages. Consequently, Heidi's gross sales volume increases massively. A young and dynamic vice-president at the local bank recognizes that these customer debts constitute valuable future assets and increases Heidi's borrowing limit. He sees no reason for any undue concern, since he has the debts of the unemployed alcoholics as collateral. At the bank's corporate headquarters, expert traders transform these customer loans into DRINKBONDS, ALCOBONDS and PUKEBONDS. These securities are then bundled and traded on international security markets. Naive investors don't really understand that the securities being sold to them as AAA secured bonds are really the debts of unemployed alcoholics. Nevertheless, the bond prices continuously climb, and the securities soon become the hottest-selling items for some of the nation's leading brokerage houses. One day, even though the bond prices are still climbing, a risk manager at the original local bank decides that the time has come to demand payment on the debts incurred by the drinkers at Heidi's bar. He so informs Heidi. Heidi then demands payment from her alcoholic patrons, but being unemployed alcoholics they cannot pay back their drinking debts. Since, Heidi cannot fulfill her loan obligations she is forced into bankruptcy. The bar closes and the eleven employees lose their jobs. Overnight, DRINKBONDS, ALCOBONDS and PUKEBONDS drop in price by 90%. The collapsed bond asset value destroys the banks' liquidity and prevents it from issuing new loans, thus freezing credit and economic activity in the community. The suppliers of Heidi's bar had granted her generous payment extensions and had invested their firms' pension funds in the various BOND securities. They find they are now faced with having to write off her bad debt and with losing over 90% of the presumed value of the bonds. Her whiskey supplier also claims bankruptcy, closing the doors on a family business that had endured for three generations. Her beer supplier is taken over by a competitor, who immediately closes the local plant and lays off 150 workers. Fortunately though, the bank, the brokerage houses and their respective executives are saved and bailed out by a multi-billion dollar no-strings attached cash infusion from the Government. The funds required for this bailout are obtained by new taxes levied on employed, middle-class, non-alcoholics.

IMF economist Michael Kumhof says the key function of banks is to create money

imfToday I made the mistake of going to a website where there was a sentence which made me mad. It said that in New Zealand, banks like finance companies can only lend out deposits made with them. Well I rarely get mad these days but I don't like untruths being perpetrated. So I thought the best way to recover would go and transcribe the first seven minutes of a talk Michael Kumhof, economist from the IMF made to a seminar in January 2013.  It is on youtube here and here is my transcript, give or take the odd aside I left out.

"Virtually all money is bank deposits.

The key function of banks is money creation not intermediation. The entire economics literature that you see out there today is that it is intermediation, taking the money from granny, storing it up and then when someone comes and needs it I can lend it out to them. That is complete nonsense. Intermediation of course exists, but it is incidental and secondary and it comes after the actual money creation. Banks do not have to attract deposits before they create money. I’m a former bank manager. I worked for Barclays for five years. I’ve created those book entries. That is how it works. And if a leading light economist like Paul Krugman tries to tell you otherwise, he does not know what he is talking about.

When you approve a loan, as a bank manager you enter on the asset side of your balance sheet the loan, which is your claim against this guy and at the exact same time you create a new deposit on the liability side. You have created new money because this gives this guy purchasing power to go out and buy something with it. Banks have created money at that point. No intermediation, because the asset and liability are in the same name at that moment. What happens afterwards is that that guy can spend it somewhere else later but it is still in the banking system. I care about the aggregate banking system. Looking at the microeconomy and transferring the logic to the macroeconomy is really wrong. Someone will accept that payment.

money

What that means is that it becomes very, very easy for banks to start or lead a lending boom even though policy makers might not, because if they feel that the time is right, they simply expand the money supply. There is no third party involved, just the bank and the customer and I make the loan. The only thing that is required is that someone else will accept that deposit, say as payment for a machine, and he knows that is acceptable because it is legal fiat.

There is an important corollary to this story. A lot of loans are not for investment purposes, in physical capital. Loans that are for investment purposes are a small fraction. The story that is often told in development economics is that first you need to have savings, then once you have the savings, you can have investment. So a country needs to have sufficient savings in order to have enough investment. Nonsense too – at least for the part of investment that is financed through banks because when a bank makes a new loan it creates new purchasing power for the investment to go ahead. The investment goes ahead. Then the investor takes his new bank deposit and gives it to someone else In the end someone is going to leave that new deposit in the bank. That is saving.  The saving is created along with the investment. It’s not that saving has to come before investment. Saving comes after investment, not before. This is important for development economics.

The deposit multiplier that is taught in economics textbooks is a fairytale. I could use less polite terms. The story goes that central bank creates narrow money and there is a multiplier because banks can lend out a fraction. It is actually exactly the opposite. Broad monetary aggregates lead the cycle and narrow monetary aggregates lag the cycle."

For some good new people to follow, try Ann Pettifor from UK and the Renegade Economist.

Last Saturday Radio NZ interviewed an English guy called Ross Ashcroft, who calls himself the Renegade Economist. Like all good campaigners he interviews people and puts the interview up on vimeo.com. Kim Hill's interview with him is at http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/saturday/audio/2517815/ross-ashcroft-renegade-economics. Ross has produced a film called The Four Horsemen, which is part of The Documentary Edge Festival. Welington shows are at the Reading as follows: Monday 21 May 8.45pm, Sunday 27 May 4.45pm and Thursday 312 May at 8.45pm. I gather it is also on in Auckland. Tonight I have just watched Ross Ashcroft interview Ann Pettifor, whose name had been cropping up recently in various tweets. Half an hour interview with this bright woman economist, who has been a Fellow of the New Economics Foundation of UK for three years. She led a huge campaign, successfully winning the relief of $$350 billion worth of debt for Third World Countries in Jubilee 2000. There were 60 countries involved. Back in UK she noticed her friends getting huge mortgages when they were not exactly in secure jobs and she wrote a book called The Coming First World Debt Crisis in 2003. She said people thought she was a loony and she sold only a few copies. The growing debt really began to blow out in 1971 after Nixon delinked from the gold standard and the UK deregulated credit. She talks of an article she is reading by Ben Broadbent, who is on the Board of the Bank of England but came out of Goldmann Sachs. She said the paper is deceptive yet packed with data. But she was convinced it was written in Goldmann Sachs office because it argues the Global financial crisis was due to low interest rates. Broadbent is defending the right of banks to be deregulated. He has huge political and economic power.   Why should banks get a return on an effortless activity, by entering numbers into ledgers or by engaging in speculative activities? Ann Pettifor has just returned from an INET conference in Berlin financed by George Soros, where Steve Keen and Michael Hudson participated. (Initiative for New Economic Thinking). She concludes by saying she thinks people should be politically involved. Roosevelt stood up to the banks in the 1930s and it takes leadership to do it. We need the leaders. We need capital controls to control borrowing across borders. Banks go looking to find they can borrow at 3% from China but 4% at home. Roosevelt brought in capital controls. Secondly we need to stop banks lending for speculation.  She says politicians have been taken in by bribes from banks. We must hold our politicians to account. Once the public understands, there is no stopping them. If people understand that banks create money out of thin air and charge exorbitant rent on it, then it snowballs. One in five voted for Fascist party in the French elections, very worrying, similar to Germany in the1930s. People are desperate and can't articulate it.