Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Two questions on productivity

A couple of quick ones:

1. Turn on, tune in, drop out

Robin Hanson says we are living in a "dream time", when survival instincts have been dulled by wealth so that Nature has (temporarily) let us get away with acting stupidly. I recall the old saying, "From clogs to clogs is only three generations" (i.e. the middle generation spends it all).

In this context, it's also interesting to note how at a time when we're drugging children and old people to stop them being a nuisance, libertarians are calling for young adults to have the right to zombiefy themselves with "harmless" mind-altering substances. Yes, they will still be able to work, some of them, for some time; I guess the same argument goes for functioning alcoholics. Dream on... until, as the Germans say, "Aus der traum, lieber Freund."

I've known black people who maintain that drugs liberalisation (and the associated laissez-faire approach to law enforcement) is a plot to keep their children in subjection. I tend to put it down to middle-class selfishness, instead; but I can see why they might think that.

2. Think big, think small

As higher taxation looms, some are already trying to draw a distinction between "productive" and "unproductive" workers. Well, effectively, practically everybody (including the poor) pays 40% tax already, when you look at the combination of income tax, National Insurance and sales taxes; though I do agree that a proposed 50% higher-rate income tax rate is likely to generate various avoidance strategies that will mostly wipe out the hope-for extra revenue.

But if Mish's friend "BC" is right, we are entering a "Schumpeterian Depression", during which big biz uses its access to finance to crush small enterprise; and so it may be a decade before young entrepreneurs develop the muscle to get out from under and start to succeed.

Besides, how much big business is founded on destroying small businesses and the self-employed? What, for example, if we looked at it closely, would be the real, total net benefit of the giant supermarkets? Weigh up the cheaper prices against the exploitation of their suppliers and the ruination of small shopkeepers - and the smashing of one of the ladders by which the aspirant working class - and their children - could rise and become self-supporting.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Where to turn, for financial security?

Richard Bookstaber (whom we've met before, here) looks at asset allocation and makes a point he's made before: in a crisis, everyone wants out, and the relative merits of different assets are ignored in the dash for cash. Provided cash (at bank) hasn't itself become risky - and after last year, that's not a given. Even outside the bank, there's inflation, devaluation and also, potentially, the fate of the Confederate dollar.

Leo Kolivakis comments, "I happen to believe that diversification is still important, but loses its power as huge inflows are going into all sorts of public and alternative asset classes."

That's the problem: we no longer know where to turn. As Kunstler comments, "the most perplexing part is that there hardly seems any safe place to preserve one's savings."

How about the smart, nimble operators? Investment guru Marc Faber spends his time looking at liquidity flows, trying to predict the next sudden tide and get in beforehand - not a game for the type of clients I have usually advised. And even he appears to be readying himself for the worst, "a total disaster, with a collapse of our capitalistic system as we know it today."

Recently, I seem to have been reading more commentators tending to the view that we are heading for that Mises "crack-up boom" - outlined here nine years ago, for example. And worse:

"And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!"

The great pleasure gardens of China's Emperor took some 40 years to build, in the first half of the eighteenth century. Vast, complex and exquisite, they were testimony to the wealth and power of the Middle Kingdom, only to be methodically destroyed in an act of punitive vandalism by the French and English in 1860. Premier Zhou Enlai decreed that the ruins should remain unaltered, a monumental lesson for the Chinese about the Western powers.

Of all the curses on humankind, long and vengeful memory may be the worst.

Inflation and the money supply

Interesting graph from Eric Janszen - he ignores the velocity of money (which can change quickly) and concentrates on money supply. He sees our situation as akin to that in 1981; I'm still thinking we're in the mid-70s, because round about 1982 was when we started to see real (post-inflation) returns on investments.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Poverty is OK

Robin Hanson looks forward to being poor. But I fear the path there won't take us to the anonymous semi-contentment of the Dark Ages, because it passes through population crash first.


Update: the media are focusing on rumours of Brown's taking painkillers, allegedly related to his eye problems, which the PM denies. I thought they wanted a regime change? If so, they'd be keen to keep him on, as the Tories must be, and so wouldn't probe him like this. But maybe they're also keen not to be shown up by the blogosphere, which maintains that the news media are colluding to avoid raising a more serious health issue - this one is doing the rounds.

He's not the only one suffering from dark whispers. There was that mysterious 2004 family crisis of Blair's, which some suspected really had to do with his own supposed nervous debilitation; and Leo Abse's book on Blair attempted to unravel the man's psychology. I myself was asking friends within a year or two of 1997 whether they thought he was mad; at that point, they looked at me as though they thought I was, instead.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Squaring the circle, packing your bags

In Britain, there are 28.89 million employed - 72.5% of the "people of working age"; median earnings approach £25,000.

In China, the average urban wage in 2006 was 1750 yuan per month, or (at today's exchange rate) slightly less than £2,000 per year.
In Britain, there are 3 million homes where no-one works, with an average household benefit payment level of over £4,000 p.a. This doesn't factor in the cost of other benefits provided by the State, such as health and education. For example, State schooling costs something like £6,000 yearly per child.

In China, the official urban unemployment rate at the end of 2008 was 4.2%, or nearly 9 million people. This statistic does not include unemployed not eligible for benefits, or migrant workers - about 20 million out of 130 million migrants have no job. In industrialized Guangdong Province, for those who qualify, unemployment benefit for the first 24 months is 688 yuan per month, or £757 per year.

In Britain, the 27.5% of the "people of working age" that might be employed but are not, number approximately 10.96 million.

In China, estimates Eric Janszen of iTulip, there are 20 million officially unemployed and the real tally should be 40 - 50 million.

China has over 1 billion people and is desperate for land, and natural resources such as wood, water and arable soil. Despite restrictions on family size, her population continues to increase, largely because her people are getting to live longer (and will one day incur the high additional costs of growing old). She has industrialized at high speed and has built a massive skill base. She is continuing to acquire technological and scientific know-how, and is sucking in the world's steel and a panoply of key African and Australian minerals and rare earths. She sits on vast reserves of coal. The ruling Communist elite have not spent a long lifetime climbing the exceptionally dangerous slippery pole in their country, to see their beloved nation sink into chaos and their equalitarian beliefs defeated.

You are a British (or American) politician. You know all the above - or your handlers will tell you just before you go on "Question Time" or some other grill-the-pol show. (1) What will you say to your voters? (2) What private plans will you make for yourself, your family and your friends?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Trusting soul

So we're to lose a quarter of our sub-borne nuclear deterrent. Mexican standoff unilaterally defused by putting your gun down first, eh? On the other hand, remember what Churchill observed about the Hun.

Cut the cr-- and send 'em down

My wife (the smart one in this partnership) thinks Judge Judy should present the Jeremy Kyle Show, too. Now if only JJ, with her brisk, trenchant, from-the-shoulder, don't-pull-one-on-me style, could try all the soigné , sock-suspendered financial twisters that have jeopardised our collective wealth; five minutes in court and 20 years each in the hoosegow.

I had a dream last night
What a lovely dream it was
I dreamed we all were alright
Happy in a land of Oz...

- John Sebastian

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A glimpse of the past

Out with my wife's relations on Saturday in the Black Country (the old coal-fired industrial area). One elder recalled that when they were poor, his mother would put the kettle on the stove on a Sunday, so the windows would steam up and the neighbours would think that they were cooking lunch.

Up with bonds, down with equities, out with with-profits

After the stockmarket ructions, pension funds are getting more cagey and thinking about weighting more towards bonds (htp: Pension Pulse). (A seminar I went to maybe 10 years ago predicted this trend.) Bill Gross of Pimco is also thinking that way; at the same moment when others reckon the recession's over, or nearly so.

My concern is that the market is now so volatile that only active traders will be interested. The smoothing approach of British with-profits funds has been undermined by downswings so sharp that more than once recently, they have had to apply penalties to investors seeking to exit early; which in turn will make those investors less inclined to reinvest in with-profits, and indeed quite possibly put them off investment generally.

That, plus the need to take more income as the population ages, plus a poorer next generation that will work longer, be taxed more and have less in State and other pension provision, plus the burgeoning of the world population, the gradual equalization of world average income (and it's a very low average), plus increasing ecological limits to fast-buck-type growth, all tend to make me more a bear than a bull for as far as I can see, whatever may happen in the short term as a result of desperate overstimulation with fiat cash.

Yes, there'll be opportunities for the agile financial player; but for the mom-and-pop saver?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Where's the gold, really?

As the price of gold continues to float above $1,000, I do wonder where it all is, really. Thinking about the Federal Reserve, I suddenly remembered Joanna Southcott's box.

At its peak, the Fed held 12,700 tonnes of the metal, but it's hard to establish even what it claims to have now - try making sense of the prose the Fed issues on the subject here. Some think the vault now contains no more than a lottery ticket and a horse-pistol.

Could they be snorting with laughter over their glasses of Petrus as they look down at us trusting plebs?

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The coming tide

Thanks to Tyrone for his comment directing us to a YouTube presentation by W E Pollock, someone I've viewed with interest before. The comment was in response to an FTAphaville piece that asked why the Dow was rising so strongly.

Pollock, whose presentations are useful to the layman because he is at pains to be clear and calm, notes that the volume of trade is low, which may mislead us as to the value of the market as a whole. It is as if, in a slow-moving housing market, your neighbour suddenly manages to sell his house for much more than expected, because the purchaser has certain private reasons to get in.
He also notes that the gains on the Dow are counteracted by the fall in the dollar's value, and this is a theme I've touched on many times. You have to look at real gains; and even when you think you're beating the present rate of inflation in your country, currency exchange movements may be the early indicators of higher future inflation. This is why, comparing where we are now to the period 1966 - 1982, I think we may yet see the real-terms equivalent of Dow 4,000 and FTSE 2,000.

Pollock goes on to consider gold, over which he puzzles (but then, there's a lot of dirty work and hugger-mugger in that market); and oil - if foreign economies begin to recover and industrial production rises, increasing the demand for oil, then if the dollar continues to be weak the price of energy in the USA will become so high as to damage growth prospects there.

So, where are we with all this?

Even academic economists are beginning (very belatedly) to question the validity of their models. Across the world, the games are so weighted and rigged, the rules so suddenly variable, that we are talking about how things ought to work, rather than how they really do. This is why it's now a fertile ground for conspiracy theorists: there really is a lot of conspiracy. Trouble is, we don't know all of the plots, all of the players, and all of the details.

What I think we can do, is look at the ocean tide, and not at the individual waves.

Historically, Western countries became wealthy on technological advances and were able to sell goods not just to each other, but to undeveloped countries in exchange for cheap resources. Then the latter countries began to industrialise, and goods could be carried at low unit cost in vast bulk across oceans and continents. All that remained was to break down political barriers to trade, as Nixon began to do with his visit to China in 1972.

Trouble is, controlling the rate of change. It's one thing to turn on your oil-fired central heating, another if your fuel storage tank catches fire. We want to carry on as we are (or as we used to be), but poor people are in a hurry to attain our wealthy lifestyles, and are disinclined to progress more slowly. Vast international businesses and globe-trotting billionaires stand to do very well out of facilitating this trade; national politicians are under pressure from their voters to resist it - but on a personal level, will know how rich they themselves will be when they leave office, so long as they don't try too hard for the people who elected them.

So, while I don't quite subscribe to the Dick-Dastardly-and-Mutley view of politician's summits (G-name-a-figure, Bilderberg, et al.), I can see the natural attraction for them of a world (or at least supranational) government. It means being further away from the Great Unwashed, mixing with all the Right People, fine wines and yachts etc; it means going with the flow, helping wealth and power to gather into certain centres, and organising dole handouts to regions that lose out as a result. Only the fools will try to play King Canute.

Imagine the world economies as a series of canal locks descending a steep hill. We are in the top section, the poor countries lower down. Now if all the gates are opened at once, there will be a destructive gush of water; the narrowboats in the top lock sink into the mud; the ones at the bottom float on a higher tide; a brave soul on a surfboard (the international trader) rides a thrilling wave down the hill.

Free-traders will argue that trade brings mutual benefits; but I don't think the argument works when world income disparities are so great. A Dutchman bought Manhattan from the occupying tribe for $24, but I doubt they'd get it back for that price now, not even with 400 years' interest.

It's coming, it's coming fast, it's coming destructively; and the people we pay to stop it are telling us the lies we want to hear and planning their personal advancement*. Let us return the favour.

* “It is a totally wrong notion of people to assume that the government does anything for the people; the government is there to do something for itself, and not for the people”Marc Faber on GoldSeek, 12 September 2009

Saturday, September 19, 2009

And another thing

BBC economic journalist Robert Peston recently professed himself "nauseous" on reading of the paltry £9 million per head earned by the hapless Rover Four; yet when I read his book "Who Runs Britain?" this year, I failed to see him confess a similar gut reaction to Sir Philip Green's £1.2 billion dividend raid on Arcadia Group. (Actually, the money went to his wife, who is domiciled for tax purposes in Monaco, but that hardly improves the flavour.)

At the time, this monster cash extraction (done with freshly borrowed money) was more than three times Arcadia's operating profits, but I'm sure the banks that (expensively) approved the loans didn't care. And it was legal.

However, if, in the economic downturn, turnover and profits are savaged, and tangible assets decline sharply in value, and Arcadia becomes very weak, or even goes bust, what will Peston say then? Arcadia Group employs 27,000 people; was it really OK, other than in a strictly legal sense, to put such a heavy yoke around its neck? Had the dividend not been paid - and especially, not been funded by humungous bank loans - what more might the group have achieved? The consolidated balance sheet for 31 August 2008 is here; what will the 2009 one look like?

What are the implications for our so-called democracy when captains of industry become so gigantic, and the rest of us become relatively as insignificant as crablice?

Running out of bigger fools?

What's been powering the market? Max Keiser recently opined that the rich have been moving their wealth out of the USA since 9/11, Jesse has alerted us to insider selling, Mr & Mrs Average have been selling their holding and paying down debt, so...?

According to FT Alphaville (htp: Michael Panzner) it's technical/leveraged buying/betting:

Very likely it is still a combination of program trading, short coverings and portfolio managers desperately trying to make up for last year’s epic losses.

And when it becomes painfully clear that there are no more mugs to buy the rubbish off you?

Spiralling round the black hole of inequality

"Economist's View" argues that the Gini Index will go on rising until someone positively stops it:

Once income concentration becomes a reinforcing cycle of the kind we are witnessing, it is never stopped by pure market forces. Only extensive government intervention, of the kind that will inevitably create high controversy, reverses this trend.

Read the rest of Mark Thoma's piece here.

People get ready

We're going to be splatted by a headlights-on-full-beam, diesel-pluming, horn-honking road-train of debt. Fred Goodwin, CEO at Nomura (i.e. not the RBS wrecker who scuttled to his hideout in France - the private gated resort may be the one between Cannes and Mougins) has used the colourful phrase "clear and present danger" of the British economy. Unfortunately, shouting "Look out!" usually doesn't prevent disaster.

Karl Denninger, still indignant and vengeful but now also beginning to sounding the Cassandra note of inevitable defeat ("We are one cycle away from a collapse - if we're lucky"), graphs debt against GDP for the USA and it's clear that there must be a break in the smooth lines at some point.

And however bad it is for America - a country which periodically falls over, picks itself up, dusts itself down, and starts all over again - it'll be far worse for Britain, a country where the management has never quite lost that 1066 sense of being quite unconnected with the indigenous peasantry subjected to their cruel alien rule. This is why our overlords find it so easy to flee the country to take their place in the new pan-European aristocracy currently under construction, an unlovely amalgam of big-business swindlers, venal politicians and their marketing men. They're allying with old money smart enough to know which side its bread is buttered; history is made in the bedroom and the backroom (“Let others wage wars: you, fortunate Austria, marry”).

There is a long history of England's rulers employing foreign mercenaries (especially Germans) to put down uprisings of the overwrought population, both here in the sixteenth century, and in the American colonies in the eighteenth. In the modern world, where the predominant avatar of Power is money (Bertrand Russell's 1938 book is illuminating on the three-headed helldog), we are being driven off our business smallholdings and made day-labourers for giant enterprises owned abroad or by equally huge collective investments in which the individual shareholders' voices are lost "like tears in rain".

And when the Empire falls, as it must, as all do, the great forgetting will descend. Perhaps we can take comfort in the thought that after the bloody cataclysm, the Dark Ages, so named because untroubled by the scribes and accountants of expansive rulers, were, quietly and anonymously, as sunlit as ours.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The night they raided Minsky

Australian economist Steve Keen summarises Hyman Minsky's Financial Instability Hypothesis, which is that you get bubble after bubble, each time increasing the debt, until the process simply cannot continue and all will be catastrophically revealed.

So he's another forecasting and fearing systemic collapse - like Marc Faber and Max Keiser recently - and now Karl Denninger.

As the Dow heads for 10,000, the FTSE soars above 5,000 but gold seems now to be consistently drifting beyond the $1,000 breakwater, I feel of the bankers, traders and politicians, as Talleyrand said of the Bourbons, that "They have learned nothing and forgotten nothing."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Evolution of Creationism

In the 150 years since the publication of Charles Darwin's 'Origin of Species', the Theory of Evolution has been refined and strengthened on a daily basis. For 100 years, it has been the best-supported model that we have, and is settled science.

Culturally is a different matter.

Biblical literalists, principally in the US, with some in Canada, Australia, England, Ireland and elsewhere, have fought a public relations rearguard action, retarding US science and education. Even as they lose in the scientific arena, they also have lost in legal battles.

Ironically, this pressure has caused their arguments to evolve:

CREATION SCIENCE (ruled religion and not science by the US Supreme Court in 1987)

A used-car salesman in a cheap suit. Tries to convince you that a rusted-out junker is better than a new car.

INTELLIGENT DESIGN (Kansas and Ohio School Board hearings)

Salesman has a nicer suit. Paints over the rust, and tells you that the car IS new.

'ONLY A THEORY' and 'STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES' (Cobb County, Georgia and Dover, Pennsylvania court cases)

Salesman caught on video turning back odometer. Hides car and denies everything. Points out 'major defect' in new car next door. Closer inspection shows defect to be dead bug on windshield.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

20:20 hindsight and the coming stock collapse

Look at this fascinating interactive graphic from the New York Times, about the shrinking and swelling of the major US financial firms. They may not have seen it coming, but boy can they see clearly in the rear-view mirror. (htp: Barry Ritholtz)

So, is all well again?

Denninger thinks not. To get back to where we were in 2000, either debt has to be slashed (this isn't the path chosen by the powers-that-be over the last couple of years) or GDP and incomes have to soar (how? Who are we suddenly going to sell loads more to?).

Given a choice of the impossible and the merely unpleasant, it looks as though there must be a large-scale default sometime - either of actual debt, or of current and/or future government-provided benefits (or both).

In the meantime, the monetary pumping may erode the dollar's value and cause a highly misleading leap in nominal stock prices. Like I said yesterday, I think we could be looking at a re-run of the mid-70s to 1982. I remember an old financial adviser colleague reminiscing about the stockmarket "boom" of 1974, but he didn't mention the inflationary context, which is what concerns Marc Faber - the fundamentals are still all wrong.

What's good for the [Dow] ISN'T good for the country

Jesse: It is possible that the Fed monetizes sufficiently to reinflate an equity bubble, essentially whoring out the Dollar and the real economy for the sake of the financial or FIRE sector.

This is what I have been thinking - that the stock indices are now fundamentally disconnected from the health of the economy.

Predicting the 2010 General Election Result

A new invention has allowed us to access newsfeed from the near future. One of our early scoops is that the next General Election in 2010 will be the first to allow the electorate to vote on-line from their homes (those without computers will still be allowed to vote by post). Another is the surprising (to some) result, and we have pleasure in copying you in on some of the follow-up.

We must warn you that the technology is still in its infancy, and so there may be glitches in the transcription. For example, the article below appears to have been affected by some kind of crossed line with BBC News from 2009. We'll keep you updated from time to time on the progress of our researches and technical developments.

Brown Poll trick 'confuses' voters
Gordon Brown: 'It was just a trick' from Gordon Brown - How to Win the Election', courtesy of Channel 4.

Many voters and critics have been left confused by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's explanation of how he appeared to predict Thursday's General Election results.

Some 4.6m viewers saw him claim to have asked 24 people to guess the successful candidates for the 646 commons seats and use an average of the total for each to predict the result.
But some mathematicians have dismissed his explanation as "complete nonsense".
And on blogging site Twitter one fan said he was "still confused", while another called it a "massive letdown".

IT trickery

On Brown's own Twitter account, he said: "Well there you go. I trust all is clear now."
He also added that his blog, which has been set up for people to comment on his tricks, has received 5 million hits.
However, it is currently not working.
Thursday's show on Channel 4 attracted 2.7 million people - beating the actual Election 2010 programme on BBC One, which 2.4 million tuned in for.
Brown successfully produced the correct numbers during The Live Event programme, at the same time the actual results were announced on the BBC's coverage.
He then promised viewers they would discover the secret of the trick on Friday's Channel Four News.
During How To Win The Election - which attracted a peak of 4.6 million viewers - he revealed that he had worked out the election numbers by asking a group of 24 people to guess them.
Once he had their answers Brown said he added the numbers up for each candidate and divided them by 24.
However, Alex Newton, a professor of Pure Mathematics at the University of Oxford, has dismissed Brown's explanation.
"Mathematically it is complete rubbish. It is a bluff on his part," he said.
And Roger Penwiper, professor of psephology at the University of Cambridge added: "There is a difference between guessing between the weight of an ox and guessing election candidates, which is un-guessable.
"That is just a clear wind-up and complete nonsense. There is absolutely no way he did that."
Other theories, that have been suggested in the newspapers, claim Brown used IT hacking trickery or a wall of postal votes to help him complete the stunt.
Michael Pundit of The Times newspaper rated the show five out of five, saying Brown has turned from "most irritating man on television to the most intriguing".
However, he added: "It was, of course, still one hell of a trick — far too good for him to give away."
Twitter critics of the explanation show include dCameron1966, who said: "I'm still confused about what way he did it to be honest."
T-Benn called the 59-year-old a "massive letdown" and AnthonyCLB said: "Is it just me or was Gordon Brown's explanation last night very disappointing?"
But some voters enjoyed Brown's stunt.
Peterm&elson posted on his Twitter page that the show had been "very interesting & entertaining".
Kjongil added: "Gordon Brown is pretty cool... I can see why people are so skeptical [sic] about him, but I think he's on to something here."

Fashion and the stockmarket

There has been serious research on the connection between what people wear and the state of the economy. I forget who, but a successful investment manager used to look at all sorts of apparently unconnected phenomena, including fashion, to get a clue as to what was really happening and about to happen.

PS: My wife says 80s-style shoulder pads are coming back in the Autumn catalogues. A bullish sign?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Dow now, and then - "Brief Encounter"

Discussing the Dow, I have previously suggested that instead of looking back to 1929, we might use the period 1966 - 1982 as a comparator. I've adjusted January 1966 and December 1999 to = 100 and oddly enough, the beginning of September 2009 sees the Dow past and present at a fairly similar point.
Is it too fanciful to say that we're now in the equivalent of about 1976?

Signs of a tipping point in the market again?

Jesse alerts us to this piece about current insider selling, a possible sign that the stockmarket is going to tank.

Stinking fish and red herrings

A fish rots from the head down, is the saying, and a truly rotten government we have. Currently they are busy monstering a venal group of auto company directors who did exactly what the Labour (!) government wanted them to do, which was to keep hope alive for MG Rover for just long enough to get through the next General Election. Equally obedient to his master's voice, the mannered and self-regarding Peston now emotes at them ("I feel slightly nauseous").

Those of us who are old enough will remember the history: how venture capitalist Jon Moulton came with a plan to reduce the money-haemorrhaging plant to a smaller, actually-profit-making outfit specialising in sporty cars. The rest of the enormous site would be cleared and developed as a residential and shopping area. Redundant workers would be suitably paid-off and their pensions preserved - and many of them might then have had a chance of employment with other car makers elsewhere in the country.

Oh, no, this would never do. The land was polluted and quite unsuitable for residential development. Rover still had a future. Moulton was a wicked chancer. His twopenny-halfpenny firm had no business meddling with a great bellwether of the British economy.

Now, the site has been cleared for residential and retail development. There is no car making at all. The workers didn't get the compensation they would have had, nor the pensions, nor the alternative employment. A few men have - legally - made about £9 million each, hardly worth mentioning in the same breath as the outrageous booty brought home by bankers and City gamblers.

And the Fourth Estate plays along with the distraction of the public's attention.

Robert Peston is the son of Maurice Peston, Baron Peston of Mile End, a Labour life peerage created for Peston senior on 24 March 1987.

Another collapsist

Last month, Marc Faber used the word "collapse"; now, Max Keiser says the same: the dollar will halve, gold will leap 50 - 100%, import prices will soar. In this interview, Keiser is a bit less gonzo and correspondingly more credible.

The question is, how bad is it for other countries (e.g. the UK) and what will trading partners do to stop their export markets being hit? If all major countries try to devalue their currency, then maybe only certain commodities will be worth holding on to while the winds blow.

And Keiser says the wealthy have been shifting their capital out of America since 9/11. He's been choosing defensive stocks, ones that will survive high unemployment, consumer boycott and anti-American sentiment. One big and possibly vulnerable name he mentions is Coca-Cola (remember Qibla Cola?) - a staple of Warren Buffett's portfolio.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

What's Next?

Thanks to the historically unprecedented peace and prosperity in the West since World War II, my life has been blissfully uneventful . Any hardships that I have endured pale in comparison with those of my parents.

My father was a natural scholar, who was pulled out of school at age 14 by my grandmother, on the grounds that 'education would not do him any good'. My mother, raised in Nazi Germany, lost any chance of further education because of the war.

While raising my brother and me, they encouraged us to do our best, and to take advantage of the excellent (at that time) British education system. In doing so, however, they allowed us to find our own paths, and for that I am grateful.

Why do I make these comments?

It is my opinion that, even if we survive the current economic mess, there are cultural movements that threaten to cement in place a caste system worse than the old class system.

On one hand, we have the 'education experts', who have so meddled with schools on the grounds of inclusiveness and diversity, that the education system now produces people qualified on paper, yet unable to do anything useful.

In the US, we have religious extremists on the right trying to kill public education for many reasons, and attacking science and its funding at every turn. In the UK, students now have to pay tuition, leaving them deeply in debt, just like in the US.

We also have a relatively new phenomenon, the 'helicopter Mom' of the middle class, who micro-manage every aspect of their childrens' lives. I have interviewed students for a select medical school program. Full 3/4 are of Indian descent, with both parents in the medical field. They have been groomed from birth to do just the right things to follow their parents.

Just how free will the next generation be?

Compassionate Conservatism

You may call me hopelessly old-fashioned, but I believe in loyalty. One of the ways in which we reward loyalty is a pension plan. In the case of state pensions (professors, teachers, firemen, policemen, etc), the standing argument is that many of these people took the good pension as a trade-off for lower incomes than they could get in industry.

Even the Soviets recognized that this trust was inviolate. Not so the corporate raiders, who started in about 1980 to raid the funds to pay for their purchases, totally destroying many of them in the process.

Today, the conservative US columnist George Will published a piece blaming California's financial ills on over-taxing the rich, and the 'generous' state pension system.

I find it a very odd coincidence that the very same day, conservative Republican lawmakers in Ohio announced that their public pension system is in trouble, and requires a major overhaul, to be done on the backs of the current retirees.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Hi-yo Silver, away!

Jesse alerts us to the fact that the Chinese government is not only investing in precious metals, but actively encouraging its citizens to do the same. Funny that our governments aren't doing this.

And gold briefly cracked the $1,000 ceiling today. Naturally, there'll be a reversal at some point, but I have a hunch that much money and effort have been expended trying to put off this psychologically important event. Once you've made the first crack in the eggshell, it gets a lot easier.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Every little thing's gonna be all right

Dr Mark Perry reckons it's all been on the up-and-up since 1929. Yes, production has become more efficient over time. But can it be quite as rosy as it seems, when the last quarter-century has seen an explosion of debt?

United 93

Just watched the film, "United 93" and wondered if I'd pass the test when the moment came. Remember reading how at the Guardian newsroom on September 11, 2001, the self-regarding hacks were watching the Twin Towers burn on TV and commenting how the Americans had it coming. If so, may the next one hit Farringdon Road - but only the guilty parties. That's the catch, isn't it?

Sunday, September 06, 2009

A positive step: solar cooking

A brief grumblestice while I pass on a brilliant idea that my sister-in-law has just successfully tried out herself (in the northern USA): a solar cooker made from cardboard and aluminium foil.

Will Tony Blair take Irish nationality?

Cherie Blair has said on a TV chat show that the Blair children have dual nationality, British and Irish, the latter because of Tony's mother (an Irish Protestant). It is stated that Tony and Cherie have only British passports.

That is not to say that the parents might not later choose to apply. Advantages would include the famously lenient Irish tax treatment of writers and artists (once entirely exempted, but now lightly taxed at 1% on annual income up to €100,000 and 2% for those earning above that figure). Eire is a good country for those who specialise in popular fiction.

Or perhaps the Republic would simply be a good place to lie low when the truth comes out. In 2006, General Sir Michael Rose called for the impeachment (a procedure not used for two centuries) of the Prime Minister, for taking the country to war on false pretences. In this context, it's worth noting that extradition from the Irish Republic to Britain has always been made very difficult. (When exactly were those Irish passports issued to the children?)

Not that the people of the Irish Republic are afraid to call people to account*; they take their religion and morality quite seriously there, still. I watched the Gay Byrne Show on 28 October 1994, when Gerry Adams faced political opponents and a far from sympathetic Southern Irish audience and was called a murderer to his face (he remained lethally calm and turned the point into an issue of good manners).

Perhaps Tony Blair, that son of Proteus, will one day be seized and held until verity is forced from him.


*The current PM is ostentatiously backing compensation claims against Libya for supplying the IRA with explosives. Could we start a leetle closer to home? How much are the IRA, PIRA and the rest prepared to pay?

Fisk this - Jack Straw on oil and Al-Megrahi

In the Telegraph and other papers:

Mr Straw also claims today that Mr Brown had nothing to do with his change of heart over the PTA [Prisoner Transfer Agreement], adding: “I certainly didn’t talk to the PM. There is no paper trail to suggest he was involved at all.”

Even if literally true, the above statement is consistent with the possibilities that:

- Mr Straw communicated via a third party with the PM on oil-for-Lockerbie-bombers (or, the PM raised the matter with others)
- Mr Straw communicated directly with the PM, but not through speech
- There were once paper-based records to show the PM's involvement, but they have been destroyed
- There were, or still are, records held in other form (e.g. email)

A good example of a "non-denial denial"?

PM to quit?

Peter Hitchens speculates that Gordon Brown may resign soon:

What will all these people do for a hate-figure if Mr Brown quits, as I think he will probably do on ‘health grounds’ before the Election?

I reconfirmed our electoral register details by phone yesterday; but I really don't know whether I will be able to vote for any of the candidates. Have we got to the point where mass abstention sends a stronger signal than positive choice?

It occurs to me that even using the phrase "sending a signal" reveals how much the political class has lost touch with us.

UK public debt worse than USA

It's reported in the Press that UK national debt will reach c. £1 trillion by the end of the year, and when the Office of National Statistics adds-in the cost of bank bailouts to Lloyds TSB and Royal Bank of Scotland, the total should be £2.5 trillion. This will make our position worse than that of the United States, as shown in the graph below.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Lone wolves and the herd instinct

When Tony Butler worked as a football radio presenter for BRMB, I heard him comment on the news media: "They hunt in packs." (His Black Country accent, part of his charm - there's a beautiful, musical suite of accents in the Dudley/Wolverhampton area - sounded the word as "hoont".)

It's true even now. British PM Gordon Brown is down, heir-presumptive David Cameron is up. We shall see what Balloon Head makes of the economy when he gets in.

The problem with Brown is that he is, in my (educationally experienced) opinion, mildly autistic. He's the kind that academically dumber, normal kids pick on and wonder why he doesn't fight back. He hasn't helped himself by aiming obsessively at a job which requires quite different skills, which the flashy Blair has in spades; but self-knowledge comes hard for ASD types. Star Trek fans will understand that Scotty could never take Captain Kirk's seat in the Starship Enterprise; but maybe he harboured ambition, all the same. Had Kirk made Scotty his deputy, it could have lit the touchpaper.

The autistic child senses his vulnerability, and will make compromises to be part of the flock. Desperate for acceptance and respect, Brown has paltered with the truth throughout his political career, as commentators on his time as Chancellor have often noted. The brawling pit of the House of Commons has never been the place to nurture an inner-directed, analytical man's integrity.

But the pack is blind, too. Unrestrained, the instinct to group-bully the outsiders, the different ones, would send the human race well back into the Stone Age. And then look at the ones they instinctively, collectively follow. How many years was it before the Press revealed what they must have known all along, that the overjoyed crowd that greeted Blair in Downing Street after the 1997 General Election, was a handpicked mob of Party members? I shall believe in journalistic independence when a new incumbent is promptly probed and criticised.

And what is the pack now saying about Afghanistan? Are they correct? Would it solve our problems to withdraw and concentrate on more achievable aspects of domestic security (some British Army regiments stationed by our ports, airfields and the Channel Tunnel might not go amiss); or would it be a sign of weakness, the crumbling that in ancient times not only ceded the provinces formerly under the Pax Romana, but at last saw Alaric's Visigoths rampage through Rome itself?

Friday, September 04, 2009

Income mobility and income structure

A chewy piece from Professor Perry about the widely-held perception that the American middle class has essentially gotten nowhere since 1980. The research he discusses purports to show that large numbers of individuals have moved up and down between income brackets.

Elsewhere, I've read that the middle earning bracket as a whole has not advanced, and the top end has become wildly richer. But if individuals can progress up this ladder, does it matter that the gap between the rungs has stretched?

Thursday, September 03, 2009

A heavy golden straw in the wind?

Many deride "gold bugs" and their increasing insistence that for safety's sake one should have the tangible stuff and not trust third parties; but the Chinese have now called in their gold from London and parked it in Hong Kong.

(htp: Max Keiser)

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Evolutionary Dead End?

Please forgive the digression, but all of this discussion of financial and social breakdown, overpopulation and impending water and energy shortages, lead me to make the following observations.

As a scientist with interest in just about everything, I have come to the conclusion that the underlying cause for most, if not all, of these problems is that our psychology and cultures have not caught up with the Scientific Revolution.

I will begin with that statement that science has emerged as the most useful method of determining fact, if not truth.

However, like our cousins the Great Apes, we still waste resources when they are plentiful, with no thought of the future. We still generally pick our leaders as the most virile male, i.e. the silverbacks, rather than their ability to actually solve problems.

And we still insist on pre-Enlightenment thinking, as is demonstrated by this piece from DC's Improbable Science 'blog:

A recent report by the King's Fund in the UK on complementary medicine contains the following passage:

“This report outlines areas of potential consensus to guide research funders, researchers, commissioners and complementary practitioners in developing and applying a robust evidence base for complementary practice.”

In other words, if we spend enough money, we will find the stuff that works, and best way to use it.

However, the US National Institutes of Health has spent over $1 billion in the past decade on carefully researching these practices. Not a single one was found to be of benefit. This was so distressing to some there, that each new report resulted in a slew of resignations.

Water wars

James Quinn raises another critical resource issue, namely, water.

Taking his list "Total Renewable Freshwater Supply, by Country" (which excludes Australia, though the situation there could easily become much more challenging), I divided the figures by population size to obtain a per capita water supply, as follows:

From this we note that Canada may have something to offer the USA (Al Capone would be into mineral water now, I guess), and that India may face an even more desperate shortage than China, unless and until desalination plants take off. And parts of South America may have their attractions.

But the Congo: no. I once taught a lad whose family trekked 1,000 miles to the coast to get away from the civil war, and he very nearly didn't make it, because of a blood-thirsty armed patrol. His father nominated him for the chop rather than the favourite son, but they eventually relented.

Any views from survivalists as to where to move the family for a long-term future?

Don't save the planet, save the country

A couple of days ago, the Daily Telegraph reported on threats to our energy supply. "There will be huge reliance in the short term on gas, with up to 50 per cent of electricity coming from gas fired power stations. "

Instead of challengeable pi-jaw about global cooling/warming/okay-let's-compromise-and-call-it-change, why don't we look to reducing our energy use for the sake of liberty? No more dirty deals with Putin, Gaddafi, the Saudis et al. And less chance of another industry-crippling 1974 energy price hike.

An initiative that I think will run long and grow big is "transition towns", started by a man called Rob Hopkins in Totnes, Devon. Out from among the patchouli-scented crystal-wavers and hare-worshippers will yet come ideas to help us adapt to Peak Oil.

The Fourth Horseman

Michael Panzner's prescient book "Financial Armageddon" listed four major threats to the economy: debt, retirement and healthcare benefits for the elderly, government bailouts, and financial derivatives. So far, three have exploded into public consciousness; but the fourth is still to come.

Some say that the derivatives market is now worth over $1 quadrillion, as compared with gobal GDP of some $55 trillion. For most people, these numbers mean nothing, so here's a graphic representation:

Supposedly, this shouldn't matter, since every bet involves two parties and so the sum total is zero. This ignores counterparty risk, i.e. the chance that the other person will fail to deliver when the time comes. It's the sort of thing that busted the UK's oldest bank, Barings.

From what little I understand, the derivatives market suffers from much the same complexity and obscurity as the packaged mortgage mess - the dealers are making loads of bets with loads of other people - so the misery could get spread around rather than just take down one or two incautious players.

If just 1% of the derivatives market fails, this equates to some 18% of global GDP. We in the UK are dealing with an economic contraction of less than 6% year-on-year, and that's causing paroxysms.

An argument for holding some emergency cash, away from the banks?

Fight back against self-organisation

A lovely contrarian piece from Lifehacker: dump your to-do-list. Just do one thing at a time.

I can see the logic in this: when I've listed all I have to do, the heart sinks and then I rebel against the lot. When you've planned your life too systematically, the life-impulse within you is driven to smash the system. A degree of disorder, of randomness, of openness to change, is like opening a window in a stuffy room.

"Delight in Disorder" by Robert Herrick:

A sweet disorder in the dress
Kindles in clothes a wantonness:
A lawn about the shoulders thrown
Into a fine distraction--
An erring lace, which here and there
Enthrals the crimson stomacher--
A cuff neglectful, and thereby
Ribbands to flow confusedly--
A winning wave, deserving note,
In the tempestuous petticoat--
A careless shoe-string, in whose tie
I see a wild civility--
Do more bewitch me than when art
Is too precise in every part.

Unemployment a good thing? For economists?

A thought-provoking piece from Mark Thoma, in which he argues that many jobs that have gone deserved to go; it's the creation of new ones that should occupy our minds.

There is a pipe-smoker-in-a-leather-chair comfortableness about this (I'm not sure what the unemployment rate is for economists; should the 10 - 15,000 who failed to predict the credit crunch all be sacked?), but he may be right.

However, the allegedly self-righting mechanisms of the market may not operate quite so efficiently in a single nation's economy when there are other major causes of disequilibrium at work in the world, including quarrelsome international politics and sharp disparities in global wage rates.

An image: picture a man in his study, happily using a tiny screwdriver to adjust the mechanism in a carriage clock, while a block of frozen waste hurtles silently towards him from a passing jet liner.


Coincidentally: "... if you fail to heed the roar in your ears and fail to look up what will inevitably come, while it may surprise you, does not surprise anyone who has passed sixth grade math." - Denninger

Welcoming the disaster

Two (among others) good links from Credit Writedowns:

"On April 17, 2007, famed short-seller Jim Chanos and other hedge fund managers met under tight security at the World Bank in Washington for the G-8 meeting. Chanos and Paul Singer briefed prominent policy officials about the growing financial instability. They gave irrefutable evidence that a catastrophe was building. They told officials that banks that were about to sink the global economy. They called for decisive action.

And they were ignored.

Gordon Brown was there..."

- New Deal 2.0

My comment: there's always a nice conspiratorial frisson when you think you can show They Knew All Along. Except there will have been other voices (like the 10 - 15,000 American economists who didn't foresee the credit crunch). And self-delusion. I don't think this nails the guilty parties.

Expect a major house-cleaning, a second American Revolution. We predicted the "Great Depression 2" around 2012. Well, we doubt taxpayers will passively sit one more time, like in the 1930s, in 2000, and the past few years. Next time voters will take a page from the history books about past revolutions in the American Colonies, France and Russia. A perfect storm will erupt in a massive global credit meltdown, bringing down Wall Street and the clandestine $670 trillion shadow central banking system.

- Paul Farrell

My comment: The appeal of revolution is to juvenile minds drunk on testosterone and misled by ignorant optimism. This is why the Communists have focussed on the young. I am reminded of how Rupert Brooke welcomed the onset of WWI:

Now, God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour,
And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping,
With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power,
To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping,
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary,
Leave the sick hearts that honour could not move,
And half-men, and their dirty songs and dreary,
And all the little emptiness of love!

I don't think he would have agreed with his younger self by the end of the Great War. After a disaster comes the greater disaster: Romanticism.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

What do our politicians control?

Plenty has been said about the EU and how it rules us, withour ever having had our consent to do so. But equally, our daily lives are governed by giant firms, often foreign-based.

For example, (and I offer this merely as a tiny, representative instance) I now have to pay a Frenchman to talk to a Welshman.

On September 8, 1966, the first (and very beautiful) Severn Bridge opened. It was constructed with the inventive help of the Royal Engineers (my father included), who floated prefabricated sections of the roadway on pontoons down the river, to be hoisted into position by cranes atop the towers that would hold the suspension cables.

I stood on the Welsh side with my mother and brother, listening to the Queen's speech from across the water, and watched as the Royal car came through. (Only a West Indian family near us had had the forethought to buy some flags on sticks to wave as Her Majesty passed.) The toll for cars was the then-equivalent of 35 US cents.

30 years later, a second bridge was completed, crossing further down the estuary to Cardiff and West Wales. A new holding company was formed (Severn River Cossings plc), as a partnership between John Laing plc, a French firm, GTM-Entrepose, and others.

John Laing plc is based in London and controls assets worth £698 million (December 2008 accounts); but the revenue from both bridges went to GTM-Entrepose which was subsequently taken over by Vinci Concessions SA, a subsidiary of Vinci SA, which controls assets worth almost 52 billion Euros and is based in Rueil-Malmaison, France.

The toll for cars is now £5.40 (you pay to get into Wales; any fool who wishes to leave can do so for free), and as late as last month there were protests that this highwaymanning is hampering trade and transport. But what, exactly, can the private citizen, the commercial haulier, or even the professional politican do? Doubtless any attempt by HMG to intervene would be challenged in a European court.

I think our national politicans are little better than a species of fraudster, pretending that they can do something for us but (I suspect) privately agreeing among themselves that they are powerless. In which case, all they can do is take instructions from their wealthy patrons and (perhaps partly out of impotent spite) divide and bully the insignificant people, some of whom (at permitted intervals, to be determined by their masters) vote them into office.
And now, I want to wave my little flag.