China – the biggest paradigm shift in a century?

By Steen Jakobsen,
Chief Economist & CIO / Saxo Bank
  • The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China starts next week
  • It will be the single biggest event this year, of unprecedented significance
  • Xi will cement his position and secure his legacy at the Congress
  • China is changing and has changed more than the market gives it credit for
  • Under Trump, the United States has abdicated its global role
  • What we are witnessing is a geopolitical reality show
  • The rise of China and the decline of the US will spawn a new FX king!
great Hall
 The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China will take place at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, starting October 18.Photo: Zhao jian kang / Shutterstock.
The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China kicks off next week in Beijing and promises to be the single biggest event this year for financial markets and the international balance of power. This makes it a true paradigm shift – an important change that happens when the usual way of thinking about or doing something is replaced by a new and different way. That’s exactly what this Congress will be and it’s the reason why it is of historic significance for each and every one of us and for the global economy.
Let’s throw some context around this. China already leads the world in credit creation, growth and now in most technology fields. My take remains that President Xi will focus on quality over quantity, that reducing pollution is the number one social issue in China and that the Party is taking more and more control. The net output will be:
  • Lower than expected growth for the next 18 months (while China converts its economy from export engine to one of productivity gains – President Xi wants 2010 GDP per capita doubled (Rule of 72= 72/7% GDP per year = 10 years) which means an objective of 7% growth per year, but most of this will be productivity driven which means investment first (hence lower growth), then higher.
  • Reduction of pollution = electrification of cars –  by 2030 100% of cars will be electric vehicles – this will catapult China to leadership in battery technology, E-engines, and pollution reduction. (Don’t forget that from 1900 to 1910/13 the US went from 100% horse carriages to 100% cars!)
  • High ratio of R&D and innovation to gain leadership. China is already dominant, but will be even more so in E-commerce, payments and fintech. (See McKinsey report below).
  • Slow gradual openness in capital account, more access to the market for foreigners and a big focus on converting global trade from USD to CNY.
  • Weaker CNY post-congress.
  • Major negative credit and growth impact on the rest of the world.

Change comes much faster than we human beings like – our brains are simply not designed to accept quick changes, and one of the few shortcomings of the brain is that it likes (and uses) the recent past to extrapolate the future. We think in a linear fashion but world the evolves in a super log-normal way. An excellent example is seen in the pictures below from New York in 1900 and 1913. Notice the difference in street traffic in the space of just 13 years.

I think the next 13 years will surpass those years in way back then in New York in terms of change, dynamics and how we act, analyse and live.

NYC 1900
NYC 1913
The upcoming 19th Party Congress is highly anticipated but we technically know most of what will be said courtesy of the modus operandi of The Party and the excellent work by Charles Panton(*) “predicting” the President Xi speech at the 19th Chinese Party Congress. Turns out most of  it is “given” and here is my copy-and-paste from Charles Panton’s work:

(*) Charles Parton worked as a diplomat in both the British and EU services, spending much of his career in China. Since retirement, he has set up his own consultancy, China Ink, as well as being London Director of China Policy and Special Adviser on China to the House of Commons Select Committee. He is shortly to return to Beijing as Internal Political Adviser to the British Embassy.

  • …a constant theme of Xi Jinping’s speeches is the need for innovation.
  • …he (President Xi) was in charge of the drafting of the report delivered to the 18th Party Congress by his predecessor Hu Jintao.
  • The deeper purposes of the Congress and the report are to reaffirm the Party’s importance to itself and to the nation.
  • “Ecological Construction‟, added “Making Great Efforts to Promote Ecological Progress”. Neither addition is surprising, given that Party legitimacy would be threatened by popular dissatisfaction if areas such as education, health, social security, as well as pollution and food safety, were not put higher up the political priority list.

There are likely to be 13 major sections….(See table below for 16th,17th and 18th Congress comparison…)

The Past Five Years. To judge from the past, this section will aim to set a positive tone in order to remind the Party and people that only the Party could have achieved China’s rise.

Party Theory and Ideology. This section is likely to be relatively short. It will restate the principal tenets of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics” and the need for and benefits of reform and opening up. Xi has spent much of his first term emphasising the importance of ideology and continuity with the Party’s roots, so even if shorter, this section will be hard hitting.

Xi Jinping Thought, Theory or Concept? This congress may well see the apotheosis of Xi’s “important series of speeches” into “Xi Jinping Thought”, “Xi Jinping Theory” or the plain “Four Comprehensives”, Xi’s contribution to the CCP’s canon of Marxist-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Three Represents (of Jiang Zemin) and the Scientific Outlook on development (of Hu Jintao). The academic prophet, gazing at the Party’s liver to predict the future, will pronounce on the importance of the difference between an “ism”, “Thought”, “Theory” or just a simple description (as Jiang and Hu gained). In practice, what actually matters is that Xi is more powerful than his two predecessors at the start of a second term and may become more so than Deng: at the level of policymaking and personnel, he is getting his way, even if at the level of implementation and down among those who hold real power in China, the 2,862 Party county secretaries, his writ runs less effectively). But for what it is worth, I think that we shall be hearing of “Xi Jinping Thought”. Interestingly, an article in Research on Party Building magazine, a monthly publication on communist theory, published an article in its July edition on “Xi Jinping Thought”.

Building a moderately prosperous society in all respects. Traditionally, this short section looks forward to the big tasks of the next five years, mainly in the area of the “Five Constructions”(economic, political, cultural, social and environmental). It is likely also to remind cadres of the importance of themes dear to Xi Jinping’s heart, such as poverty alleviation, innovation, Belt and Road Initiative, corruption and Party discipline. And judging by the meetings of late July, the main theme, not surprisingly, will be稳中求进 “progress amid stability”, a phrase we shall see often.

The environment and ecology. This was a new section in the 18th Congress Report reflecting ecology’s rise to become one of the five “constructions” and its addition to the Party constitution. Quite apart from the lamentable state of the environment itself, a major driver for inclusion was the threat to social stability: according to some Chinese academics, around half of protests involving over 10,000 people had an environmental cause. (This is a new key in our opinion!)

Party building. This is always a lengthy and important section, hardly surprising, given that this is, after all, the Party’s congress and given that “comprehensively [and] strictly govern the Party‟ is one of the “Four Comprehensives”. The 18th Congress report was much harder and more urgent than its predecessors on ideals, faith in Party ideology, working for the people, corruption and discipline. This report is likely to be harder still. Over his first five years Xi has not just launched an unending and deep war on corruption, but also carried out a series of campaigns to instill discipline and cut abuse of public funds by cadres. It is traditional to have a section on intra-Party democracy and Party unity; we can expect the former to be more by way of lip-service, the latter to feature prominently. Xi will undoubtedly recommit to the war on corruption and is likely to doff his cap in the direction of the new National Supervision Commission, which is due to start work in earnest next March. Nor should it be forgotten that the Party Congress elects a new Central Commission for Discipline and Inspection.

16th-18th
chart
Charles Parton concludes:

“…but it will give an idea of how he views progress towards those reforms, the priority of tasks needed to ensure their full delivery over the next five years, his political thinking, and perhaps his perception of problems. Foremost among those are implementation (by officials) and trust (of the people). Xi and Premier Li Keqiang have spent much time in the last few years railing against vested interests and failure to implement set down policies. Trust from the people in the Party is in short supply. One of the purposes of the Report is to show the people that it is right to entrust governance to a single party. Most people buy the line that under the CCP China has taken back its rightful place in the world; they are less persuaded by the claim that the Party rules in their, rather than its own, interests. That could be a worry if economic or environmental factors set back further progress towards prosperity’”.

It’s important to understand that the “economic plan” for China in the next 5 years is already in place as the 13th five-year plan was initiated in July 2016 – there are a mere 219 pages to read up for you…. (Link – China Five-year plan).

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Here are a few takeaways:
  • Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory, the Theory of Three Represents, and the Scientific Outlook on Development; and put into practice the guiding principles from General Secretary Xi Jinping’s major addresses.
  • The Chinese Dream of the rejuvenation of the nation and the core socialist values have gained a firm place in people’s hearts. China’s soft power has continued to become stronger. Notable achievements have been made in military reform with Chinese characteristics, and new steps have been taken to strengthen and revitalise the armed forces. A new phase has begun in the all-around strengthening of Party self-governance, and significant headway has been made in improving Party conduct and building a clean government. New heights have been reached in China’s economic strength, scientific and technological capabilities, defense capabilities, and international influence.
  • However, the need has become more pressing to improve the quality and efficiency of growth and transform and upgrade the economy. As the economy is experiencing a new normal of growth, there is a clearer trend toward a more advanced form of growth, improved divisions of labour, and a more rational structure. With the structure of consumption being more rapidly upgraded, broad market space, a strong material foundation, a complete industrial structure, an ample supply of funds, and abundant human capital, along with the cumulative effects of innovation that are beginning to show, our overall strengths are still notable. A new style of industrialisation, information technology adoption, urbanisation, and agricultural modernisation are experiencing deeper development, new drivers of growth are in the making, and new areas, poles, and belts of growth are becoming stronger. All-around efforts to deepen reform and make progress in the law-based governance of the country are unleashing new dynamism and bringing new vitality.
  • Maintain a medium-high rate of growth. While working to achieve more balanced, inclusive, and sustainable development, we need to ensure that China’s 2010 GDP and per capita personal income double by 2020, that major economic indicators are balanced, and that the quality and efficiency of development is significantly improved. Production will move toward the medium-high end, significant progress will be made in modernising agriculture, information technology will be further integrated into industrialisation, advanced manufacturing and strategic emerging industries will develop more rapidly, new industries and new forms of business will keep growing, and the service sector will come to account for a greater proportion of GDP.
  • Achieve significant results in innovation-driven development. We will pursue innovation-driven development, ensure that business startups and innovation flourish, and see that total factor productivity is markedly improved. Science and technology will become more deeply embedded in the economy, the ingredients needed for innovation will be allocated to greater effect, major breakthroughs will be made in core technologies in key sectors, and China’s capacity for innovation will see an all-around improvement. Fulfillment of these goals will help China become a talent-rich country of innovation.

The focus on innovation and the progress of it is somewhat surprising, at least to me:

McKinsey & Company’s report “China’s digital economy – a leading global force” is almost shocking!

China

Note: China has gone from 0.4% in 2005 to 42% in 2016, in mobile payment the Chinese do 11x more than the Americans, and most surprising of all, in Global Unicorns (start ups > $1 bn) China has 34 vs. US 46 but mostly the same valuation!

In terms of investment China is also already a global leader:

China

The context here is that China is 1/3 of the global growth impulse (source: IMF) and indirectly 50% of credit  – our own Christopher Dembik tracks the China Credit Impulse, which is the flow of credit:

credit impluse

This chart leads real economy by 9-12 months in other words. Nine months from now in mid-2018 China will be in severe slowdown, one which I believe China is creating through control of the banking system in order to to set up the release of productivity investments, where China comes from a level which is 20-30% of the US. The next five years will be one big technology R&D and innovation drive under “Chinese Characterstics”.

chart
 Source: Bloomberg LLP

Note: We see growth in 5.5% in 2018, 6.0% in 2019, and the current account @ 0% of GDP.

chart

Note: The slowdown in China is already dominant – add Credit Impulse and we have a negative contribution to global growth.

curency

Note: CNY is low down as a basket, but higher vs. USD “naked”. Overall China’s basket will have to drive lower in value to the tune of 1-2% per year.

This is all part of the plan and something President XI will be more confident in after the congress which will see him solidify his power.
Conclusion

China is changing and has changed more than the market gives it credit for – the typical Anglo-Saxon economist keeps his focus on banking system and debt, but unlikely the western world, China can accelerate growth through the release of productivity. The US, under President Trump, has chosen to “retire” from the global economy on the fundamentally flawed concept of America First while China is growing its importance, probably best illustrated by this chart:

chart

Source: Connectopraphy

Now China also wants a new world order in commodities. China will allow exporters to avoid USD payments for CNY or…. gold! A new gold standard? (LINK: Crude, Gold, CNY)

headline
 Source: Nikkei Asian Review

China is enjoying US indecision on foreign policy, which seems to be driven by indecision, spur of the moment changes and randomness. Opposite this sits China, with its One Belt, One Road, Asian Development Bank and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation – there are in excess of three billion people in this alliance – and with Pakistan and India joining in 2015 that number will be four billion by 2050.

The future belongs to the countries and companies which can command the consumers, no one is better placed than China (and India).
We are witnessing a geopolitical reality show where one hegemonic power, the US, almost voluntarily is giving up its dominance.
The result is clear to me:
King Dollar is dead, long live King CNY!

– Edited by Clare MacCarthy

Source: https://www.tradingfloor.com/posts/macro-digest-china-the-biggest-paradigm-shift-in-a-century-8983318

Steen Jakobsen is chief economist and CIO at Saxo Bank

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Buy Oil With Gold-Backed Currency—Bypassing US Petrodollars

In a second ground shaking move in a week, China has moved to introduce yuan denominated oil futures contracts. Settlement may be in yuan or gold. This has huge long term ramifications for the US dollar as world’s reserve currency.

The other move this week was the US Federal Reserve signally their intention next month to start reducing it’s balance sheet assets by $10 billion per month. Again, the long term ramifications for this is enormous but will not felt immediately.

By Jay Syrmopoulos via The Free Thought Project

In a direct challenge to U.S. imperialism, China’s yuan-denominated contracts – backed by gold -will let oil exporting countries bypass using the U.S. petrodollar.

Beijing, China – In an effort to hedge against U.S. hegemony, and what could be a global game-changer, the world’s top oil importer, China, is preparing to denominate crude oil futures contracts in Chinese yuan to be convertible into gold. The move would allow oil exporting countries to bypass benchmarks denominated in U.S. petrodollars — creating what will almost certainly be the most critical Asian oil benchmark, according to a report by Nikkei Asian Review.

Typically, crude oil is priced in relation to Brent or West Texas Intermediate futures, both denominated in U.S. dollars.

The move by the Chinese will allow oil exporting countries such as Iran and Russia to bypass U.S. sanctions by trading in yuan instead of U.S. dollars. The move is a direct result of the U.S. proclivity to use the dollar as a weapon against countries that refuse to bend to the imperial will of the United States. To make the yuan denominated contracts more appealing, China intends to make the yuan fully convertible to gold on the Shanghai and Hong Kong exchanges.

“The rules of the global oil game may begin to change enormously,” said Luke Gromen, founder of U.S.-based macroeconomic research company FFTT.

According to a report by OilPrice.com:

Last month, the Shanghai Futures Exchange and its subsidiary Shanghai International Energy Exchange, INE, successfully completed four tests in production environment for the crude oil futures, and the exchange continues with preparatory works for the listing of crude oil futures, aiming for the launch by the end of this year.

Yuan-backed oil and gold futures mean that users can be paid in physical gold, said Alasdair Macleod, head of research at Goldmoney, a gold-based financial services company based in Toronto.

While some potential foreign traders have expressed reservations that the contract would be priced in yuan, according to analysts who spoke to Nikkei Asian Review, backing the yuan-priced futures with gold would be appealing to oil exporters — especially to those that would rather avoid U.S. dollars in trade.

It is a mechanism which is likely to appeal to oil producers that prefer to avoid using dollars, and are not ready to accept that being paid in yuan for oil sales to China is a good idea either,” Macleod said.

These recent moves by the Chinese are part of a larger de-dollarization strategy by other world powers intent on creating a more multipolar global framework.

As we reported in July, the formation of a BRICS gold marketplace, which could bypass the U.S. Petrodollar in bilateral trade, continues to take shape as Russia’s largest bank, state-owned Sberbank, announced that its Swiss subsidiary had begun trading in gold on the Shanghai Gold Exchange.

Russian officials have repeatedly signaled that they plan to conduct transactions with China using gold as a means of marginalizing the power of the dollar in bilateral trade between the geopolitically powerful nations. This latest movement is quite simply the manifestation of a larger geopolitical game afoot between great powers.

report by the Centre for Research on Globalization clarifies the implications of these most recent moves by the Russians and the Chinese in an ongoing drive to replace the US petrodollar as the global reserve currency:

Fast forward to March 2017; the Russian Central Bank opened its first overseas office in Beijing as an early step in phasing in a gold-backed standard of trade. This would be done by finalizing the issuance of the first federal loan bonds denominated in Chinese yuan and to allow gold imports from Russia.

The Chinese government wishes to internationalize the yuan, and conduct trade in yuan as it has been doing, and is beginning to increase trade with Russia. They’ve been taking these steps with bilateral trading, native trading systems and so on. However, when Russia and China agreed on their bilateral US$400 billion pipeline deal, China wished to, and did, pay for the pipeline with yuan treasury bonds, and then later for Russian oil in yuan.

This evasion of, and unprecedented breakaway from, the reign of the US dollar monetary system is taking many forms, but one of the most threatening is the Russians trading Chinese yuan for gold. The Russians are already taking Chinese yuan, made from the sales of their oil to China, back to the Shanghai Gold Exchange to then buy gold with yuan-denominated gold futures contracts – basically a barter system or trade.

The Chinese are hoping that by starting to assimilate the yuan futures contract for oil, facilitating the payment of oil in yuan, the hedging of which will be done in Shanghai, it will allow the yuan to be perceived as a primary currency for trading oil. The world’s top importer (China) and exporter (Russia) are taking steps to convert payments into gold. This is known. So, who would be the greatest asset to lure into trading oil for yuan? The Saudis, of course.

All the Chinese need is for the Saudis to sell China oil in exchange for yuan. If the House of Saud decides to pursue that exchange, the Gulf petro-monarchies will follow suit, and then Nigeria, and so on. This will fundamentally threaten the petrodollar.

“In 2014 Russia and China signed two mammoth 30-year contracts for Russian gas to China. The contracts specified that the exchange would be done in Renminbi [yuan] and Russian rubles, not in dollars. That was the beginning of an accelerating process of de-dollarization that is underway today,” according to strategic risk consultant F. William Engdahl.

Russia and China are now creating a new paradigm for the world economy andpaving the way for a global de-dollarization.

“A Russian-Chinese alternative to the dollar in the form of a gold-backed ruble and gold-backed Renminbi or yuan, could start a snowball exit from the US dollar, and with it, a severe decline in America’s ability to use the reserve dollar role to finance her wars with other peoples’ money,” Engdahl concludes.

About the Author

Jay Syrmopoulos is a geopolitical analyst, freethinker, and ardent opponent of authoritarianism. He is currently a graduate student at the University of Denver pursuing a masters in Global Affairs and holds a BA in International Relations. Jay’s writing has been featured on both mainstream and independent media – and has been viewed tens of millions of times. You can follow him on Twitter @SirMetropolis and on Facebook at SirMetropolis.
Source: https://truththeory.com/2017/09/13/china-moves-new-world-order-will-buy-oil-gold-backed-currency-bypassing-us-petrodollar/

Political Risk 2 – Reflections

We reported (04/06/2017) prior to the UK General Election 2017:

There is a minor risk of a hung parliament where, like 2010, the new government may have to collaborate to hold office. This would make managing the Brexit process untenable. The loss of political and economic confidence that would ensue would bring chaos to the UK. Should there be an outright victory to Labor, we would see a reversion to the 1950/70’s style politics that would also be a disaster.

Little did we realize how close to the mark we would be. PM May’s electoral disaster has profound repercussions for the UK. Firstly Brexit becomes a challenge at the negotiation table because of the weakened hand PM May presents to the EU. Secondly, Jeremy Corbyn’s success at the polls will force the Conservatives to move to the centre-left of UK politics to capture Corbyn’s new found friends – the 18-34 year demographic that has recently discovered politics and utopian self-interest.

This is a disaster for the UK and will not end well. May’s leadership will be under constant challenge for the next 5 years. One of her few chances of success depends on being able to negotiate a quick exit from the EU. This is unlikely.

As has happened in Australia in 2016, the UK and with a 9% confidence level in US Congress reflecting the rising distrust voters have for politicians. This is a trend that will continue around the world for the foreseeable future. The unintended consequence of voter distrust however is that political confidence begins to fail and economic confidence collapses soon after.

In the United States the Democratic – Republican flash point continues to escalate. President Trump is beginning to claw back a few points against the “Deep State” influence working inside government. Investigations are building cases on leaks and corruption. Trump is slowly gaining momentum with his agenda despite the continual challenge of the left agenda.

Unfortunately the first directly attributable acts of violence have occurred with a Republican Congressman and two police officers wounded at an annual practice baseball session for Congress politicians. The use of violence in political discourse is inherently evil itself and not in keeping with the liberal-democratic tradition that has benefited humanity. Since 2015 we have witnessed an increasing breakdown of civil discourse – a cornerstone of a free society. This marks the first violence of the civil strife we predict emerging in the US. We anticipate this will continue to escalate over the next few years. It will not end well and directly reflects the internal divisions that continue to rent US civil society.

At the same time we move slowly towards The End of the Long Game, the last gasp of the “Industrial Revolution Cycle” that commenced in 1783. We still view the September 2017 – March 2018 time window as the time for that final top, to be followed by the downward phase of the cycle. As always rebirth follows endings and the advance of humanity continues.

This worsening political discord in the US and other liberal democratic countries merely reflect the changing cycle mentioned previously. Given the magnitude of the cycle involved – one that builds and destroys empires, we can glimpse directly at the political and economic forces shaping events and the changes to come.

Political Risk in 2017-2018

In the UK, the conservatives it appears, will win a reduced majority to govern the UK and Brexit process. It is also clear that a loss or hung parliament  for the Conservatives will set the UK back a hundred years politically and economically in the confusion and discord it would sew.

There is a minor risk of a hung parliament where, like 2010, the new government may have to collaborate to hold office. This would make managing the Brexit process untenable. The loss of political and economic confidence that would ensue would bring chaos to the UK. Should there be an outright victory to Labor, we would see a reversion to the 1950/70’s style politics that would also be a disaster.

So, the stakes are just as high as they were in June 2016. What was a ‘sure thing’ bet at the start of the election process has become marginal at a time when the consequences are high. The spontaneous ordering of the voting process may check politicians from being able to achieve their agenda at the expense of the national interest. What hubris by PM May who put personal agenda ahead of the national political interest.

This is typical of the problems found in liberal democracies. Liberal democracies around the world are dying. Voters are cynical of the promises and ability of politicians to achieve anything.

Flag - EU 12Ironically, the EU have hailed Macron’s victory as a sign that right wing populism has peaked and in remission. With no mirror for self reflection the EU elite are back at ‘business as usual’. “Nothing to look at here – move on”! They needed a Le Pen win to shock them into making real change. Macron’s victory has only deferred the inevitable by a year. Meanwhile, the political change that is sweeping the world at present will continue with German elections in October this year. Merkel it appears is set for a heavy defeat.

And in the USA the left wing is continuing its attempt to undermine President Trump and effectively ignore the rule of law. Left wing forces operating at every level of US media, government and politics are moving to impeach Trump. Meanwhile the silent majority that elected Trump are watching and waiting and growing angry.

The last time we saw his level of scale of political unrest was 1740 – 1785 culminating in the French Revolution. The rising tide of political unrest in the USA, UK and EU is polarized by left vs right as well as the elite vs the people. Remember, when political confidence falters, economic confidence falls soon after. This is what is happening now. As pressures continue to mount in the USA and EU there is increasing risk of civil strife breaking out.

The phase June 2017 to December 2018 remains a time of escalating risk. Over this 18 month time frame, what transpires will shape the world and its history for the next 12 years and set up the circumstances that will shape the rest of this century.

Contrary Opinion and the French Elections

Going into the final round of the French Presidential election we see heavy media bias for Macron to win over Le Pen. Polls indicate Macron  should win by a comfortable margin. The Law of Contrary Opinion in 2016 had indicated another upset due.

There are mitigating factors at play however. Having correctly picked the Australian, Brexit and US Presidential elections, we point out that the shock results shown in those elections all occurred after lengthy social and political trends had been underway for sometime. We see there is a lower probability that contrary opinion may affect the outcome. We had predicted in 2016 that Le Pen would receive the presidential mandate. We still hold to that view which would have an immediate negative impact on financial markets whichever candidate wins. Markets appear poised for a fast corrective move to the downside before resuming their longer term trends.

Longer term, if Le Pen happened to win, there would be a soft EU awakening and resolution. Macron’s win will have the effect of bringing on a hard EU awakening and resolution.

US Presidential Election Prediction

Its clear we are in a cycle of increasing political chaos and uncertainty. This is continuing to escalate. Its happening in liberal democratic countries. National elections are due in these countries (Germandonald-trumpy, France 2017), UK (2018). We can anticipate major upheavals along with the US. We are seeing the death throes of the liberal democratic tradition. Worsening economic inequality, the self interest of political elites, political coverups, politicians unable to deliver on their promises, vote rigging, dodgy economics, disenfranchised voters, unaccountable rogue police are just some of the issues to be seen in newspapers and television. Democracy, a human system, like all systems before, is failing.

Next US President

Given the increasing political chaos we anticipate Donald Trump will be elected as the 45th US President of the United States of America. Between now and November we should see a marked swing towards Trump. Viewing the US situation through the lens of cycles analysis we step beyond the character and reputation of US Presidential nominees to see the fabric of a society and economy being eroded through self interest.This process has been underway for over 5 decades.TruHillary Clinton imagesmp’s election should be seen as the response to a disenfranchised electorate. That’s both within the parties and without. Its an  increasingly angry social mood. Voters are angry and one of their few options is to respond at the ballot. Electoral horror at the status quo has emerged with a dual society – the haves and have nots, cronyism, hidden interests, corporatism, the endless wars, spurious economics, indebtedness………..

Like Brexit and many of the problems we are witnessing nightly in the news (EU refugee crisis, police and citizen shootings, etc), many crises have been manufactured by governments themselves.

We witness the unfolding political, social and economic drama of the USA and by extension the global stage since the US ascended to become the global hegemon after WWII. Most people acknowledge things have gone terribly wrong over the last 20 years but nobody knows what to do. There is little or no confidence in the political class, or their technocrat advisors, government institutions, the economy and society at large. We anticipate the continuing breakdown of the status quo an Trump’s election to the presidency is merely a reflection of the zeitgeist of our time. Yet this is perfectly understandable when you step back from the noise of daily media and observe the cycles of history evolving before our eyes.

History Repeating

An historical example of a time when a large scale breakdown of society occurred on this scale was during the phase 1740-1792 leading to the French Revolution. This time however, with globalization, it spans over many countries. At that time we saw increasing political instability with its attendant corruption, economic decay and the polarization of the people against the political elites (king and government). It’s happened many times before as any student of history will testify, is happening now and will happen again as humans consistently fail to learn from their past.

Understanding Cyclic History

We are witnessing in our lifetime the completion of large scale cycles of human endeavor and activity with the attendant dislocation and reallocation of social, economic and political activity and resources. An understanding of the broad brush strokes economically, socially and politically may serve to enhance your perspective on what emerges next. The scale of forces at work in liberal and democratic societies and economies is so huge that the current drama is taking decades to unfold.

This is the topping and completion process of an economic cycle that has been going on for around 224 years. By the time this top and the ensuing drama is finished, it may well have spanned generations of people. On a historical note, we are witnessing the completion of the growth phase of the industrial revolution cycle that began around 1783-5.

And so what does Trump have to do with economic cycles?

The current political chaos will continue to intensify and this will give way eventually into economic chaos. The impending signs  for that economic chaos are clearly to be seen and once again it centers on the incapacity of central planners and bureaucrats to perceive the unintended consequences of their mischief. Trump has nothing to do with these economic cycles. He merely reflects the zeitgeist of the times. Like someone surfing a wave, they ride the wave for a period of time then disappear into the footnotes of history. Trump has often appeared at major tops of economic cycles in the last 30 years in US history. Its not surprising then he has reappeared surfing the zeitgeist wave as the US completes the topping phase of this huge cycle of human endeavor.

Trump’s ability to ride the social mood of the time we believe will help him to take the presidency. Whether he will have the power to change the status quo, like Obama who promised major change yet found himself caught in the entrenched self interest of Congress, Wall Street, Big Pharma and the military. Trump may well ride the last vestiges of prosperity in this cycle. Given the growing political and economic storm Trump may well find himself the target of assassination attempts in the next four years. He will be remembered as the President that reigned at the time the US and world peaked in economic activity for many decades to come.

Whether we have a few more months or years of twilight before the downside comes home to roost, suffice to say, from now on we can expect increasingly tough times punctuated by phases of optimism. The current political chaos will continue to intensify and this will give way into economic chaos. The impending signs  for that economic chaos are already clearly seen and once again it the focus centers on the incapacity of central planners and bureaucrats to perceive the unintended consequences of their mischief. Will people in future times learn from our mistakes and mistakes of the past? We think not.

The Structure of Collapse: 2016-2019

Charles Hugh Smith writing on his blog Of Two Minds:

The end-state of unsustainable systems is collapse. Though collapse may appear to be sudden and chaotic, we can discern key structures that guide the processes of collapse.

Though the subject is complex enough to justify an entire shelf of books, these six dynamics are sufficient to illuminate the inevitable collapse of the status quo.

1. Doing more of what has failed spectacularly. The leaders of the status quo inevitably keep doing more of what worked in the past, even when it no longer works. Indeed, the failure only increases the leadership’s push to new extremes of what has failed spectacularly. At some point, this single-minded pursuit of failed policies speeds the system’s collapse.

2. Emergency measures become permanent policies. The status quo’s leaders expect the system to right itself once emergency measures stabilize a crisis. But broken systems cannot right themselves, and so the leadership is forced to make temporary emergency measures (such as lowering interest rates to zero) permanent policy. This increases the fragility of the system, as any attempt to end the emergency measures triggers a system-threatening crisis.

3. Diminishing returns on status quo solutions. Back when the economic tree was loaded with low-hanging fruit, solutions such as lowering interest rates had a large multiplier effect. But as the tree is stripped of fruit, the returns on these solutions diminish to zero.

4. Declining social mobility. As the economic pie shrinks, the privileged maintain or increase their share, and the slice left to the disenfranchised shrinks. As the privileged take care of their own class, there are fewer slots open for talented outsiders. The status quo is slowly starved of talent and the ranks of those opposed to the status quo swell with those denied access to the top rungs of the social mobility ladder.

5. The social order loses cohesion and shared purpose as the social-economic classes pull apart. The top of the wealth/power pyramid no longer serves in the armed forces, and withdraws from contact with the lower classes. Lacking a unifying social purpose, each class pursues its self-interests to the detriment of the nation and society as a whole.

6. Strapped for cash as tax revenues decline, the state borrows more money and devalues its currency as a means of maintaining the illusion that it can fulfill all its promises. As the purchasing power of the currency declines, people lose faith in the state’s currency. Once faith is lost, the value of the currency declines rapidly and the state’s insolvency is revealed.

Each of these dynamics is easily visible in the global status quo.

As an example of doing more of what has failed spectacularly, consider how financialization inevitably inflates speculative bubbles, which eventually crash with devastating consequences. But since the status quo is dependent on financialization for its income, the only possible response is to increase debt and speculation—the causes of the bubble and its collapse—to inflate another bubble. In other words, do more of what failed spectacularly.

This process of doing more of what failed spectacularly appears sustainable for a time, but this superficial success masks the underlying dynamic of diminishing returns: each reflation of the failed system requires greater commitments of capital and debt. Financialization is pushed to new unprecedented extremes, as nothing less will generate the desired bubble.

 Rising costs narrow the maneuvering room left to system managers. The central bank’s suppression of interest rates is an example. As the economy falters, central banks lower interest rates and increase the credit available to the financial system.

This stimulus works well in the first downturn, but less well in the second and not at all in the third, for the simple reason that interest rates have been dropped to zero and credit has been increased to near-infinite.

The last desperate push to do more of what failed spectacularly is for central banks to lower interest rates to below-zero: it costs depositors money to leave their cash in the bank. This last-ditch policy is now firmly entrenched in Europe, and many expect it to spread around the world as central banks have exhausted less extreme policies.

The status quo’s primary imperative is self-preservation, and this imperative drives the falsification of data to sell the public on the idea that prosperity is still rising and the elites are doing an excellent job of managing the economy.

Since real reform would threaten those at the top of the wealth/power pyramid, fake reforms and fake economic data become the order of the day.

Leaders face a no-win dilemma: any change of course will crash the system, but maintaining the current course will also crash the system.

Welcome to 2016-2019.

Source: http://www.oftwominds.com/blogjune16/collapse6-16.html

Mapping Russia’s Strategy

Russia is in a geographically vulnerable position; its core is inherently landlocked, and the choke points that its ships would have to traverse to gain access to oceans could be easily cut off. Therefore, Russia can’t be Athens. It must be Sparta, and that means it must be a land power and assume the cultural character of a Spartan nation. Russia must have tough if not sophisticated troops fighting ground wars. It must also be able to produce enough wealth to sustain its military as well as provide a reasonable standard of living for its people—but Russia will not be able to match Europe in this regard.

So it isn’t prosperity that binds the country together, but a shared idealized vision of and loyalty toward Mother Russia. And in this sense, there is a deep chasm between both Europe and the United States (which use prosperity as a justification for loyalty) and Russia (for whom loyalty derives from the power of the state and the inherent definition of being Russian). This support for the Russian nation remains powerful, despite the existence of diverse ethnic groups throughout the country.

As a land power, Russia is inherently vulnerable. It sits on the European plain with few natural barriers to stop an enemy coming from the west. East of the Carpathian Mountains, the plain pivots southward, and the door to Russia opens. In addition, Russia has few rivers, which makes internal transport difficult and further reduces economic efficiency. What agricultural output there is must be transported to markets, and that means the transport system must function well. And with so much of its economic activity located close to the border, and so few natural barriers, Russia is at risk.

It should be no surprise then that Russia’s national strategy is to move its frontier as far west as possible. The first tier of countries on the European Peninsula’s eastern edge—the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine—provide depth from which Russia can protect itself, and also provide additional economic opportunities.

With regard to the current battle over Ukraine, the Russians have to assume that the Euro-American interest in creating a pro-Western regime has a purpose beyond Ukraine. From the Russian point of view, not only have they lost a critical buffer zone, but Ukrainian forces hostile to Russia have moved toward the Russian border. It should be noted that the area that the Russians defend most heavily is the area just west of the Russian border, buying as much space as they can.

The fact that this scenario leaves Russia in a precarious position means that the Russians are unlikely to leave the Ukrainian question where it is. Russia does not have the option of assuming that the West’s interest in the region comes from good intentions. At the same time, the West cannot assume that Russia—if it reclaims Ukraine—will stop there. Therefore, we are in the classic case where two forces assume the worst about each other. But Russia occupies the weaker position, having lost the first tier of the European Peninsula. It is struggling to maintain the physical integrity of the Motherland.

Russia does not have the ability to project significant force because its naval force is bottled up and because you cannot support major forces from the air alone. Although it became involved in the Syrian conflict to demonstrate its military capabilities and gain leverage with the West, this operation is peripheral to Russia’s main interests. The primary issue is the western frontier and Ukraine. In the south, the focus is on the Caucasus.

It is clear that Russia’s economy, based as it is on energy exports, is in serious trouble given the plummeting price of oil in the past year and a half. But Russia has always been in serious economic trouble. Its economy was catastrophic prior to World War II, but it won the war anyway… at a cost that few other countries could bear. Russia may be a landlocked and poor country, but it can nonetheless raise an army of loyal Spartans. Europe is wealthy and sophisticated, but its soldiers have complex souls. As for the Americans, they are far away and may choose not to get involved. This gives the Russians an opportunity. However bad their economy is at the moment, the simplicity of their geographic position in all respects gives them capabilities that can surprise their opponents and perhaps even make the Russians more dangerous.

A quarter of the world’s population will live in Africa by 2050

Lily Kuo writing for Quartz Africa

As of mid-2015, the world’s population stands at 7.3 billion (pdf), according to a new estimate by the United Nations. Over half of the world lives in Asia and a little under a fifth live in Africa.

But in 35 years, that picture will look radically different. Between now and 2050, over half of the global population growth will take place in Africa, with the continent adding 1.3 billion people, compared with Asia’s 0.9 billion. Thus, by 2050, Africa’s share of the global population will reach 25%, as Asia’s share falls to 54%.

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Here’s where most of global growth came from so far this decade:

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 And this is where the majority of growth will come from in a similar period 30 years from now:
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As you can see, Nigeria is expected to top the list. The West African country is expected to surpass the size of the United States by 2050 with its population more than doubling from today to reach almost 400 million.

As a result, Nigeria could enjoy the so-called “demographic dividend,” provided that there are enough jobs to absorb the working-age population and sufficient investment in young people’s development, the UN notes. According to the last poverty survey released in 2012 by the government, some 61% of Nigerians lived on less than a dollar a day in 2010.

Sub-Sahara Africa’s population boom is one of the main reasons for optimism about the continent’s economic growth potential. But that doesn’t come without major challenges. Forty-eight countries classified by the UN as “least developed countries” are expected to double in population size by 2050; 33 countries, most of them falling within this category, will triple in size by 2100. The UN details a long list of challenges governments will face as populations expand:

The concentration of population growth in the poorest countries will make it harder for those governments to eradicate poverty and inequality, combat hunger and malnutrition, expand education enrollment and health systems… and implement other elements of a sustainable development agenda to ensure that no-one is left behind.

Source: http://qz.com/467755/a-quarter-of-the-worlds-population-will-live-in-africa-by-2050/

Yanis Reveals EU Denial of Any Right of the People to Vote

Varoufakis Yanis

Greece’s Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis has come out to reveal the quite shocking and anti-democratic events that took place during the last Eurogroup meeting. First, they do hate Yanis’ guts, for he understands far more about the economy than anyone in Brussels. At their demand, any further discussions will be without him. What led to the EU breaking off was exactly what we reported previously — they do not want any member state to EVER allow the people to vote on the euro. Brussels has become a DICTATORSHIP and is so arrogant without any just cause, believing that they know better than the people.

We are watching the total collapse of Democracy and the birth of a new era — Economic Totalitarianism from arrogant people who are totally clueless beyond their own greed for power and money.

Source: http://www.armstrongeconomics.com/archives/34115

Editor Note: Greece is the end of the beginning for the EZ and the beginning of a long period of political, social and economic instability that co-incides with the topping phase of the upward phase of the Industrial Revolution cycle that began in 1783-85.

Ten Reasons Why a Severe Drop in Oil Prices is a Problem

Gail Tverberg blogs on ourfiniteworld.com

Not long ago, I wrote Ten Reasons Why High Oil Prices are a Problem. If high oil prices can be a problem, how can low oil prices also be a problem? In particular, how can the steep drop in oil prices we have recently been experiencing also be a problem?

Let me explain some of the issues:

Issue 1. If the price of oil is too low, it will simply be left in the ground.

The world badly needs oil for many purposes: to power its cars, to plant it fields, to operate its oil-powered irrigation pumps, and to act as a raw material for making many kinds of products, including medicines and fabrics.

If the price of oil is too low, it will be left in the ground. With low oil prices, production may drop off rapidly. High price encourages more production and more substitutes; low price leads to a whole series of secondary effects (debt defaults resulting from deflation, job loss, collapse of oil exporters, loss of letters of credit needed for exports, bank failures) that indirectly lead to a much quicker decline in oil production.

The view is sometimes expressed that once 50% of oil is extracted, the amount of oil we can extract will gradually begin to decline, for geological reasons. This view is only true if high prices prevail, as we hit limits. If our problem is low oil prices because of debt problems or other issues, then the decline is likely to be far more rapid. With low oil prices, even what we consider to be proved oil reserves today may be left in the ground.

Issue 2. The drop in oil prices is already having an impact on shale extraction and offshore drilling.

While many claims have been made that US shale drilling can be profitable at low prices, actions speak louder than words. (The problem may be a cash flow problem rather than profitability, but either problem cuts off drilling.) Reuters indicates that new oil and gas well permits tumbled by 40% in November.

Offshore drilling is also being affected. Transocean, the owner of the biggest fleet of deep water drilling rigs, recently took a $2.76 billion charge, among a “drilling rig glut.”

3. Shale operations have a huge impact on US employment. 

Zero Hedge posted the following chart of employment growth, in states with and without current drilling from shale formations:

Jobs in States with and without Shale Formations, from Zero Hedge.

Figure 1. Jobs in States with and without Shale Formations, from Zero Hedge.

Clearly, the shale states are doing much better, job-wise. According to the article, since December 2007, shale states have added 1.36 million jobs, while non-shale states have lost 424,000 jobs. The growth in jobs includes all types of employment, including jobs only indirectly related to oil and gas production, such as jobs involved with the construction of a new supermarket to serve the growing population.

It might be noted that even the “Non-Shale” states have benefited to some extent from shale drilling. Some support jobs related to shale extraction, such as extraction of sand used in fracking, college courses to educate new engineers, and manufacturing of parts for drilling equipment, are in states other than those with shale formations. Also, all states benefit from the lower oil imports required.

Issue 4. Low oil prices tend to cause debt defaults that have wide ranging consequences. If defaults become widespread, they could affect bank deposits and international trade.

With low oil prices, it becomes much more difficult for shale drillers to pay back the loans they have taken out. Cash flow is much lower, and interest rates on new loans are likely much higher. The huge amount of debt that shale drillers have taken on suddenly becomes at-risk. Energy debt currently accounts for 16% of the US junk bond market, so the amount at risk is substantial.

Dropping oil prices affect international debt as well. The value of Venezuelan bonds recently fell to 51 cents on the dollar, because of the high default risk with low oil prices.  Russia’s Rosneft is also reported to be having difficulty with its loans.

There are many ways banks might be adversely affected by defaults, including

  • Directly by defaults on loans held be a bank
  • Indirectly, by defaults on securities the bank owns that relate to loans elsewhere
  • By derivative defaults made more likely by sharp changes in interest rates or in currency levels
  • By liquidity problems, relating to the need to quickly sell or buy securities related to ETFs

After the many bank bailouts in 2008, there has been discussion of changing the system so that there is no longer a need to bail out “too big to fail” banks. One proposal that has been discussed is to force bank depositors and pension funds to cover part of the losses, using Cyprus-style bail-ins. According to some reports, such an approach has been approved by the G20 at a meeting the weekend of November 16, 2014. If this is true, our bank accounts and pension plans could already be at risk.1

Another bank-related issue if debt defaults become widespread, is the possibility that junk bonds and Letters of Credit2 will become outrageously expensive for companies that have poor credit ratings. Supply chains often include some businesses with poor credit ratings. Thus, even businesses with good credit ratings may find their supply chains broken by companies that can no longer afford high-priced credit. This was one of the issues in the 2008 credit crisis.

Issue 5. Low oil prices can lead to collapses of oil exporters, and loss of virtually all of the oil they export.

The collapse of the Former Soviet Union in 1991 seems to be related to a drop in oil prices.

Figure 2. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Figure 2. Oil production and price of the Former Soviet Union, based on BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2013.

Oil prices dropped dramatically in the 1980s after the issues that gave rise to the earlier spike were mitigated. The Soviet Union was dependent on oil for its export revenue. With low oil prices, its ability to invest in new production was impaired, and its export revenue dried up. The Soviet Union collapsed for a number of reasons, some of them financial, in late 1991, after several years of low oil prices had had a chance to affect its economy.

Many oil-exporting countries are at risk of collapse if oil prices stay very low very long. Venezuela is a clear risk, with its big debt problem. Nigeria’s economy is reported to be “tanking.” Russia even has a possibility of collapse, although probably not in the near future.

Even apart from collapse, there is the possibility of increased unrest in the Middle East, as oil-exporting nations find it necessary to cut back on their food and oil subsidies. There is also more possibility of warfare among groups, including new groups such as ISIL. When everyone is prosperous, there is little reason to fight, but when oil-related funds dry up, fighting among neighbors increases, as does unrest among those with lower subsidies.

Issue 6. The benefits to consumers of a drop in oil prices are likely to be much smaller than the adverse impact on consumers of an oil price rise. 

When oil prices rose, businesses were quick to add fuel surcharges. They are less quick to offer fuel rebates when oil prices go down. They will try to keep the benefit of the oil price drop for themselves for as long as possible.

Airlines seem to be more interested in adding flights than reducing ticket prices in response to lower oil prices, perhaps because additional planes are already available. Their intent is to increase profits, through an increase in ticket sales, not to give consumers the benefit of lower prices.

In some cases, governments will take advantage of the lower oil prices to increase their revenue. China recently raised its oil products consumption tax, so that the government gets part of the benefit of lower prices. Malaysia is using the low oil prices as a time to reduce oil subsidies.

Most businesses recognize that the oil price drop is at most a temporary situation, since the cost of extraction continues to rise (because we are getting oil from more difficult-to-extract locations). Because the price drop this is only temporary, few business people are saying to themselves, “Wow, oil is cheap again! I am going to invest a huge amount of money in a new road building company [or other business that depends on cheap oil].” Instead, they are cautious, making changes that require little capital investment and that can easily be reversed. While there may be some jobs added, those added will tend to be ones that can easily be dropped if oil prices rise again.

Issue 7. Hoped for crude and LNG sales abroad are likely to disappear, with low oil prices.

There has been a great deal of publicity about the desire of US oil and gas producers to sell both crude oil and LNG abroad, so as to be able to take advantage of higher oil and gas prices outside the US. With a big drop in oil prices, these hopes are likely to be dashed. Already, we are seeing the story, Asia stops buying US crude oil. According to this story, “There’s so much oversupply that Middle East crudes are now trading at discounts and it is not economical to bring over crudes from the US anymore.”

LNG prices tend to drop if oil prices drop. (Some LNG prices are linked to oil prices, but even those that are not directly linked are likely to be affected by the lower demand for energy products.) At these lower prices, the financial incentive to export LNG becomes much less. Even fluctuating LNG prices become a problem for those considering investment in infrastructure such as ships to transport LNG.

Issue 8. Hoped-for increases in renewables will become more difficult, if oil prices are low.

Many people believe that renewables can eventually take over the role of fossil fuels. (I am not of view that this is possible.) For those with this view, low oil prices are a problem, because they discourage the hoped-for transition to renewables.

Despite all of the statements made about renewables, they don’t really substitute for oil. Biofuels come closest, but they are simply oil-extenders. We add ethanol made from corn to gasoline to extend its quantity. But it still takes oil to operate the farm equipment to grow the corn, and oil to transport the corn to the ethanol plant. If oil isn’t around, the biofuel production system comes to a screeching halt.

Issue 9. A major drop in oil prices tends to lead to deflation, and because of this, difficulty in repaying debts.

If oil prices rise, so do food prices, and the price of making most goods. Thus rising oil prices contribute to inflation. The reverse of this is true as well. Falling oil prices tend to lead to a lower price for growing food and a lower price for making most goods. The net result can be deflation. Not all countries are affected equally; some experience this result to a greater extent than others.

Those countries experiencing deflation are likely to eventually have problems with debt defaults, because it will become more difficult for workers to repay loans, if wages are drifting downward. These same countries are likely to experience an outflow of investment funds because investors realize that funds invested these countries will not earn an adequate return. This outflow of funds will tend to push their currencies down, relative to other currencies. This is at least part of what has been happening in recent months.

The value of the dollar has been rising rapidly, relative to many other currencies. Debt repayment is likely to especially be a problem for those countries where substantial debt is denominated in US dollars, but whose local currency has recently fallen in value relative to the US dollar.

Figure 3. US Dollar Index from Intercontinental Exchange

Figure 3. US Dollar Index from Intercontinental Exchange

The big increase in the US dollar index came since June 2014 (Figure 3), which coincides with the drop in oil prices. Those countries with low currency prices, including Japan, Europe, Brazil, Argentina, and South Africa, find it expensive to import goods of all kinds, including those made with oil products. This is part of what reduces demand for oil products.

China’s yuan is relatively closely tied to the dollar. The collapse of other currencies relative to the US dollar makes Chinese exports more expensive, and is part of the reason why the Chinese economy has been doing less well recently. There are no doubt other reasons why China’s growth is lower recently, and thus its growth in debt. China is now trying to lower the level of its currency.

Issue 10. The drop in oil prices seems to reflect a basic underlying problem: the world is reaching the limits of its debt expansion.

There is a natural limit to the amount of debt that a government, or business, or individual can borrow. At some point, interest payments become so high, that it becomes difficult to cover other needed expenses. The obvious way around this problem is to lower interest rates to practically zero, through Quantitative Easing (QE) and other techniques.

(Increasing debt is a big part of pumps up “demand” for oil, and because of this, oil prices. If this is confusing, think of buying a car. It is much easier to buy a car with a loan than without one. So adding debt allows goods to be more affordable. Reducing debt levels has the opposite effect.)

QE doesn’t work as a long-term technique, because it tends to create bubbles in asset prices, such as stock market prices and prices of farmland. It also tends to encourage investment in enterprises that have questionable chance of success. Arguably, investment in shale oil and gas operations are in this category.

As it turns out, it looks very much as if the presence or absence of QE may have an impact on oil prices as well (Figure 4), providing the “uplift” needed to keep oil prices high enough to cover production costs.

Figure 4. World

Figure 4. World “liquids production” (that is oil and oil substitutes) based on EIA data, plus OPEC estimates and judgment of author for August to October 2014. Oil price is monthly average Brent oil spot price, based on EIA data.

The sharp drop in price in 2008 was credit-related, and was only solved when the US initiated its program of QE started in late November 2008. Oil prices began to rise in December 2008. The US has had three periods of QE, with the last of these, QE3, finally tapering down and ending in October 2014. Since QE seems to have been part of the solution that stopped the drop in oil prices in 2008, we should not be surprised if discontinuing QE is contributing to the drop in oil prices now.

Part of the problem seems to be differential effect that happens when other countries are continuing to use QE, but the US not. The US dollar tends to rise, relative to other currencies. This situation contributes to the situation shown in Figure 3.

QE allows more borrowing from the future than would be possible if market interest rates really had to be paid. This allows financiers to temporarily disguise a growing problem of un-affordability of oil and other commodities.

The problem we have is that, because we live in a finite world, we reach a point where it becomes more expensive to produce commodities of many kinds: oil (deeper wells, fracking), coal (farther from markets, so more transport costs), metals (poorer ore quality), fresh water (desalination needed), and food (more irrigation needed). Wages don’t rise correspondingly, because more and more labor is needed to provide less and less actual benefit, in terms of the commodities produced and goods made from those commodities. Thus, workers find themselves becoming poorer and poorer, in terms of what they can afford to purchase.

QE allows financiers to disguise growing mismatch between what it costs to produce commodities, and what customers can really afford. Thus, QE allows commodity prices to rise to levels that are unaffordable by customers, unless customers’ lack of income is disguised by a continued growth in debt.

Once commodity prices (including oil prices) fall to levels that are affordable based on the incomes of customers, they fall to levels that cut out a large share of production of these commodities. As commodity production drops to levels that can be produced at affordable prices, so does the world’s ability to make goods and services. Unfortunately, the goods whose production is likely to be cut back if commodity production is cut back are those of every kind, including houses, cars, food, and electrical transmission equipment.

 Conclusion

There are really two different problems that a person can be concerned about:

  1. Peak oil: the possibility that oil prices will rise, and because of this production will fall in a rounded curve. Substitutes that are possible because of high prices will perhaps take over.
  2. Debt related collapse: oil limits will play out in a very different way than most have imagined, through lower oil prices as limits to growth in debt are reached, and thus a collapse in oil “demand” (really affordability). The collapse in production, when it comes, will be sharper and will affect the entire economy, not just oil.

In my view, a rapid drop in oil prices is likely a symptom that we are approaching a debt-related collapse–in other words, the second of these two problems. Underlying this debt-related collapse is the fact that we seem to be reaching the limits of a finite world. There is a growing mismatch between what workers in oil importing countries can afford, and the rising real costs of extraction, including associated governmental costs. This has been covered up to date by rising debt, but at some point, it will not be possible to keep increasing the debt sufficiently.

The timing of collapse may not be immediate. Low oil prices take a while to work their way through the system. It is also possible that the world’s financiers will put off a major collapse for a while longer, through more QE, or more programs related to QE. For example, actually getting money into the hands of customers would seem to be temporarily helpful.

At some point the debt situation will eventually reach a breaking point. One way this could happen is through an increase in interest rates. If this happens, world economic growth is likely to slow greatly. Oil and commodity prices will fall further. Debt defaults will skyrocket. Not only will oil production drop, but production of many other commodities will drop, including natural gas and coal. In such a scenario, the downslope of all energy use is likely to be quite steep, perhaps similar to what is shown in the following chart.

Figure 5. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.

Figure 5. Estimate of future energy production by author. Historical data based on BP adjusted to IEA groupings.