Circling the toilet, or light at the end of tunnel?
Most of you, dear friends and family, do not comment about my economic views when we chat, but I feel compelled to speak out because most of us have funds invested somewhere. I know you care, at some level. This essay may ruin my reputation with many of you. I would prefer to be wrong, and I'll eat crow if I am, but the evidence points to economic downturn in our future. It began last Friday. Why not pour a cup of coffee and read on? In the rest of this essay I’ll explain what has happened with our economy and make suggestions for what you can do about it.
There is light at the end of the tunnel we have entered. And no, it’s not named Sanders or Trump. Read on. Get educated. But don’t read part of this essay without at least skipping to the end where I discuss the light at the end of the tunnel. What follows was not written by your old friend-relative named Jerry, but by my alter-personality that many of you do not know: Dr.J-- a well-educated professor who understands something of the world financial system and the history of economics. I know what the f--- I am talking about.*
Search your heart. All is not well. Our economic system was irreparably broken by greed and mismanagement in 2008. Our economy has entered a slow slide into 3rd world status.
From there to here.
Prior to 2008, We had capitalist economic system where people worked hard, saved money, and invested that money to earn a return—sometimes in a savings account, other times in mutual funds. Few of us traded stocks directly and even fewer understood how the financial markets really worked. But we do understand interest. I put $100 in the bank in a 4% passbook account and at the end of one year, the bank pays me 4% on the 100—a whopping $4. Now I have $104 But hey, don’t get cynical. Next year I get 4% on 104, and I am also able to put far more than $100 in savings if I am frugal. It adds up, fast. Enter mutual funds. My fund made 17% for several years in the 1990s. Now we are getting somewhere. It all makes sense. Save more and invest it and one day you can retire.
The other investment most of us have entered is home ownership. In this investment we are using a thing called “leverage.” Just like you can move a heavy object with a lever and fulcrum, you can make money with your home. Home values had been rising (due to inflation) about 4-5% per year—sometimes faster. But banks decided that you could buy that home with a paltry 10% down payment. So with 10K down, I could buy a 100K home that rose in value by 5% per year. So my 10K down payment was enriching me by 5K per year… hey, that ‘s 50% per year. Wow! But wait, there is more! About 2005 banks got creative on us to lower that down payment—more leverage. They also invented adjustable interest rates. By 2006 you could buy a home with 3% down. Now your 3K down payment could make you 5K in a year--a 167% gain! Sweetening the deal, the banks gave you an introductory rate of 3% interest (instead of the usual 6%). You could afford a bigger house with your 3K now. This was called subprime lending—a bad idea if there ever was one. Their argument was based on the assumption that home values never decline. Thus, in three years when your introductory rate adjusted up to 6%, your home would be 15% more valuable. You would have options--sell at a profit or refinance into a traditional loan with your equity. Suddenly, you could afford a 200K home. We all could. I bought a place for 165K. And home prices soared … until 2008 when all those subprime loans began to reset their interest rates and county governments had doubled taxes to reflect the new values, and your house payment went from 1275 per month to 1702 per month…. Professional investors saw it coming and started selling out. Home appreciation flattened out and started declining, ever faster. All of a sudden your 200K home that had risen to 230K in value, now dropped to 190K. You were underwater and the water was pouring in fast. The result… a higher foreclosure rate across the country.
All this, we understood. What we did not understand was the real problem. The banks lending us money to buy these homes had also leveraged up, borrowing the money to lend to us. They could handle the normal 3-4% foreclosure rate without upsetting the system. But with a 6% foreclosure rate, they didn’t have the income to pay their own loans. Soon the rate rose to 10% Lehman Brothers was a Wall street bank that loaned tons of money to firms like Countrywide mortgage. When Countrywide could not make their payments to Lehman, it started a domino chain of foreclosures. Lehman was sacrificed and the US government stepped in with the TARP program, bailing out the other “too big to fail” banks. Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae collapsed. They had been purchasing these bad loans from banks. AIG, who had guaranteed these loans, also collapsed. As the dust settled people like me were wandering in circles trying to figure out what happened.
The New Economy
The world had changed. The Banking system had collapsed. Our economy began to follow. Our central bank—the Federal reserve, which is NOT actually part of the government-- stepped in to help. “Get to work, Mr Chairman” was ordered by Senator Schumer (D NY) as Congress recognized they were impotent to fix the economy. And Ben Bernanke did get to work. The world had changed. No longer was Congress in control, the Central Banks were in control—perhaps already had been for a long time, it’s just that now we knew it.
As our government debt rose, shoveling money to the unemployed, bailing out other industries, and financing foreign wars, the Central bank cut interest rates to stimulate the economy. That made borrowing cheaper for Congress and they borrowed even more funds to bail out a number of industries to save jobs. But soon, interest rates were approaching zero and the economy was not fixed. It simply did not respond the way it had in the past. But nobody would admit that things were broken.
So the Central bank began what they called QE—Quantitative Easing … a term nobody understood at the time except Wall Street banks. Essentially, the Federal Reserve created digital money and loaned it free to Wall Street so they could invest it in the stock markets or whatever. And voila, stocks magically began to rise in 2009. Home values were in the toilet, but stocks were going back up. Your retirement account was saved! Can you imagine the rioting in this nation if stocks had stayed low and all of us realized that we could never retire? Fires had to be put out one at a time. 1st save Wall Street. 2nd, save retirement accounts, 3rd was to save the housing market.
By 2010, over 10% of homes in this nation were in foreclosure and the market flooded with under-priced homes for sale. Wall street had an answer: "Let us buy all the foreclosed homes." First, the banks stopped listing homes for sale. Then big wall street investment companies like Blackstone began buying the foreclosures for pennies on the dollar in large lots in cities like Phoenix & Las Vegas. They became the nation’s landlord. They bought these homes with money borrowed at zero % from the QE programs. They could get big money. Folks like us could not. Soon the foreclosures had worked through the court system into Wall Street hands. Then banks began making it easier for people like us to borrow for home buying again. The housing market sort of recovered.
But who was taking on most of this debt to save banks, stocks and housing? Well, the US government debt rose from 8 trillion to 18 trillion. To be fair, Wall street paid back the TARP funds—800 billion or so. But a lot of people were out of jobs and our government had wars to fight. So the US government increased war funding and made it easier to obtain and keep food and housing benefits if you were unemployed. Much of this money ended up paying rent to Blackstone and keeping the economy afloat. Government subsidies and zero% interest rates saved the auto industry. But is this situation healthy? Rising government debt and nearly 50% of our citizens receiving aid? Is that an economic recovery? Part time jobs counted in the employment statistics? 30% of young adults (under 30) living with their parents? Interest rates set at zero so that retirees investing in US T-bills (used to pay 5%) now just receive about 2%-- less than the actual inflation rate. Thus retirees continue to work and hold down jobs everywhere. No wonder my kids have trouble finding good enough employment to get their own apartments. Is this a recovery?
No, we have not recovered. Our financial system is broken, with Wall street criminals still leeching out our blood. The US economy has been staggering. The coach and trainers have jumped in the ring loaded with sponges full of QE to keep Mr. Economy from totally collapsing, but this boxer is not ready to go back out and punch in a competitive world. We have merely propped up a nearly dead boxer and continued to promote him as the world champion.
That is where my expertise comes in. I have a PhD in Rhetoric—the art of propaganda, spin, bullshitting, argumentation, logic. I was mentored by one of the top professors in our field, at two fine programs, and have been taught in classes and seminars by other top profs in that same field. My education is second to none.
Being naturally shy, I don’t argue in person well, but give me a, hour to analyze something someone says or writes and I can sniff out the BS like a bloodhound trailing a rabbit. I was also a professor of Mass Communication for 11 years and I thoroughly understand our media and journalism sectors. I tell you the truth, and I lie not, the mainstream media, at their best, presents only part of the news. At worst, which is often, the news media will overemphasize preferred stories, and even worser-er, they will promote outright lies published monthly by various government agencies such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The mainstream news media has served our banks and government by persuading most of us that the economy is recovering, even while in our gut, we know something is still wrong. Claims that everyone who wants to work is back to work and that we have only 1.7% inflation simply do not resonate with our daily lives.
So what is true about the future of our economy? That is a hard question. But several facts support a dismal outlook. Interest rates are at zero. Savers cannot retire. So money looks for a return—the stock market where there is risk. Capitalism is built on solid savings and entrepreneurs borrowing this saved money for new ventures. That system is broken and will not return until the Central Bank raises interest rates back to normal—say 5%. But interest rates cannot rise. When you are 18 trillion in debt, like the US government, a rise of 1% in interest rates will cost US taxpayers another 180 billion on top of an already insolvent budget. Not gonna happen. 5% will cost us a trillion more per year. Interest rates will not rise beyond a paltry quarter of a point, just for show and bragging rights. Three doses of quantitative easing kept the boxer standing, but he’s still in no shape to go out and fight. The Federal Reserve has admitted QE was ineffective. But our economy is still being propped up with cheap credit. The job situation is deteriorating. A single job opening that will support a family is swamped with a hundred applicants—jobs that were easy to land in 1990.
Now we get to the point of this essay.
The economic system is greatly damaged and the financial system is broken. We have pumped up the housing bubble. But, Blackstone is selling out at the top. Home prices are now declining. Auto dealers have their lots crammed full of unsold cars. Jobs are hard to find. The stock markets have been stalled for 7 months—now they are falling. This is a signal!
Increasingly, serious economic analysts are agreeing that our economy will begin to deteriorate further beginning in September. Only the mainstream pundits on CNBC, the NYT, or WSJ are saying "all is well." They are paid actors in front of a camera, paid journalists who do not trade securities, not genuine analysts. The Alternative news analysts increasingly agree that a “collapse” is imminent. They don’t write about “if” the current system will fail, but rather, "when" and "how badly." Most are pointing to this September as the start. Wall Street has a deep correction or collapse every seven years. This is the year! It has already begun. Each seven years, the corrections and collapses have worsened.
My well-educated colleagues at work are asking my opinion on this. They know I study markets, but have never asked before. I sense nervousness about the future from many people.
So, I’ll stick my neck out here and make some predictions:
- As September progresses, we enter a deep stock correction. You can stay in the ocean if you want, but I am sitting this one out until the lifeguards give the “all clear” at a lower level. Take your IRA profits now, move to cash and sit tight until the sharks are out of the water and the blood dissipates. It may take until Spring, as it did in 08.
- During the correction period (next 6 months), our central banks of the world will make an announcement (yes, this will be a world event). Something with the financial system will be changed in an effort to fix it. But if this fix works, it will take time, and in the meantime, the economy will continue to suffer over the next year. We will all be affected.
- The Dollar will lose its place as the world trading currency. This may take a few years to fully manifest. China, Russia and about 20 other nations are steadily working for this to happen. This will cause the price of gasoline to match the levels we see in Europe. China announced that it has begun selling all its US treasuries—over 100 billion worth last month. This is bad for the dollar, folks.
- There may be a new war announced. The US government has a long history of creating a war to provide cover for poor economic health or simply to have someone else to blame our problems on. We have been pushing for war in Syria, now Ukraine. So far, cooler heads are prevailing.
- We will enter a worldwide depression over the rest of 2015 and into 2016. Things are going to get rough.
- There will be a movement to increase the role of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to stabilize world economies and replace the dollar as the world trading currency. Governments around the world will begin falling apart.
- The US will continue its move away from capitalism and toward socialism. But socialism only works when everyone has good jobs and can afford the higher taxes AND is satisfied with a lower standard of living. Increasing government debt to pay for socialist programs will not work for long, especially when the US is starting in an $18 trillion hole--just like Greece did.
What can you do?
- Do not panic, be reasonable, but take action, get ready.
- If you have money in the bank or securities that you can sell, cash out. Pay off your home if you can. Why have a house payment anyway? For the tax deduction? Ha! Do the math. You are better off not paying all that interest to banks and paying a couple thousand extra in tax. I’d love to have that extra $900 in my budget each month instead of $1600 back on the tax.
- Buy gold. Historically, 30% of your net worth is the rule of thumb for surviving depressions. You can get one ounce coins and bars for a good price right now. Do not pay more than 4% over the published price for bars, nor over 6% for coins. But many local and online dealers are running out. We’ll see if they are able to restock next month. You can’t eat it, but it will preserve your money through whatever happens. Don’t tell anyone you have it. A whole lot of money will fit in your hand in golden form. Hide it well, inconspicuously. A safe is actually a bad place. An old coffee can covered with nails or metal bolts on the shelf in your garage is better.
- If the state goes broke, I could lose my paycheck. So, we are saving up cash, at home, enough to get by for a couple of months. Why at home? Because banks could close their doors like they did in Cyprus and Greece. Remember, our banking system is international and all Western countries have passed the same laws about bank closures and bail-ins. America passed them as well—by executive order in the past year. Yes, it can happen here and probably will for a short time. The US dollar is what is at risk here.
If things deteriorate towards depression after September, there are other steps to take:
- How many days can you eat with what is in your pantry? We are storing up enough food for a couple of months—dry and canned goods, foods we normally purchase that have a good shelf life—just in case the “just in time” food delivery system in this nation is disrupted by banking failures. If so, they will get it fixed and running again, but in the meantime, I don’t want to stand in a food line if I don’t have to. We are buying bottled water also.
- We may move temporarily to nearby small town if Baltimore-style rioting begins here in the city where we live. I don’t want to be stuck in a large or medium sized population area if banks and stores close for a few weeks, not with 50% of our citizens receiving government aid to survive. I don’t expect this, but we have made arrangements.
The actions we are taking are simple and minor. They are sensible. I am NOT advocating doomsday prepping, embracing conspiracy theories and evacuating to the hills. Rather, take simple action--action that will not have cost you a dime after the financial system is rebuilt. Your risk in getting ready is minimal. The risk in being caught flat-footed is huge. Just move your assets to a safe place and be sure you can make it through a couple of months of supply disruptions, just in case Greece comes to America.
Light at the end of the tunnel?
Yes! A broken system has come to its final days-years. We will have to rebuild this country. Read a book called “The Fourth Turning” by sociologists Strauss & Howe. We have entered the fourth economic-political cycle that always ushers in great changes—usually emerging from war and depression. Their data goes back to the 1600s. Our youth, with the guidance of old farts like some of us, will rebuild this world. Hopefully they can sweep out the criminals and corrupt politicians and begin again with idealists and practical people to do the dirty work of rebuilding.
I am dead serious. I am not panicking or trying to fear-monger. But I can imagine that many of you will be downright pissed at me if I had NOT warned of the possibilities, even if only one third of this comes to pass. “Why didn’t you f-ing* say something!”
I’d rather you think me crazy if, somehow, this broken system manages to survive. According to Strauss & Howe, it would be a "first" in 400 years
Thank you for reading.
* The crude language is not normal for me, it is a rhetorical device to emphasize an important point.