09 January 2014

The Roots of the Next Crisis, and the Dark Hallway Beyond

“Those who fail to exhibit positive attitudes, no matter the external reality, are seen as maladjusted and in need of assistance. Their attitudes need correction...

Suddenly, abused and battered wives or children, the unemployed, the depressed and mentally ill, the illiterate, the lonely, those grieving for lost loved ones, those crushed by poverty, the terminally ill, those fighting with addictions, those suffering from trauma, those trapped in menial and poorly paid jobs, those whose homes are in foreclosure or who are filing for bankruptcy because they cannot pay their medical bills, are to blame for their negativity.

The ideology justifies the cruelty of unfettered capitalism, shifting the blame from the power elite to those they oppress."

Chris Hedges

Here is a recent conversation I had with a friend about the current state of the US recovery.  As an accountant with a wide range of exposures, I enjoy hearing his perspective since I no longer have that sort of current insight into the corporate culture in America.  I have years of background running large businesses in corporations, and some forays into large scale M&A work, so I have seen quite a bit of it. The methods rarely change, merely the guises and degrees.

Here are excerpts from his side of the conversation with only one parenthetical comment of my own.

"I don’t think we’re seeing profits in a traditional sense. Instead, it appears to me that we’re watching a long, drawn out LBO’ing of America. It appears that companies are liquidating capital and returning it as opposed to earnings spreads on revenue.

It seems like we’re seeing the final blow-off phase that started with the stock option becoming the primary form of compensation for corporate talent. By drawing out the LBO, they re-stock their options each year with a guaranteed return thanks to the Fed and their own Treasury Departments.

The problem is that you can’t have systematic corporate buybacks with employment/economic growth as they create diametrically opposite outcomes. The more work I do, the more I conclude that the US economy has not expanded since 2006.

I was looking at mutual fund data the other day and it showed that people moved their fixed income money into domestic equity - $185 billion in liquidated bond funds to buy $175 billion in equity funds. This happened after the Fed announced tapering was on the table. Just like the gold market, I suspect that “someone” forced the liquidation of bond funds and herded the money into equity funds to keep the rally going.  (I think it is perfectly reasonable to flee bond funds at any time that interest rates are turning higher.  Bond funds often take it on the chin in such a deleveraging of a long term interest rate trend.   However, I think the whole taper thing was hyped and used by the wiseguys, as are most things these days by our financial masters of the universe. - Jesse)

Coincidentally, corporations used half a trillion in cash flow on buybacks. It’s a liquidity game but with limitations. What’s the next asset that can be liquidated or levered? They’re still working on gold but sometime soon, the price of gold will be set in the East, where the gold resides. Agricultural commodities are being liquidated but that ensures a drop in planting next year. Oil is too valuable on the geopolitical front to liquidate.

There are certainly winners in this economy but far more losers. At some point, the weight of the losers acts against the winners, many of whom are levered up with confidence. Corporations can liquidate equity capital but we all know how the LBO’d companies operated in the 1990’s. In many ways, they’ve gotten corporations to behave like consumers did in the 2000’s, only this time they’re trained to buy back their own stock. Every cycle has natural limits.

We know that corporate cash flow is no longer growing and we know that it’s more expensive to sell debt today than a year ago. We also know that the Fed sees the stock market as their proof of success. So how does this shakeout? If corporations are a lemon, how much juice can you squeeze out of the lemon?"

Although I do not wish to be an alarmist, I have to say that this trend of attempting to sustain the unsustainable has gone on longer than I had previously thought possible.

I am fairly sure that the next crisis will bring these things to a head and some sort of resolution. But therein also lies great danger. Philosophies that have grown time can have deep roots, and when faced with what to them is an intolerable change, can react somewhat excessively. They may even welcome the opportunity to act excessively and decisively, at least in their own minds, as the path to winning.

When a ruling subculture that has become accustomed to crushing and liquidating things for its own power and pleasure, whether it is natural resources, the environment, crops, animals, land, or social organizations, eventually runs out of things, it can become frustrated and angry in its seeming impotence to continue on, to keep expanding.

Indirectly and somewhat benignly at first, but with a growing efficiency and determination over time, it will begin with the weak and the defenseless, attacking and objectifying them, even in the most petty of ways and impositions. It will turn to its critics, and then everyone who is defined by them as 'the other.'

That is when a predatory social and economic philosophy can turn into pure fascism, and start liquidating people.  And finally it liquidates and consumes itself.

But really, no one wakes up one morning and suddenly decides, 'Today I will become a monster, and wantonly kill innocent women and children.'

Otherwise ordinary people get to that point slowly, one convenient rationalization for their 'necessary and expedient' behavior at a time. After all, they are the good people, they are the strong, they are the most successful and the favored.

 They are the entitled, and not these others who would seek to drain them, drag them back down. They are the champions of progress and achievement and civilisation, the hardest working, and the epitome of mankind.  

What could possibly go wrong? 

"He prompts you what to say, and then listens to you, and praises you, and encourages you. He bids you mount aloft. He shows you how to become as gods. Then he laughs and jokes with you, and gets intimate with you; he takes your hand, and gets his fingers between yours, and grasps them, and then you are his."

J. H. Newman, The AntiChrist

If you are one who thinks that the above 'could not possibly happen here,' and I am sure that there are many, you may wish to read the following vignette from modern US history. Alan Nasser, FDR's Response to the Plot to Overthrow Him