Is Recognition Finally Gelling?


On April 1st 2007 the very first Tickers were written.  In just a bit over two months, The Market Ticker will be five years of age.

And through that time The Market Ticker has pointed out one central fact behind everything published here: You cannot spend more than you take in on an indefinite basis.

This, of course, is anathema to a nation — and a world, really — that has done exactly that for more than three decades.  Many of the citizens of the world — those under about 35 (as your first few years of life have little direct connection in a cerebral sense to economics) have never known a world where overspending and ponzi economics was not practiced.

You can’t exactly flaw people for not understanding that a thing is broken when they’ve never experienced life in any other way.  And for those who are somewhat older, those of us who remember the 1970s, the oil shocks, gas lines and 5 gallon purchase limits along with grocery store prices that seemed to double every six months (it wasn’t quite that bad — but it was bad!) it is easy to get the mistaken impression that what we’ve had for the last 30 years “fixed” what was broken in the 1970s.

It didn’t, of course.

The world had run on it a simple fraud covered in various layers of complexity to hide it from the common man, just as has been done many times before.  The 1920s were the same thing, basically, minus the computers but also minus fast information sharing.  The land swindles of the day in Florida were almost identical to the condo-flipping schemes here in the Panhandle when you boiled them all down; tiny down payments on construction not yet initiated, the promise of ever-higher valuations, carnival-style barkers spinning rags-to-riches stories and you only needed $10,000 to get in “on the ground floor” of an elevator that would take you to the sky.  Sign right here mister, and your life of luxury and privilege will begin.

Uh huh.

Last night the yarn-spinning continued on Greece.  Bloomberg said:

Greece and its private creditors said early today they had made progress during talks in Athens on a debt-swap accord needed to lower the country’s borrowings and clear the way for a second round of international aid.

“The elements of an unprecedented voluntary private-sector involvement are coming into place,” according to an e-mailed statement from Charles Dallara, managing director of the Institute of International Finance, a Washington-based lobby group representing creditors negotiating with the government.

Sure they did.  Sure Greece is going to pay debts of more than 100% of its GDP — even after the “restructuring.”  And sure this is “voluntary” — in more-or-less the same way that it’s “voluntary” that you hand over your wallet when there’s a gun up your nose.

The real problem is that people — and governments — borrowed money they couldn’t pay back off their economic surplus.  For a private-sector entity (a person or company) economic surplus is easy to define — it’s what you have left after you spend on the bare necessities of life.  When those necessities (such as your house) become part of the overborrowing then the situation appears more complex but it really isn’t — you just “upscaled” your view of what was a “necessity.”

But let’s face facts — a trashy trailer on a 100×50′ piece of rented land with utility connections is more than the “bare necessities” when it comes to housing — by a lot!  I lived in a little 400sq/ft one-bedroom apartment for a good while when I was just getting started and that was more than “bare necessities” (by a lot) for even modern comforts.  A studio would have been sufficient, since I had no dependents and was single.

The same applies to transportation.  Most people today in the United States are driving around in vehicles that have values that are two, three, five or even ten times the cost of “basic necessities” for the required task (getting to work, the grocery store, etc.)  It was in fact in the recent-enough past that I owned said vehicles that the “basic car” had an AM radio with one speaker, a manual transmission, no air conditioning, no power door locks, no power windows, no power steering, no power seats and the seat coverings were vinyl.  You could also see (and work on) all sides of the engine and the road under it when you popped the hood.

In fact, one of the pieces of said “basic transportation” that I owned in my earlier years (and drove to work every day) was one of these:

Before that I had one of these in considerably worse condition than pictured (it was gray and had a smashed-in passenger side door from a collision prior to my acquiring it for a literal cost of $100.)

THOSE were “basic transportation” and not only where they cheap to buy they cost almost-nothing to insure because there was no reason to have collision or comprehensive coverage on them!  The Vega, incidentally, consumed a quart of oil per tank of gas on good days (and worse on bad ones) along with having a habit of slowly eating coolant.  Yeah.

I’m not saying you shouldn’t own this, incidentally:

IF you can afford it without debt, and without spending more than you make.  That is, if you can pay for it using your personal economic surplus.

But recognition of these facts is rather jarring for most people.  Some of us grew up understanding it; our parents owned one car that was much nicer than the other (and was used to get to work) while the other was, literally, “basic transportation” (with no power anything and no air conditioning) if we had a second car at all.  We rode bicycles to our friend’s home rather than being carted around by “soccer moms” in no small part because driving the car cost money; the bike cost only human power.  Nice bicycles (which most of us could not afford) had 10 speeds; the more-ordinary ones that nearly all of us actually owned had coaster brakes and one speed.

Let’s put this in a slightly-different perspective.  The poverty level income for a single person in the United States today (as of 2011) is $10,890.  Many people reading this, perhaps most, spend more than 1/10th of that on their cellphone bills.  A further significant proportion of the population spends more than 1/10th of this on their cable or satellite TV bill and the overlap between the two is significant.

That is, a very significant percentage of the population spends more than a quarter of poverty level income on two luxury and entertainment items which are utterly unnecessary.

Again, none of this is a problem if you can afford it.

But what should you have paid for first?

Well, for one, a very significant financial reserve.  Your retirement, for example, never mind a cushion in case something goes wrong (like losing your job.)

With governments its equally-simple: Government gets all of its money by taxing it.

Yes, all of it.

I know, some people will say “they can print it!” or “they can borrow it!” but in fact on a long enough timeline all of that is taxed.

If the currency is debased the taxation happens immediately and hits everyone at once.  If it’s borrowed then the taxes fall on you tomorrow, assuming it’s ever paid back.  There’s no real difference, when you boil it all down, other than the immediacy of payment.

All of it, in the end, comes down to taxing you — taking your money and giving it to someone else.

That’s all government does.

This weekend dawned with the news that Greece’s creditors have walked out of their meeting.  That in and of itself is probably not all that important.  What is important, however, is the rising tide of speeches coming from various government officers in Europe recognizing that deficit spending has to end.

It’s not just there — Fed President Dennis Lockhart has said the same thing about the United States.  What was just a few lone bloggers in the wilderness a few years ago, myself included, has now turned to policy-makers inside and outside of the government itself.

At the core of this problem is the buying of votes with money that doesn’t exist.  It’s very popular to do things like that, as having the necessary adult conversation regarding the sustainable level of spending by government — and the adjustment that comes to GDP and thus overall consumption when overspending stops — tends to bring revolt at the ballot box.

But there comes a time when the political expedience of vote-buying and other chicanery simply cannot be sustained any more.  We’re within sight of that cliff, and if we do not act we will go over it.

If you remember the speeches from Bernanke in the 2008/09 time frame he counseled that we must get our budget deficit under control in the “intermediate term.”  But exactly what is “the intermediate term?”  This again leads back to the fundamental nature of exponential growth and how badly you’re screwed if you ignore it.

In 1980 the Federal Government spent $53 billion on health care all-in. Last year it was about $820 billion.  That’s a roughly 9% compounded rate of increase.

The rule of 72 says that this means the spending will double again in roughly 8 more years (2019) to $1.64 trillion, then in 8 more (2027) to $3.28 trillion, which is approximately the size of the entire federal budget today.

Obviously that won’t happen as you can’t raise that much money, but that’s exactly what our politicians are promising people over the age of 50 when they say “Medicare will not change for those over 50as that rate of expansion simply gets you to where you qualify at age 65!  There will be two more doublings required to get you to 80 years of age, which (if it was possible) would rack that number to over $13 trillion dollars — close to the size of the entire economy today.

Bluntly: Such claims are a lie.

What’s worse is the curve when you look at government debt.  Let’s chart it:

Pick a point on that graph.  Even at the most-optimistic number — 2006 or 2007, when we were creating massive amounts of private credit to prop up an about-to-explode housing bubble — federal debt was still growing at over 6% a year.  That means it was doubling every 12 years!

In 2008 and 2009 we grew it at 15% or more a year.  That means it was doubling every 4.8 years.

Does anyone really think we’ll get away with either of those statistics given what we now know is happening in Greece and elsewhere in Europe?  Remember, Japan, which is the common poster child for this, came into their government debt binge with massive private savings — savings that have been essentially all consumed by that binge.  We never had the private savings in the first place, which means we have nothing to consume in previously-earned economic surplus!

Folks, there is not one year in the last decade during which we can point to a sustainable level of debt.  If you go back into the 1990s there were a few years during which federal debt expanded at a much-more-modest rate, but those were years during which private credit creation was expanding exponentially in place of the government (through the Internet bubble.)

There isn’t any way out of this through more government debt.  It has to stop, and stop now, because the nature of exponential growth is that the rate of damage accelerates.

If you read (again) my Ticker from 10-18 of last year, you should understand what’s going on — and what we face.  This is simply not about what I want, what I’d like, what pundits would like to do or anything of the sort.

It is about mathematical reality.

Think about exactly how much further we can expand government spending in this regard and not have the entire economy collapse around us.  Then reduce that percentage of increase to “doubling times” and you know where the wall is, in your best estimate.  Nobody who does this exercise can come up with a number that is larger than the number of fingers you have on one hand.

Look, I don’t like what taking our medicine means, and the reason I wrote Leverage was because I had gotten very tired of people saying “nobody could have seen this coming.”  In addition, there are a whole host of people who have sounded the warning horns for a while, yet they have no cogent plan to resolve the problem or help buffer the inevitable (and severe) pain that must be endured.  Some of them, including some political candidates for President this time around, understand the problem and even propose massive budget changes (e.g. $1 trillion a year in spending cuts) yet have no plan to buffer the economy and the people from what will, left alone, be a contraction in overall GDP of up to 25% and the Depression that will inevitably come with it — a Depression worse than the 1930s!  That is outrageously irresponsible and worse it will never get passed because without those buffers it is not only unnecessarily harsh but could lead to the collapse of both civil order and our government.

But irrespective of what I would like to see, or what politicians promise, this adjustment — the necessary adjustment — is coming.  It cannot be stopped.  It is mathematically certain, whether people like Bernanke, Obama, Romney and others wish to face it or not.

Your choice is whether to face these facts in your personal and economic life, preparing to the extent you’re able, or whether you will be one of those who claim that you were “blindsided” by the inevitable that you were simply unwilling to face.

The Market-Ticker

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