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The Breakdown Draws Near

Economic Researcher & Futurist,
 Author at ChrisMartenson.com
 
 
 
“We’re less than a year from the next major financial disruption”

 

Things are certainly speeding up, and it is my conclusion that we are not more than a year away from the next major financial and economic disruption.

Alas, predictions are tricky, especially about the future (credit: Yogi Berra), but here’s why I am convinced that the next big break is drawing near.

In order for the financial system to operate, it needs continual debt expansion and servicing. Both are important. If either is missing, then catastrophe can strike at any time. And by ‘catastrophe’ I mean big institutions and countries transiting from a state of insolvency into outright bankruptcy.

In a recent article, I noted that the IMF had added up the financing needs of the advanced economies and come to the startling conclusion that the combination of maturing and newdebt issuances came to more than a quarter of their combined economies over the next year. A quarter!

I also noted that this was just the sovereign debt, and that state, personal, and corporate debt were additive to the overall amount of financing needed this next year. Adding another dab of color to the picture, the IMF has now added bank refinancing to the tableau, and it’s an unhealthy shade of red:

Banks face $3.6 trillion “wall” of maturing debt: IMF

(Reuters) – The world’s banks face a $3.6 trillion “wall of maturing debt” in the next two years and must compete with debt-laden governments to secure financing, the IMF warned on Wednesday.

Many European banks need bigger capital cushions to restore market confidence and assure they can borrow, and some weak players will need to be closed, the International Monetary Fund said in its Global Financial Stability Report.

The debt rollover requirements are most acute for Irish and German banks, with as much as half of their outstanding debt coming due over the next two years, the fund said.“These bank funding needs coincide with higher sovereign refinancing requirements, heightening competition for scarce funding resources,” the IMF said.

When both big banks and sovereign entities are simultaneously facing twin walls of maturing debt, it is reasonable to ask exactly who will be doing all the buying of that debt? Especially at the ridiculously low, and negative I might add, interest rates that the central banks have engineered in their quest to bail out the big banks.

Greek T-Bill Sale Fails to Allay Fear

Greece‘s Public Debt Management Agency paid a high price to sell €1.625 billion of 13-week Treasury bills at an auction Tuesday, amid persistent speculation that the country will have to restructure its debt.

The 4.1% yield paid by Greece, which means it now pays more for 13-week money than the 3.8% Germany currently pays on its 30-year bond, is likely to increase concern over the sustainability of Greece’s debt-servicing costs.

Greek debt came under heavy selling pressure Monday after it emerged that the country had proposed extending repayments on its debt, pushing yields to euro-era highs.

Greek two-year bonds now yield more than 19.3%, up from 15.44% at the end of March.

With Greek 2-year bonds now yielding over 19%, the situation is out of control and clearly a catastrophe. When sovereign debt carries a rate of interest higher than nominal GDP growth, all that can ever happen is for the debts to pile up faster and faster, clearly the very last thing that one would like to see if avoiding an outright default is the desired outcome. How does more debt at higher rates help Greece?

It doesn’t, and default (termed “restructuring” by the spinsters in charge of everything…it sounds so much nicer) is clearly in the cards. The main question to be resolved is who is going to eat the losses — the banks and other major holders of the failed debt, or the public? I think we all know the most likely answer to that one.

“Contagion” is the fear here. With Ireland and Portugal already well down the path towards their own defaults, it is Spain that represents a much larger risk because of the scale of the debt involved. Spain is now officially on the bailout watch list, because it has denied needing a bailout, which means it does.

Spain is now at the ‘grasping at straws’ phase as it pins its hopes on China riding to the rescue:

European officials are hoping that the bailout for Portugal will be the last one, and debt markets have broadly shown both Spain and Italy appear to be succeeding in keeping investors’ faith.

Madrid is hoping for support from China for its efforts to recapitalize a struggling banking sector and there were also brighter signs in data showing its banks borrowed less in March from the European Central Bank than at any point in the past three years.

(Source)

If Spain is hoping for a rescue by China, it had better get their cash, and soon. As noted here five weeks ago in “Warning Signs From China,” a slump in sales of homes in Beijing in February was certain to be followed by a crash in prices. I just didn’t expect things to be thissevere only one month later:

Beijing March New House Prices Plunge 26.7% M/M

BEIJING (MNI) – Prices of new homes in China’s capital plunged 26.7% month-on-month in March, the Beijing News reported Tuesday, citing data from the city’s Housing and Urban-Rural Development Commission.

Average prices of newly-built houses in March fell 10.9% over the same month last year to CNY19,679 per square meter, marking the first year-on-year decline since September 2009.

Home purchases fell 50.9% y/y and 41.5% m/m, the newspaper said, citing an unidentified official from the Housing Commission as saying the falls point to the government’s crackdown on speculation in the real estate market.

March Home Transactions in 30 Major Cities Fall 40.5% Y-o-Y

Housing transactions in major Chinese cities monitored by the China Index Research Institute (CIRI) dropped 40.5% year-on-year on average in March, a month when home buying typically enters a seasonal boom period.

Transactions rose month-on-month in 70% of the cities monitored, including five cities where transactions were up by more than 100% on a month earlier, secutimes.com reported on Wednesday, citing statistics from the CIRI. [CM note: month-on-month not useful for transactions as volumes have pronounced seasonality]<

Beijing posted a decrease of 48% from a year earlier; cities including Haikou, Chengdu, Tianjin and Hangzhou saw drops in their transaction volumes month-on-month, according to the statistics.

Meanwhile, land sales fell 21% quarter-on-quarter to 4,372 plots in 120 cities in the first quarter of 2011; 1,473 plots were for residential projects, the statistics showed.

The average price of floor area per square meter in the 120 cities dropped to RMB 1,225, down 15% m-o-m, according to the statistics.

Real estate is easy to track because it always follows the same progression. Sales volumes slow down, and people attribute it to the ‘market taking a breather.’ Then sales slump, but people say “prices are still firm,” trying to console themselves with what good news they can find in the situation. Then sales really drop off, and prices begin to move down. That’s where China currently is. What happens next is also easy to ‘predict’ (not really a prediction because it always happens), and that is mortgage defaults and banking losses, which compound the misery cycle by drying up lending and dumping cheap(er) properties back on the market.

In that report back in March, I also wrote this:

If China enters a full-fledged housing crash, then it will have some very serious problems on its hands.A collapse in GDP would surely follow, and all the things that China currently imports by the cargo-shipload would certainly slump in concert.

This is another possible risk to the global growth story that deserves our close attention. How this will impact things in the West remains unclear, but we might predict that China would cut way back on its Treasury purchases if it suddenly needed those funds back home to soften the blow of an epic housing bust.

If a more normal ratio for a healthy housing market is in the vicinity of 3x to 4x income, then China’s national housing market is overpriced by some 60% and certain major markets are overpriced by 80%.

Which means that the entire banking sector in China is significantly exposed.

(…)

The reason we care if China experiences a housing bust is the turmoil that will result in the global commodity and financial markets as a result. Everything is tuned to a smooth continuation of present trends, and China experiencing a housing bust would be quite disruptive.

If Spain is hoping for a big cash infusion from China and/or Chinese banks, it had better get its hands on that money quick. China is barreling toward its own full-fledged real estate crisis, which will drain its domestic liquidity just as surely as it did for the Western system, and probably even more quickly, given the stunning drop-offs in volumes in prices.

However, I should note that the United States housing market hit its peak (according to the Case-Shiller index) in July of 2006, and it was a year and a month before the first cracks appeared in the financial system, so perhaps there’s some time yet for Spain to cling to its hopes.

The larger story here is how a real estate slump in China will impact global growth, which absolutely must continue if the debt charade is to continue.

Who Will Buy All the Bonds?

With Japan now focusing on rebuilding itself, and China seemingly now in the grips of a housing bust that could prove to be one for the record books, given the enormous price-to-income gap that was allowed to develop, it would seem that the financing needs of the West will not be met by the East.

One important way to track how this story is unfolding is via the Treasury International Capital (TIC) report that comes out every month. The most recent one came out on April 15th and was quite robust, with a very large $97.7 billion inflow reported for February (the report lags by a month and a half).

On the surface things look ‘okay,’ although not especially stellar, given a combined US fiscal and trade deficit that is roughly twice as high as the February inflow. But digging into the report a bit, we find some early warning signs that perhaps all is not quite right:

Net foreign purchases of long-term securities totaled a lower-than-trend $26.9 billion in February, reflecting $32.4 billion of foreign purchases offset by $5.5 billion of domestic purchases of foreign securities. Inflows slowed for both Treasuries and equities with government agency bonds and corporate bonds posting outflows.

When including short-term securities, the February data tell a different story with a very large $97.7 billion inflow. Country data show little change in Chinese holdings of U.S. Treasuries, at $1.15 trillion, and a slight gain for Japanese holdings at $890 billion. It will be interesting to watch for change in Japanese Treasury holdings as rebuilding takes hold.

(Source)

Only $26.9 billion, or 28%, of that $97.7 billion, was in long-term securities, reflecting a trend first outlined for us in our recent podcast interview with Paul Tustain of BullionVault whereby fewer and fewer participants are willing to lend long. Everybody is piling into the short end of things, not trusting the future. The concern here is that when interest rates begin to rise, financing costs will immediately skyrocket, because too much of the debt is piled up on the short end.

Also in the TIC data cited above, we need to reiterate that it is for February, and the Japanese earthquake hit on March 11. The next TIC report will be somewhat more telling, but even then only partially, and so it is the report for April (due to be released on June 15) that we’re really going to examine closely. Our prediction is for a rather large dropoff due to Japan’s withdrawal of funds.

With the Fed potentially backing away from the quantitative easing (QE) programs in June, the US government will need someone to buy roughly $130 billion of new bonds each month for the next year. So the question is, “Who will buy them all?”

Right now, that is entirely unclear.

Budget Fiasco

Sadly, the budget ‘cuts’ proposed so far in Washington DC are too miniscule to assist in any credible way, and they practically represent a rounding error, given the numbers involved. The Obama administration has proposed $38 billion in spending reductions. (I hesitate to call them ‘cuts’ because in many cases they are merely lesser increases than previously proposed).

Congress OKs big budget cuts — bigger fights await

April 14, 2011

WASHINGTON – Congress sent President Barack Obama hard-fought legislationcutting a record $38 billion from federal spending on Thursday, bestowing bipartisan support on the first major compromise between the White House and newly empowered Republicans in Congress.

The Environmental Protection Agency, one of the Republicans’ favorite targets, took a $1.6 billion cut. Spending for community health centers was reduced by $600 million, and the Community Development Block Grant program favored by mayors by $950 million more.

The bipartisan drive to cut federal spending reached into every corner of the government’s sprawl of domestic programs. Money to renovate the Commerce Department building in Washington was cut by $8 million. The Appalachian Regional Commission, a New Deal-era program, was nicked for another $8 million and the National Park Service by $127 million more.

For the record, these ‘cuts’ work out to ~$3 billion less in spending each month, or less than the amount the Fed has been pouring into the Treasury market each business day for the past five months.

The fact that a major write-up on the budget finds it meaningful to tell us about specific $8 million cuts (that’s million with an “m“) tells us that we are not yet at the serious stage in these conversations. After all, $8 million is only 0.0005% of the 2011 deficit, and even the entire $38 billion is just 2.3% of the deficit and slightly under 1% of the total 2011 budget.

How much is $38 billion?

  • Less than 2 weeks of new debt accumulation (on average)
  • About 2 weeks of Fed thin-air money printing, a.k.a. QE II

In other words, it’s a drop in the ocean.

It is this lack of seriousness that is driving the dollar down and oil, gold, silver, and other commodities up. It is the reason we will be watching the TIC report for clues that foreign buyers and holders of dollars are getting nervous about storing their wealth with a country that is increasingly seen as unable or unwilling to live within its means. It explains why the IMF has been finger-wagging so much of late.

Somehow the US federal government managed to increase its expenditures by 30% from 2008 to 2011, but is now struggling to reduce the total amount by just 1%.

That, my friends, is an out-of-control process, and the 1% in ‘cuts’ is simply not a credible response to a very large problem.

Conclusion

There are two entirely, completely, utterly different narratives at play here. One of them is that the economy is recovering, policies are working, and the vaunted consumer is either back in the game or close to it. The other is that the world is saturated with debt, there’s no realistic or practical model of growth that could promise its repayment, and the level of austerity required to balance the books is so far beyond the political will of the Western powers that it borders on fantasy to ponder that outcome.

If we believe the first story, we play the game and continue to store all of our wealth in fiat money. If we believe the second, we take our money out of the system and place it into ‘hard’ assets like gold and silver because the most likely event is a massive financial-currency-debt crisis.

The IMF, the World Bank, the BIS, and numerous other institutions with access to $2 calculators have finally arrived at the conclusion that there’s still ‘too much debt’ and that it cannot all be paid back. And they are now alert to the idea that the predicament only has two outcomes: either the living standards of over-indebted countries will be allowed to fall, or the global fiat regime will suffer a catastrophic failure.

China is unlikely to ride to the rescue of the West, although it may have some time yet to help out a few of the smaller and mid-sized players, such as Spain.

source:http://www.financialsense.com/user/

Comment:

Chris over at www.wealthbuilder.ie   brought this excellent article to our attention. It is I believe a very real scenario that could come to pass in the next 10 months. It doesn’t look good for the world economy and this is bad news for us in Ireland   

Thank you Chris

This is nowhere near over.

By “This”, we mean the regional contagion, spreading violence and rising geopolitical risk in the Middle East and North Africa. Reports say that Libya has stopped producing oil and that pipeline delivery to Europe (Italy) is interrupted. Libya seems headed for complete dismemberment and full-blown civil war.

Note that China is evacuating 15,000 workers. China! Imagine that we learn there are as many workers from China in Libya as there are workers from Egypt. Anyone still think this is a local idiosyncratic event.

We are watching a “sea change” occur among one tenth of the world’s population and among the world’s low cost marginal producers of the world’s energy. Scenarios with benign outcomes and peaceful transitions appear remote.

Note how the region’s worst of the bad actors seize their opportunities where they find them. Every success emboldens them. A case study is Iran’s two ships transiting the Suez. Also, note how the most suppressive regimes like Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia, Libya have learned how to suppress social networks, cut off cell phones, block internet traffic and reverse or alter the information flows.

Consider that suppressive regimes are not an encouraging environment for business risk taking and capital investment. This true around the world. Despots maintain their power with only harsh methods whether in the Middle East or North Korea or Venezuela. Simply put: a thug is a thug. Their actions eventually stymie and persecute thoughtful and creative internal forces. Despots raise costs and lower production. In addition, the energy dependent western democracies are now learning that despots are also not reliable longer-term partners.

Also, consider that success by demonstrators and protesters leads to additional demonstrations and increasing demands for reforms. We believe that the turmoil and regime change in the region has a long way to go. We also believe that forecasting the outcomes is a highly problematic exercise. Do we end up with open democracy or Islamized fundamentalist states or something else? This is going to be determined on a case-by-case basis. We do not know the outcomes. History says that emerging democracies are rare in the Middle East.

A sea change can bring on a protracted period of higher oil and energy pricing. The US economy is ill prepared for it. Our policies border on madness. We do not drill for oil off our coast. In the Gulf, deep water drilling is encouraged in Cuban national waters but not in American waters. On American land, we spend billions subsidizing an uneconomic program called ethanol. We raid the federal treasury to put money in the pockets of the politically connected few. In addition, we raise the price of corn and farmland and global Ag output to increase the starvation of millions of people. Thank you Washington and specifically a few members of America’s congress.

Back to the Middle East. Consider that a 1-penny increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline acts as a sales tax on consumers at the rate of 1.2 billion dollars a year (Naroff Economics estimate). A one-dollar rise in the price of oil eventually leads to a 2.5-cent increase in gasoline on average (Moody’s estimate). It is easy to get to a $4-$5 range for gasoline in the US.

Add that to the food price surge and we have a shock. We have already consumed about half of the 2% payroll tax cut. It appears higher gas prices will use up the other half and more by Memorial Day. Gasoline at 4 to 5 dollars a gallon will be enough to turn the improving consumer sentiment numbers into deteriorating ones and will hurt the fragile economic recovery. It will also set back any hope for stability in the housing sector.

If we flirt with a double dip recession, the Fed may be debating QE3 by late summer. So far, QE2 seems to have little impact. It may turn out to have been too small to do very much. A few hundred billion in a mass of many trillions is not very much.

Consider that there has been no significant increase in the amount of federal debt reaching the markets. To get to that conclusion, add up all the new treasury issuance, subtract the shrinkage of Fannie and Freddie debt and subtract the Fed’s purchases. The net result is that most of the federal deficit is being financed without increasing the publicly traded portion.

So why have treasury bond interest rates risen since QE2, if they are not driven by the deficit. They may be driven by inflation expectations or flight from the dollar or re-allocation of portfolios. However, they do not seem to be higher due to direct federal borrowing from the markets.

So where is this going?

Any slowing of the US economy from this energy shock may act to lower interest rates and dampen inflation expectations. Higher energy prices can mean that something else does not get purchased. We may see substitution and not inflation.

We think being full invested when there is a shooting war in a major oil producing country is folly. There is one position that must be maintained. We are high in energy overweight. We are underweighted in consumer discretionary exposure.

This is nowhere near over.

source:http://www.financialsense.com/contributors/david-kotok/nowhere-near-over

G20

G20: Look for Even More Friction in the Future
Submitted by Jeff Rubin on Wed, 17 Nov 2010
posted on www.financialsence.com  

With France and China already plotting to replace the US dollar as the world’s reserve currency at the next G20 summit in Cannes, don’t count on this international forum’s lasting too much longer.

The huge fiscal divisions that were already in evidence at the G20 summit in Toronto last June morphed into even bigger and more rancorous divisions on exchange rates at the recent Seoul summit. With the US at China’s throat about its record trade surplus, and China at the US’s throat over the Federal Reserve Board’s blatantly devaluationist policy of quantitative easing, it’s little wonder nothing was accomplished.

More importantly, this likely marks the end of the great China–US economic accord, which defined the apex of globalization. That once virtuous and self-reinforcing circle of trade and capital flows, whereby Chinese savings invested in the Treasuries market effectively funded US consumer demand for Chinese exports, is clearly in both countries’ gun sights these days.

At the summit in Seoul, gone was any pretense of a coordinated policy approach to manage the global economy. Coordinating national economic policies may once have been easy, when everybody’s economy was mired in the deepest recession of the entire post-war era. But very disparate rates of economic recovery across the G20 have spun equally disparate policy responses from member countries.

And the more anemic the recovery, the more disparate the policy responses have been. Record fiscal stimulus and printing money have become the new orthodoxies in American economic policy, even as most of the US’s trading partners are reining in their fiscal deficits and hiking interest rates.

What’s increasingly clear is that growth imbalances are going to increase, not decrease, in the future, and that the G20 is hardly going to be the forum for policy arbitration between countries. If you thought the growth gap between emerging market economies and the OECD ones was big before the recession, you can expect it to be much larger in the future, in view of the craters of debt that the recession has left behind in the American and European economies.

With no remedies in sight, look for more trade friction in the future. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s proposal to target countries’ current account or trade balances is only the opening salvo in potential future trade wars. If the Fed’s printing presses don’t devalue the greenback enough, there are always tariff walls to be rebuilt.

If the discussions seemed strained in Seoul, listen carefully to the tone from Cannes in six months’ time. At the rate things are going at G20 summits these days, the next one’s agenda will have the Smoot–Hawley Tariff of the 1930’s on it. source  http://www.financialsense.com/contributors/jeff-rubin/g20-look-for-even-more-friction-in-the-future

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