Whenever somebody complains about “the lies that George Bush & Co. told to get us into the Iraq war” (as Frank Rich did in The New York Times recently), I wonder how those lies compare to the lies that the American public tells itself every day – for example, that America could get along without oil from the Middle East, or that hybrid cars will save Happy Motoring, or that the United States can have an economy without producing anything of value.
Meanwhile, the Dow Jones index went up over a hundred points the same day that 32 people were massacred on a university campus. And bear in mind that the massacre did not occur late in the day but literally around the same time that the New York Stock Exchange rang its opening bell – so that as the body counts mounted through mid-day, the stock markets only went higher! Then, the rest of the week, while the cable news Mommy-Daddies went through the familiar rituals of bewildered hand-wringing, and NBC released the trove of farewell videos sent in by shooter Seung-Hui Cho between killings, the Dow piled on another 250 points to close at an all-time record high just under 13,000.
Could the financial markets be more detached from reality, from life on the ground (or in a free-fire-zone classroom) in this nation?
Doug Noland over at Prudent Bear.com is right: we’ve entered a euphoric phase of financial arbitrage capitalism with extreme Ponzi overtones, a pyramid scheme of revolving credit rackets and percentage spread plays completely abstracted from any reality of fruitful activity. The reason we don’t even call “money” by its former name anymore is precisely because we realize at some semi-conscious level that “liquidity” is not really money. Liquidity is a flow of hallucinated surplus wealth. As long as it flows in one direction, into financial markets, valve-keepers along the pipeline, like Goldman Sachs, Citibank, or the hedge funds, can siphon off billions of buckets of liquidity. The trouble will come when the flow stops – or reverses! That will be the point where we will rediscover that liquidity really is different from money, and if we are really unlucky we’ll discover that the U.S. dollar is actually different from real wealth.
Noland and others recognize the severe distortions in the finance sector, and they are surely correct to flag the implied dangers. But even these clear-eyed observers survey the disturbing finance scene without factoring the global energy situation. In a nutshell: world oil production seems to have peaked about 10 months ago. Being just past peak, there is still a huge amount of oil going into world economies. But being just past peak oil we are now seeing how complex systems proceed toward instability and breakdown when the underlying energy flow turns toward contraction.
The situation in finance is particularly sensitive and acute because an overall contraction in available energy means the end of industrial expansion (a.k.a. “growth”) at “normal” rates of three to seven percent annually. More to the point, it means that certificates, contracts, deals, plays, and rackets pegged to the expectation of growth will lose their legitimacy. Meaning, stocks, bonds, collateralized debt obligations, hedges – anything that represents the hope and expectation for more-of-anything – will no longer be understood to represent real value.
The current euphoric hysteria should therefore be viewed as a form of disorder in its own right. The players in the markets are making their moves based on misunderstood signals. They think the world is awash in energy and prosperity. They believe Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA) and Ben Bernanke, the Chairman of the United States Federal Reserve. They believe that the mortgage fiasco and the associated imploding housing bubble are just a couple of temporary zits on the handsome face that Wall Street presents to the world. In the background, though, feedback loops are aligning to rock the systems we depend on for daily life in the real world. Capital will become unavailable. Food will grow scarce. Trade will be interrupted. Mobility will be constrained. And an awful lot of pissed-off people will be poised to fight over the table scraps of industrial civilization.
I got a letter last week from a reader complaining bitterly that the stock market hasn’t crashed and blaming me for predicting that it would. He didn’t say, but I hope he hadn’t been out there on a shorting spree. In case any of you haven’t noticed, 2007 is not over yet.
The markets have been on an extraordinary run. The Dow finished 23 out of the last 26 days on the upside – some of them pretty way on the upside. This is the biggest U.S. stock market up-streak since a 19 for 21 streak in July of 1929, prior to the October crash. Bill Fleckenstein points out a similar run on the Tokyo exchange – 32 upside trading days out of 38 – just prior to its 1989 tanking.
While this kind of behavior seems ominous, I’m not claiming it necessarily has predictive value. One can say that the financial markets per se are running in an impressive state of structural distortion and imbalance and that systems way out of balance do not stay that way forever. But I risk more opprobrium by stating the obvious.
I think the persistence of this gross imbalance can be accounted for in large part by the current global energy situation. The world is at peak energy, peak oil especially, and the world runs on oil. Peak is peak. The most. There are about 84 million barrels of oil a day flowing around the industrial economies of the world. It is running a lot of activity.
Now, I happen to think that oil production probably peaked about a year ago, but we are still so close to it that the net available energy remains immense. Even if 2007 averages out to 83.5 million barrels a day instead of 84 million, it will still seem like a lot. Markets may be dumber than we think. All they see is a vast amount of cheap energy for manufacturing plastic salad shooters, for powering tourist jet charters to Cancun, for running Wal-Mart, Walt Disney World, and Taco Bell. All that energy is here right now.
Among the many tragic elements in the human condition is this tendency toward short-term thinking, the inability to imagine how our arrangements will work in a time that is not right now.
Interestingly, the main effect of post-peak oil on markets and economies is that it will produce shocking instabilities in complex systems dependent not just on the energy itself, but on the expectation for continuity of the energy. Financial markets are especially sensitive because they operate on sheer expectations. The Dow Jones doesn’t manufacture salad shooters, or haul tourists to the Mexican beaches, or build suburban houses. It just relays a dumb signal that says “we expect more” and investors respond. The trouble will start when the signal changes to “we don’t expect more.” That moment will be when the recognition of peak oil galvanizes the public’s attention. It will manifest as a simple societal binary switching mechanism. When that happens, the markets will exhibit the dumb herd behavior that they are famous for.
Of course, I have argued previously that the stupendous run-ups of market indexes themselves represent a kind of instability (those distortions and imbalances), as do also the supernatural flows of “liquidity” and I would stick to that observation. After all, if the world is “high” on oil – and I would argue that it is zonked out of its mind – then it would naturally spring way up off the diving board before swan-diving into the empty pool below.
Me, I’m keeping my eye on things like the production figures coming out of Mexico, the North Sea, and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. They’re all sliding down. Mexico is especially interesting because it is our Number 3 source of oil imports and its production is crashing so hard that a couple of years from now it may not be able to send us a single drop of oil. What do you think of that? Maybe the Walton family will buy Iowa so they can keep Wal-Mart running on ethanol.
Meanwhile, U.S. oil refineries are running above 90 percent production capacity to keep up with the gasoline demand for Happy Motoring. The stress on these complex operations is unprecedented. It gives them no slack time for routine repairs. The results are liable to be interesting, too, between the Fourth of July and Labor Day.
James Howard Kunstler
for Markets and Money