Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Commentary on the Flux of Events

May 23, 2005
"Paranoia runs deep; into your life it will creep. . . ."

So went the lyrics to the old Buffalo Springfield song from the tumultuous Vietnam War years and now, as Yogi Berra also said around the same time, "it's like deja vu all over again."
I like to claim that I am allergic to conspiracy theories and the paranoia that attends them. But these days I'm not so sure anymore. The noise in the system is getting pretty thick, and the Internet is the perfect system for paranoia because any website can appear to be dignified and therefore to speak with some kind of authority. You have to sort out the reality from the noise the best that you can on your own. (So maybe it's not such a bad thing that this blog is so amateurish-looking, as many readers complain.)

The latest paranoid thread out there is that the US Military is waiting to commit a June assault on Iran's nuclear facilities, and that the Bush administration has been manipulating the stock markets up and the oil markets down in an attempt to to lull the public deeper into its coma of cluelessness by making the surface of American life seem placid.

I really don't know what the government is capable of doing to tweak the markets. It certainly has access to a lot of nominal "money," and I suppose that it is not to difficult to put that money into "play," by funneling it this way and that way through large institutions and agencies. The current crisis of capital derives from the fact that the American economy produces fewer and fewer things of enduring value -- and more and more fluff in the form of Star Wars movies -- so any financial paper or instrument that pretends to represent the nation's longer-term prospects is in danger of not being taken seriously. The wealth accumulated in the US in the second half of the last century is actually shrinking now, since our industrial base is withering away, and whatever investment we are capable of making has been increasingly directed into the "hard assets" of houses.

The catch is that the "investment" in houses is almost all credit -- mortgages, promises to pay most of the money later. The catch of the catch is that the cost of obtaining credit (interest rates) remains supernaturally low and the standards for creditworthiness have ceased to exist. The catch of the catch of the catch is that a lot of the mortgages are adjustable, meaning the cost of borrowing doesn't necessarily stay supernaturally low. It can float with rising interest rates.
Finance professionals know that these conditions are perverse and perilous. That's why they call it a "housing bubble." The moiling "consumer" masses only know that the dollar-value of their houses goes up ten percent or more every year, while stock and bond portfolios go sideways. So they ignore any supposed peril and keep flipping the houses. Finance professionals know that sooner or later grownups in other countries who buy our financial paper will decide that our long-term prospects are a joke, and that we will have to raise the interest rates a lot to keep them buying. When that happens, the tears begin to flow from the mortgage-holders.

Beneath all this runs the issue of our most critical resource, oil. Without it, America just stops running, and if oil gets much more expensive, major parts of our system start to break down -- the easy motoring commutes, the oil-based farming, the big box retail, commercial aviation, et cetera. If oil makes a move above the $60 dollar range, all bets are off for the equity markets, the housing bubble, and the struggling "consumer" masses.

Now, it may be that the oil futures markets were simply overbought in April and the price had to go down while inventories were absorbed. The gross US inventory of oil awaiting the refineries stood at around 330 million barrels last week. Seems like a whopping great amount. We use 20 million barrels a day, so you can see that the inventory represents about 16.5 days of oil. Whoop-de-doo. But having the market price of a barrel of oil dip well below $50 was certainly a great psychological boost for the people who run America. It made President Bush seem like he can command the great forces of nature. And I suppose the oil price downturn also bestirred the equity market players to believe, if only momentarily, that there was some productive juice left in the old economy.

We now face the Memorial Day weekend, traditionally the start of the summer motoring season, when upward pressure on oil prices tends to resume. Even if the tanks are full now, it pays to remind ourselves that nearly three-quarters of that gasoline comes from other lands, including lands full of people who don't want us to be happy. One of these, arguably, is Iran -- though many in the hairsplitting game would say it's only the leaders who hate us, not the youthful masses of the population, who don't remember the Shah and all that. Some months ago, our leaders said they would not tolerate a nuclear Iran. In reply, Iran told the US to, well, to go piss up a rope, so to speak. All has been quiet since that exchange. They've made it pretty plain what they aim to do. Who knows what we aim to do? But paranoia runs deep.

by Jim Kunstler

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