Wednesday, May 20, 2009

It's cool by the Pool - right [COLUMN]

When I was swimming in gym today I asked the girl in my lane if she was from Australia. "Yes, how'd you know." She was wearing a yellow cap with the letters AUS on it. An Ozzie, working in London, in South Africa for a few days on some banking assignment with ABSA. Interestingly enough, one of my pals who works for Standard Bank was in London a few days ago. And my spin instructor has just returned from New York and she's been feeling fluish of late...the last class she couldn't find a subsitute so she just pedalled slowly and told us what to do. The point of this paragraph is to show how global everything has become. It's no wonder swine flu is moving this fast. The global number of infected is approaching 10 000.

But I'm not going to talk about swine flu. I've already said it's a more serious threat than most people realise. And it's not going off the radar for a good while, even if newsrooms have temporarily forgotten about it.

I am going to talk about the future. Many of us I think are hoping things will get back to normal. Maybe the banks will sort themselvesout, maybe this, maybe GM will just rebound. Sorry, none of that is going to happen.

If you believe there is a recession (some still don't) then you may be holding out for signs of a recovery. The average economist believes that the market moves in cycles, like the change of seasons. Well, the change of seasons - climate change notwithstanding - is scheduled to keep up the basic pattern for a while. Sorry, market cycles are a thing of the past. What we are now experiencing is deleveraging, where the markets go into boom and bust. It's erratic, it's chaotic and for a lot of the participants out there once they go bust it's over. GM is about to go bust. In 5 years, the GM brand will be ancient history, even if FIAT do their damndest to rescue what they can. FIAT and other automakers will follow.

But what about us?

Jeff Rubin puts it perfectly, and quite simply:
[We will] work and vacation nearer to home, eat locally grown foods and buy locally produced goods, and suburban sprawl is replaced by revitalized cities.

"I think it will really restructure the economy in ways that people haven't even begun to imagine," he said. "But I think, ironically, it's going to be a return to the past ... in terms of the re-emergence of local economies."

Our lives are about to become a lot more modest; the scale of everything is going to contract - here's the good part - to something we knew when we were teenagers or kids. Grocer's will return (shops selling only produce). Butcher's, bakers and candlestick makers (cottage industries) will return, and those companies that destroyed them, WAL-MART, CARREFOUR and PICK 'N PAY will disappear as depleting energy supplies bite. I know this seems very unlikely now (shortages) but the next phase of energy backwardation and contango is going to create even more radical spikes in oil prices. Crashes will erode more and more industries that tended to take cheap energy endowments for granted.

And some of those industries are in transport. Airlines will contract again and this time, only a handful will stay behind to play pass the hot potato. Countries that manufacture cars will struggle. Japan, the USA, Britain. Countries that adapt quickly and use their savvy to invest wisely may do better - like South Korea. It's a tough call for these Asian countries. On the one hand they have the tech, on the other they are far more dependent on energy than the West, with the exception of the USA and possibly Australia. Right now though, countries like Korea have the option to use the low energy prices to stimulate other industries. Guess what - they are.

South Korea will be rewarded for this forward-thinking mentality. However, some poor countries will see the few choices they had evaporate. Including North Korea and Pakistan and Zimbabwe. They are likely to beg, or blame and will be surprised to find their usual patrons distracted by chronic problems of their own.

We'll see a surge of diseases and troubles. People are likely to militate against one another.
Whatever we do, this phase of contraction, of permanent decline, will go on. It will be bad for people, it will be good for nature. The climate will have a chance to go less out of whack than it already is.

The world will become a much bigger place again. And irony will go out the window. People will no longer be able to make self-deprecating or ironic jokes about how bad things are. They're unlikely to be funny. We may laugh at other things. How stupid we were once upon a time. The fact that we thought this notion of cars, that easy motoring was a lifestyle choice that would go on forever. That suburbia was something everyone with a job was entitled to... Sorry, no jobs, no house, no car. No more trips to the mall. No more franchised gyms or franchised anything. Local enterprises will come up. Bicycle shops, mechanics, fruit sellers, flower sellers, shoe merchants, small clothing boutiques.

The good news is this: when energy prices have increased enough there won't be so much trade going on. Less imports and exports. That means there will be more work for the man in the street, employed in ordinary things, factories for example, making toilet seats and fishing rods, cupboards and carpets.

What impact will the internet have on all this? It may help to smooth the transition,and build communities that the internet in the CONSUME CONSUME CONSUME era helped to destroy. The internet may really redeem itself not as a purveyor of porn, or a gossip shoveller, but as a truly useful enabler of communities.

More: Steer clear of 'things aren't so bad' stories

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