Inflation, Deflation, Peak Oil and Complex Systems

In my father’s house are many mansions. Surely one of them has a room with no elephants in it….

Not to crunch too many metaphors right here at the top, but a consensus seems to be firming up in the animate jello of the Internet that we have entered the Season of the Witch. An odor of ripeness fills the virtual air — something between dead carp and apples baking. Whatever else appears to be going on in the upper stories and verdigris-tinged turrets of capital finance — currency rackets, gold switcheroos, interest rate arbitrage games, concealment of losses under rugs and behind curtains, Chinese fire drills performed by Spanish prisoners, executive three-card-monte set-ups, boardroom work-arounds, accounting quicksteps, Peter-to-Paul-shuffles, check kitings, pigeon drops, Ponzi schemes, hugger-muggers, bezels, shucks, jives, and enough monkeyshines to make Lord Greystroke cry for mercy — apart, in other words, from business-as-usual, such as it is these days, on Wall Street, there is a rising collective sense of anxious expectation that things are about to shake loose in the sad-ass shell of what remains of our economy. And the most perplexing part is that there hardly seems any safe place to preserve one’s savings.

The showmen over at the Financial Sense website, have put on an excellent month-long series of interviews and debate podcasts between leading inflationistas and deflationistas — Daniel Amerman, Peter Schiff, Robert Prechter, Mark Faber, Michael “Mish” Shedlock, Harry Dent — and after weeks of sedulous listening I still remain flummoxed as to where to stash the dwindling cash.

Harry Dent was a curious case in point this week. He has made some howlingly wrong calls before (e.g. in 2006, predicting a Dow 40,000 at the conclusion of the post-2001 bubble). Perhaps he missed the crack-up aspect of the most recent boom. He did not foresee the long gruesome meltdown of late 2007 to March 2009, or rather, his timing was off, since he called for the commencement of a new Great Depression in 2010. (And I hasten to insert here that my own timing of events has not been so great either.) Anyway, Dent sees a “winter” of finance and economy looming from here forward, characterized by extreme deflation, based on his view that the amount of private debt going bad (est. $40 trillion) far outweighs government’s ability to create new “money” (a few measily trillion) and hence that there is no chance in hell we’ll find ourselves in an inflationary situation for some time ahead. The private debt workout has to be completed first.

Most curious, though, was when the interviewer, Jim Puplava, probed Dent about his views on Peak Oil. Dent said he didn’t believe in it; that when he was in college in the 1970s (remember the OPEC oil embargo of ’73), he learned to disregard any suggestions that we are “running out of oil.” He stated this, by the way, as a simple assertion, without any further explanation, and Puplava didn’t belabor him with arguments. But it was a weird moment. Of course, it hardly need be said that Peak Oil story has never been about “running out of oil” per se, but rather about declining flows, geopolitical management of flows, and the effects of depletion on industrial economies — in particular the effect on regular, expected, cyclical “growth” of the type that financial markets utterly depend on to power the trade in investment paper.

It is exceedingly odd that this does not factor into Dent’s thinking, because what Peak Oil inescapably does is introduce the very sobering idea of discontinuity — that is, that the game has changed radically, especially where all our assumptions about continued “growth” are concerned. In that brief exchange on Peak Oil, Dent seemed to take the position that the “winter” part of any historical financial cycle always produced “new technology” that invariably saves the day, putting this seemingly very smart man in the camp of so many techno-cornucopian triumphalists all wishing for the same outcome: that some mythical “they” will “come up with” a set of rescue remedies to keep all the cars circulating on the freeways, and all the WalMarts groaning with swag.

Like so many major league prognosticators, Dent arrives at his ideas by building models of reality, assembling “data” to create charts of trends in prices, interest rates, and especially demographics – what age group of people are buying a lot of what in which stage of their lives. The whole business seems very rational and reasonable except when you realize that it is just another “narrative” — to borrow one of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s terms — girded with statistical justification. One can hardly fault it from a strictly procedural point of view — since, in our culture, conclusions ought to proceed from evidence — but one can’t escape the feeling that it amounts to little more than old-fashioned augury… that someone examining the entrails of a dead chicken, spread over the front page of The Wall Street Journal, might arrive at very similar conclusions. All that said, Dent was an appealingly confident personality on-the-air, the kind of authoritative voice you’d like to believe, if only it were possible.

Prechter was much the same a few weeks earlier, and he, too, foresees a darker American future, based on a different set of models called Elliot Wave principles. His forecasts derive from a picture of “social mood” as much as economic data flows. He, too seems to disregard the Peak Oil story and its implications as the master resource driving growth in industrial economies.

Personally, I am not at all sure that the Peak Oil story, or its associated general resource scarcity story, will shed a whole lot of light on the question of inflation-or-deflation. I say this because I think it is a short way down the road of depletion-and-scarcity before the major complex systems we depend on for daily life become so unstable that general socio-economic collapse ensues. After all, capital finance is only one of these many complex systems — some other biggies being food production, trade and manufacture, transportation, electric power distribution, infrastructure maintenance, the military, and governance. Inflation-or-deflation will only be symptomatic of larger failures and instabilities in these systems necessary for modern, civilized life.

All of it begs the question not only whether you or I will have two nickels to rub together, or two gold eagles, or a bundle of six month US Treasury bills, or a zillion shares of Apple, or a gainful vocation, or a roof over our heads, or a hot meal at the end of the day, or a safe place to sleep, or a country we can recognize. I’ve done my share of forecasting, with some episodes of notably bad timing. I don’t do it for grandstanding effect but to provide some basis for knowing what to do in the years directly ahead, so we can hope to construct lives worth living. I’m impatient with models, charts, and statistical analysis. Perhaps this is childish. I’d rather tell a story or paint a picture. So, I’m going to spend the rest of the week finishing the last chapter of World Made By Hand Two: The Witch of Hebron while the US economy wanders where it will.

James Howard Kunstler

September 29, 2009