The Life and Death of Great Cities

The Daily Reckoning PRESENTS: Once upon a time, Detroit was one of the world’s great English-speaking cities…but those days are long gone. Bill Bonner takes a look at the rise and fall of Motor City, below…


“Funny how time changes…rearranges everything.”
– The Supremes

“You can’t go wrong with property in Central London,” is an expression you hear often on the banks of the Thames. “You can’t go wrong with property in central Detroit” has the same number of syllables. Eight out of nine words are exactly the same. The final one, though, makes a big difference.  It changes the meaning, from delusional faith to desperate comedy.

Detroit was once one of the world’s great English-speaking cities.  But then, Kaifeng, China, was once a great city too.  A thousand years ago, it was the world’s most important city.  While London had only 15,000 soggy inhabitants…Kaifeng was the capital of the Song Dynasty, with more than a million people.  At the time, Detroit didn’t even exist.

Today, London is a great city…Kaifeng is a now a small, grimy, poor city…not even a provincial capital…without an airport.  But look at Detroit:

A friend reports:

“Detroit is a contrarian utopia – needles, drug baggies, gangs on street corners, boarded up businesses, empty office buildings, vacant mansions. For Sale signs everywhere. It is a hellhole. Wayne County, Michigan, home to Detroit, lost more people from the beginning of 2005 to the end of 2006 than any U.S. county except the four counties in Louisiana and Mississippi devastated by Hurricane Katrina, according to Census figures released in March. Since 2001, Michigan lost more jobs than any other state in the Union.

“Away from downtown, things are not much better. Lots of homes in the burbs have been on the market for 2, 3, and 4 years with NO offers, and not even so much as a low ball offer. Larger existing homes in Macomb County can be purchased for about 40% less than replacement cost. ”

There was a time, of course, on the chilly shores of Lake Michigan, when you could say “you can’t go wrong buying property in central Detroit” with a straight face. In the early 20th century, Detroit was on top of the world, the capital of the auto age. The internal combustion engine was developed at first for boats and the Great Lake region was a natural place for an industry manufacturing boat engines to emerge. There was already a thriving carriage-making center, too. From those beginnings, Detroit soon became the Motor City, home to the biggest new industry since the invention of the mechanical loom.  Even during wartime, the assembly lines didn’t slack off – instead, they sped up, working around the clock to provide trucks, jeeps, tanks, to armies all over the world. War or peace, everyone seemed to want more and more vehicles. How could you go wrong buying property in the city that made them?

There were once dozens of automakers in Coventry, England, too. Now, there are only a handful in the whole country and every one of them is foreign-owned. America’s automakers consolidated sooner in Detroit. They are still operating and still in American hands, but probably not for long.

We remember, in our own lifetimes, when the first funny-looking cars came into the U.S. market from Germany and Japan. Cheap and stingy on fuel consumption, the little autos gained a beachhead in the United States during the oil crisis and inflation of the ’70s. I bought a Honda Accord in 1975. My father, a Pearl Harbor veteran, saw the thing and was appalled. “Those people tried to kill me for three years,” he said.

Congress wanted to protect the U.S. automakers in the worst possible way – by placing a per-car tariff on imports. Both the Japanese and the Germans responded by moving up-market so as to make more profit per car sold.  Soon, the foreign automakers were going head-to-head with America’s big luxury models too – and winning.  And now, the motor city is sputtering and threatening to conk out completely.

But investors are an arrogant and opportunistic lot. Some speculators look upon Detroit and think they see an overturned liquor truck; they imagine they should help themselves before the cops come.  After all, cities have good times and bad times.  Detroit might be suffering nothing more than a cyclical setback in the life of a great city.   People thought Harley Davidson was finished too…and look how it’s come back.  Now, it’s worth more than GM.

Let the U.S. auto industry go broke, say the optimists, as soon as possible. Then, new, more vigorous entrepreneurs, without all GM’s and Ford’s baggage, can climb into the drivers seat. And Mo’town will rock and roll again.

If you believe that, you should get on a plane to Detroit now. Whole skyscrapers change hands for less than the price of a 3-bedroom apartment in Mayfair. The 65-story David Stott building, for example, is on the market for $3.5 million.  For less than a million you can buy a 12,000 square foot Italian renaissance-style mansion, complete with an intricate, hand-carved walnut main staircase and imported wood paneling throughout.

“That may seem like a bargain,” says a CNBC reporter, “considering the 1915 limestone house sits on over 2 acres and is just 3 miles from the city center. But then again, this is Detroit, Michigan.”

Speculators hope that Murder City might once again become Motor City. But they should ask instead why it is that last year, as rental rates across the United States rose an average of more than 6%, in Detroit, rents couldn’t even climb 1%.

Investors might do better to look at Liuzhou, China, where GM is producing its new Wuling Sunshine mini-van.  In 2002, China made a million cars and trucks.  By 2020, it’s expected to produce 15 million units, more than the United States.  How can Detroit stage a comeback with that kind of competition?

Instead, maybe, the city will join the ranks of the dead, along with Ctesiphon, Mesa Verde, Persepolis, Kish, Harappa, Babylon, Sodom, and Gomorrah. Soon, its apartments and mansions may sell for no more than places in Mapungubwe, Tiahuanaco, Tyre, Nineveh, Troy, Golconda and hundreds of other defunct metropolises.

Meanwhile, back in modern world, financial services is where the money is.  And London and New York is where the financial service industries are.   Is there any better game to be in?  And is there a better place to be than in the capital cities of this new, new money-shuffling commerce? Not in 2007.  Business is booming.  All over the world, companies are getting set up, financed, bought out, refinanced, IPO’ed, taken private, merged, acquired, re-IPOed and leveraged in more ways than you can count. It will be a cold day in Hell when the Chinese can compete in this industry.

London and New York are on top of the world – just like Detroit once was.  Just like Kaifeng once was.  Prices can only go up, right?

Bill Bonner
The Daily Reckoning
June 1, 2007

Editor’s Note: Don’t forget – you can hear Bill (along with all of your favorite DR editors) speak at this year’s Agora Financial Investment Symposium in Vancouver, British Columbia. This year’s theme is “Rim of Fire: Crisis & Opportunity in the New Asian Era” – and it’s your first look at investment opportunities, global market concerns, and the best investment bets across the globe.

Bill Bonner is the founder and editor of The Daily Reckoning. He is also the author, with Addison Wiggin, of The Wall Street Journal best seller Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of the 21st Century (John Wiley & Sons).

In Bonner and Wiggin’s follow-up book, Empire of Debt: The Rise of an Epic Financial Crisis, they wield their sardonic brand of humor to expose the nation for what it really is – an empire built on delusions. Daily Reckoning readers can buy their copy of Empire of Debt at a discount – just click on the link below:

Empire of Debt

“Spring being a tough act to follow…God created June”

It is bright and beautiful in Paris this morning. A romantic day. After a week of cold rain, the sun is out…the flowers are in bloom…and lovers walk arm in arm along the Seine.

A very unromantic note comes to us today in the Financial Times.  The hard-hearted scribblers at the salmon-colored paper tell us the “Post-nups” are becoming very popular in the financial industry.

What are “Post-nups”?  Well, dear reader, you’ve heard of pre-nups?  Couples who are deeply in love…who stand before God and all their friends and relatives, solemnly promising to love and cherish each other through thick and thin, for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer…’til death do them part…nevertheless, often have their fingers crossed. Before even stepping up to the altar, these lovers take the stars out of their eyes long enough to read a long document prepared by their lawyers, in which they agree in advance how they will split up property in the event that everything doesn’t go exactly as planned.

Our sharp-eyed Dear Readers will spot the contradiction immediately.  You can’t logically sign one contract – in good faith – with no ‘out clause,’ and simultaneously sign another contract specifically hinting that you really didn’t mean it when you signed the first.  If the signatory parties had been sincere about the first, they wouldn’t need the second.   Logically, lawyers should argue that if you were in bad faith as to the first…you were in bad faith as to the second, too.  Consequently, neither should hold up in court.  By extension, all pre-nuptial agreements might be considered invalid.  And all marriages too.

Well, now the lawyers have found another way to separate rich clients from their money – by getting them to sign up for Post-Nup agreements. These after-the-wedding agreements are becoming popular, says the FT, because there is so much money at stake in financial industry households.

“The massive infusion of cash into the so-called hedge fund communities in New York, Connecticut and California has proved to be fatal to many marriages – and a windfall for lawyers, psychiatrists and forensic accountants who specialize in the super rich.

“There is no question that a huge infusion of wealth to relatively young people has a disastrous effect on the marriage’s stability,” says Bern Clare, a Manhattan divorce lawyer.

“Hedge fund and private equity divorces are often far more bitter than those involving film stars, according to Scott Weston, a Los Angeles matrimonial lawyer.”

We don’t know if that is true or not.  But we can believe it.  Money makes the world go round.  Many people keep score in life simply by looking at their financial statements.  They are, of course, the people Oscar Wilde must have had in mind when he said they “know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”

Not only do people in the financial industry have a lot of money…money means a lot to them.  So, they fight over it.  And the lawyers get rich.  The FT cited a recent case where the dependent spouse, a wife, insisted she needed $800,000 a month in child support payments, even though she already had an income of $7 million a year.

To you and to us, dear reader, these amounts seem unbelievable. Seven million dollars per year…plus $800,000 a month in child support!  Why do people think they need so much money to live happily?  We have very simple tastes.  We could easily get by on half that much.

Money isn’t everything.  We provide additional proof this morning by looking at a place with a lot of money – Zimbabwe.  Nowhere on the entire planet is money piling up at a more rapid pace.  The printing presses in that hellhole must be working around the clock.  Consumer price inflation is increasing at an annual rate of 1,729%!

“My bad,” says Robert Mugabe, the nation’s democratically elected tyrant.

We look to Zimbabwe not merely for entertainment but for instruction. It shows us that not only is money not a good gauge of wealth and happiness, neither are asset prices. Rich Americans look at rising stock prices.  ‘All is well,’ they say.  ‘We’re getting wealthier.’  Poor and middle class Americans look at their house prices.  ‘All is well,’ they say.  ‘Our houses are worth twice as much as they were 5 years ago; we’re getting wealthier.’

Alas, it is not so.  As money comes off the presses in Zimbabwe, it has to go somewhere.  More of it goes to the rich than to the poor.  So, ASSET PRICES RISE MORE THAN CONSUMER PRICES.  Guess which stock market  has gone up the most in 2007?  The Zimbabwe stock market!  It’s up 600% so far this year…up 12,000% over the last 12 months.

Imagine that you live in Zimbabwe.  You are one of Robert Mugabe’s cronies and you get your hands on $50,000.  Of course, the first thing you want to do is to shuffle it out of the country.   But short of that, what do you do?  Do you invest in real capital improvements…new industries…new equipment…new property?  No chance. Not in an economy that is rapidly collapsing.  People don’t have enough to eat.  They can’t buy fuel.  Public services are crumbling.  Transport, education, health, trash collection, police – they are all disintegrating.  It used to be the richest part of Africa.  Now, thousands of refugees sneak out of Zimbabwe every week.  The place is a disaster.

Instead of investing in fixed capital improvements, you put your money into stocks – hoping that the stocks will go up faster than your currency goes down.   The result?  A speculative, asset-price boom – even while the whole country is falling apart.

Meanwhile, America has its own asset-price boom…its own crony capitalists…its own printing presses…

But even as asset prices go up, the real economy slows down.  Today’s news tells us that the GDP is barely growing at all.  And the Fed says housing will be a drag for longer than expected.

More news…


Addison Wiggin, reporting from Baltimore, hon:

“The May Jobs report showed a net gain of 157,000 jobs… nearly double the revised 80,000 jobs in April.

“We don’t mind seeing a stronger-than-expected labor market. But we’re a suspicious lot. ‘The data only tells us how many jobs were created,’ comments our friend Chuck Butler ‘not what type, and certainly not who filled them.’

“So, how come the markets get so lathered up over data?”

For the rest of this story, and for more insights into today’s markets, see The 5 Min. Forecast


And more thoughts…

*** Can we farm-raise our energy independence? Not likely, reports Kevin Kerr.

“Driving through the U.S. and being invited to several family farms over the last week or so has been enlightening, and fattening,” he told us this morning.

“The corn-based ethanol craze is probably not being shown the door, but may be getting handed its hat. The costs for farmers in mounting food inflation is creeping up quickly: seed costs, fertilizer, fuel, irrigation, transport and leasing of acreage, etc. Costs of renting acres (for farmers who lease the land) have doubled in only a year. Most farmers I spoke with on my trip say it simply will reach a breaking point. They’ve seen it before.”

As our resident energy and commodities expert, Kevin has two newsletters that focuses on those markets: his Resource Trader Alert, and Outstanding Investments, which he co-edits with Byron King.

With Agora Financial Reserve, you can receive both of Kevin’s newsletters – along with all of our other financial newsletters and services – for life. The Reserve is such a great deal, we only offer it twice a year. So from now until July 5, you can join the exclusive group of investors who have, for a one-time fee, unlimited, lifetime access to the investment recommendations of every Agora Financial editor.

*** “A Blast of Winter,” said the London tabloids of this past week’s weather.  It was so cold in London on Monday we stopped believing in Global Warming.  But, now that it is warm again, why not?

Besides, now it’s official US Government policy.  America’s president is on the front page of today’s International Herald Tribune, saying he takes the issue very seriously and promises to cut America’s carbon dioxide emissions.

We don’t know much about global warming. Then again, if we only wrote about subjects we had thoroughly mastered, The Daily Reckoning would be mercifully short.  But judging from the historical record, the earth tends to heat up from time to time.   About the time of Christ, the Romans brought grape vines to Britain – and made wine.  By the time the next invaders arrived, 1,000 years later, they were still at it (or at it again…we’re not sure).  The Domesday Book reports that there were 50 commercial vintners in Britain at the time of Norman Conquest.  The Little Ice Age during the medieval era killed off the grapes and turned Britons into a nation of beer drinkers, claims Dennis Avery, as reported in Grant’s Interest Rate Observer.  But now, the earth seems to be warming, and British wines are making a comeback.

Is it because of human activity?  Can human activity be altered to stop it?  At what cost?  Would it be worth doing?  Thank god, George W. Bush knows the answers to these questions.

Our president may not be an expert on climate change either, but he’s cunning.   By attaching his credibility to the Global Warming hypothesis yesterday, he probably aims to discredit the idea completely.  Sly dog!

*** India reports that its economy is growing at the fastest rate in 20 years – up 9.4% per annum.

And here comes the punch line.

A fund manager in Bombay warns that investors “should be prepared for a soft landing.”

Get it?  Watch out, dear readers – the weather threatens to be nice today…the stock market may crash a point or two…lightening might strike somewhere out on the plains, where no one is standing…your favorite restaurant might run out of Diet Tab…and you might go to the cancer specialist who tells you that you have a bad case of dandruff!

The Indian economy is racing along at breakneck speed.  Hold onto your hats, buckle your seat belts, and make the sign of the cross – because it might slow down to merely fast!

“Soft landing no longer means we’re going back to the days of 5% or 6% growth,” says the expert.  Now it means 7% or 8%!

Yes, dear, dear reader, it’s a new era in which all umbrellas are obsolete…all auto accidents are fender benders…and all market crashes knock off 2% of your gains, and then bounce back.

The Daily Reckoning