This Isn’t Just Another Crash
Like addicts who cannot control their cravings, financial analysts cannot stop themselves from seeking some analog situation in the past which will clarify the swirling chaos in their crystal balls.
So we’ve been swamped with charts overlaying recent stock market action over 1929, 1987,2000 and 2008 — though the closest analogy is actually the Oil Shock of 1973, an exogenous shock to a weakening, fragile economy.
But the reality is there is no analogous situation in the past to the present, and so all the predictions based on past performance will be misleading. The chartists and analysts claim that all markets act on the same patterns, which are reflections of human nature, and so seeking correlations of volatility and valuation that “worked” in the past will work in 2020.
Does anyone really believe the correlations of the past decade or two are high-probability predictors of the future as the entire brittle construct of fictional capital and extremes of globalization and financialization all unravel at once?
Here are a few of the many consequential differences between all previous recessions and the current situation:
1. Households have never been so dependent on debt as a substitute for stagnating wages.
2. Real earnings (adjusted for inflation) have never been so stagnant for the bottom 90% for so long.
3. Corporations have never been so dependent on debt (selling bonds or taking on loans) to fund money-losing operations (see Netflix) or stock buybacks designed to saddle the company with debt service expenses to enrich insiders.
4. The stock market has never been so dependent on what amounts to fraud — stock buybacks — to push valuations higher.
5. The economy has never been so dependent on absurdly overvalued stock valuations to prop up pension funds and the spending of the top 10% who own 85% of all stocks, i.e. “the wealth effect.”
6. The economy and the stock market have never been so dependent on central bank free money for financiers and corporations, money creation for the few at the expense of the many, what amounts to an embezzlement scheme.
7. Federal statistics have never been so gamed, rigged or distorted to support a neo-feudal agenda of claiming a level of wide-spread prosperity that is entirely fictitious.
8. Major sectors of the economy have never been such rackets, i.e. cartels and quasi-monopolies that use obscure pricing and manipulation of government mandates to maximize profits while the quality and quantity of the goods and services they produce declines.
9. The economy has never been in such thrall to sociopaths who have mastered the exploitation of the letter of the law while completely overturning the spirit of the law.
10. Households and companies have never been so dependent on “free money” gained from asset appreciation based on speculation, not an actual increase in productivity or value.
11. The ascendancy of self-interest as the one organizing directive in politics and finance has never been so complete, and the resulting moral rot never more pervasive.
12. The dependence on fictitious capital masquerading as “wealth” has never been greater.
13. The dependence on simulacra, simulations and false fronts to hide the decay of trust, credibility, transparency and accountability has never been so pervasive and complete.
14. The corrupt linkage of political power, media ownership, “national security” agencies and corporate power has never been so widely accepted as “normal” and “unavoidable.”
15. Primary institutions such as higher education, healthcare and national defense have never been so dysfunctional, ineffective, sclerotic, resistant to reform or costly.
16. The economy has never been so dependent on constant central bank manipulation of the stock and housing markets.
17. The economy has never been so fragile or brittle, and so dependent on convenient fictions to stave off a crash in asset valuations.
18. Never before in U.S. history have the most valuable corporations all been engaged in selling goods and services that actively reduce productivity and human happiness.
This is only a selection of a much longer list, but you get the idea. Basing one’s decisions on analogs from the past is entering a fool’s paradise of folly.
While the stock market euphorically front-runs the Fed and a V-shaped recovery, the reality is the crash has only just begun. To understand why, look at income and debt. Income, earned and unearned, is in free-fall, while debt — which must be serviced by income — is exploding higher.
Bailouts are not a permanent substitute for income. In the short-term, bailouts are a necessary substitute for lost income. But longer term, subsidizing income with borrowed money weakens the currency and the economy, as productivity stagnates.
As for servicing debt — the unemployed working class is getting an extra $600 a week not out of kindness but to make sure these households can continue to service their debts: auto and truck loans, student loans, credit cards, etc. Absent a federal bailout, millions of unemployed would cease making loan payments, creating a financial crisis for lenders.
Investment income is also crashing as companies slash dividends and stock market gains dry up. Oil exporters are facing a $1.2 trillion cut in annual income, and institutional property owners are facing steep declines as tenants stop paying rent and structural declines in employment will pressure rents lower in housing and commercial properties.
As the housing market implodes, capital gains from flipping houses will also collapse. As Corporate America realizes it no longer needs vast office spaces for its (reduced) workforce as millions are working from home, the demand for commercial properties will fall off a cliff, and the rental income generated by commercial property will also fall off a cliff.
Even if interest rates fall to zero, the interest paid by borrowers will not be zero. But even if borrowers get very low rates, they still have to make the monthly principal payments, which can each run into the hundreds of dollars. Lowering interest rates doesn’t reduce the principal payments or reduce the interest due to zero.
Indeed, the student loan and credit card rackets are experts at sucking borrowers dry with late fees and much higher rates than initially advertised.
Capital isn’t flowing into productive investments; it’s front-running the Federal Reserve’s free money for financiers in grossly overvalued stocks and seeking “dead money” safe havens.
The money that’s being sent to unemployed workers is borrowed, and small businesses are being offered loans, much of which will be forgiven if the funds are used to pay wages. In other words, all of these trillions of dollars being substituted for earned income are borrowed.
And with capital going to grossly overvalued Big Tech stocks and “dead money” safe havens, there are no capital flows which will support a return to commerce and productivity that will pay wages or generate investment income (unearned income).
Bulls can argue that “this time it’s different,” that debt doesn’t matter and earnings don’t matter, but where is the history to support their claim that capital flowing into overvalued stocks is going to generate earned income that can service the exploding debt load?
The crash has only just begun. Everything, including a rational, connected-to-reality, effective financial system, is on back-order and unlikely to ship any time soon.
Charles Hugh Smith
for The Daily Reckoning