The Death Spiral of Debt, Risk and Jobs   (May 9, 2012)

Debt, risk and employment are in a death-spiral of malinvestment and debt-based consumption.

Standard-issue financial pundits (SIFPs) and economists look at debt, risk and the job market as separate issues. No wonder they can't make sense of our "jobless recovery": the three are intimately and causally connected. An entire book could be written about debt, risk and jobs, but let's see if we can't shed some light on a complex dynamic in a few paragraphs.

Risk: As I described in Resistance, Revolution, Liberation: A Model for Positive Change, risk cannot be eliminated, it can only be shifted to others or temporarily masked.

Masking risk simply lets it pile up beneath the surface until it brings down the entire system. Transferring it to others is a neat "solution" but when it blows up then those who took the fall are not pleased.

Risk and gain are causally connected: no risk, no gain. The ideal setup is to keep the gain but transfer the risk to others. This was the financial meltdown in a nutshell: the bankers kept their gains and transferred the losses/risk to the taxpayers via the bankers' toadies and apparatchiks in Congress, the White House and the Federal Reserve.

Risk is like the dog that didn't bark. In the story Silver Blaze, Sherlock Holmes calls the police inspector's attention to the fact that a dog did something curious the night in question: it did not bark when it should have.

When scarce capital is misallocated to unproductive uses such as duplicate tests that can be billed to Medicare, sprawling McMansions in the middle of nowhere, etc., "the dog that didn't bark" is this question: what productive uses for that scarce capital have been passed over to squander the scarce capital on Medicare fraud, McMansions, Homeland Security ("Papers, please! No papers? Take him away"), etc.

Once the capital has been squandered, it's gone, and the opportunity to invest it in productive uses has been irrevocably lost.

Debt: Debt has a funny cost called interest. If you have a corrupt, self-serving central bank (a redundancy) that can lower interest rates by printing money to buy government bonds, then this funny thing called interest can be lowered to, say, 1%.

At 1% interest, the government can borrow $100 and only pay 1% in annual interest. That is almost "free," isn't it? The key word here is "almost." If you borrow enough, then that silly 1% can become rather oppressive.

Let's say the Federal Reserve is willing to loan you $100 billion at zero interest. You have an incredible sum of cash to use for speculation, and it doesn't cost anything! Wow, you must be an investment banker....

Now what happens when the interest rate goes from zero to 1%? Yikes, you suddenly owe $1 billion a year in interest. That is some serious change. You can of course pay the interest out of the borrowed $100 billion, unless you've spent it building bridges to nowhere and supporting crony capitalism.

Yes, we're talking about Japan--and Greece, the U.S., China, and every other nation that piled up staggering debts to fund an unproductive Status Quo. If you play this "borrow at low rates" Keynesian game for 20 years, then you end up with a debt that far exceeds your national output (GDP). That funny cost is now so large all your tax receipts generated by your vast economy only cover the interest and your Social Security tab. That's Japan today: all its tax revenues only cover its gargantuan interest on its unimaginably vast debt and Japan's social security outlays. The rest of its government expenses must be borrowed and added to the already monumental debt.

Interest creates a death spiral when the borrowed money was squandered on unproductive bridges to nowhere and consumption.

Jobs: Jobs have an interesting feature called productivity. If you pay me $1 million for a manicure (OK, you're an investment banker and can afford it), that money funds consumption, interest and taxes (presuming I pay taxes, which I might not if I hire the right Wall Street law firm). Once the money is spent on consumption (housing, energy, entertainment, hookers for the Security Guys, etc.), interest and taxes, then it's gone. It cannot be invested in productive assets.

If I invest the $1 million in software and robotics that produce equipment for the natural gas industry, then I will hire a software person to manage the software and technicians to maintain the machines, a few more to transport the raw materials and finished goods, a few more to oversee the accounts, and so on. The $1 million funds a number of jobs that will be permanent if the products being produced meet a real market demand and can be sold at a profit.

The $1 million spent on consumption pays for some labor, but it doesn't create any value. If we track where it went, it ended up in the government coffers as taxes, in the five "too big to fail" banks as interest, and in various agribusiness, food services and energy corporations. A few bucks were distributed as tips and donations.

Now imagine if that $1 million was borrowed. If the $1 million was squandered on consumption, interest and taxes, then it's gone in a short period of time--but the interest remains to be paid forever. If you're an investment banker and the Fed loves you (and of course it does), then you can roll that $1 million into a new $2 million loan. You use some of the $1 million in fresh debt to pay the interest, and then you blow the rest on unproductive consumption.

The causal connection between debt, risk and jobs is now visible. Debt is intrinsically risky because the interest accrues until the debt is paid in full. If the debt will never be paid--for instance, the $14 trillion in Federal debt--then the interest is eternal, or at least until the system implodes and all the debt is renounced.

If the money has been squandered on consumption (marginalized college degrees, medical procedures with minimal or even negative results, $300 million a piece F-35 fighter jets, etc.) then there are two risks: the interest that piles up must be paid, meaning potentially productive investments must be passed over to pay the interest, and productive uses that could have been funded by the borrowed capital have been passed over.

Consumption funds temporary labor, but there is no wealth created or sustainable employment created. When you borrow $100K for a marginal MBA, the money paid some staffers at the Status Quo educrat edifice and some overhead/profit, but when it's gone, the debt remains and the staffers need another debt-serf to fund their pay next semester.

If the borrowed money were actually invested in a marketable product (in our example, equipment for natural gas production), then jobs and wealth are created by the increase in productivity and output created by the enterprise.

What we have instead is a Central State and an economy that has borrowed and squandered trillions of dollars on consumption and malinvestment in unproductive "stranded" assets. The debt and risk pile up, while the labor that results from consumption is temporary and does not create wealth or permanent employment.

Figuratively speaking, we're stranded in a McMansion in the middle of nowhere, a showy malinvestment that produces no wealth or value, and we're wondering how we're going to pay the gargantuan mortgage and student loans.

Debt and the risk generated by rising debt create a death-spiral when the money is squandered on consumption, phantom assets, speculation and malinvestments. Sadly, that systemic misallocation of capital puts the job market in a death spiral, too.

Planting a garden is a revolutionary act!: largest discount ever from Everlasting Seeds. It's the perfect time to start your veggie/herb garden, and Everlasting Seeds is offering readers 15% off all products: Buy a Vegi-Max and share with friends!

For small gardens: The Simple Garden - Special price: $29.95 + $8.00 shipping
Contains 30 seeds of each:     Corn     Broccoli     Pea     Onion     Radish     Carrot     Cabbage     Tomato     Cauliflower     Spinach     Lettuce     Pole Bean

Lots of good charts in this look at The Doomed Middle Class:

Resistance, Revolution, Liberation: A Model for Positive Change (print $25)
(Kindle eBook $9.95)

Read the Introduction (2,600 words) and Chapter One (7,600 words) for free.

We are like passengers on the Titanic ten minutes after its fatal encounter with the iceberg: though our financial system seems unsinkable, its reliance on debt and financialization has already doomed it.

We cannot know when the Central State and financial system will destabilize, we only know they will destabilize. We cannot know which of the State’s fast-rising debts and obligations will be renounced; we only know they will be renounced in one fashion or another.

The process of the unsustainable collapsing and a new, more sustainable model emerging is called revolution, and it combines cultural, technological, financial and political elements in a dynamic flux.

History is not fixed; it is in our hands. We cannot await a remote future transition to transform our lives. Revolution begins with our internal understanding and reaches fruition in our coherently directed daily actions in the lived-in world.

If this recession strikes you as different from previous downturns, you might be interested in my book An Unconventional Guide to Investing in Troubled Times (print edition) or Kindle ebook format. You can read the ebook on any computer, smart phone, iPad, etc. Click here for links to Kindle apps and Chapter One. The solution in one word: Localism.

Readers forum:

Order Survival+: Structuring Prosperity for Yourself and the Nation (free bits) (Kindle) or Survival+ The Primer (Kindle) or Weblogs & New Media: Marketing in Crisis (free bits) (Kindle) or from your local bookseller.

Of Two Minds Kindle edition: Of Two Minds blog-Kindle

"This guy is THE leading visionary on reality. He routinely discusses things which no one else has talked about, yet, turn out to be quite relevant months later."
--Walt Howard, commenting about CHS on another blog.

NOTE: gifts/contributions are acknowledged in the order received. Your name and email remain confidential and will not be given to any other individual, company or agency.

Thank you, Dan T. ($50), for your marvelously generous contribution to this site--I am greatly honored by your steadfast support and readership.   Thank you, Loren F. ($50), for your supremely generous contribution to this site--I am greatly honored by your support and readership.

Or send him coins, stamps or quatloos via mail--please request P.O. Box address.

Subscribers ($5/mo) and contributors of $50 or more this year will receive a weekly email of exclusive (though not necessarily coherent) musings and amusings.

At readers' request, there is also a $10/month option.

The "unsubscribe" link is for when you find the usual drivel here insufferable.

Your readership is greatly appreciated with or without a donation.
For more on this subject and a wide array of other topics, please visit my weblog.


All content, HTML coding, format design, design elements and images copyright © 2012 Charles Hugh Smith, All rights reserved in all media, unless otherwise credited or noted.

I would be honored if you linked this essay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.

Terms of Service:
All content on this blog is provided by Trewe LLC for informational purposes only. The owner of this blog makes no representations as to the accuracy or completeness of any information on this site or found by following any link on this site. The owner will not be liable for any errors or omissions in this information nor for the availability of this information. The owner will not be liable for any losses, injuries, or damages from the display or use of this information. These terms and conditions of use are subject to change at anytime and without notice.



Making your Amazon purchases
through this Search Box helps
at no cost to you:

Add to your reader:


My Big Island Girl
Thrill the players to bits:
buy it via CD Baby or (99 cents)

Instrumentals by my friend
and mentor Coconut Charlie:

Crash Course
Secret Asian Man
Third Stone
Tonic Float

Survival+   blog  fiction/novels   articles  my hidden history   books/films   what's for dinner   home   email me