Tuesday, March 18, 2008

The Reset Button

“What now remains compared with what then existed is like the skeleton of a sick man, all fat and soft earth having wasted away, and only the bare framework of the land being left.”
— Plato, Critias

I am a dugout canoe trip up river in the Maya Mountains of Southern Belize not far from the Guatemalan border. Miraculously, we have a Hughes Net satellite dish in the camp here, powered by a Southwest Windpower Air-X and some BP polyamorphous solar panels. It is a great place to sit and watch the decline and fall of the Petroleum Empire.

Over the weekend, Bear Stearns was bought out by JP Morgan Chase for about one-quarter of the real estate value of their mid-Manhattan office tower. It was a spectacular fall – from $145 per share on Thursday to $30 on Friday to $2 per share on Sunday. One can only lament the fate of New York state and local government pensioners, including schoolteachers, firefighters and welfare caseworkers, who have $68 million of their retirement nest egg in Bear Stearns stock. If the Bear gives Morgan Chase indigestion, retirement for NY state workers could be less than rosy.

The financial news is all abuzz with the prospect that the Bear will not be the last casualty. Thanks to Matt Savinar at LATOC for these links:
Asia Times: What You See is What the Worse Case Scenario Looks Like;
Business Week: A Red Flag for Bank Liquidity;
CNN: The Magnitude of This Meltdown is Unprecedented;
CNN: Can the Fed Stop the Dominoes from Falling?;
Fortune Magazine: This is the End of Wall Street as We Know It;
London Independent: Financial Markets Have Seized Up;
London Times: City Shaken as Events on Wall Street Unravel;
MSN Money: Wall Street Turmoil Quickly Spreading to Main Street;
NY Times: The Unthinkable Is About to Become Inevitable;
San Francisco Chronicle: Economic crisis worsens. Is anyone in charge?;
Guardian: We're Surprised Americans Aren't Rioting in the Streets by Now;
Wall Street Journal: Crisis Sends a Stake Through the Heart of Wall Street;
Washington Post: There Has Never Been a Crisis This Comprehensive.

Sandy Chen, of UK analysts Panmure Gordon, said: "This is not a liquidity crisis, it's an insolvency crisis." Asia Times: Losses to Come Will Probably Wipe Out the Banking System

It won’t do you any good to try to change dollars to euros in those street kiosks in Amsterdam. They have stopped accepting dollars.

To date, the US and EU central banks have put up $2.5 trillion worth to bail out banks and bond markets. They are doing this to prevent a total banking collapse. If you read all of the above and have become concerned, you might think to go to the bank and take out your money, might you not? As of December, the FDIC was covering $4.3 trillion in insured deposits in the United States with a fund of $52.4 billion. If more than 1.22% of depositors ran to their bank, the FDIC would have to declare insolvency. L.A. Times: Several Major Financial Institutions Are Going to Fail.

Assuming you get your money back from the bank, what will be the value of holding dollars? Here is a chart of the U.S. money supply during the past 15 months, courtesy of Catherine Austin Fitts:

This week gold traded at $1,031 while silver rose above $21. That tells us that people are dumping currency, stocks and bonds for something more tangible. Oil went north of $112/barrel, and the cornucopians say that has to do with dollar concerns. Goldman Sachs Says Oil Could Reach $175 a Barrel Soon.

But can gold and other commodities' high prices hold? A reader of The Daily Reckoning suggests gold may take a detour back to $400 or lower simply because in the deflation to come, which will be brought on by an escalation of the current liquidity crisis, gold will be sold off to pay for margin calls. Then, if gold is re-valued later as the standard against which all currencies will be measured, it might fall under international price controls, so that suggests some not inconsiderable risk in the flight to gold. Other metals, and the commodities you eat, are less susceptible, because they are getting scarcer by the day, even as world population continues to rise. There may be a bit of a hard asset glut in the short term, however.

On March 15th, the Wall Street Journal explained that, after years of relying upon foreign debt to finance the U.S. economy, "The U.S. is at the receiving end of a massive margin call: Across the economy, wary lenders are demanding borrowers put up more collateral or sell assets to reduce debt."

The U.S. Treasury is not at the bottom of its financial barrel, but if you push a stick down there, you can hear it scaping. Of the $709 billion in Treasury bills — borrowed money — 60% has now been applied to bailing out Wall Street. The Fed is committed to new T-bill auctions to raise $430 billion. Lowering the rates will not help sell these bonds, because the latest 0.75 percent drop puts return on investment already well below inflation, and with the need to print more dollars to bail out more banks, and possibly even buy the sour collateral held by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, inflation must needs rise farther. It is like sitting by the river and watching your retirement cash float by, dollar after dollar. Can the Euro move quickly enough to become the world's reserve currency and keep the currencies of the rest of the world from going over the falls after the dollar? Stay tuned.

Looking around here in Belize, while this relatively impoverished country is not immune to the wave of failures in world financial markets (the US dollar is a second currency here and the Belizian dollar is pegged to it), they at least grow a lot of food. They will not starve when there is no longer enough gasoline to take them to the grocery store.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008


the Nanking Cherry
blooming in a rainy mist
pink flowers on silk
Haiku for Stephanie Mills, 4 Mar 08

The rain and 70-degree temperatures (21 C) have given way to another Canadian clipper sweeping the Tennessee highlands with snow flurries. The birdsong and spring peepers have gone silent and the ponds are frozen over again.

I am off to Belize to teach a 2-week permaculture design course at the Maya Mountain Research Farm up river from San Pedro Colombia near the Guatemalan border. Half the class are Mayan farmers who want to redevelop agroforestry in an ecologically sustainable way. The other half is a mix of Central American and Unidian activists wanting to get a grip on the future and some of our options during and after petrocollapse, including the man who coined the term, Jan Lundberg.

It is becoming more obvious by the day that the Long Emergency has begun, ignited by the subprime meltdown that has gone global now. If you look at the schedule of rate resets for adjustable rate mortgages, what we experienced in 2007 was only a foreshock. Later this month we start the second round of resets, and the number of those coming in 2008 is more than quadruple all of the resets in 2007, and then even more arrive in 2009, 2010, 2011. The financial sector losses in 2007 are now estimated at 1 trillion dollars, approximately the net value of the U.S. banking industry. What does quadruple that look like? Efforts by government to place moratoria on rate changes, foreclosures or evictions are temporary palliatives, because someone is always left holding the bag, and that someone is also part of the economy.

Like most baby boomers, I am reaching my retirement years, although I have to say retirement is not part of my lexicon. The concept is as foreign to me as punching a clock, something I have almost never done, except as a young roustabout or temp’ing for Farm Hands to make the communal basic budget. Work is the visible expression of love, and if you design your life’s work well, it is just a way of getting paid for doing what you love. Why would anyone retire from that?

Still, I am left after 60 years with some IRAs that are now ready for harvesting, and that pushes me to make choices to try to secure the nest egg. If money — ie: the national currency — and securities — ie: the stock market — are becoming worthless and risky, where do I put the egg? Well, apart from expanding the garden with more deer fencing, laying in extra firewood and enlarging the root cellar, I can make a couple of educated guesses for asset conservation and appreciation in the mid-term.

I am out of big energy stocks and my alternate energy stocks are doing poorly. I think market direction may matter too much for those kinds of investments. More recession-resistant investments for me now include Apple Computer (AAPL), available this week with a 35-percent-off pre-MacWorld discount, and Central Fund of Canada (CEF). Whether Apple sells 10 million iPhones this year doesn’t matter that much to me because iTunes and computers are still the core for their business and in a recession, everyone tightens their belts and stays home. Computers, Skype, TV and movies on demand, and internet services will boom.

Central Fund of Canada is a specialized closed-end investment holding company where a lot of pension money in Canada is parked. It holds 90% of its assets in unencumbered, allocated, segregated and insured gold and silver bullion, primarily in bar form. CEF does not speculate with regard to short-term changes in gold and silver prices. On a physical basis, 50 ounces of silver are held for each ounce of gold and CEF’s value has risen with the rush to silver, jumping from $9 per share in October to around $14 today. The second hedge with CEF is that it is traded in Toronto in Canadian dollars, not the greenback. Canadian dollars are now at parity and headed higher, tracking the rise of the Euro as the dollar crashes.

CEF 1 yr price

And that is all I will say about the stock market. Wax your board.

Here is a recipe adapted from a decade-old issue of Vegetarian Times that seemed to be appropriate as we clear out the winter food storage in preparation for the Spring harvest. By now your early peas should be looking good and the strawberries are poking out of the snow. But what to do with those aging cabbages and all that dried basil? Here's a hearty dish that will warm your soul on a chilly evening.

Cabbage Spaghetti
4 to 6 Servings
  • 15- to 19-oz. (1 ½ to 1 ¾ c.) cooked pinto beans
  • 1 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, slivered
  • 4 medium cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 medium carrots, diced
  • ½ medium head cabbage, shredded (4 c.)
  • 1 Tbs. chopped fresh basil or 1 tsp. dried
  • ¾ tsp. sea salt
  • 2 ½ c. vegetable broth or water
  • 1/3 c. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • ½ tsp. freshly ground pepper
  • 12 oz. dried whole-wheat spaghetti
  • 1 c. shredded Fontina cheese (3 oz.) or (for vegan) 1 c. tofu blended with 1 tsp lemon juice and ¼ c. nutritional yeast.
  1. Bring large pot of lightly salted water to a boil.
  2. Meanwhile, measure out 1/4 cup beans and mash in small bowl; set mashed and whole beans aside.
  3. In large nonstick skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and cook, stirring often, until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add garlic, carrots, cabbage, thyme and salt and cook, stirring, until cabbage has wilted, 3 to 4 minutes.
  4. Stir in broth and reserved mashed and whole beans; bring to a simmer. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until cabbage is tender, 15 to 20 minutes. Stir in parsley, vinegar and pepper.
  5. Shortly before sauce is ready, add spaghetti to boiling water; stir to prevent sticking. Cook, stirring often, until just tender, 8 to 10 minutes. Drain well and place in large warm serving bowl. Add cabbage mixture and cheese or tofu and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Quote of the month:

"There have been seven disasters since humans came on the earth, very similar to the one that's just about to happen. I think these events keep separating the wheat from the chaff. And eventually we'll have a human on the planet that really does understand it and can live with it properly." James Lovelock, in The Guardian, March 1, 2008




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