Monday, November 26, 2007

The Word You Want is "Depression"

Well, as the financial bad news comes in faster and thicker, the word "recession" is being bandied about, and a few brave souls dare even to call it by what it looks to be - a real Depression: deep, long, bad.

There are so many ugly pieces in this mix that it is hard to sort them all out. Shall we talk about the rising commodity prices - food and energy that are stripping people's personal economies? How about the problem of national debt, where each of us personally carry almost 200,000 of the nation's debt (let's not even mention the personal stuff). How about the credit crisis? Americans (and Brits, Canadians and Australians too, to a lesser extent) have funded their lifestyles with debt - if people stop handing out credit cards, mortgages and car loans (which is already happening), we're in trouble. There's the devaluation of the dollar - the rising prices for everything we get from China (that is, nearly everything). There's the danger of bank runs and the problem that the US dollar is the reserve currency for foreign nations. There are the tremors in the Chinese economy. I could give you twenty links, but the best source for all this information is Matt Savinar's site. Matt and I don't always see eye to eye on every issue, but he does a better job than anyone I know at Marshalling the economic data, so you might as well just go on over:

Actually, I will give you one specific link:
because I honestly think that the last few lines sum up what will be the defining issue - the mortgage crisis. The Business Week article above includes a quote that I think is particularly telling:

We all know that more hits from these subprime loans are coming, but are having a devil of a time figuring out how it will happen or how to stop it," said Lawler, who was once chief economist for Fannie Mae. "We've never been in this situation before."

Here's the thing - foreclosures are spiralling - some projections suggest as many as 2 million more next year than this. In fact, most of the loans that are having trouble may not be "subprime" anymore - the next tier up of mortgage loans are showing real signs of trouble, and even many good credit risks who bought in 2006 and 2007 are struggling to make payments. Some of those in danger will probably be bailed out by various state and national programs, but as the Boston Globe reported last week, such programs are so far, not doing much.

How this will play out in the long term is anyone's guess. My own take is that we will probably not develop a vastly expanded class of homeless people, simply because we've spent the last decade building insanely more housing than we could ever want or need - that is, in the end, the banks who get screwed will be grateful to get anyone into housing, at almost any price. What we'll see, IMHO of course, and this is a guess, is far more debt slavery than homelessness.

One other possible vision comes from James Fallow's summer of 2005 article "Countdownto a Meltdown." In it a fictional political consultant looks back from 2016 at the economic crisis that made America into a second world nation. I was struck, when I read it, by this particular passage because it sounds so very apt to me. Fallow writes,

When the market collapsed, Americans didn't behave the way economic theory said they should. They behaved the way their predecessors in the Depression had: they stayed in their houses, stopped paying their mortgages and waited for the banks to take the next step. Through much of the Midwest this was a manageable problem: the housing market had gone much less berserk to begin with, and, as in the Great Depression, there was a longer-term, more personal relationship between customers and financiers. But in the fastest-growing markets - Orlando, Las Vegas, the Carolina Research Triangle, northern Virginia - the banks simply could not wait. The deal brokered at the White House Security-in-Shelter Summit was ingenious: federal purchase of one million RVs and mobile homes, many of them built in idol auto or truck factories; subsidies for families who agreed to leave foreclosed upon homes without being evicted by marshals, such that they could buy RVs with no payments for five years; and the use of land at decomissioned military bases for new RV villages. But it did not erase the blogcam live broadcasts of families being evicted , or the jokes about the "Preachervilles" springing up at Camp Lejeune, the former Fort Ord and the Philadelphia naval shipyard."

I think here Fallow's predictions have nailed human behavior - we won't sell up or make rational choices. We'll default and wait for a bailout, and I suspect that some people, at least, will get one, because too much of the economy is tied up in the housing market not too. Perhaps it will be RVs, but more likely, I suspect, the government will bail out the collapsing building industry by setting them to retrofitting foreclosed upon housing that the government now owns because Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac bought them up. Toll Brother's new projects will be make the new projects - coming soon to a neighborhood near you.

For the rest of us, the days of picking up and moving are probably quite near the end - at least if you envision it as trading one house for another. Moving in with your Mom, however, will become quite popular I suspect. I've been asking my readers for several years to make a plan to go on from where you are now - I think that may well be what many of us have to do. There are places where houses are still selling, and there are bargains to be had on the foreclosure mart, but generally speaking, I think if we depend on equity from our present houses to carry us into our dream future, we're dreaming.

Do I know all this to be true? Absolutely not - I've said it before, I'll say it again - I don't understand how the giant financial edifice has stayed together this long, so I don't want anyone to bet too much on my predictions. I'm in good company now too - most of the economists I know are mystified too. When you ask them why we're not already deep in recession, mostly they admit to confusion - my friend Steve, a Professor at a local University, observed that "we're outside the markers." But I've noticed that none of the economists I know seems to think that we'll stay outside the markers for long.

My own suggestion would be to ask yourself this. If you knew you would be undergoing catastrophic job loss, for a long period in 3-8 months, how would you change your life? Would you blow it all now, run up the credit cards on holiday shopping? Or would you retrench, get rid of the cable and the meals out, put more in savings, pay down your debt, plan a bigger garden, do some job training for careers that won't go under like auctioneer and nurse and put some more rice and beans in the pantry? I would recommend that all of us work under the assumption that our jobs are toast - that we can expect to lose them and have a tough time getting them back. Start thinking long term now - how will you feed yourself and your family, where will you live, what will you do, what do you need. How will you go into peak oil and climate change from where you are now, with what you have now. Are there things you need? Ways to make it easier?

Could you start moving now into the informal economy? As Teodor Shanin, the founder of Peasant Economics observed, the financial collapse in the former Soviet Union actually, in the long term, improved the economic stability of many lower class Russians, as markets suddenly opened up for new, local products. The informal sector of the economy - subsistence, cottage industries, barter, local currency, criminal activity (ok, I'm not suggesting this ;-)) - these things make it possible for you to reserve what little cash you've got for things like paying the mortgage and the taxes.

If it doesn't work out badly, so much the better. But all of us will manage better if we have a plan, and the tools to get by. If I can give out one piece of advice it is this - go into 2008 prepared for the worst, hoping and praying for the best.



Anonymous said...

An interesting little tidbit that isnt getting much coverage.....the Chinese central authority has banned the issuing of bank loans for a period to try and slow down the mania for investing in their overheating stock market. Investors are now pawning (yes as in at a pawn shop) their apartments to get more cash.

I saw an interesting take on the current situation. In the 1920's Europe had lost its productive capacity from WWI and the USA turned on its factories to fill the demand. Europe went into debt and the USA had a speculative boom with all the extra cash and confidence, until the imbalance unwound in the great depression.

Now we have the USA as the unbridled consuming nation sinking into debt and China as the industrial powerhouse drowning in dollars. Once again the producers keep their currency weak to keep exports strong, and the consumers do the opposite, until the dam bursts.

Reading accounts of life in the 1930s great depression there seem to have been two successful strategies. Firstly those who kept out of debt, relied on the non-discretionary economy and were partially self sufficient for food did fairly well. Secondly those who had some skills in demand and no ties or responsibilities and could move wherever the oportunities were.

What bothers me is trying to figure out what will be the next cycle. Traditionally it is war and plague, in either order.

RAS said...

One problem I see with the idea of people moving back into foreclosed properties is that many of them aren't livable anymore. I talked to a friend in Cleveland last week and she said it's gotten so bad that every foreclosed house is looted within a week (and often two-three days). They take everything from the appliances to the plumbing and copper tubing. In other houses, they leave the plumbing but strip the heating/cooling units -so the pipes freeze and then burst and ruin everything. Part of it is done by outright criminals I'm sure, and part by desperate families who need money. If this is happening all over the country -as I suspect it is -then we have a lot of housing stock that would need a lot of rehab before being livable.

Myself, I don't know if we're in for a slow crash or a fast crash. But part of me wishes that either way, we'd just get on with it all ready.

Anonymous said...

Look at Samivar's article by Enddahl, here

He argues that it is a big deal that a Federal Judge in Ohio refused to evict 14 homes last week, because get this the bank, Deutsche Bank, couldn't show it had title to the homes it could only show a document showing "intent to convey the rights in the mortgage." That is the Federal Judge ruled that the exotic mortgage derivatives that have been floating around since the tech bubble burst in 2001 simply aren't good enough title to evict on.

THAT is the legal lever that can be used to keep people in their homes! OH its terrible news for banks, it means that 6.5$ Trillion in bank assets are unenforcable! And no one can see what that kind of write-off is going tot do. If this holds up at the Supreme Court it will destroy the banks, and keep the people in their houses.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

You know, Brian, I saw that article in my in box just before I came here to check comments - I was going to amend the article, but you beat me to it - thanks!!!


Anonymous said...

I think the economy as we know it is toast already, and the banks are coming down whatever efforts are made to keep them going. Therefore, I'd rather see people stay in their houses -- assuming they aren't suddenly underwater or in the middle of a desert.


Anonymous said...

So -- er -- in this coming post-apocalypse economy of yours, the one you're telling us we should plan for, this economy where we have to barter chickens we've raised in our suburban back yards and eat home-grown green beans every night -- how, exactly, are you going to keep on BLOGGING all of this gloom and doom of yours? Because, like, you won't be able to PAY FOR your INTERNET ACCESS -- right? Seein' as how you'll be BROKE like the rest of us. And even if you could pay for it, won't the cable company be BANKRUPT in the new kinda hip, kinda groovy, barterin', swingin', LOW tech, HUNTING AND GATHERING economy you're predicting? What then? Will there be a new FREE ACCESS Internet infrastructure consisting of TIN CANS and STRING? Are you going to start broadcasting via HAM RADIO? A traveling PUPPET SHOW? Or what.

How are YOU PERSONALLY "planning" for NO INTERNET after the BIG CRASH, dude? Because if it's a bad as you suggest -- your blogging days will be OVER. It'll be time to find a REAL JOB. Like you're telling us to do.

Won't it?

Anonymous said...

Why do you think we'll get depression instead of hyper-inflation?

Eric Chevrette has an article at

Using Elliot Wave Analysis to argue that the oil is set to be in the neighborhood of 145$ by March and 190ish by late 2008 (and gross by 2010). He sure changes font and bold styles a lot which is a warming bell for me, and Elliot Wave Analysis is kinda like looking at ink blots, but he doesn't strike me as dumb (maybe phony ...). But his model includes hyper-inflation beginning in early 2007.

Lots of other analyses include hyper-inflation soon. The Fed wants to prevent terrible inflation, but would surely prefer that to deep depression. The more dire the signs get the more tempting it must be for the powers that be to open the inflationary floodgates. Besides 2008 is an election year. Surely the administration will pull every dodgy trick it can to make things look up, even if that means inflation, or worse hyper-inflation. Boy I am over-using the word surely. Anyway, I will admit to being a little mystified that things seem to be veering to the outright-depression side rather than the actual-depression-disguised-by-inflation side.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Anonymous, Why do you think that blogging is my job? I don't get paid for it - not a single penny - not once. Never.

So why would you think that the internet going down would affect me much economically? I blog for my own entertainment, and it has led to me writing a couple of books - but if you think writing books supports my family, you have no idea how little they are paying me.

I run a farm, and yes, I expect people will still like to eat in a depression. I teach, and yes, I suspect people will still want their kids to learn things. I write, and I hope a few people will continue to buy books - if not, I'll teach and farm. If I can afford the internet, I'll keep it - I like it. But your assumptions are just silly.


Tasterspoon said...

I too am very worried about inflation, and I don't know how to protect against its effects, because I don't really know how it works. Is my money in the bank at risk? Or will interest rates keep pace? Should my bank account be invested in a home or something 'real' instead? I've been resisting because of the crazy house prices here in California. Is this why gold is so popular nowadays?

Frugality is great, but I don't think it'll compensate for my life's savings vaporizing via inflation.

Anonymous said...

I wonder why people seems to think that if we just stop talking about PO, GCC, Depression, etc. it just won't happen?


Anonymous said...

All money in banks is at risk, because the banking system as a whole is in a bad way. But that's largely because everything is at risk, because big changes are a foot in almost all things.

If you put your money in bonds, the risk is that they won't pace inflation. If you put it in housing the risk is they will continue to devalue. If you put in in stocks, the risk is the dollar is dying. Some people think that gold is a decent investment of last resort, and yes that is why it is popular.

The best thing to put your money in, is something you genuinely want for the future. A home or something real is a great investment if you plan to use it or give it to you heirs, less so if you hope to sell it again later. What do you need? What do you want? Another strategy is to hedge, invest in a little of this and a little of that, and hope that some of it keeps value.

A lot of the problem is a cycle of "bubbles" - the idea is there is more capital (at least nominally) out there than good investment opportunities. So capital flows into so-so investments, inflates them, attracts more money who think the sector is hot, until it becomes clear to all that the sector is over-heated and falling, and the investors seek the next bubble. There was a junk bond bubble, and then tech was genuinely strong for a while, and then there was a bubble, and when that burst, Greenspan intentionally engineered things to attract the capital into housing, and created the housing mess to delay the recession until after his retirement. Now that housing sucks, there are simply not enough "good" places for the capital to go instead, and we'll either get bad recession or some new bubble to delay things a little longer, or hyper-inflation which is recession-in-disguise.

You want to invest in something other than the real things you will need use and want for the foreseeable future? I wish I was in that good shape, so it is probably dumb to take advice from me, but I feel strangely compelled to give it anyway (I guess I just like blathering on other people's blogs, rather than grading the stack of tests I should be grading). How about investing in your own education? That's a great asset, especially if you feel like you don't know how inflation works. Or in art? Or in your local community? Or in the things from this culture that you value and hope will survive the trials to come. I beleive that people should put their money where their heart is. Life's savings are valuable, only when they can be manifest in your life in terms of things you want to be able to accomplish with them. Money-like investments (those which are highly-exchangable and retain value over time well) are like open possibilities for whatever you might decide to care about in the future. But decent money-like investments are hard to find these days. If you can't find good ones, then decide what you care about now and defend it with your investments. Or if your goal is to maximize expected return on investment, or to retain liquidity in the days when liquidity is tricky, then you need to consult professionals, and decide which of the conflicting sets of professional advice to trust.

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Not only are Anon's comments silly, they are rude. Plus, while I understand posting anonymously because of privacy concerns, it seems irresponsable and a bit cowardly to insult someone and not own up to one's comments.

-A respectful anon. poster

Anonymous said...

Hey neighbors,

We'll invest what little money we have in tools, music instruments, solar water heater and a 200 watt solar pv system. We'll buy lots of rice & beans and other foods that store well. Canning equipment and seeds, too. Books.

Build a composting toilet.

We'll buy used when possible.

(We already own a small paid-for energy efficient house w/land for gardening. We have a tandem trike.)

We'll buy local, invest in community. Help get a local barter system going. Money won't save you.

We have a little extra space to house others who might be displaced. Extra hands make light work.

I suspect the more we do for ourselves, the better off we'll live. Combined w/mutual support of neighbors, we'll get through this thing. Maybe even sing and dance a little.

During Great Depression families still lived on the farm - not til '40s did America become 50% urban. At Depression's peak, 30% of workforce was out of work...


jewishfarmer said...

I think Brian's advice about how to invest money is excellent. One place I might put money, if I had any ;-), is in community health care infrastructure. It depends on where you live, of course, but keeping up a fairly basic standard of care is, I think, essential to long lifespans and high quality of life. So, for example, you might consider in investing in a local young person who wants to get an RN or PA training. Help them pay for school, with the understanding that they will donate some time to the town if it is ever needed, with the understanding that they will help pass on public health knowledge and train local people to do first responding, blood pressure checks, nutritional information, etc..

Brian, I agree with you that the signs of inflation are there, and that may well be how it plays out - that we may have a inflationary cycle that functionally mimics a depression. My only doubt about this in the longer term is whether, if we are on the cusp of an energy crisis in the long term the number of people without any money won't exceed those with devalued ;-).


Anonymous said...

Lots of people with no money, and lots of people with devalued money work similarly in a lot of ways I agree. In practical terms, either way wealth goes to the informal economy, and barter and networks of social obligation, and the issues become what else you have besides money, and who do you know and owe favors to or vice versa.

But one big difference is in the structure of debt slavery. The US holds a huge debt, and many families hold huge debt burdens. And debt-slavery very much plays into the hands of what Heinberg calls feudal fascism, with emphasis on the top-down fascism, rather than the bottom up feudalism. The debt obligations to a distant outsider from before the crash (to a corp or govt) become the key bond of a tight social order. A decent period of hyper-inflation wipes out all of those distant dollar denominated debt obligations (and likely creates many local debt obligations denominated in favors owed to particular people who helped you get through hard times). Thus it seems to me that whent the current system can no longer be maintained a good dose of hyper-inflation is better than a simple depression, because it will push us to localism instead of top-down control. Of course, I suppose the Feds might see things the other way around for the same reason ... Then again, I'm deeply in debt so maybe that is why I am rooting for hyper-inflation.

Anyway I agree either way will hurt plenty and be similar in many ways. But I think it will make some real differences which way things go.

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Brian, would you mind explaining how "hyper-inflation wipes out all of those distant dollar denominated debt obligations " works? I am clueless about this kind of stuff. Thank you.

Susan in Ontario

Heather G said...

Okay, hard as L and I have been working on paying down debt, growing more food, learning more skills, etc., we'd still like to get a place of our own again, in a couple of years. Right now it's great living on the farm with the in-laws, but the sibling most likely able to buy the entire farm from the rest of the sibs (we all want the farm to stay as intact as possible) -- isn't L. Which means moving.

What do people think is the feasibility of saving up money for the next 1-2 years, in order to make a big fat downpayment on a small farm? Yes, I know none of us is a big-time financial wiz, but then again, they aren't doing so well either...

Anonymous said...

Heather, forgive my butting in, but if none of the sibs have children and none of them are planning any of them, then L's son in the only one in the next generations. What would happen if you and L put money toward helping the most likely sibs buy the farm in return for a life time right to live there and and option for L's son to buy or inherit?

MEA (who is so sure the economy is going bust in the next few weeks that looking two or three years ahead is painful)

jewishfarmer said...

Brian, I can understand rooting for inflation - I'd love to pay off the mortgage on the second parcel of land we bought with inflation dollars. But I'm not rooting for it, because, I'm sure you know, while inflation is in some ways good for the reasonably securely employed, it sucks badly for the elderly, the disabled, anyone on a fixed income and the unemployed or about to become that way - that is, if functions to take the already poor and vulnerable and really hurt them.

Not that all of these scenarios don't do nasty things to someone, but I tend to think that ordinary shlubs like me still have better avenues of resistance and more political power than the above folks, as bad as the problem of debt slavery is.

Not that they'll be letting us decide, will they ;-)?

Susan, I'm not Brian, but I believe I know what he's talking about - he'll correct me if I'm wrong I'm sure. The thing is, when rampant inflation happens, the price of everything goes up. Salaries compensate - the state goes crazy printing new money, and it takes a wheelbarrowload to buy bread. But your mortgage and credit card debt was created in existing dollars - so let's say you have 8K in credit card debt and a 250K mortgage, but inflation has taken off, and now you are getting paid 100K a year to work at your local library. Now 100K doesn't buy what 20K would five years ago in food or energy, but since there's no mechanism for your bankers to convert your debt to "real dollars" the one plus is you get to pay 50K over to your mortgage every year, because it isn't worth much, if that makes sense. This has happened in a number of countries already, and could happen here, although I don't think soon.

Heather, I think it really depends on the situation. As you say, none of us know. I certainly think there'll be a lot of property available for reasonable prices in the coming years. Whether any of us will have the cash for it, I don't know. How good are you at saving money? I know that probably sounds too blunt, but I ask because if you are good at it, and nothing awful happens to your jobs, you'll probably manage. If not, it can be tough.


Anonymous said...

Ok, I was speaking loosely, hyper-inflation doesn't really wipe them out, it just kinda does. I'll use myself as an example, and then the US Federal Government.

Our family owes over 100,000$ to our bank for our house, and to a student loan consolidation firm on my wife's student loans, and those are in dollars. Suppose that starting in Feb the dollar goes into hyper-inflation (at least 50% inflation per month by Cagan's standards, the International Accounting Standard counts far less severe inflation as hyper-inflation.) If you get 50% inflation for 10 months, the dollar is worth about 1/1000th of its previous value. So people spend 1000$ bills at coke machines, and 10,000$ bills at McDonalds and so on. Or more often, sane people avoid money entirely whenever possible, or use some hard currency that isn't going wonko, which is part of why the value of the currency keeps collapsing. In fact the only people that really want money at times like this are folk like me hoping to use it to pay off old debts. It is hard to get by at all at times like this, but if you can, its not that hard to pick up a couple 100,000$ to spare to pay off your creditors (it's only worth about what a 100$ bill is worth today). I take some of the mostly worthless money, pay it to my bank and student loan consolidation corporation and now I am out of debt. They go, great a bunch more worthless money, what am I supposed to do with this? But I have fulfilled my legal obligation to pay them a certain number of dollars. When they wrote the contract and agreed to the interest rate, they in effect bet that the dollar would still be worth owning when I paid them back and that its interest rate would be under the interest rate they offered me. If they suspected a big change in interest rates in the future, they would have pushed for an Adjustable Rate (as most have, I am lucky/foresightful to have a fixed rate). But everyone with Adjustable Rates, sees their monthlies skyrocket as the rates skyrocket and default. (Unless you get a 2-year delay as many do, then if you get quick massive inflation, you need to pay your way out of the debt before the month when the rate next adjusts).
But from my point of view, debts that I expected to have to plug away at month in and month out until the 2020s are paid off early and relatively painlessly (albeit while society as a whole is in dire trouble).

Perhaps the inflation will be milder. The dollar has lost 1/3 of its value in the last 4 years, so losing 1/2 your value per year instead of per month is still bad but not as bad. Many jobs would scale up salary as this inflation occurred, and most jobs would at least try to limp to keep up. But again as time went on, it would be easier and easier to pay off old debts (at least ones on fixed rates). In effect, all debts are being partially paid, and partially defaulted on, because the money they are being paid with is not worth what the creditor expected it to be worth. But it is all within the letter of the law, and it means the creditors have effectively lost a bet. Inflation hurts creditors and helps debtors. Deflation helps creditors and hurts debtors. Any sane economy has enough of both, that much inflation or deflation winds up hurting everyone in the long run.

But the thing is the US Govt has a stunning level of dollar denominated debt. Like 5 Trillion (publically held) and over 8 Trillion total. Or about 30,000$ for every man, woman and child in the US, (and more like 60K per actual worker). Much more than 3.5 times the govt's yearly income, which is the usual rule of thumb for a cope-withable debt load. Adam Smith argues that any government that gets more than a a little in debt, eventually winds up defaulting on the debt, or inflating their currency to partially-pay/partially-default on it. How the US has kept this up so long already is beyond me. Certainly, David Walker, the head of the GAO, the US chief accountant, and highest ranking non-partisan in govt, has been howling doom to any who will listen. (Although total US household debt was already north of 11 Trillion in '05, and I haven't seen a good figure for US corporate debt loads, but its pretty high too). As soon as people believe that the US will be unable to meet its debt, or will start inflating its currency seriously, they need to dump their dollars for something with a better future, and all signs point to this already happening slowly over the last few years, and picking up steam througout 07. In late Sept Iran's president called the US dollar "worthless" publically, for example. For more than a generation, every aspect of US life, has been built around debt financing and hoping the the future would be able to figure away out before the economy collapsed or the dollar lost all its value.

So normally you would expect a mortgage crisis and credit crunch to lead to depression and deflation. But with a government with a high debt load, the temptation to inflate your way out of the debt, especially if it allows you to keep up the illusion of economic growth a little longer has got to be very strong. And the mint has all the power it needs to inflate the heck out of the currency should it ever get the go ahead to do so. Make sense?

-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Sharon, in modest inflation, salaries go up to compensate, and the elderly and those on fixed incomes get screwed. In HYPERinflation, and here is International Accounting Standard 29's language "1) The general population prefers to keep its wealth in non-monetary assets or in a relatively stable foreign currency. Amounts of local currency held are immediately invested to maintain purchasing power.
2) The general population regards monetary amounts not in terms of the local currency but in terms of a relatively stable foreign currency. Prices may be quoted in that foreign currency."

That is to say the system breaks down and people go to the informal economy or foreign currencies. In hyper-inflation, the elderly and the unemployed go to the informal economy, and trade things in barter or favors, or social obligations (which are typically non-transferrable). For that matter no one is securely employed unless they can move their business model to a foreign currency basis. Certainly local librarians are are working the informal economy instead of being stably employed. That is to say everyone muddles through. And everyone needs community. And social obligations become more valuable and binding currencies than money. Librarians garden half time, and librarianify half time for personal favors for people.

I agree that inflation sucks, and hurts the retired elderly. So does total financial breakdown. Moderate depression might be better than moderate inflation for the least well off. But bad depression and bad inflation, leading to societal breakdown, I think hyper-inflation is better because it leads to localization, and local obligation networks, rather than top down frickin fascism. The argument isn't just, oh and by the way I benefit. It is this, if the system breaks down, it is better to have local bottom up economies and solutions, than top-down imposed heirarchies based upon the wealth structures of the past! It is better to be able to adapt to the new circumstances, than to be bound to old economic regimes.
-Brian M.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Brian and Sharon, for explaining about hyper-inflation and debt. I also did some reading about pre-WW2 Germany, which was informative. I do get it now.

Susan in Ontario

jewishfarmer said...

I agree broadly with you analysis, but a long enough period of growing inflation risks causing the elderly to sell off their assets early on, in the attempt to keep things going, which results in them not having a lot of informal economy opportunities.

And this may be purely personal - my husband and I have 7 parents between us. DH is an only child and I'm the only one who gets along with my Dad (and not that well ;-)). I'm personally much more scared of millions of destitute baby boomers, 7 of whom will be my parents than I am of debt slavery ;-). Of course, I've been paying down my debt like crazy for the last few years, but haven't done a damn thing to reduce my parent load ;-) (That last was a joke, in case anyone I love is reading this).

More seriously, I think we agree that either way we end up in the informal economy. The question is how we get there. I'm simply not convinced one choice is vastly better than the other.

But the larger truth is this - it is time for all of us to put a foot in the informal economy, so that we at least have a plans.

Me, I'm going to write apocalyptic pornography and sell it on the street ;-).


Anonymous said...

When I was in Bulgaria in 1992, 2 years into their special period, they had faced a 1 year 40% decrease in real PPP, and everyone had at least one foot (often both feet) in the informal economy. Cheap ass pornography printed on newsprint rather than magazine print and sold on the streets on little tables was in fact one of the commodities I remember. Also many old women made large batches of homecooked goods and sold them for the lunch-trade on card tables in the streets like permanent bake-sales. I don't think I ever saw both at the same table, but it would have been in the spirit of the times.

Neither of us can really effect the macroeconomics, and you're right the message either way is prepare for the informal economy. In family finance one way tends to help children and the other the elderly, and so again its kinda a toss up. For us, 4 of our 6 parents are far better off than we are. Its the governmental finance bit, I can't see how to sort out. Workers can probably cope with debt slavery or hyper-inflation. But what the heck is the Federal government going to do with its 8billion$ debt if we go into long term depression without a lot of inflation? It can barely service its debt as it is. Cut programs AND raise taxes? A lot? That will hurt the elderly at least as much as bad inflation will. And it will hurt the worst off elderly, who rely on government support, and government aid in health care, rather than the moderately well-off elderly who once thought they had enough money to retire. Can families cope with their debt burden? Maybe with difficulty. Can corporations? Some yes, some no, let some fail rather than play with moral hazard. Can the government? Not in any way I can see with out adding a huge burden to the already over-burdened families. And of course, the government is the one player in this drama that can actually effect the macroeconomics directly, by printing more money.

-Brian M.

Heather G said...

Heather, forgive my butting in, but if none of the sibs have children and none of them are planning any of them, then L's son in the only one in the next generations. What would happen if you and L put money toward helping the most likely sibs buy the farm in return for a life time right to live there and and option for L's son to buy or inherit?

Maybe I wasn't clear. I didn't say only Lyle has a child. There are 5 siblings in Lyle's generation. Only one of the 5 can afford to buy the farm (buy out the other sibs' shares, in other words) -- and it isn't Lyle. And that sib has two children. Not tthat this guarantees one of them will want to live at the farm as adults, but it's likely.

In the short-term, that means we will have to find another places to live. Ray (the sib w/$) doesn't want to maintain additional properties if he doesn't have to -- he may have more than us, but he isn't a millionaire. So, probably he'd want to move his family here.

Things are in flux, and I need to figure out our options.

Heather G said...

Heather, I think it really depends on the situation. As you say, none of us know. I certainly think there'll be a lot of property available for reasonable prices in the coming years. Whether any of us will have the cash for it, I don't know. How good are you at saving money? I know that probably sounds too blunt, but I ask because if you are good at it, and nothing awful happens to your jobs, you'll probably manage. If not, it can be tough.

This kind of answers my question, which was whether or not there's a point to saving money... Since we now rent at half what our mortgage was (plus it includes our heat), we can now really save money even with me out of work (partly recuperation time and partly because I do most of the bookkeeping, saving, growing, and sewing -- new job!). So in theory, we've gone from nearly $0 savings to ~$10,000 per year. It's rather mindboggling, actually. The house sale helped as well as the move -- we used the proceeds to pay off the car, one school loan, a couple of minor but high-interest credit cards, and a huge chunk of the best credit card (I prefer to use it for online purchases).

I guess I'm just wondering, with the way some folks are talking, if we're going to have a money-based system of any sort left in a few years?

Anonymous said...

Heather - I gave some dire examples to try to illustrate the point more clearly. We don't measure inflation in months yet, and we'll go through regular inflation before we get to hyper-inflation and people giving up on the dollar, and even then there will still be MONEY around, it will just be foreign. How quickly will things get bad is a difficult question, but even I'd be surprised if dollars were worthless in the US before 2010. (1/3rd of its current value? maybe, 1/1000th? I sure hope not, and if that starts up, quick folk can bail out on the way down.) Things can change quickly when people get panicky, so keep an eye out, but slower change is more likely.

If you can save, save and use it to buy up stuff when it is cheaper. Some people are already beginning to save in euros instead of dollars, and I think that will become more attractive and popular over time. When EXACTLY should one switch their savings from dollars to euros? Tricky, ask a professional, and even then they are largely guessing. There is a trade-off between protection and liquidity. Dollars are easier to spend, Euros are probably safer. My meager savings is still in dollars, 'cause we figure we might need to use it in the next few years. If you're saving for a big purchase more than a few years from now, Euros might make more sense. Odds are high that you can move them back to dollars later if need be. Moving the currency back and forth is a hassle, and the money-changers take a little bit of it, but if you foresee the dollar eroding badly between now and when you hope to spend the money it might be worth it. Likewise, the banking system is in trouble, so picking a safe bank might be tricky. I don't have any real advice there, its kinda a crap shoot. FDIC covers assets of 100,000$ or less per depositor, so that even if your bank goes under the Feds will pay you back (as long as you pick an FDIC bank). So even if your bank goes down, it is likely to be a lot of hassle but not a terrible problem for the small depositors. (Hmm, I assume FDIC covers Euro denominated funds, but it might not, if not that would change the strategies a lot.)

Maybe things are bad enough to prefer Euros, or for people over the FDIC limits to look for other options. But things aren't bad enough to avoid saving entirely if you can save! We're in a house, largely because the mortgage is cheaper than local rent. If you're in a place where rent is cheaper than local mortgage, then renting and saving is a fine strategy, and you just need to keep on top of things if inflation starts heating up badly.

-Brian M.

jewishfarmer said...

Heather, I don't know if we'll see rampant inflation at all, I don't know what we'll see. I think money will be around for a while - we just may not have much or it won't be worth much.

Can I make one suggestion - if you can, consider buying in a comparatively inexpensive area, and buying now. If you can save
10K this year, buy soon, and then do the same thing from you mortgage position - buy beneath your means, if you can find a good foreclosed property do that, if not, buy much smaller than you would have ideally. And then live as cheap as possible and pay down the mortgage fast. That way you get the benefits of living on your land and improving your property with the benefits of having little debt (eventually). Or consider buying with friends or extended family.

But my personal take is that I'd want to be on my land sooner than later - soil improvement takes time, getting fruit and berry bushes producing takes time, building community takes time, building informal economic structures takes time. Everything you need to do to get ready takes time - so if you can do it (and not everyone can) the best possible hedge might be to do exactly what you are doing - scrimp and save - but from your property. You might find an owner financed property in a rural area, for example. But the sooner you get there and start putting down literal and metaphorical roots, the more secure you'll probably be.


Heather G said...

Brian, thanks for a better idea of theoretical timelime. I'd been thinking we had a few more years -- my goal is to be on our own plot of land by no later than 2010 -- 2009 would be better. Cost of real estate is slowly flipping here between the cit and the country, w/ city prices edging up here and there. Yes, our funds are currently in an FDIC protected bank -- I'm kind of horrified that any other type exists, to be honest.

Sharon, cheap here currently means unworkable, but we're continuing to keep an eye on things. Ideally, we'd like to stay in/near the folks, even if it costs a little more. We may spend some time next year learning more about foreclosures and how that market works. My BIL Ray may be able to help us with understanding that market...

Meantime, I'm looking to re-build the garden, but will probably put a lot of it into pots or those SWCs, for less work a couple years down the line! And, we'll get in that rainwater catchment building practice while we're here -- one of our contributions to keeping the family farm going.

Thanks for the examples, discussion of the dollar/euro, and suggestions!

Bird said...

This is well written, thanks for taking the time to put this into words. Based on this and other things I've read, I'm pretty confident is some kind of market crash next year, and am trying to plan now.

We are trying to rid ourselves of debt, but coming off house build that went over, we are having a hard time figuring out how to handle it. We have $20k on credit cards, $180K 30 year mortgage, and owe some to family members. But we have an ecological home with 9+ acres and solar panels.

We've been thinking about cashing out our retirement (just over $100k) to pay off credit cards, car loan, and family, which would leave a little money. With the 10% penalty and taxes, I hesitate. But assuming the market is going to crash, it might. Do we then refinance the mortgage? Or hold the cash?

Any advice greatly appreciated.

Anonymous said...

We have a fixed rate mortgage (affordable) and live in the country. We have a backup gas generator, and waterfurnace. We have few debts....some medical, some student loans, but that's it. No credit card debt on our card.

Does anyone have any advice on how to garden or what to do to be ready for the upcoming inflationary depression?

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