Days of Discontent : Trends Issue Transition points in the Global Financial Crisis

 

Days of Discontent : Trends Issue Transition points in the Global Financial Crisis

Mary-Anne Moore

Originally published August 6 2011

By now, the fall of 2008 seems a distant memory, or perhaps better thought of as a bad dream. The ‘world financial crisis’, ‘the great recession’, the ‘banking collapse of 2008′, ‘the stock market collapse’; there were many names for what is still happening today. The trend is large and global and still unfolding in all its unvarnished details. At certain places along the way, somewhat predictable transition points occur. This trend had been building up steam over the years, and was run full tilt after the events of 9/11 settled, under the Bush Administration. No one wants to lose the election because of a bad economy. The wealth it created from the dynamics, became an addiction for the players that were benefiting, who turned a blind eye. This included everyone from the subprime homeowners who must have had some idea that this was not something they really could sustain, to the CEO’s of major banks who could easily see the writing on the wall. When it became apparent to the major players involved that the bubble was about to burst, the focus shifted to managing this event for the best possible outcome. By 2007 the housing market had turned in the USA. M. Panzner releases his book ‘Financial Armageddon…’ in 2007. By the spring of 2008 Fannie May and Freddie Mac had been considered for nationalization, according to rumours online. There were signs of stress. Bear Stearns failed. By June of 2008 the ‘Hindenburg Omen’  had happened. R.B.S. and others were telling their clients to get out of the stock market. The election was starting to loom large on the horizon. Everything triggered at an opportune moment, interestingly enough. Some media reported the line that ‘no one saw it coming’.

A stock market bubble nears the bursting point by an election, bursts, sending shock waves throughout the global banking system, much of it already in crisis mode. Everything is thrown into a panic mode. Shortly after companies living on extended leverage to maximize profit and compete globally, are out of easy access to cash and fail or have massive layoffs.  Much later, the second wave in the monthly mortgage reset charts starts coinciding with the political footballing of debt ceilings and uncertainty, and a political union that never worked out the details of monetary union is unable to deal with a partially submersed balloon of debt. When you look back at it, one can see why things happened the way they did, at the time they did. Looking at the graphs below, one can see the second wave peak being pushed down the road.

Macro-trends are so large they awash all, in their wake. Often it is like trying to stop the tide from coming in, you know it is approaching, but what to do.  Our analysis of them let us try to minimize the severity, and reshape their path somewhat as they unfold. Being aware of them helps us adjust to our future needs, and hopefully find the time to react accordingly. The further we can see in the future of macro-trends, especially the critical trends and transition points, the more time we will have to react. Hopefully if we know, we can act in the best interests of society as a whole. Unfortunately the bulk of trend watching, which is in itself a very trendy niche the past few years, is done for profit of some sort. Macro-trends are difficult to ‘feel’ in any detail, because of the complexity involved, and are difficult to read as much of the data tends to be inaccurate, incomplete, and overly extrapolated. Immediate economic or political reasons often drive the response agenda, which do not always focus on the larger issues in play. But do we really understand how to navigate, if we do not know what direction to take for the long term? If we are only driven by short term interests, who is managing our longer term interests?

Gold has shot up dramatically in this latest crisis point, with values testing the $2000/oz mark. Hugo Chavez has even caused a stir in the rocketing gold market by announcing his plans on repatriating his gold abroad and nationalizing gold production located in his country. Gold, the dollar, and stocks are playing musical chairs with investors, as money chases safety, and a chance of profits in the volatility. Higher levels of fear and frustration are being reflected in the general populace as discontent festers. There have been periodic outbursts of social unrest in Europe, but continued joblessness and the stress of volatility may exacerbate unrest in the US, with a triggering event.

‘History Made’

In the relative quiet of a hot summer weekend, news emerged of the historic downgrade on the American debt from triple AAA status. While the American dollar remains the world’s reserve currency, a psychological bridge has been crossed in the world, and it is really this that will have the larger impact on world economics. In the larger context, the huge imbalances that have held despite pressures to the contrary, will have been changed by a seemingly insignificant event to some. It was a shift in perception, articulated. It will be remembered as historic, more for this. The event would have come at some point or other, in some shape as this, but it has arrived now. The larger the economy, and America has a huge economy still, the larger the impact. The blame game has begun, but in all fairness this imbalance has been around for many years, as the ‘elephant in the room’ no one cared to speak about, or deal with. Increasing national debt covered the effects of increasing trade imbalances, and unfunded domestic obligations. This ‘elephant’ was not only an American issue, but existed in many a country’s closet. A ‘herd of elephants’ if you will. As ‘it’ stood quietly in the corner, we stopped seeing it and life seemed to continue along its way. The creature has been awoken with this transition point in the global financial crisis like some terra cotta figure come to life, and is in play now. It will be a natural reaction to try and make it go ‘back to sleep’, but the likelihood of this, is a function of political cohesiveness of actions done for the good of a country, in a climate of ‘what can you do for me’. In a pre-election year the turmoil is expected. The larger part of the problem unaddressed is not really how to put the elephant back to sleep, but how to regain its health. How to put it on a diet and give it the exercise it needs to be healthy again. The analogy is useful in that you cannot starve the beast to health by severe austerity, nor can you not do the required exercises to transition the economy to where it should be, and modernize it along the way to the new reality. True health cannot be achieved by dieting alone, cutbacks must allow a focused jobs plan that is future orientated and takes into consideration the evolving context of the situation.

What will be unexpected is the size of the social wave of discontent that will follow. This will prove problematic for governments, and for political parties as an unhappy population breaks its trust of traditional parties and institutions, and reaches out to express itself in new political movements, beyond the Tea party. Radicalization along the lines of the 60′s will re-emerge. Themes from revolutionary eras will be brought into current focus, as wealth disparities only increase in this time. We will see ‘waves of social unrest’ emerge from the wake of the Global Financial Crisis, as we fall into a direction change with this transition point.

2012 

The Second Wave of the financial crisis continues particularly in Europe where the downgrading of EU countries, and political crisis it engendered threatens the Eurozone. The political restructuring of Europe is occurring in response to the crisis.The periphery of the EU is in shambles as regions and countries such as the Baltics and Poland struggle with collapsed economies and banking systems, a by-product of mortgages denominated in Euros but paid back in the currency of the land, now sharply depreciated. The population now resentful of their earlier goals of joining western Europe, look toward other alliances such as the Baltic region, and whose interests are now being curried by the hand of Russia. In America, the United States struggles with continued unemployment and regulatory challenges, as the 2012 election begins to heat up the national political scene. In Canada, the regulatory framework of the banking system has saved it from the devastation of other regions, but the struggles of its major trading partners and the debts various levels of Canadian governments have, and are deciding to address, will begin to have a major impact in 2012 along with the demographics of a later boomer generation. The first boomers, born in Canada in 1947, will not reach the traditional retirement age of 65 until 2012.

Europe has its moment of social fireworks heighten as the battle over the epicentre of European debt, in particular Greek debt, is being fought over both politically, financially, and socially, with demands of extreme austerity by rescue packages being rejected by a population that no longers cares. By April the Greeks should know the extent of the austerity demands and bailouts amounts that will or will not be coming to a more measured degree, that should light the fuse for the periphery of the EU to rethink their EU imperative. What ever the case, shock waves can be expected to impact the global markets to some extent. This along with rising oil prices may cause a demarcation, a critical transition point for the global economy.



 

My Rose Colored Glasses…Trends Issue – Global Pension Funds Crisis

MaryAnn Moore
3/20/2011



For some of us the day we finally are able to retire and collect our pension check is a day that has longingly been looked for. But for many it may come as a rude shock to find it wasn’t what we had been promised, that somewhere along the way the secrets that had been swept under the rug, are now painfully out in the open. Most pension funds were never properly funded in the first place, and the financial collapse of 2008 has only made the predicament worse, often as a result of ‘funds in funds’ structured investing with little due diligence. The problem is coming to light as states, provinces, and municipalities are struggling to rectify their underwater budgets and have a limited ability to pay what they promised. U.S. state pension funds face an estimated shortfall of at least one trillion dollars for employees’ pensions and retirement benefits, according to the Pew Center on the States, with Illinois in the worst shape, with only 54% of its pension obligations funded. Over the last ten years , many states had shortchanged their pension plans in good times and bad. The Center’s director called the period of time as ‘a decade of irresponsibility’. In the U.S. there has been for some time a shift away from employer defined benefit programs to defined contribution programs to employee controlled, 401K type plans. With staffing cutbacks and early retirement in place, they are frequently faced with having more retired obligations than working ones. States are also mandated under their Balanced Budget Amendment to not spend more than their income, and requires a balance between revenues and expenditures. The legacy of unsustainability of entitlements and obligations versus the real economy has diverged to the point that a reconciliation of these two trends will be an explosive and difficult process. The Federal Government has tried to offset the budget pressures with the ARR Act and the State Fiscal Stabilization Fund, but these are running out, and the realities of Baby Boomers retiring have created a state budgetary crisis. Some 45 states and D.C. are projecting budget shortfalls for 2012.

The Republican ‘United States’ vs. America – Part One

Republican state such as Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana are considering or currently tabling legislation. Indiana has tabled legislation making it a Class A Misdemeanor for an employer to require an individual to become or continue as a member of a labour organization, or pay dues to such an organization. It would seem to be a challenge to both the blue collar worker, and the existing interpretation of the First Ammendment in regards to the ‘Right of Association‘, although the arguement is made around the ‘Right to Work‘. Democrats are trying to stall and stop this process where possible, with their power base long having been in the labour unions.

Pension Plans have had problems identified with their structure from the seventies. Anthropologists (O’Barr and Conely, ‘Fortune and Folly…’) have examined the process from a behavioural perspective and concluded the governance process was ‘culture bound, pseudoscientific, fawning in their relationship with outside service suppliers, blame deflecting, and generally ineffective’.  In 2003, Keith Ambachtsheer, using the CEM database found that the typical US pension fund carries six times as much policy risk as active managment risk, relative to it’s liabilities. He also stated that the worst errors can be traced to an industry-wide focus on maverick risk, as most work as agents, not principals, making it easier to fail conventionally, than succeed unconventionally.1.

In his book ‘Pension Revolution’ Ambachtsheer reviews a process which could transition pensions from what he labels as ‘fuzzy pension deals’ to ‘risk sharing co-ops’ and ‘the optimal pension system’ known as ‘TOPS‘. TOPS is to deal with the ‘human foibles issue’ by using auto-enrollment, and auto-pilot mechanisms that dynamically adjust individual contribution rates over time, and links optimal investment policy for each participant to their age. TOPS are to be run by arm’s length expert pension co-ops to minimize inherent conflicts, and the high cost that the run for the biggest profit financial service industry brings to the table. He envisions pension funds being run from the inside out, rather than by external agents from the outside for their own purposes.This format is already used in Australia and the Netherlands, where all workers are mandated to join, and by doing so are highly motivated to engage in reviewing processes, and building a better system. Even in Britain, the Turner Commission Report for the National Pension Savings Scheme advises for auto-enroll, with an opt out clause, and auto-pilot mechanisms for a life cycle investment approach, and to use retirement savings for life annuities. It recommended the structure of the NPSS as an arm’s length, expert pension co-op.

Canada, however, is looking at ‘pooled registered pension plans’ that is targeted for middle-income private sector workers and the self-employed. It is in essence a defined contribution Registered Pension Plan, with third party administration. The hope is that by pooling together plans, the group will benefit from lower investment management costs, improvements in fiduciary duty, and allow for portability. It is to be voluntary in membership.The concern is that its adds an additional burden to employers, along with the usual CPP deductions, and that ultimately it will result in a cut to employee pay.

Ireland has been hit very hard by both the collapse and partial recovery of the equity market in 2008, of which it’s pension fund was heavily weighed, and the stress of the it’s banking system failures. It had been predicted that up to 50% of pension funds in Ireland were set to collapse in 2009 without government intervention. Over 90% of pension plans in Ireland are of the defined benefit structure, and companies were looking at the option of declaring bankruptcy, to escape their obligations. The current coalition government between Fine Gael and Labour, is looking at what state assets to sell to deal with their financial crisis. The state is planning on issuing a sovereign annuity bond to Irish pension funds, that will provide a high yield, to help stabilize the situation somewhat. There is also consideration of issuing infrastruture bonds, rather than selling off state assets. However the bonds are designed, the problem they are trying to solve remains difficult.

Other European countries are examining the effect of raising the retirement age, on their obligations. There has been social protests over these changes in several countries, but these changes are minor, when compared to the actual effects of a plan bankruptcy, as what has happened in several companies and small cities in the U.S.

‘A Tale of Two Cities’

In Pritchard, Alabama, the city simply stopped paying pension checks. The pension fund was predicted to be out of money by July 2009, and the city filed for bankruptcy, but had it’s petition thrown out of court. Unfortunately for most of it’s pensioniers and contributors, Pritchard does not have the means to pay. It had been a city that peaked in the 1970’s at a population of 45,000, and now only has 27,000 residents and 144 retirees. The city has had chronic problems, and is in decline. In 1999 the city declared bankrutpcy when it’s finances were a mess, the pension fund had been in trouble at that time. The city ignored a court order to replenish the funds. In Setember 2009 Retired Fire Captain Alfred Arnold was 66, and his checks stopped. He was forced to return to work, which he found in Mobile Alabama as a security guard for a mall. The retirees had not been paid at that time (Feb 2011) for 17 months, and 14 retirees had died during that time period. Some of the retirees have stated that if there is no money for them, then there should be no money for city administrators also. Since that time, 2 more pensioners have died, one retired fire fighter died in a house without electricity, running water, heat or gas. There has been a proposal to offer the pensioners around 40% of their entitlement, and the city is still working on a solution.

Another city that has declared bankrupcy, Vallejo, California, is a city that contrasts sharply to Pritchard. It became, with a population of 121,000, the state’s largest city to declare bankruptcy in 2008. It had been rather lavish in pay, as compared to other cities in the state, for it’s public workers, and 74% of the cities annual budget was taken up by fire, police, and pension obligations. When it declared bankruptcy however, while it reduced some health benefits for retirees, it did not touch pension contributions. Retirees still enjoy their benefits although the police force has been markedly reduced, and the city cut funding for seniors and youth centers, arts organizations, and did little for business, even though the bankrupcy judge held the city ‘had authority to void its existing union contracts in an effort to reorganize’. Obviously, the city had a different perspective.

‘A Demographic Timebomb’

Much of the underlying beliefs, that facilitate ignoring the funding issue, have thoughts that reflect the live today, pay tomorrow, creed of our consumer culture, and feelings that the next generation will have to deal with it.What many Boomers have forgotten is that the generation following them is significantly smaller, much less affluent, and will be totally unable to fill the huge hole in funding. Boomers will not be able to retire in the style they are expecting to live in. In 2005, there was 5 workers in the U.S. to fund 1 retiree, and by 2030 there will only be 3 workers to fund 1 retiree. The chickens not only have come home to roost, but found there is no bar to rest on.

The U.S. Boomers are but the tip of the iceberg. U.S. Boomers will be the first of cohort of Worldwide Boomers retiring in the industrialized world, peaking around 2020. Canada will follow a few years later, as will the U.K. and Europe. The latter will have a longer lasting wave, and peaks around 2025-2030. China has a similar peak with population that will occur around 2050. Demographics are quite different for the industrialized and third world, with the third world having more of their population base in the youth demographic, reflecting a generally higher birth rate.

As the pension issue becomes a larger trend in various countries, states, and cities, it should be evident that we can set priorities that protect the most vulnerable and ease the way for the development of a better pension system than what currently exists, and does more then simply drop the ball on the individual, after other interests have failed.

‘Into the Frying Pan’ Update March 28 2011

In Wisconsin, legislative officials appear to be feeling the heat, and lashing out at the protests unions that have been mounting. Most recently, an email was sent to the Governor of Wisconsin by a deputy suggesting that he fake being physically attacked by a union member. Also, a tweet from the a deputy attorney general, who was fired shortly after as a result, proclaimed that live ammunition should be used on union demonstrators by police. Actions such as these will not endear this government to the public or unions, who already are angry, in fact these action may act as a catalyst, in galvanizing labour protests even further.

June Update

In Canada, workers went on strike with issues that involved pensions, for Air Canada it was the switch from defined benefits with their pensions, and for Canada Post, it involved a 3.2 billion dollar deficit with their plan. Both were being legislated back to work by the federal government. Protests continue in the U.S. and in other parts of the world trying to grapple with debt issues and restructuring.






1. May/June 2003 Editorial in the Financial Analysts Journal





‘Innocence Lost’ Trends Issue – The End of Network Neutrality and a Battle for the Control of the Internet

The principle known as ‘Network Neutrality’ allows Internet users to access any web content or applications they choose, without restriction or limitation…


In 1990, John Perry Barlow, along  with Mitchell Kapor, wrote a beautiful piece about the Internet in “Across the Electronic Frontier”

A quote…
‘Over the  last  fifty  years, the  people  of  the developed  world  have  begun to cross into a landscape  unlike  any  which  humanity  has experienced  before.  It  is a region  without  physical  shape  or  form…what  it  is  eventually  called,  it  is  the  homeland  of  the  Information Age,  the  place  where  the  future  is  destined  to  dwell…’       

There are many conceptualizations of the internet from ‘Ecommerce’, to ‘information highway’, to ‘social network’, to ‘cultural sound bite’, to ‘political governance and control’, to a massive collective – “the Borg”, if you will. The internet has become the transformational driver it was destined to become. It has and will further enhance all aspects of our lives, and as its importance continues to grow, so too will the war over control escalate into a fundamental battle of who and  what values will dominate, in what region. The nationalization/regionalization of the internet has already begun, as has a drift effect. Much like a slow moving creek that has been enlarged into a fast flowing river, the local growth and values have been watered down and washed away; and to continue the analogy, much of what we do now is a matter of going along with the flow. Who would have thought after the Korean war, that some American companies in the future  would be providing the Chinese government, the tools for controlling/ monitoring it’s population through the internet. China with 420 million users is by far the largest internet  market by population, although it is the industrialized countries that have the greatest percentage of users.

The internet has simultaneously become a method for both the powerless and powerful to influence the other, and the internet is destined to become a multilevel system. The American system is already developing a ‘secure’ level for commerce and important social and governmental functions. The most current example of this battle is the website Wikileaks, which has been at the top of most internet searches in recent weeks. A media storm has brewed thoughts and analysis in both defending and finding offence in what information has been released and why. In a balance between oneness and secrecy, democracy functions and flourishes. Heather Mallick wrote an article in the Toronto Star (6/12/2010) that spoke of the problems with anonymity and the internet, and endorsed the role of Wikileaks as being the opposite of anonymity, which perhaps is a little simplistic, considering how it gathers information. A battle is ensuing over who decides and why this balance is swung, one way or the other. The battle between Google and the Chinese government recently, is another event emblematic of this growing tension. Internet wars between countries have been readied, and espionage has taken a turn for the technical, but sadly nothing that ‘Q’ could have helped with. ‘Cyberbullying’ and ‘hackers’ have begun to be part of our lexicon, in the battle for the control of the internet, and by extension, our society. The darker side of a cultural phenomenon. To be sure, the term ‘cyberterrorism’ is not far behind. The questions for us to answer include how to safeguard this vital connection without losing the all of the ideals and idealists who built and developed this future technology in which we will live.


This is the internet’s age of a loss of innocence. Long gone are the words of John Perry Barlow,  as he wrote in 1996 in his treatise “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace”…

‘…I declare the global space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any method of enforcement we have true reason to fear…’