Just in the past week, the headlines have been coming like triphammer blows: in Bloomberg News, “Something has gone wrong with the global consumer,” (according to JP Morgan); in International Business Times, “G7 Finance Ministers to address faltering global growth;” in London’s Telegraph, “HSBC fears world recession with no lifeboats left;” in OilPrice.com, “Clock running out for struggling oil companies;” and even in the mainstream vanilla Washington Post, a column by Robert Samuelson predicts “China’s coming crash,” then puts a question mark at the end to make sure we don’t worry too much.
When you add these concerns to longer standing ones about wild gyrations in the world’s stock and bond markets; the advent of peak oil in pretty much every oil-exporting country in the world; the onset of the effects of global climate change in California, the Middle East, North Africa, Brazil and elsewhere; it becomes apparent that optimism ought to be listed as a disorder requiring medical intervention.
What’s wrong with the global consumer? In the imortal words of Howard Davidowitz, a leading expert on retail, consumers “don’t have any f’ing money.” It is slowly — way too late — dawning on the Masters of the Universe that unless ordinary people have money to spend — and by that we mean real money, not more credit cards or a third mortgage — the Masters are toast.
According to J.P. Morgan economist Joseph Lupton, “It would be difficult to overstate the recent downside surprise in global consumer spending.” Lower gas prices were supposed to stimulate spending. They didn’t. The high stock markets were supposed to encourage enough job creation to seriously dent unemployment rates and stimulate spending. They didn’t. The lackluster numbers of early spring were supposed to be the result of bad weather. They weren’t. “Clearly,” says Lupton, “something is off track.”
Indeed. International shipping is at historic lows. Energy consumption is declining. In the US, the trucking industry is starting to show weakness. At the same time rail-freight shipments are declining sharply. Retail stores are closing by the thousands. While, obliviously, the stock market soars to new heights.
Meanwhile, says International Business Times, “Finance ministers from the world’s largest developed economies meet in Germany this week against a backdrop of faltering global growth, scant inflationary pressures and a bond market in turmoil.” They’ll get to all this after they have figured out how to keep Greece from nuking the European Union by defaulting on its obligations because Greece hasn’t got any f’’ing money, either. Even if they can figure out how to amputate Greece without getting an infection, they will still be looking at either anemic growth or actual contraction in the powerhouse economies of the United States, China, Canada and Europe.
Now, even if you believe, as I do, that the notion of infinite growth on a finite planet is ridiculous, and the notion that all growth is always good is suicidal, you still live, as I do, in a system that will crash if its faith on growth is broken. So pay attention to these idiots. They’re driving.
Meanwhile, a report written by and for HSBC, the world’s third largest bank, likens the world economy to the Titanic, “sailing across the ocean without any lifeboats.” In fact the report is titled “The World Economy’s Titanic Problem,” and was written by a writer of financial horror stories appropriately named Stephen King. In his relentless account, the world’s central bankers have expended every bit of ammunition they have to stop the approaching iceberg of debt and depression, and the iceberg is bigger and closer than ever. You will stifle a scream as you read.
This gathering emergency is only invisible to those whose paychecks require that they do not see it. Unfortunately, that includes many journalists and virtually all politicians. The rest of us need to take another look at the pile of boards on the aft deck of the Titanic and get to work on our personal lifeboats. Now.