Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Greater Depression

It is with a horrified fascination that I watch the current political events in Europe unfold. The people of France and Greece, in particular, after years of enjoying profligate government spending, have decided to throw caution (and the tentative efforts by their previous governments at reining in the excesses) to the wind. They don't want to hear that they have been living beyond their means and can't see why they should stop enjoying the benefits of a lifestyle that they feel entitled to but can't afford. The new president of France, François Hollande, wants the EU to adopt a new form of borrowing called Eurobonds. The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, is vehemently opposed to these new financial instruments and it is not difficult to see why. They are a liability that is incurred by an individual country but for which the repayment obligation is shared by all EU nations. As there is only one EU nation that remains at the highest level of creditworthiness, i.e. Germany, Angela Merkel and German taxpayers know exactly who ultimately will pick up the tab.

I have been saying for quite some time that the world is already in what some commentators are starting to call the Greater Depression*. We are following the exact same trajectory as the world followed in the 1930s - that is, an initial financial sector crisis followed by signs of recovery, followed by the deepest and longest economic downturn the world had ever seen. We had the banking sector problems starting in 2008, followed by signs of a recovery as governments have tried to spend their way out of the problem, and clear evidence now that it is not working and that a deeper recession is coming. I think the term Greater Depression will precisely describe what the world is about to endure. Like the 1930s, I predict it will be 10 to 15 years before we recover from the current economic malaise.

The reason I am so certain about this is because nothing is changing. There is no political will to address years of overspending by governments all around the world. It has already been proved over the last four years that the current economic crisis is not something that can be addressed by governments borrowing more money, printing more money, and spending more money.

No one will be immune from the crisis. The biggest casualties of all will be the United States and Japan, the two most heavily indebted countries in the world. The US, at least, can continue to service its debt for a few more years, even at current rates of growth. Japan's government is spending twice what it takes in tax revenues and the situation is getting worse every year. Even China, the world's great creditor economy, is now showing signs that its period of massive growth is over. China will suffer more than most as its export revenues dry up and its debtors default on their repayments. With Europe, North America and East Asia all hitting the wall at about the same time, no one will have the means to spend their way out of trouble. There will be a massive correction, with government spending and tax funded benefits being adjusted downwards by up to 50% all around the world, whether voters like it or not. This is what happened in the Great Depression and it is what is going to happen in the Greater Depression. I, like many sensible financial commentators around the world, believe it cannot be avoided, especially with voters only too ready to accept the fraudulent assurances of leaders like François Hollande.

What to do about it at a personal level? Protecting your wealth should be your focus. Seek investment safe havens like gold and countercyclical opportunities like shorting treasury bonds. Pay off all your debt as soon as you can and hunker down for the stormy times ahead.

* From Doug Casey of Casey Research via Not PC.

Friday, May 4, 2012

New Drinking Age Won't Work

A bill is before the New Zealand Parliament to raise from 18 to 20 the age at which alcohol can be purchased from "off-licence" retailers (i.e. anywhere you can purchase and take out).  This is justified on the grounds that young people are abusing alcohol consumption, despite the fact that there is little empirical evidence that people in this age group are any more likely to drink to excess than, for example, 80 year-olds (and in my personal experience, 80 year-olds tend to drink more than 18 year-olds).  But even if there were, this reversal of previous liberalising laws is, in my opinion, a foolishly retrograde step.

Eighteen is the age of majority for almost everything in New Zealand.  At eighteen, you can get married, enter into contracts, buy a house, start a business and be held responsible for your choices in almost every aspect of the law.  In some cases the age of majority is lower, e.g. lawful sexual consent is at the age of 16, and, in the matter of criminal responsibility, children as young as 12 can be tried as an adult.  In view of the fact that young New Zealanders are considered responsible enough to do all of these things at a younger age, it is hypocritical nonsense to say that a 19 year old is not old enough to responsibly buy a bottle of wine to take home for dinner.

The other reason it is downright stupidity to lower the drinking age is that all historical evidence points to the fact that the prohibition of social mores does not work.  I am currently writing a book about Prohibition in America in the 1920s and my research has shown that the misguided attempt to ban all alcohol sales in America had exactly the opposite effect of that intended (in New York, for example, the number of liquor outlets more than doubled from around 15,000 to an estimated 34,000 during Prohibition).  History tells us that if prohibiting 18 and 19 year olds from purchasing liquor for off-licence consumption has any impact on youth alcohol abuse, it will be to make things worse.

This knee-jerk, Puritan, paternalistic change is offensive and dumb.  It is about time we started treating our young adults as adults.  Let them make their own choices and hold them responsible for those choices.