The Wealth of Nations

The rapid pace of change has created a world filled with excitement and energy. At the same time, it’s created a world filled with anxiety and fear. At the intersection of both of these is hatred, distrust, disrespect, and every other force you can think of which can divide people. Black and white, male and female, western and eastern, old and young, liberal and conservative, gay and straight – pick a box, put yourself in it, and make good use of that box to separate yourself from everyone else who has somehow come to be “different”.

What made all of this happen? What drives everything to fly around at a pace which confuses and separates is the driving force of our time: technology. That one simple word is the savior and excuse all at the same time. But what is it, really?

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Yes, Not Again

In celebration of a decade of Barataria, I have to present another repeat.  This is from March 2008.  It’s an interesting time in that it was six months after the stock market peaked and six months before the financial collapse became obvious.  One of the great themes of Barataria since this time has been how we’ve seen it all before and we’re about to see it again.  The real story here isn’t that I called it at this time – it’s that so few people saw what was obvious as it happened around us.

Imagine that a new technology comes along that spawns a whole new industry. Not only is this industry a revolution in how people lead their lives, it’s immensely popular and generates a big pile of cash. The field starts out wide-open with many small entrepreneurs, but gradually they become rich as they are bought out by a few big players. Soon, the industry has consolidated and re-investment slows dramatically. Those who made big money start to put it into real estate, specifically in Midtown Manhattan, Florida, and Los Angeles.

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Simply Too Big

Perhaps you believe, as many people do, that the largest banks in the nation such as JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs should be broken up. They are simply “Too big to fail” and the cost of a bailout by taxpayers to avoid a systemic failure is too great. Who should break them up? The federal government, by legislation? The Federal Reserve, by regulation?

How about the free market – because they are not as profitable?

For all the shouting and consternation about big banks, one simple fact has gone overlooked. With their tremendous size and ability to “make the market”, as shown by the “London Whale” incident, they do not actually rule the world. They are about as profitable, and usually less so, than smaller banks. The reasons are not obvious but they are demonstrated. And those who should be doing the shouting are not the “99%” but the shareholders.

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Shipping Meltdown! (or not?)

Santa Claus isn’t coming this year! Global shipping has collapsed! Big ships are stranded as the companies can’t even pay the docking fees!

Clearly, it’s time to panic. The bankruptcy of Hanjin shipping has created a wave of horrifically bad stories predicting the end of international trade as we know it. Recession must be just around the corner as the global system collapses, right?

Um, no. Not even close. The story we have been told is a good example of two key features of financial reporting today. The first is that no one has the slightest idea what they are talking about and the story is completely free of the context anyone might need to understand it. The second is that the only big news is bad news – probably in part due to the first problem.

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Post-Capitalist, Pre-Whatever?

I’m going to repeat this one from a year ago with no changes because I think some things are going the way Mason predicted – manufactured goods are more commoditized than ever.

Are you ready for a Post Capitalist world? Paul Mason, an economist and columnist for the Guardian, has outlined what that might mean in his book Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. The premise of this provocative subject is simply that information technology has a tendency to commoditize everything in our lives and ultimately push the value to zero, rendering concepts of money and markets as we understand them today utterly useless.

No one actually lives in a post-anything world, so the question becomes less about capitalism and more about what might come afterward. Financial writers, far from dismissal of the potential downfall of their trade, are actually quite excited by the concept of a new world where the old rules do not apply. The traditional left, steeped in a quasi-Marxist dialectic, are far more unsure.

That’s what makes this concept exciting.

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Neoliberalism: Oversold? (Yes)

Has economic freedom been oversold? That was the question asked (and ultimately answered) in a new paper by the research arm of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The agency is the international “central bank to central banks” which swoops in and provides cash to bail out entire nations – for a price, of course. That price has always been a little bit of austerity for the government and de-regulation all around.

The guiding philosophy goes by a handle which may seem off to many in the United States – Neoliberalism. It was a response to the failure of classical Liberalism, or reduction of state power in favor of free markets, which failed in the last Depression. This depression seems to have been about as kind to the general concept for many of the same reasons.

As always it’s worth talking about in the sense that we are again confronted with the possibility that “everything the experts know is wrong” – a feeling certainly stirred up elections throughout the developed world lately.

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Spatters of Dragon Blood

The “Panama Papers” were a delight for conspiracy theorists, who have long contended that the global monetary system is fundamentally corrupt and that world leaders are skimming huge amounts of money off the top of it. They are, of course, correct.

But lost in the salacious details of the story has been the real business of Mossack Fonseca, which is moving money out of China. We’ve covered this story before when the official estimates were that half a trillion left China last year alone. That number, it turns out, was off by at least as much again – and possibly much more.

At least a trillion dollars left China last year through a wide variety of creative means. Mossack Fonseca’s offices in Hong Kong handle a third of their total business, moving money around the globe through over 60k shell companies at an incredible pace. How much? That’s the multi-trillion dollar question.

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