Middle Class Death-Spiral: Consumers Have Never Been Deeper In Debt, And Bankruptcies Are Surging
ZeroHedge.com Tue, 08/13/2019 - 16:25
Authored by Michael Snyder via The Economic Collapse blog,
This wasn’t supposed to happen. During the relative economic stability of the past few years, the middle class was supposed to experience a resurgence, but instead it has just continued to be hollowed out. The cost of living has risen much faster than wages have, and as a result hard working families all over America are being stretched financially like never before. Even though most of us are working, 59 percent of all Americans are currently living paycheck to paycheck, and almost 50 million Americans are living in poverty. In a desperate attempt to continue their middle class lifestyles, many Americans have been piling up mountains of debt, and it has gotten to the point where we have a major crisis on our hands.
According to the New York Post, the total amount of debt that U.S. households have accumulated is about to cross the 14 trillion dollar mark for the first time ever…
Meanwhile, record American household debt, near $14 trillion including mortgages and student loans, is some $1 trillion higher than during the Great Recession of 2008. Credit card debt of $1 trillion also exceeds the 2008 peak.
Americans are spending heavily, again — and often recklessly, say analysts.
This is the exact opposite of what U.S. consumers should be doing. We can see signs of a fresh economic slowdown all around us, and consumers should be feverishly trying to get out of debt as fast as they can.
But instead, debt levels just keep setting record after record. In fact, total student loan debt just hit a brand new record high of 1.605 trillion dollars, and auto loan debt just hit a brand new record high of 1.174 trillion dollars.
It would be one thing if we could handle all of this debt, but that isn’t the case. Bankruptcies have been steadily rising, and according to the latest figures the number of bankruptcy filings shot up another 5 percent in the month of July…
Bankruptcy petitions for consumers and businesses are on the rise. There was a 5% increase in total bankruptcy filings in July 2019 from the previous month, the American Bankruptcy Institute said this week. There were 64,283 bankruptcy filings, up from 62,241 for the same period last year.
Unfortunately, this is probably just the beginning.
Right now, most of the country is living on the edge financially, and so a major economic slowdown would inevitably cause another enormous tsunami of consumer bankruptcies like we saw in 2008.
Even now, things are already so bad that many hard working “middle class” workers in high-cost cities such as New York are so financially stretched that they have to rely on free food from local food banks…
“In high-cost cities like New York, personal incomes are not often enough to pay the household bills,” Zac Hall, vice president of anti-poverty programs at the Food Bank For New York City, told The Post. “We are seeing people using consumer debt as a way to make ends meet when they come here,” he added, citing the pressures his nonprofit faces to keep up the distribution of food and meals at no cost to some 1.5 million New Yorkers.
If 1.5 million people in New York are being fed by food banks now while things are still relatively stable, how bad will things be when the economy really starts to tank?
For decades, the “almighty U.S. consumer” was one of the fundamental pillars of our economy, but now that is no longer true. U.S. consumers simply do not have a lot of discretionary income to spend these days, and this is killing major retailers all over the nation. We are on pace to absolutely shatter the all-time record for store closings in a single year, and within the past 7 days more big retailers have announced that they will be permanently shutting down stores.
For example, Walgreens just announced that they will be closing “approximately 200 U.S. stores”… Walgreens plans to close approximately 200 U.S. stores, the company announced Tuesday in an SEC filing. According to the document posted Tuesday on the Securities and Exchange Commission website, the move to close stores follows “a review of the real estate footprint in the United States.”
That wouldn’t be happening if the U.S. economy really was “booming”.
Here is another example that comes to us from Wolf Street…
A’Gaci, a young women’s fashion retailer based in Texas, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Thursday, for the second time, after having filed for the first time in January 2018. This time, it will liquidate. All its remaining 54 stores in seven states and Puerto Rico will be closed – the “bulk” of them by the end of this month.
In addition, we just learned that Party City is going to be closing more stores than expected in 2019… Party City is increasing the number of stores expected to shutter this year.
The New Jersey-based party supplies company said it was looking to close 55 stores throughout the year, up 10 from the May estimate of 45 stores.
I honestly don’t know what malls and shopping centers all over the U.S. are going to do. I once warned of a future in which America’s landscape would be littered with abandoned stores, and that future has now arrived.
For the moment, those at the very top of the economic pyramid are still doing okay, but the middle class is eroding a little bit more with each passing day. For much more on this, I would encourage you to check out this Youtube video by Jeremiah Babe.
I have been writing about the evisceration of the U.S. middle class for a decade, and the condition of the middle class right now is as bad as I have ever seen it.
And as we plunge into this new economic downturn, things are only going to get worse. The middle class is absolutely drowning in debt, and even a mild recession would be enough to financially wipe out millions of American families.
US Credit Card Interest Rates Hit Highest Level In 25 Years As Economy Slows, Fed Eases
ZeroHedge.com Sat, 08/10/2019 - 19:40
The gap between what banks are being charged to borrow money, and what their charging consumers, is widening once again. According to the FT, US consumers are paying higher interest rates on credit-card balances than they have in 25 years.
The average rate on interest-bearing card accounts topped 17 per cent in May, according to Fed data, the highest in the 25 years that the central bank has been making the calculation. Weekly data based on a Creditcards.com survey of 100 national card issuers found an average rate of 17.8 per cent at the end of July, another multi-decade high.
Credit card rates started rising off their long-term lows as the Fed started raising the benchmark interest rate between late 2015 and the end of last year. But issuers soon outpaced the Fed, and rates continued to rise as the Fed embarked on its July rate cut. Now, the spread between the Fed funds rate and the rate that card issuers pay to hold deposits is, at just under 15%, the widest in recent memory. The spread has only been wider once: In the third quarter of 2009.
Analysts blamed a couple of factors for the aggressive rise in credit-card rates: The first, is the CARD Act of 2009, a US law designed to protect consumers from being exploited by credit-card companies. The law limits a banks’ ability to raise interest rates on existing balances. So, since card issuers "can't reprice you once they sell you a card - so they have to price [more risks] in," according to John Hecht of Jeffries, a broker.
Another factor? The perks. Card issuers need to bring in more capital to offset the generous perks that they've been awarding to loyal customers. (WSJ has chronicled the headaches that JPM has endured thanks to its extremely popular Sapphire Rewards Card).
Still, there's reason for card holders to be optimistic. Two of the biggest credit-card lenders cut rates after the July rate cut.Since the crisis, card rates are often set by adding a premium to a fluctuating index - most often the prime rate, the lowest rate banks make available to non-bank customers. The prime rate in turn is directly related to the fed funds rate that is set by the Federal Reserve.
After the central bank’s decision to cut its benchmark last week, both JPMorgan and Citigroup, respectively the number one and two US card banks by loan volume, dropped their prime rates by a quarter of 1 per cent. This will flow through to the rates paid by many cardholders, at least initially. But card rates and prime rates do not move in tandem.
Credit card companies have found other tools to bring in cash, like charging annual fees.
Card companies have also found other ways to increase what card customers pay, for example by using annual fees, foreign transaction fees, and fees on balance transfers, according to Ted Rossman of Creditcards.com. "I don’t think this [Fed] rate cut is a big gain to consumers with credit card debt - [their] rate is already high and even if it goes down slightly...[they] very well might end up paying higher fees in other areas," said Mr Rossman.
There is a record $850 billion in US credit card debt outstanding, according to the Fed. That's a record amount in dollar terms, though it has declined slightly as a percentage of GDP. With economic growth starting to slow, and wages still largely stagnant, banks are debating whether now is the time to push for more growth in their profitable credit card business (and create more balances that can be bundled into securities and sold off of the bank's balance sheet). Hopefully, those that opt for more high-interest rate loans at least understand the risks.
Editorial Note: USE CASH OFTEN; PAY OFF CREDIT CARDS NOW!
Hell's Top Banker Explains "How To Destroy The Global Economy"
ZeroHedge.com Sat, 08/03/2019 - 20:45
Bill Blain’s new book, The Fifth Horseman – How to Destroy the Global Economy, has been attracting much comment. It’s a tongue-in-cheek polemical sideswipe at Central Bankers, Regulators and Politicians for the poor and mistaken policies that have fuelled the ongoing global financial crisis since 2017.
Blain’s book claims to be a hack of emails and documents exchanged between Hell’s top banker and his boss as they plan to extend the crisis they created in 2007 and make it worse... Here is an excerpt...
(Edited version of the speech given by the TJ Wormwood, Chief Demonic Officer – Finance, Lord of 3rd Ring of the 7th Circle, to invited audience at Davos.)
As you all know, I’ve been wrecking finance for millennia.
Nearly every major big idea, evolutionary leap forward, invention and discovery has improved the miserable lot of mankind only through their ability to monetise it. Forget the theft of fire – being able to monetise fire by attracting pretty and willing mates around a warm campfire, or cooking the food others have hunted, is what mattered. Strip out the noise, and the rise of mankind is largely due to improvements in the efficiency and ease of means of exchange.
From the realization hunters could barter their furs for other goods, to the rise of complex products to finance global growth – the innovation of financial markets has been a major driver of success for the Other Side in raising the wellbeing and prosperity of mankind. Pretty much anything that holds back or disrupts trade, increases costs and holds back services is naturally positive for our goal of global destabilization.
So, here is the big plan:
Since 2007 we’ve been turning the Other Side’s successful innovation of financial markets against them. Global Financial Markets are incredibly rich in opportunities to distort truth, hide lies, and undermine mankind – generating immediate greed, envy, suspicion and anger. We’ve uncovered previously unimaginable ways in which to financially screw the World with consequences that impact everyone.
We’ve overlaid the program with our mastery and understanding of temptation, human greed, avarice and pride, while adding subtlety and cunning. We merely suggest and advise. We are facilitating the train-wreck of the global economy by destroying asset values while confounding their understanding of money and wealth – the pillars of their society.
At its simplest form we are manipulating and driving constant market instability to keep mankind distracted. Uncertainty clouds their future expectations – so we keep it raining. A Mortgage crisis one year, followed by a Sovereign Debt crisis the next, spiced with a couple of bank failures, and threats of global trade war. Overlay with confusion and distraction such as social media, fake news, Bitcoin and populism, and it all works rather well.
Keep their leaders arguing. Keep the blame game going.
Our success can be seen in current financial asset prices. These are now hopelessly inflated and distorted by foolish post financial crisis policy decisions. They are bubbles set to pop. Empower the regulators and bureaucrats to compromise finance through zealous over-regulation, making banking safer by destroying it. Usher in a new era of trade protectionism, the end of Free Trade and increase the suspicion some countries are manipulating their currencies for economic advantage. Sprinkle some dust of political catastrophe, the collapse of law, undo the fair, just and caring society, while adding some eye of newt and complex environmental threats. Make the rich so rich they don’t notice, and the poor so poor they become invisible. If the markets remain uncertain, then it distracts mankind from addressing these issues, making society less stable!
There as some things we’re really proud of, including the Euro, Social Media, Investment Banks, the Tech Boom, and especially Quantitative Easing (which is still delivering confusion and pain). New Monetary Theory could prove even better – it shows tremendous potential to thoroughly unsettle confidence in money. Cybercurrencies are particularly fun – despite coming up with the idea, neither we, nor even the distinguished members of our panel of eternal guests, understand the why of them. They are libertarian nonsense – so, naturally we continue to encourage them as get-rich-quick schemes, but they also further undermine confidence in money and government. We made something up in a bar one night and called it a Distributed Ledger - the humans ran with it and invented Blockchain, whatever that might be.
Some of the other stuff we’ve encouraged, such as The EU, ETFs, Hi-Frequency Trading, Neil Woodford and Deutsche Bank look likely to be highly effective vectors of short-term economic destruction and destabilization, triggering systemic market events and regulatory backlashes across markets. We are only now exploring the full potential of market illiquidity to rob billions of pensioners of their savings.
We’ve persuaded investors to overturn proven tried and tested investment strategies and wisdoms, nurturing a whole range of overpriced unprofitable US Tech “Unicorn” companies which we are confident will prove utterly over-hyped and largely worthless. The success of social media, data mining and new tech has increased levels of dissatisfaction and envy – especially in our target younger demography.
The way we successfully pinned the blame on banks for the Global Financial Crisis – despite the fact it was people who wanted mortgages to buy houses and fast cars - ensured global regulators would over-react. We’ve allowed regulators to focus on banks while we target the next financial crisis in other parts of the financial ecosystem.
Regulators forced the banks to de-risk. But risk does not disappear - it just goes somewhere else. While banks understood risk and had massive staffs to manage risk, risk is now concentrated in the hands of “investment managers” who are singularly ill-equipped to withstand the next credit crunch and global recession, (which we’ve planned for next October – Save the Date cards have been sent).
We are particularly pleased that many banks now exceed the 2.3 compliance officers for every profitable banker ratio. Compliance and regulatory costs now exceed 10% of income at some European banks – a stunning success and substantially decreasing the efficiency of banking and exchanges.
We’ve some great new financial ideas we are still experimenting with, some of which show great promise for further weakening society. Facebook Money is going to be a cracker, and I particularly like the Spaceship to Mars project… if only they knew what awaits them…
By hiding inflation in the stock market, we assisted the accumulation of massive wealth by a tiny percentage of the population to ferment income inequality dissatisfaction. When capital is concentrated and the workers under the cosh, it creates all the right conditions for weak disjointed government to aid and abet the rise of destabilizing populism.
It’s highly satisfying to watch the instability we’ve created in financial markets drive fear and distrust across society. The debt crisis we engineered led to global financial austerity, job insecurity, and rising inequality. We were surprised how easily we pushed the Gig economy concept to further exploit and cow workers through regulators and authorities – they barely noticed. Over this we’ve layered whole new levels of anxiety such as the unknowns of data theft, the rise in envy coefficients through social media, fake news while fueling social distrust through resentment.
We’ve managed to persuade Governments to follow damaging and contradictory policies. As society reeled in the wake of the financial crisis, we persuaded policy makers to cut back spending through “austerity” spending programs, simultaneously bailing out bankers while flooding the financial economy with free money through Quantitative Easing.
Effectively we’ve split the world into two economies. A real economy which is sad, miserable and deflating, and a financial economy that’s insanely optimistic, massively inflated and ripe to pop on the back of free money.
The resentment, instability, fear and general sense of decay has paid dividends in our drive to break society by undermining the credibility of the political classes. Our approach to politics has been simple – deskill the political classes, reduce their effectiveness as leaders, while engineering economic, social and financial instability to drive rampaging populist politics – just like in 1932! Populism may ultimately prove short-lived, but it’s difficult to see how the political classes will recover their power in time to reverse the damages being done to the global environment.
While markets have burned, society become increasingly riven, and politics has failed, we’ve distracted the humans from the rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere which threatens to create global warming and rising sea levels, while plastics poison the oceans and soil erosion threatens agriculture.
Now I love the ravenous hunger and sharp pointy teeth of polar bears as much as the next demon, but needs must... needs must. I was also rather fond of the dinosaurs...
Our approach to ensuring destructive climate change has proved very effective. We’ve supported, financed and advised the loudest green lobbies to ensure their message looks ill-considered, wrong and economic suicide. We also paid big bucks to fund the loudest climate change deniers. Our innovation of fake news to discredit and mitigate anything positive means climate change remains a crank topic – even as our polar bears drown.
Meanwhile, through our dominance of global boardrooms and investment firms, we’ve made sure that large corporates have bought-out and stifled new technologies that could solve the environmental crisis.
Our future looks great – because their future is bleak!
America's Collapse: Paul Craig Roberts Exposes An Economy Based On Plunder
by Tyler Durden
Sat, 08/03/2019 - 22:30
Authored by Paul Craig Roberts,
Capitalists have claimed responsibility for America’s past economic success. Let’s begin by setting the record straight. American success had little to do with capitalism. This is not to say that the US would have had more success with something like Soviet central planning.
Prior to 1900 when the frontier was closed, America’s success was a multi-century long success based on the plunder of a pristine environment and abundant natural resources. Individuals and companies were capitalized simply by occupying the land and using the resources present.
As the population grew and resources were depleted, the per capita resource endowment declined.
America got a second wind from World War I, which devastated European powers and permitted the emergence of the US as a budding world power. World War II finished off Europe and put economic and financial supremacy in Washington’s hands. The US dollar seized the world reserve currency role from the British pound, enabling the US to pay its bills by printing money. The world currency role of the dollar, more than nuclear weapons, has been the source of American power. Russia has equal or greater nuclear weapons power, but it is the dollar not the ruble that is the currency in which international payments are settled.
The world currency role made the US the financial hegemon. This power together with the IMF and World Bank enabled the US to plunder foreign resources the way vanishing American resources had been plundered.
We can conclude that plunder of natural resources and the ability to externalize much of the cost have been major contributors right through the present day to the success of American capitalism. Michael Hudson has described the plunder process in his many books and articles, as has John Perkins in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.
Essentially, capitalism is a plunder mechanism that generates short-run profits by externalizing long-run costs. It exhausts natural resources, including air, land, and water, for temporary profits while imposing most of its costs, such as pollution, on the environment. An example is the destruction of the Amazon rain forest by loggers. The world loses a massive carbon sink that stabilizes the global climate, and loggers gain short-run profits that are a tiny percentage of the long-run costs.
This destructive process is amplified by the inherently short-run time perspective of capitalist activity which seldom extends beyond the next quarter.
US economic success was also a result of a strong consumer demand fed by rising real wages as technological advances in manufacturing raised the productivity of labor and consumer purchasing power. The middle class became dominant. When I was an economics student, Paul Samuelson taught us that American prosperity was based entirely on the large American consumer market and had nothing to do with foreign trade. Indeed, foreign trade was a minor factor in American GDP. America had such a large domestic consumer market that the US did not need foreign trade to enjoy economics of scale.
All of this changed with the rise of free market ideology and the collapse of the Soviet Union. When I was a student we were taught that boards of directors and corporate executives had responsibilities to their employees, their customers, their communities, and to their shareholders. These responsibilities were all equally valid and needed to be kept in balance.
In response to liberals, who tried to impose more and more “social responsibilities” on corporations, free market economists responded with the argument that, in fact, corporations only have responsibilities to their owners. Rightly or wrongly, this reactive argument is blamed on Milton Friedman. Conservative foundations set about teaching jurists and legislators that companies were only responsible to owners.
Judges were taught that ownership is specific and cannot be abridged by government imposing obligations on the investments of owners for responsibilities that do not benefit the owners. This argument was used to terminate all responsibilities except to shareholders and left profit maximization as the corporate goal.
Thus, when the Soviet Union collapsed and China and India opened their economies to foreign capital, US corporations were free to desert their work forces and home towns and use cheaper labor abroad to produce the goods and services sold to Americans. This increased their profits and, thereby, executive bonuses and shareholder capital gains at the expense of the livelihoods of their former domestic work force and tax base of their local communities and states. The external costs of the larger profits were born by their former employees and the impaired financial condition of states and localities. These costs greatly exceed the higher profits.
Generally speaking, economists assume away external costs. Their mantra is that progress fixes everything. But their measures of progress are deceptive. Ecological economists, such as Herman Daly, have raised the issue whether, considering the neglect of external costs and the inaccurate way in which GDP is measured, announced increases in GDP exceed in value the cost of producing them. It is entirely possible that GDP growth is simply an artifact of not counting all of the costs of production.
As we approach the end of the second decade of the 21st century, the long history of American capitalism fed by plunder seems to be coming to an end simultaneously with the ability of the US central bank to protect existing financial wealth by creating ever more money with which to support stock, bond, and real estate prices. The US has a long history of overthrowing reformist governments in Latin America that threatened American control over their resources. Washington’s coups against democracy and self-determination succeeded until Venezuela. Washington’s coup against Chavez was overturned by the Venezuelan people and military, and so far Washington’s attempt to overthrow Chavez’s successor, Maduro, has failed.
Washington’s attempt to overthrow the Syrian government was prevented by Russia, and most likely Russia and China will prevent Washington from overthrowing the government of Iran. In Africa the Chinese are proving to be better business partners than the exploitative American corporations. To continue feeding the empire with its heavy costs is becoming more difficult.
Washington’s policy of sanctions is making it even more difficult. To avoid the arbitrary and illegal sanctions, other countries are starting to abandon the US dollar as the currency of international transactions and arranging to settle their international accounts in their domestic currencies. China’s Silk Road encompasses Russia with much of Asia in a trade bloc independent of the Western financial system. Other countries hoping to escape US control are turning to Russia and China to achieve sovereignty from Washington. These developments will reduce the demand for dollars and impair US financial hegemony. Alternatives to the World Bank will remove areas of the world from the reach of US plunder.
As plunderable resources diminish, American capitalism, which is heavily dependent on plunder, will have one foundation of its success removed. As aggregate consumer demand collapses from the absence of growth in real income, absence of middle class jobs, and the extreme polarization of income and wealth in the US, another pillar of American capitalism disintegrates. As business investment has also collapsed, as indicated by the use of corporate profits and borrowing to repurchase the corporations’ equity, thus decapitalizing the companies, total aggregate demand itself collapses.
The absence of growth in aggregate demand will make the gap between high stock prices and dismal prospects for corporate profits too great to be bridged by the Federal Reserve flooding money into financial assets. Without the ability to prop up financial asset prices with money creation, flight from dollar-denominated assets could bring down the US dollar.
What is left will be a ruin.
The Rise of Insanity
Authored by Sven Henrich via NorthmanTrader.com,
Everybody is trampling all over themselves to raise bullish targets. $SPX 3,300, $SPX 3,350, $SPX 3500, do I hear Dow 31,500? Yes I am. The big driver of course the Fed and central banks cutting rates again to save the global economy.
And amid all the hype and excitement you see headlines like this:
Bullish U.S. Stock Buyers Are Positioning for a Giant Windfall
But I have a question:
Why does the global economy need rescuing after 10 years of non stop monetary stimulus?
I also have an answer and it’s an unpleasant one. Because by bailing out markets and economies at every sign of trouble over the past 10 years central banks have given politicians license to do nothing. And nothing is what you get as political discourse fragments and majority solutions are impossible to come by.
But not only are majority solution impossible to get nobody even wants to even talk about them. Why? Because they involve pain. Voters don’t want to hear pain. Hence all you hear is free money. Tax cuts in 2016. Now we hear free college, health care and debt forgiveness for 2020 and who knows maybe more tax cuts.
Nobody wants to campaign on pain. I get it. But does anyone really think solving the structural problems that are behind slowing growth after 10 years of monetary stimulus are easily solvable?
Heck, they may not be solvable at all, hence it’s easier to create a political climate of hate, division, distraction and outrage.
Everybody talks about the outrage of the day, it’s a hyped up atmosphere by design. Because the architects of the conversation know the truth, and that is: As long as people are distracted by outrage, fear, anger and emotion they will not think about how the system is actually utterly screwed.
Debt ceiling? Nobody takes it seriously and the supposed enemies labeling each other currently as racists and socialists will suddenly find a solution and compromise to raise the debt ceiling. They always do. It’s always drama, and talk and hand wringing, but it never means anything.
Remember fiscal conservatives? They only exist when they are not in power. Nobody really wants to do anything but offer free money in one form or another. On either side.
But apparently central bankers are getting a sense that they can’t do it alone, that they need help from the politicians:
Central Bankers Are Sick of Rescuing the World Economy Alone
“Global central bankers are again in the driving seat when it comes to propping up the world economy, but many are demanding governments join them in the rescue effort.
Amid slowing global growth, the Federal Reserve, European Central Bank and perhaps even the Bank of Japan are all set to ease monetary policy in coming months. But with less room to act than in the past, their leaders are telling politicians they will need to act if a downturn takes hold”.
Be clear their solution is to add more debt. That’s it. Stimulus. Because without stimulus nothing works.
Nobody is talking about structural solutions. Not the politicians, not the voters, not the central banks.
You know when structural solutions will be discussed? When it’s too late. When the next crisis, crash, depression, whatever you want to call it, will force people to wake up and force them to come together and actually look at the problems. This will not happen now, not with this lot, and not with markets high, unemployment low, and central banks ready to throw free money around again.
No, central banks are now the impediment to progress, they are not only bailing out markets, but they are extending a license to politicians, a license to do nothing, but add more debt.
And that is the rise of insanity.