Transcript for the podcast: Erik Townsend: Expect a US Price Shock as Black Swans Come Home to Roost
Chris Martenson: Welcome to another PeakProsperity.com podcast. I am your host, of course, Chris Martenson, and today the very special guest we are talking with is an old friend and even a colleague of mine, Erik Townsend, private investor now and world traveler. Erik, it is a real pleasure to be talking to you again.
Erik Townsend: Chris, it is fantastic to be back on the show with you. Last time we did this was 2008.
Chris Martenson: Has it been that long! [Laughter]
Erik Townsend: I think it has.
Chris Martenson: It has! In addition, I think you were even here. You were here on the premises …
Erik Townsend: I was interviewing you at the time and now we are—we are turning the tables.
Chris Martenson: Absolutely! So, so—well, 2008! Fill me in. What you have you been up to?
Erik Townsend: Well, it has been quite a long time as, as I think you have a lot of new listeners. Therefore, for people who do not realize, back in 2008 you hadn’t completed the Crash Course, and a lot of us were just on the edge of our seats waiting for the next chapter to come out. When Chapter 20 finally came out, a lot of people kind of took a step back and said, “Hmm, okay, what does this whole thing mean to me?”
In addition, I remember meeting you back then. One of the things that was most striking to me is you and your family have never run away in panic and thought the world was coming to an end. You have said, “Okay, look at what is coming. What does this mean to me and how do I improve my life now?” Not compromises or sacrifices, but leading a better, more fulfilling life; and in your case that was embracing resilience in your life.
My life is a bit different from yours, so for me I focused more on agility than resilience. I do not really want to live in one place in western Massachusetts for the rest of my life. I am kind of the world explorer kind of guy. And I frankly—also as I looked at the Crash Courseand I thought about it and looked at all the people who were focusing their efforts on preparing for something bad happening in the world—it seemed to me that most of the problems that have happened in history, whether it was the holocaust or the collapse of the Soviet Union or what have you—all involved people getting out of harm’s way. So I started focusing more on agility and just having, diversifying my plans.
So I still had a house on the coast of Maine, but I wanted to start looking outside the country. In case the US falls apart, where else would I go? And I thought, well, if the US falls apart, I would just go someplace else. And I thought, wait a minute. If the US was falling apart, that might be during a peak era, where going and researching other places to live could be prohibitively expensive for anyone on any budget.
And so what I have done for the last few years is really focus on living outside the US and exploring the world, and with an eye towards what Peak Oil will bring us and what I think will happen to the US economy. Just looking at what our options are and where we might live for the rest of our lives. Will we come back to the US or not—it’s still undecided. But I have been living in Hong Kong the last couple years. And for the last year and a half, we have been (my girlfriend and I) essentially on a massive trip around the world, not panicking, thinking the world is coming to an end, but really enjoying ourselves, seeing the world, and considering what different places have to offer and where we might live in the long run. And a lot of this was inspired, really by the work that you did in the Crash Course.
So I am going to be doing a, a whole interview on financial sense next month about this search for greener pastures, the trip around the world looking at different countries and what they offer as we consider living outside the United States. So we probably ought to leave that there for now. I know you wanted to focus on the macro picture, so maybe we should move on to that.
Chris Martenson: Well, without stealing any of that thunder, where are we finding you right now?
Erik Townsend: Right now, I am in New Zealand. Wellington, New Zealand.
Chris Martenson: And what are you noticing there in terms of, say, inflation or the cost of living from your perspective?
Erik Townsend: Wow. Holy cow, Chris. This is something for me. I have studied this. I have studied your work. I follow a lot of other—well, studying the effects of inflation. You can understand it in your mind conceptually. But when you travel to other parts of the world where their economies are still strong and the effects of inflation have not been delayed, which is what I believe is happening in the United States, you really feel it. We were in Melbourne, Australia, a week ago. We went out to dinner and it was not really a super-fancy-pants place. It was a fairly middle-of-the-road casual dining restaurant. And I looked at the lists on the menu and I thought, boy, this, this heirloom tomato salad looks delicious. I am going to have that and I am just going to have the chicken potpie for dinner. That is a nice, modest, comfortable meal. The, the heirloom tomato salad was twenty-nine Australian dollars, about thirty-one US dollars …
Chris Martenson: Ohhh.
Erik Townsend: …and the chicken potpie, Chris, was fifty-three Australian, fifty-seven US dollars. And I am telling you, I do not care how much you have studied this and understand the implications of inflation on a logical or theoretical level, when you find yourself sitting in front of a fifty-seven dollar chicken potpie, holy cow. Something is going on.
Chris Martenson: [Laughter]
Erik Townsend: And I think what this thing is, is the inflation that has been exported from the United States through quantitative easing [QE] has pushed up prices of everything everyplace else. The US economy is still in such a slump that we really have not felt that big price shock yet, but it is coming. And it has really affected a lot of the world very harshly.
Chris Martenson: Well, I think this is a perfect illustration, that fifty-seven-dollar chicken potpie of the macro story that we need to talk about, because what the US has been doing, and it is a plan, it is a strategy—forget all the talk about we support a strong dollar, too, and all that other stuff. It is not true. The only way out for the US, like many countries, is to devalue its currency and we have been doing that rather aggressively through QE. We have been exporting inflation. I love the chicken potpie story because when we get to a place like China, where people are living on two hundred and ninety dollars a month or something like that, if they are doing well, working at Foxconn, building iPads or something like that. Two hundred and ninety dollars a month, well, all of a sudden, when you take two hundred and ninety and you compare it to a fifty-seven dollar chicken pot pie, you understand that the exporting of inflation has really dramatic impacts on people from countries where they are not earning huge, wonder, multi-tens of thousands of dollar salaries. And the impact on those people, they often do not take it lightly. It is very serious business when your, your way of life is being eroded and really taken out day by day through this exporting of inflation.
So that is where—I think that is part of the lens that is really important to get your observations and anecdotes out around. Because when China—we read in the paper, and the Chinese finance minister says, “Hmm, we are really not comfortable with all this money printing you are doing,” there is another story under all of that, which is illustrated in what you just said, I think.
Erik Townsend: Yeah, and I think something that I have seen that nobody seems to be talking about is, I think China has quite a bit of pull here. In that as QE happens—and I am convinced it is going to happen sometime this year, I do not know when—it is going to export so much inflation to China that it is going to be almost intolerable for them. And I think that we are forgetting that if China says, “Okay, guys, we have had enough of this. If you do any more QE-ing we are going to dump the US Treasury bonds that we are holding and we are going to use the money to save our own economy.” If we see that kind of reaction from China, it really could put a monkey wrench into the plans of the central banks to inflate this all away. I think that whether it is that mechanism or another one, at some point we are going to get to a hard wall here where you cannot just print money forever without the unintended consequences coming back and biting you. I just described one mechanism that might cause the unintended consequence to create a feedback loop that comes back and bites the central banks so they have to stop what they are doing, changing everything. Now that might not happen, but there are a dozen others that you can think of in terms of mechanisms that might cause a sudden stop in quantitative easing. And if that happens, we are really going to see a roller coaster ride in the economy.
Chris Martenson: Okay, well, then in order to gauge that risk, let us back up a tiny bit. You say you think QE is likely. That is your assessment. Why do you hold that view?
Erik Townsend: Well, I think it is just, what else are they going to do? As far as I can tell, this whole economy is being propped up by stimulus and money printing, really, since 2009. And I think that what is going on is we have forgotten that we are literally changing the—I do not know if you want to call it changing the terminology or changing the paradigm—but what is going on here is, we used to use words like “solution” fairly accurately. Now as we are just creating these Band-Aid fixes to temporarily put symptoms of problems at bay. We are calling those solutions, and we are actually behaving, and when I say “we,” I mean collectively market participants are behaving now as if the EPB printing money in order to buy some more Greek bonds and put a bid under that market was a solution to the European sovereign debt crisis. And it is obviously nonsense. The ECB printing money just dilutes the value of the euro and causes more reason in the long term for people to flee away from making investments in euro-denominated sovereign debt.
So it does not solve anything. But we have gotten to the point where we are so overwhelmed that the market is thinking in terms of these Band-Aid patches as being actual solutions to problems. And I think as long as that is the case, we are going to continue to apply these Band-Aid patches, which are things like printing more money, until it all comes to a head. When it comes to a head and how it comes to a head, I do not think anybody is smart enough to predict accurately. I just laid out one scenario, which could cause it to happen. There are probably dozens more.
At some point, though, we are going to get to a point where we cannot handle any more printed money and I think that the black swans that have been leaving the market alone for several years are going to come in force. And it is interesting to me to listen to Jim Puplava’s outlook at the beginning of the year. Because on the one hand he is looking at the same information as I am, and on the other hand, he comes to a very different conclusion. And for anyone who, who does not follow Financial Sense, Jim basically said, look, leading economic indicators are all turning up. There are some black swans out there that you got to look out for. But as long as the black swans leave us alone, we are going to have really a positive, up year in the stock market in 2012. Everything is looking good. LEIs are looking good. It is going to be great.
The way I look at it would be almost the same, but with a very different conclusion. I think that Jim is right, that if you ignore all the macro-data, which is what the markets are doing now, the stock market is trading cyclically and, I think, ignoring all of these structural risks. It is going to keep trading higher because as long as you keep printing money and keep papering over these major structural problems, you will continue to see growth in equities. But where have these black swans been? I think they are in Jim’s neck of the woods, but I am hanging out with Jim studying Austrian economics. I think the black swans have been hitting us with Miramar and Top Gun training. That noise you heard when MF Global blew up on Halloween …
Chris Martenson: Yep.
Erik Townsend: … I think that was an echo of the Black Swan Aggressor Squadron departing Miramar. They are on their tanker now getting fuel, ready to take down the global economy. And I mean it just blows my mind. I do not think that we have ever seen a larger basket of major macro structural risks that everybody is aware of. It is not like nobody sees these things. But we have just somehow put them all on the back burner. Do not worry about China. Do not worry about Europe blowing up. Do not worry about Iran. Do not worry about the carry trade unwind in Japan that you have just written about recently. Do not worry about Peak Oil. Do not worry about the domino effect of China and Japan going down, taking out other economies that depend on them. Certainly, Australia is one of those, a place we just visited. Do not worry about a-hundred-and-twenty dollar bread. It is all fine. The LEIs are looking up. And we just seem to be in this cyclical trading mindset that it is going to continue to last until something breaks. And I think that when something breaks, it is going to break big. And …
Chris Martenson: This thing breaking big. I, I am interested, though, when you say the markets, the markets are trading higher cyclically and ignoring these major structural risks. I have this very confusing sort of an outlook, which is [that] I do not always trust the markets anymore. I do not know that they are telling us useful information, and so right on the front page of I believe it was yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, so your days, it is, it is Thursday, February—what is it today, the twenty-second? Yesterday’s Wall Street Journal, they, they said, gosh, is this not—we have a strange phenomenon we would like to discuss with you here. The Russell 2000, just a percent or two away from all-time highs—it is up 38 percent this year—it is up like this huge amount over the past year—and would you know it, money flows from retail investors have been negative every single month through that entire run. What is going on? Because normally the retail investors are piling in or they have been piling in or they are providing some of that fuel. Not only have they not been providing fuel, they have been subtracting fuel from that. Who is buying the rusty [13:15]? We have all these people selling, who are the retail investors. It means the market is no longer really made up, I guess, or is sensitive to the retail investors. And, and how do you, how do you interpret that information?
Erik Townsend: You know, I do not pretend to understand how it all works. But I think that we are in an election year and somehow, some way, the Obama Administration is able to influence a lot of things including the Fed that is supposedly independent but does not really appear to be, in my estimation. I think the agenda here is all about propping up markets and general sentiment in the country in advance of the election. And I think the big thing that they seem to be wrestling with, if you cannot quite please all the people all the time, there is no good way to prop up the markets by printing money and just putting – printing government money to put a bid under everything. Because if you do that, you blow oil prices through the roof and that is going to cripple the economy. Okay. We need a scapegoat for the oil prices. Let us get ready to do something. We are going to get ready to rumble with Iran here. We are going to make them the bad guy somehow for the fact that oil prices are going up.
I see an overall agenda that is about propping up markets, however it is that they do it, through money printing and influencing the media and whatever else is going on. And it is all about, from now to the election, everything has got to be all roses. And I think that that is what is driving this and I think the strategy is probably—and I am not saying I think this is going to work because I think it could all come tumbling down before it gets to this. But I think that the strategy of whoever is pulling the strings on these puppets, is if we can get to a new all-time high on the Dow, which is only about 9 percent away from where it is right now today. We will be able to lure retail back into the stock market and we can maybe get another bump from there. It will all come crashing down at some point when the macro kicks in and people get in touch with reality again. But if we can somehow prop things up just a little further, we can get retail suckers back into the market. And I think that what is going on is – probably they are not seeing that happening. The people who would like to make that happen are influencing others in order to do these potentially non-economic trades in order to bump up the value of indices to get to new all-time highs. You are seeing it in – with the Russell and I think you are hitting it in the next few months with the Dow, assuming they are able to keep this party going.
I just do not understand why it, it seems like the bulk of investors are not dealing in reality mode with Europe. You look at what is going on in Europe. Nobody is talking about a real solution to any problem. They are talking about short-term Band-Aid fixes that will last a few months at best. And it all has to blow up at some point and nobody seems to be taking it seriously. I just do not know what to make of it.
Chris Martenson: It is very interesting to me too, I am almost 100 percent convinced this is true –doing everything they can to keep asset prices inflated. The Fed has even written Op Eds in the Wall Street Journal penned by Bernanke ostensibly as a ghost writer, but saying, we are very happy, wink, wink, that the stock market continues to go up as we dump money into it. So clearly it is, it is part of the agenda to keep the markets going up.
The mysterious part to me is how they have managed to shoot themselves in the foot. So I do not think these are a bunch of really super-clever guys and gals who have, who have managed to figure out how to rig markets to the upside. Because what did they do with MF Global? They took – they sucked more confidence out of the market by failing to pursue that aggressively in favor of the retail investor, of, of the small person. They let big cats skate on, on what is inarguably just theft and fraud. There is just really no other way to term it at this point in time. And all the while pretending, throwing your hands up like it is too complicated to unravel, where did the money go? We do not know. You know. As if money could actually disappear in our system. It cannot unless you put it on pallets and bring it into Baghdad Airport, it is all traceable and trackable.
So it is just crazy to me that this, this, this idea that one of the things that we really do need—I agree with your thesis, we, we really need, if we want the markets to really power higher—we need retail to come back in. In my position, I get to work with people who saw that, interpreted it correctly for what it is, who are now scared of any brokerage, possibly rightly so, really questioning whether they even want their money in the US or whether it needs to be in any brokerage at all or what do we do? And it, it just adds to this general pervasive sense of fear and uncertainty in the markets. And I am not talking about average people who have 401(k)s who look at them once a year. I am talking about very professional, active money managers are in a state of confusion, uncertainty, surprise, shock, around what is going on. With MF Global being literally a symptom. There are dozens of other things we can point to that all collectively say, this system is really in trouble. And the people who are ostensibly in charge of it seem not to be aware of the magnitude of allowing that rot to continue without being addressed on some fundamental basis.
Erik Townsend: Oh, I agree completely. And I think there is a very simplistic thing at play here. It, it is not a high tech concept, but I think that people in general go through these social moods, and for all of our lifetimes recessions have always lasted for two or three years at most. It is time for this to be over on everybody’s mental clock.
Chris Martenson: Mm hm.
Erik Townsend: Now people like you and I look at this and say, no, actually, there are good examples when the structural macro-factors were this far out of whack the Great Depression lasted ten years. Most people do not experience life that way. Most people say, well, I have been through the 1982-83 recession. I remember it was two or three really hard years, then it all got better.
I think that everybody just has it in their gut that it is time now for things to get better, and they will just interpret almost anything with a bias towards, well, we are – it is the end of this. It is all over now. And you saw this in the, in the Great Depression. There was a big move down. It looked like everything was recovering, maybe even moving back towards all-time highs. Then you saw the bigger, deeper downturn when people realized, no. We have not solved any of the structural problems that got us here. There is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. We have got to deal with our problems before it gets better. And I think we are coming up to that point where we realize, no, it is not getting better. It is time to deal with the problems and we have not anything since 2008 to deal with any of the structural problems in the economy. All we have done, and all our political leaders have done, is to paper over short-term problems with Band-Aid fixes that do not solve anything.
And I think, as you said at many times and some of the other, a few commentators on the Internet have, have pointed out, our political leadership does not understand the problem. They misdiagnosed the solvency crisis for a liquidity crisis and they keep not understanding why yet another liquidity injection has not solved the problem. It is not ever going to solve the problem and we are not going to get to a solution until we get to an accurate diagnosis. And I do not think we are there yet.
Chris Martenson: Oh, I agree, and, and the risk here is that the longer we have the misdiagnosis, the more we are going to be applying the wrong medicine. And you mentioned that, that we have not really solved anything. I will go further and say that I see more derivatives in the system since 2008. There is a higher level of aggregate debt across the globe. It has been transferred certainly from private into public balance sheets, but there it is. So we have, we have really just been trying more of the same. And if it turns out that that is the wrong diagnosis, and in fact the ailment was too much debt, adding more liquidity and, and not addressing solvency and adding more debt is really adding and making the situation worse.
So I see all of these things as risks, right, so we, we add more derivatives and they are more complicated and we do not really know who the counterparties are. And I, I mean that honestly. I do not think anybody has a handle on that. And we are just adding more and more debt. We are just pushing it from here to there so the ECB owns it now instead of private investors in Greece. Whatever. It is still debt in the system. And I want to cycle back. So you mentioned we have potentially this squadron of black swans taking off from Miramar. Can we – let us talk about some of these black swans, because in my mind it will not take much really, it could just take like a dark brown swan at this point. It would not take much to spook the system, and there are so many things out there that, that could be potential candidates here in 2012. So let us – what are the big black swans on your radar screen? Maybe if we could start – we, we talked about Europe a little bit. Do you see Europe as a potential black swan or is that a known quantity at this point?
Erik Townsend: Well, I think that what is most likely in my mind is that we will continue to dilute ourselves. They will probably come up with some kind of a—I use the word solution in quotes—another “solution” will be announced. A deal will be announced that is a stay of execution on Greece for a few more months, and I think that the US administration will do anything it can to influence getting the ultimate blowup of Europe to be somehow delayed until after the November elections in the US.
At some point, though, I think that Europe comes back and finally blows up on us. Maybe that will not be until next year. As much as I am absolutely resolute that there is no solution to any real problem and can be no solution, there are plenty of ways that you can paper this over and do a Band-Aid fix that lasts a few more months. And I think they will probably continue doing that through most of 2012.
Iran is another story and my gut on Iran is that it, at this point is a strategic tool. They know they are going to fight with Iran at some point. They know that Obama is not going to win the election in November with hundred and fifty dollar oil prices and seven dollar gasoline if it comes to that unless there is a good scapegoat. So everybody can feel like the President is doing the right thing—in order to fix this problem, that people that do not look like us, created it. It must be all Iran’s fault! I do not know exactly how it is going to go down, but I have the sense that the Iranians know this because there was a very, it seemed to me, smooth process that went along—some sabre-rattling with Iran, then kind of a delay. We are going to wait six months and you guys in Iran, you better watch out, because in six months we are going to really put the screws to you. Iran has come back and said, look, you want to rumble? We do not want to wait. We are going to shut off the oil to Europe right now. We are going to push this. And the only reason I could imagine that the Iranians would bring outside pressure, potentially military pressure on them, is that they are playing a poker game. They know that it is much better for them to force this issue at a time when the US does not want to deal with it as opposed to fighting with the US at a time when the US does want to deal with it.
So I think it will be very interesting to see – if Iran is able to push the West’s buttons in order to bring this conflict to a head sooner than the West would have liked to have dealt with it. My gut is that what the Obama Administration would have liked is to keep Iran kind of on hold, at bay, not really getting into any direct military conflict, and wait until it is almost time for the election. Let it – at that point gas prices are spiking. You are blaming speculators and you are blaming Iran and you are – the President is taking military action in order to bring gas prices back down. Most people buy that story, really feel good about it, and in a time of recently initiated war, the incumbent usually gets reelected because everybody is feeling a sense of dedication or loyalty to the patriotism of whatever is going on. The times when wars tend to not get the incumbents reelected is when they are old wars that everybody feels should have been over by now. So I think they want fresh conflict with Iran around the time of the election and I do not think they will be able to hold it off that long. I think the Iranians are going to basically push the issue and say, we have to deal with it.
Chris Martenson: Well, the US has not been sitting idly by and sort of waiting for a better time. If you have been following what we have been doing to them economically and financially, they – those would have, if they were in reverse being conducted by Iran against the US, everybody would consider them acts of war. There are these goadings, little stick poking at the hornet’s nest, as it were, and I do not know what they are meant to accomplish besides to let Iran know that we are, we are there and, and we are watching and, and we are very interested in them doing something differently. And so here is the thing. I mean I have read a number of analyses on this at this point, and it turns out that it, it would be a – this would be a pretty tall order for Israel on its own to take care of business.
So let us assume for the moment that taking care of business means some bombing campaigns conducted and Iran’s nuclear emissions are scuttled as a consequence of that. Well, first of all, you cannot really know what the effectiveness of a bombing campaign is until you get on the ground to look at it. And second of all, it is a pretty tall order, given the hardened nature of the specific sites—there are three. Israel only has so many planes. They only have so many weapons and, and long story short, it seems unlikely that Israel could conduct this on its own without significant US support in some way. You know, active, direct military support.
So, so here is the US. It has very interestingly been poking at Iran. And I think you are right. If Iran has any advantage at all, it is to control the timetable of this a little bit. It was funny. Europe was like yeah, in July we are going to stop buying fuel from you. Like well, it is warm then and you are suffering through one of the coldest winters on record. I am sure that works for you pretty well. But Iran, I think, if they are going to exert any influence on this, is going to say, how about now? How about February? How does that work for you? And, and so there is this game going on. And we have seen multiple iterations of this game. This is the third or fourth time I have seen the sabre-rattling with Iran. What makes it different this time in your mind than the other three, which essentially led to no, no conflict?
Erik Townsend: Well, what I see that is different if you look at there was a lot of sabre-rattling right early the first week of January or so. And it seemed like the US was going to try to push an actual military action to happen in Iran soon. Then we saw this backing off where they kind of said that, that threaten of embargo, we are, we are going to delay by six months. And it seemed like somehow between the US and Europe they changed their mind and they wanted to delay the interaction with Iran. Now Iran is saying, well, wait a minute. If you are going to threaten to embargo our oil in six months, we are going to stop selling it to you now and we are going to find another buyer now. I think that is causing the US and Europe also to come back and say, okay, we have to deal with this now. I agree that the actions against Iran have been acts of war, but so far they have not responded with violence, too, but I think that they will soon. What I see, though, is maybe the, the ability of the West to manage this is, as well as they wanted to. I – what was that movie about producing the war where they just wanted to create the public – Wag the Dog.
Chris Martenson: Mm hm.
Erik Townsend: The, the movie about the, the war being produced for public consumption. It seems like Iran is not going to play that game. They are going to change the timetable even in a way by bringing some pressure on themselves earlier than, than most people thought they would. They are going to keep throwing a monkey wrench into the work. I think it, it is looking to me like it is going to come to a head sooner rather than later. But we will see what happens. The thing is two-hundred dollar crude oil is very likely if we