Deposits in Irish banks down by 200bn since August 2010

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

Evidence of a bank run?

The release each month by the Central Bank of the Money, Credit and Banking Statistics has seen a shift in interest from the surge in private sector credit that occurred during the false Celtic Tiger phase to the rapid decline in deposits in Irish banks.

Here is a graph of the attention-grabbing trend.  Deposits in banks have been declining since early 2009 but there has been a marked acceleration in this fall since August 2010, with deposits falling by €200 billion in that time.

Total Deposits

This measure of total deposits includes all credit institutions operating in Ireland, thus banks operating in the IFSC will be included even though they may have very limited links to the Irish economy.  The Central Bank allows us to break down the above total into domestic credit institutions and other credit institutions.  See this document which lists all credit institutions operating in Ireland.

Total Deposits by Banks

When we break down deposits into those with domestic banks and those with non-domestic or other banks we see that the €200 billion drop since August has been pretty evenly split between the two groups.  Domestic banks have seen deposits drop by €95 billion since August.  We will have a closer look at the exit of this €95 billion.

Here we get a breakdown of the origin of the deposits.  It is evident that the fall in the deposit base of domestic banks is because of a huge withdrawal of deposits from rest of the world residents.  Since August these deposits have fallen from €193 billion to €121 billion.  As London is outside the eurozone it is likely that a lot of the deposits classified as rest of the world originated from here.

Total Deposits by Origin

Deposits from Irish residents were largely static up to October, but in November and December there was a drop of €11 billion with deposits falling from €303 billion to €292 billion.  Like deposits from rest of the world residents, deposits from other Eurozone residents have been shown a steady decline since August and fell from €29 billion to €16 billion in the last five months of the year.

Deposits from Irish residents in domestic residents are down, but we know that the Irish savings rate is in excess of 10%.  Where are the existing and new deposits going?  If we look at a breakdown similar to the above for ‘other’ banks operating in Ireland we start to get an insight.

Total Deposits by Origin in Other Banks

While both other Eurozone and rest of the world residents have been reducing their deposits in other credit institutions operating in Ireland, the last month of the year saw a fairly dramatic jump in deposits in this banks by Irish residents.  In December alone these deposits jumped from €35 billion to €54 billion.  This €19 billion increase in deposits by Irish residents in other banks is greater than the €11 billion decrease in deposits in domestic banks.

Although deposits from all sources are declining it is clear that deposits from rest of the world residents make up the bulk of the fall.  Since August these are down by €118 billion and the main withdrawer of funds have been monetary financial institutions who have taken out €99 billion since August and likely reflects Irish banks difficulties in obtaining funds from wholesale money markets.  This graph is for all credit institutions operating in Ireland.

Rest of the World Deposits

Here is a similar graph from deposits from Other Eurozone residents.  The series had been moving relatively steadily until October where there was a €78 billion drop in deposits from monetary financial institutions (more money market troubles?) and a €48 billion rise in deposits from general government (up from essentially nothing).  Since them monetary financial institutions have been remarkably stable and general government deposits have fallen back to €19 billion.

EU Deposits

Of course, as we said above, most of the Eurozone deposits are held in non-domestic banks.  Of the €152  billion  of deposits that originated in the Eurozone only €16 billion was placed with domestic banks and this is down from the level of €29 billion recorded back in August.

Finally, we look at the breakdown of deposits from Irish residents. First up, households.

[Note the the break in the series in January 2009 is as a result of Credit Unions been added to the Central Bank’s banking statistics.  There is no other significance to this.]

Irish Resident Household Deposits

For virtually the first 11 months of the year, deposits by Irish households were declining.  This largest fall was in November (down nearly €3 billion) but this was reversed in December which saw a €1 billion increase in deposits and likely placed in non-domestic banks.

Turning to the other categories of deposits from Irish residents.  All of these declined in December.

Irish Residents Deposits by Sector

Virtually all measures of deposits in Irish banks have been falling in recent months.  Here is what has been filling some of the the gap.

Eurosystem deposits

And the Irish Central Bank has been doing its bit as well.  At a time when the policy is to make Irish banks smaller by reducing their asset base (loan books) here are the assets of the Irish Central Bank.

Central Bank Assets

Since the start of 2008 the assets of the Central Bank have risen almost four fold.  Most of this increase can be attributed to two categories, though the surge in the  funds used under Main Refinancing Operations reflects the increased contribution by the Eurosystem of central banks rather than any unilateral action by the Central Bank of Ireland.

Central Bank Assets2

The surge since August can clearly be seen and this is the money that has been used to fund the outflow of deposits.  The notable category is Other Assets which is money the Central Bank has been ‘printing’  since Irish banks have seen huge reductions in their deposits from other financial institutions in the EU and the rest of the world. I hope we get it back.

Irish banks are printing their own money -17 billion last month!

February 17, 2011 Leave a comment

SIMON CARSWELL, Finance Correspondent Irish Times

IRISH BANKS are issuing bonds to themselves under the Government guarantee to borrow cheaply from the European Central Bank and to avoid drawing more heavily on emergency lending from the Irish Central Bank.

Four banks issued bonds worth €17 billion to themselves last month under the Government’s extended guarantee, the Eligible Liabilities Guarantee, to use as collateral to borrow from the ECB.

“What you have here is micro-quantitative easing, or money printing,” said Cathal O’Leary, head of fixed-income sales at NCB Stockbrokers. “The banks are issuing unsecured loans to themselves.”

All the bonds mature in April and May when the details of the banks’ plans to sell off assets and shrink the size of their businesses must be agreed under the EU-IMF bailout deal.

Bank of Ireland issued the largest amount, €9 billion, on four bonds on January 26th. AIB issued €2.63 billion on January 25th, Irish Life and Permanent €3.1 billion the following day and EBS building society €1.7 billion on January 28th.

Bank of Ireland raised a further €980 million on another bond on February 10th.

The bank said that the issuing of the bonds represented “a technical adjustment” replacing sterling bonds backed by UK mortgages as the ECB stopped accepting sterling loans as collateral from the start of the year.

AIB said that “own-used” bank bonds could be used as collateral from the ECB if Government guaranteed. The banks have leaned more heavily on central bank funding from Frankfurt and Dublin due to the loss of deposits and the closure of the markets to Irish-issued debt.

The Central Bank said that access to ECB operations allows the banks obtain funding that is not available in “the continued stressed market conditions”.

The Government is in talks with the ECB, EU Commission and the IMF about the pace and timing of asset disposals by the banks aimed at reducing their reliance on central bank funding so they can fund themselves on their own.

The National Treasury Management Agency said last month that the banks would have to sell up to a further €60 billion in loans on top of the loans sold to Nama.

Reports this week suggested that the EU-IMF are discussing the possibility of the banks selling off loans of €100 billion.

Under the bailout plan, asset disposals must be completed by the end of 2013.

The Government fears that earlier and quicker disposals will lead to fire-sale prices, creating further losses at the banks and costs for the State.

The Central Bank said that various solutions on bank restructuring and asset disposal are being considered in discussions with the EU, ECB and the IMF.

“We are concerned about the effects of rapid asset sales but we have had constructive discussions with the external authorities on this issue,” it said.

The IMF said last week that the deleveraging targets for the banks should be balanced against “the risk of asset fire sales and fuelling a credit crunch”.

Banks in Ireland had borrowed €126 billion from the ECB at January 28th, representing almost a quarter of all borrowings drawn from Frankfurt by euro zone banks.

The Central Bank in Dublin has provided a further €51.1 billion to the Irish banks through exceptional liquidity assistance (ELA) at this date on ineligible ECB collateral.

Dermot Desmonds plans for reforms

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Link

Sunday February 13 2011

Businessmen Dermot Desmond has put forward a detailed plan for political reform to leading figures in business and political life.

Ireland First: Political Reform — Effective and Efficient Government’ proposes major changes in the electoral system.

Mr Desmond believes that ministers should resign their Dail seats to devote themselves to the work of government and that qualified people from outside the Oireachtas should be appointed as ministers.

He also suggests cutting the number of cabinet ministers to 10 and that the Ceann Comhairle should be elected by secret ballot.

Mr Desmond also suggests the Seanad should be scrapped and the electoral system changed to end the focus on local issues.

He claims the electoral system encourages TDs to behave like county councillors, while county councillors have little control over local decisions.

“If Ireland is to prevent itself sleepwalking into another crisis in 20 years’ time we must radically reform the political system to a design that puts Ireland first,” the policy document says.

It also suggests that the Dail committee system and the Freedom of Information Act should be strengthened as well as the adoption of a whistleblowers’ charter.

Many of the proposals in the document, which was circulated on February 1, were mirrored in Fianna Fail‘s election manifesto launched last Monday.

Sunday Independent

European banking system needs redesign to prevent another crisis

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

There is widespread anxiety about the true condition of German banking, writes Colm McCarthy

By Colm McCarthy

Sunday February 13 2011

The new government will take office on March 9 (Ash Wednesday, as it happens) and will face immediately the task of forging a response to the Franco-German plan to resolve the Eurozone crisis unveiled at the Brussels summit last Friday week.

It calls, as these documents invariably do, for greater integration of European economic policy. The main proposals are for closer harmonisation of tax and spending policies, including constitutional limits on borrowing, a common approach to corporation tax, higher retirement ages in state pension systems and an end to wage indexation. The theme is a more competitive Europe with better fiscal discipline.

The plan has already received a frosty welcome. Everyone is in favour of better fiscal discipline, preferably at some distant future date, but states which have wage indexation want to keep it, higher retirement ages are unpopular in countries where the current figure is low and member states with attractive rates of corporation tax (Ireland is not the only one) want to keep them. There is a far better reason to resist the proposals, however. Europe is facing a serious financial crisis and the Franco-German programme looks like another integrationist push rather than a serious attempt either to resolve the continuing crisis or to prevent the next one.

The crisis in Europe, with the possible exception of what has happened in Greece, does not have its origins in loose budgetary policy. Its origins lie in a crisis of overleveraged banks making foolish lending decisions. Banks differ enormously in life but are indistinguishable in death: they go bust because they make bad loans and bad investments. Prudent banks, with cautious balance sheets and borrowers able to repay, do not go bust. In Europe, the introduction of the new common currency in 1999 was followed by a period of excess, not in loose fiscal policy but in the careless expansion of bank balance sheets through the accumulation of large liabilities to bondholders and wholesale lenders, in addition to the normal reliance on retail deposits.

These growing resources were deployed in the acquisition of dud assets. An extreme example was Anglo Irish Bank, which appears to have written off about 45 percent (and counting) of the amount it lent. In Ireland the dud assets were property and mortgage loans in the main. Something similar but on a smaller scale happened in Spain and in the United Kingdom. The dud assets acquired in France, Germany and other continental countries included exotic derivatives of mortgage loans in the United States as well as bonds issued by dodgy banks in places like Ireland.

The result of the banking crash has been a descent into unsustainable budget deficit in many countries. Those which had big government debts to begin with (Greece), or which allowed a greater banking bust to emerge (Ireland), have ended up in the most trouble. But the problem is general and in Germany, for example, the budget rules of the Eurozone were broken earlier than in countries like Ireland and there is widespread nervousness about the true condition of large parts of the German banking system.

Any plan from the EU Commission, the European Central Bank or the traditional political engine in the shape of Franco-German initiatives needs to pass one or both of the following tests: does the plan clean up the crisis which has arisen, and does it help to avoid a recurrence?

The latest Franco-German plan does not pass the first test, since it studiously avoids addressing the nature of the crisis. The European economies have not been experiencing the worst recession since the Second World War because the retirement age is too low, or because there are national differences in corporation tax rates. Ireland is not in an IMF bailout because the budget deficit, in the years before the crisis, was outside the Eurozone parameters. There was exemplary compliance with the fiscal policy rules and all boxes were ticked, up until 2007, in Ireland and in most Eurozone countries. This is a banking crisis and it remains unresolved three years after the bubble began to burst.

Resolving the crisis which has arisen in the Eurozone requires three simple steps. These are: stress-test the banks properly, in a manner which has credibility in the markets; distribute the losses, and re-capitalise whatever banks are deemed necessary for the long haul. Preventing the next crisis requires a redesign of the Eurosystem, including credible bank supervision and the avoidance of moral hazard, that is, the compensation of imprudent risk-taking.

The stress tests attempted by the European Central Bank last July were not believed. One of the banks which passed was AIB, which has since, to all intents and purposes, gone under. For a central bank dealing with a crisis of confidence in the solvency of its banks to deliver a non-credible stress-test is worse than doing nothing. A new set of stress-tests, under ECB supervision, is currently being conducted and the results are expected in April. If they give a clean bill of health to, for example, every bank covered, or if the tests conveniently exclude banks which are dodgy, the exercise is another waste of time and will fail again. It is extraordinary that the European banking system is still being stress-tested three years after the failure of Bear Sterns signaled the onset of the international financial crisis.

Adequate stress-tests should identify the banks which need recapitalisation, once and for all. If private equity is not available, which will not be the case for the basket-cases, the gap must be made up by taxpayers or through hair-cutting bondholders foolish or unlucky enough to have invested in these banks. To expect taxpayers alone, and only those in the countries unlucky enough to have hosted the mis-supervised banks, risks sovereign default in these countries, of which Ireland is the prime example.

Barry Eichengreen of the University of California at Berkeley summarises the position thus: “But one item is prominently absent from the new agenda: financial regulation. Aside from Greece, whose problems reflect years of fiscal profligacy, the euro crisis is fundamentally a banking crisis. Although the European Union activated three new ‘financial regulators’ for banking, securities markets, and the insurance industry on January 1, these new entities have limited powers. They mainly act to coordinate the periodic meetings of national regulators.

“In a monetary union, the idea of leaving financial regulation in the hands of individual countries is madness. Given the interconnectedness of national banking markets in the European Union, the actions taken by any one national regulator — say, Ireland’s permitting its banks to borrow huge volumes of foreign money to engage in all manner of reckless property speculation — can have serious repercussions for the rest of the European Union. Why Friday’s summit wasn’t used to propose the creation of a single powerful EU or euro-area bank regulator is a mystery. If one didn’t know better, one might suggest that Germany, whose banks are exceptionally highly leveraged and poorly capitalised, was cowed by certain special interests.”

There is a practical objection to a Europe-wide bank resolution: it would finally address the burden-sharing issue which French and German politicians wish to avoid. The ECB, whose policy throughout the crisis to date has been driven by no-bank-must-fail mantra and the protection of bondholders, needs a thorough redesign if another crisis is to be avoided. The Franco-German plan is also silent on this crucial issue.

Aside from employees of the European Central Bank, prominent economists have been virtually unanimous these last few months in dissenting from the non-policy being pursued. Bloomberg quoted another well-respected practitioner of the dismal science during the week in the following terms: “Senior bondholders of European banks should take a haircut on their investments instead of struggling banks being supported by taxpayer bailouts,” Citigroup’s chief economist, Willem Buiter, said.

“As soon as the end of this year, all the European zombie banks could be restored to health or put out of business by making senior bondholders pay instead of the taxpayer,” Mr Buiter said, adding that state support for failing financial institutions should be removed as soon as possible.

The risk of another European banking crisis down the road can be minimised only through the redesign of the ECB and the Eurosystem. The redesign should involve the centralisation of bank supervision, which in an integrated banking market cannot safely be delegated to small countries with limited administrative resources. This logically raises the question of abolishing the national central banks altogether. In seeking a better deal for Ireland in the resolution of the European banking crisis, Irish politicians should not be shy about urging a better deal for Europe; a deal which at least addresses the unresolved current crisis and the prevention of the next one.

Colm McCarthy lectures in Economics at University College Dublin. He has headed an expert group examining State assets and chaired the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes, aka An Bord Snip Nua

– Colm McCarthy

Sunday Independent

We can’t pay this burden of bank debt, so let’s start talking default

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Political parties need to address the issue of debt restructuring in this campaign, writes Brendan O’Connor

THE elephant in the room is slowly coming into focus. Up to now, there had been a bizarre situation whereby most of the international community, from left to right — excluding those who work for the EU and the IMF — and a huge majority of the Irish people, knew the level of debt facing this country was not just immoral but also impossible.

Even our great god the markets believed it, the evidence being that they were increasingly pricing in a default of Irish sovereign debt. Our other great god, the EU, probably believed it too, but obviously it couldn’t say so. But our politicians, even in a general election, were unwilling to articulate this widely held belief.

We were constantly told we needed to put aside the moral part of it. Apparently morality is not important in these things. Everyone agreed it was wrong in a capitalist society that the debts incurred by a small number of people in the private sector should be turned into crippling public debt. We were just told that this is how it had to be.

But it’s very hard to try and sideline right and wrong. These things run deep with people and make them angry and irrational. And irrationality, as we know to our cost in this country, is a far more potent force than logical argument. Suggesting that we put aside morality in one particular case also creates a danger that people will stop obeying the basic rules of right and wrong in other areas.

As we know from our political system, once the moral order is breached, it spreads like cancer.

But even if you manage to put aside the issue of right and wrong, it is much harder to put aside the issue of impossibility. If it is impossible for us to pay this debt — and practically everyone who knows seems to agree that it is — then not only is it desirable to do something about it, it is absolutely imperative.

In fact, you could argue that an impossible mountain of debt is actually causing to happen the very things we are told we are avoiding by killing ourselves to pay the debt.

We are told that if we don’t stand by our debts, then no one will lend to us any more and the markets won’t believe in us. This has already happened. We are told if we don’t pay off our bank debts then we won’t have a functioning economy and banking system. Already happened.

It was extraordinary that none of the major political parties made debt-restructuring the core of their election campaign. If we look after the billions, the millions will look after themselves. Essentially, the vast mountain of debt this country has, including banking debt, has gone from being the solution to all of our problems to being the cause of them. Our politicians had given no compelling argument to counter that of the collective wisdom of the international economic community, left and right, who overwhelmingly believe that we simply cannot function under our current debt situation.

So clearly they didn’t disagree that it was an unsustainable system. And it is certainly a populist issue. But they seemed to shy away from it. All apart from Sinn Fein, who had a fairly radical version of debt restructuring whereby we just stopped paying anyone and became Cuba, a rogue state living off our pension fund, until that ran out. Then we would go back and borrow again or else just stop paying social welfare and nurses’ salaries and so on.

But in a strange way, thank God for Sinn Fein and thank God for this election. Because it is slowly forcing our politicians to change their mindset and accept that maybe they need to put the interests of the people of this country ahead of being popular with their eurocrat friends. They are reluctantly accepting that maybe they need to be prepared to be seen by their friends in Europe as being a little bit irresponsible.

So slowly but surely, the wall of silence on debt restructuring is being broken down. While Labour has been short on detail, it seems to be moving from a position of saying we need a better interest rate to saying there needs to be some “burden sharing”. This is a healthy journey for them.

The Colm McCarthys of the world all seem to agree that getting down the interest rate in itself is not going to do much for us. But burden sharing could radically change our financial outlook.

Fine Gael has had a slightly more convoluted journey but it too is getting to the right place. When Michael Noonan was safely in opposition, he was making noises about burning bondholders. Then he became a member of a government in waiting and seemed to roll back a bit and took Enda to Europe to talk only about interest rate reductions.

Noonan is now getting with the programme again and Fine Gael too is moving towards a broader definition of restructuring.

However, the party seems to have a way to go on it yet, given that Fine Gael castigated Brian Lenihan on Thursday for deciding not to hand over the cash from the pension reserve fund to further recapitalise the banks. Torn between probably agreeing with what Lenihan was doing and the need to have pops at all costs, Noonan came across as a bit muddled on the issue.

Which brings us neatly to Lenihan.

Lenihan was the last man to come around to making noises about restructuring. You can see why. The bailout was his deal, however reluctantly he had it imposed on him, and it was hard for him to turn around and admit that we could do better.

But some of the exhilarating recklessness and audaciousness that appears to have afflicted Micheal Martin has clearly rubbed off on Lenihan. So Lenihan, in that inimitable Fianna Fail/Lenihan way, didn’t talk too much about debt restructuring, he just started doing it.

In fact, he was saying one thing with his words and another with his actions last week. He kept the responsible party line that you can’t just go to your bank manager and try to change the terms of your debts, while at the same time, acting downright unilaterally, he started a sneaky default, or at least he opened the door for one.

Defaulting has got a bad name these days because when people mention default they invariably put the words ‘ATMs not working’ and ‘tanks on the streets’ into the same sentence. And there’s no doubt that to just decide unilaterally to have a full-scale default, as Sinn Fein seem to be suggesting would be cracked.

But there are different ways to skin a cat. Goodbody’s stockbrokers pointed out during the week that there is €21.5bn in unsecured senior bank bonds still out there to be paid and that we should pay 50c in the euro on them.

Another option, they said, would be to allow the European Union’s rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, to directly recapitalise Irish banks.

Goodbody’s pointed out, not unreasonably, that: “If the Irish banks are systemic to the European banking sector, then collective responsibility must be taken for sorting the problems. It is in Europe’s interests, as well as Ireland’s, that the problem is solved.”

Goodbody’s also made the point that defaulting on some bank debt could be the lesser of two evils because the longer bank debt remains the sole responsibility of the Irish government and people, the more chance we will be looking at a more radical widescale default on actual sovereign debt, which everyone seems to agree would not be ideal.

Lenihan, in another moment, seemed to agree with Goodbody’s and claimed that he was looking for a substantial discount on the outstanding bonds but that the ECB was having none of it.

It seems that two things have to happen here. Firstly, politicians need to start articulating clearly and consistently what they think about restructuring and burden sharing. For example, it seems right now from all the polls and also from this paper’s fascinating constituency polls, of which we have more today, that the wind is behind Fine Gael right now.

It is clearly the only party that could potentially form a government on its own and whether Enda inspires us or not, a stable government, rather than a messy coalition of people with nothing in common, is what this country needs now.

If Fine Gael really want, as they say, to form a government on its own, rather than with a lefty rump tacked on, they should perhaps get on the burden-sharing issue with more gusto. Perhaps it should articulate a clear and bold policy about this impossible and unjust debt, bring it to the people, and ask, in return for this promise, that the party be given a clear mandate for a stable single-party government committed to renegotiating our debt.

It could basically make this election a referendum on the bailout and then go to Europe and say: “Look, this is the will of the people of this sovereign republic. This is what they voted for. We are a strong government with a mandate to do this.” And then it needs to be unreasonable in the negotiations with Europe. Because being reasonable has got us nowhere.

Secondly, in conjunction with all this, we need to stop accepting this notion of “Oh, you can’t default. Full stop”. And we need to start getting creative.

Other people are finding their way around things. Kazakhstan, which you may have read about, gave bank bondholders haircuts but sweetened the deal by offering to share with them the spoils of law cases taken against the kind of fraudulent lending that went on in the latter days of their boom, as it did in ours. Growth there is now running at about five per cent.

Denmark let a bank go down recently and the world didn’t stop spinning on its axis. Regardless of what they keep telling us, there are ways out of this. We just need to get smart and we need to get smart quick.

Sunday Independent

Categories: Currency, Irelands economy

IMF boss calls for new international currency

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

International Monetary Fund managing director Dominique Strauss-Kahn (pictured) has called for a new world currency to help reduce the world’s dependence on the dollar and get a tighter grip on financial markets.

In a speech in Washington last night, Strauss-Kahn’s said as an alternative the reserves held by nations within the IMF could be used as a proxy currency, or special drawing rights (SDR), to price international trade and also provide an alternative to the dollar in central banks’ foreign currency reserves.

He added that SDRs could be used to price internationally traded assets such as sovereign bonds and good like commodities to peg currencies and report balance of payments data

The value of SDRs are currently measured on basket of four major currencies – the dollar, sterling euro and yen and Strauss-Kahn suggested more this should be extended to cover a broader depth of currencies including those in key emerging markets such as the Chinese yuan.

Strauss-Kahn said: ‘The SDR might help serve respectively the following objectives: reducing the extent and costs of international reserve accumulation; augmenting the supply of safe global assets and facilitating diversification; and reducing the impact of exchange rate volatility among major currencies.’

Egypt’s Warning: Are You Listening?

February 10, 2011 Leave a comment

Submitted by Chris Martenson

Egypt’s Warning: Are You Listening?

One day, a fruit and vegetable seller was arrested in Tunisia, sparking social unrest, and a few weeks later the government of Egypt was set to topple.

Such is the nature of complex, chaotic, and unpredictable systems. The stresses build for years and years, and nothing really seems to be happening, but then everything suddenly changes. Egypt is therefore emblematic of what we might expect in any complex system in which pressures are building, such as the US Treasury market.

Can events in complex systems ever be predicted? No…and yes. No, because the precise timing and details can never be predicted. Yes, because we can be certain that anything that is unsustainable will someday cease to continue and things that are horribly imbalanced will someday topple. We can also be certain that the change, when it comes, will be rather sudden and abrupt, rather than gentle and linear.

That is, we can easily predict that a complex system will shift, and that it will probably do so rapidly, but not exactly when or by how much.

How unbalanced was Egypt? Very.

Here are a few quite relevant statistics about Egypt (hat tip to an email from reader Mark O., with credit to Dr. John Coulter) to which I have added a few items:

The relentless math:

Population 1960:  27.8 million
Population 2008:  81.7 million
Current population growth rate: 2% per annum (a 35-year doubling rate)
Population in 2046 after another doubling:  164 million

Rainfall average over whole country:  ~ 2 inches per year
Highest rainfall region:  Alexandria, 7.9 inches per year
Arable land (almost entirely in the Nile Valley):  3%
Arable land per capita:  0.04 Ha (400 m2)
Arable land per capita in 2043: 0.02 Ha
Food imports: 40% of requirements
Grain imports: 60% of requirements

Net oil exports: Began falling in 1997, went negative in 2007
Oil production peaked in 1996
Cost of oil rising steeply
Cost of oil and food tightly linked

The future of Egypt will be shaped by these few biophysical facts — a relentless form of math that is hardly unique to Egypt, by the way — and it matters very little who is in power. Given the choice, I would not want to live there, nor in any other country that has fostered or permitted such reckless population growth beyond what the country itself can sustain.

The interesting part is that these facts have been in plain view for decades, building into economic and social pressures that were suddenly unleashed in a wave of social and political unrest. How was it that such obvious things escaped notice for so long before they suddenly reared up into plain view? Instead of being a surprising exception to the rule, we should instead brace ourselves against the idea that this is just the way things tend to work.

Back to the main story. Without persistent (and rising) food imports, Egypt cannot feed itself. It has managed to cover up the shortfall by having enough oil to export, but, like every country, their oil reserves are finite and eventually they’ll face a day of reckoning.

The oil situation in Egypt has only very recently become an enormous and unavoidable issue.

The monthly peak occurred in December 1996 (the yearly peak was also 1996), and oil production is now down some 30 percent since then.

While it’s good to have plenty of production, what really matters to a nation that imports so much of its basic living items are exports.

Of course, there are two things that typically chew on a nation’s oil exports: falling production and rising internal consumption. With both of these dynamics in play, Egypt’s exports have been getting mauled, not by one, but by two exponential functions:

(Source – EIA)

The green circle marks the date when Egypt hit its peak of petroleum production in 1996, and the blue circle and arrow marks when exports had fallen by 50%, just six years after peak production.

The gap between those two events, six years, is a very short amount of time to adjust to the new reality — too short, as it turns out. Such is the nature of a double exponential working against you.

[Note:  For the energy purists, this chart from the Energy Information Agency (EIA) misrepresents things somewhat. Egypt’s domestic oil consumption and production are virtually identical right now, but Egypt has the largest oil refining sector in Africa, which skews their petroleum imports to the negative side. But whether Egypt became a new petroleum importer this year or in 2007 is essentially a historical blink, and the story told by the trajectory of the chart is little changed by small matters of timing.]

Any country that has to import both oil and food is living on borrowed time. It was only a matter of time before something gave way, and apparently that time is now.

Hillary Clinton actually spoke something approximating the truth about this fact recently, although she was referring to the entire region, but nonetheless, it was an unusual moment of clarity for the US political structure:

Hillary Clinton: Middle East facing ‘perfect storm’

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said the Middle East is facing a “perfect storm” of unrest and nations must embrace democratic change.

Speaking in Munich, Mrs Clinton said the status quo in the region was “simply not sustainable”. “The region is being battered by a perfect storm of powerful trends.

“This is what has driven demonstrators into the streets of Tunis, Cairo, and cities throughout the region. The status quo is simply not sustainable.”

She said that with water shortages and oil running out, governments may be able to hold back the tide of change for a short while but not for long.

Water shortages and oil running out? I’d decode those ideas for you, but they speak for themselves. Food and fuel are running out. The irony here is that she may as well have been speaking about the United States, Japan, or any number of countries across the globe, but any admission of biophysical limits is a good start, I suppose.

Editorially, it’s not at all clear to me how the poorly defined concept of ‘democratic change’ will really change the equation much, as limits are immune to which ‘ism’ you happen to be running, but I am sure there are some in Washington DC who think ideology can trump reality. Regardless, I am somewhat surprised to see such obvious truths about water and oil being spoken by a senior US representative; it was unclear to me that anyone at that level had any awareness of these subjects at all.

My intent here is not to point out the future difficulties that Egypt faces, no matter who is charge, but to use the change that happened there as emblematic of what we might expect elsewhere, especially in the financial markets.

Egypt simply reminds us that anything that is unsustainable will someday change. It is an emblem for the world.

With abundant energy and food, we are treated to expansive and stable economies in which everyone stands a chance of gaining. Not that everyone will, mind you, but the possibility is there  In an energy-constrained world, what was formerly possible is no longer do-able, things don’t work right, and there seem to be persistent shortages of everything from growth, to money, to food, to goodwill. What used to work doesn’t. It is at these points that the prior stresses and imbalances are most likely to snap and suddenly change the world.

These are the very sorts of changes that are coming to the rest of the world. Perhaps to a country or financial market near you. Are you ready?

In Part II of this report, our just-released Guide to Navigating the Coming Crisis, we analyze how the same systemic breakages in Egypt will likely manifest in the United States (and other countries). Also, for the first time ever, we have summarized the entire ‘method’ by which we make sense of the world. This method has allowed us to both grow our wealth and sleep better at night. Yes, there are troubling events afoot in the world, but an accurate diagnosis goes a very long way towards relieving the stresses that can cloud good decision-making and narrow one’s field of view. We not only give you the information you need; we give you our best tools so that you can fashion them into the right actions that make sense for you.

Click here to read the Guide to Navigating the Coming Crisis (free executive summary; enrollment required for full access).

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