Straight Talk with Tyler Durden: The U.S. Is Free-Falling Into Bankruptcy
"Straight Talk" features thinking from notable minds that the PeakProsperity.com audience has indicated it wants to learn more about. Readers submit the questions they want addressed and our guests take their best crack at answering. The comments and opinions expressed by our guests are their own.
This week's Straight Talk contributor is Tyler Durden, founder and chief demagogue of the popular econoblog Zero Hedge. Zero Hedge's mission is to bring back a more critical, rigorous, and informed style of commentary and synthesis for the professional investing public. The blog has experienced explosive growth in it's two-year existence, due in part to its prolific coverage of financial events as well as its unapologetic (some say controversial) editorial approach, which is often highly critical of today's economic and political leaders.
1. What led you to start Zero Hedge? Was there a particular story or moment? For many of our readers, you have become the CNN of the Great Collapse (this is seen as a positive thing). Is this what you set out to be?
Zero Hedge was started two years ago in the aftermath of the Great Financial Crash, as coined by Bill Buckler, when we realized there is a substantial vacuum in information distribution, and to a lesser extent, processing. The financial media world was (and to a great extent still is) dominated by journalists who were learning finance on the job and thus were incapable of putting the dots together on most stories under investigation.Others took an even more inappropriate approach, and instead of covering the stories, took a major shortcut and began to cover the people who made up (literally) the headline news, and in abject adulation of these “universal masters” wrote op-eds, and shortly thereafter, books, that purported to explain the underlying narrative by covering the personalities. The financial media learned that the way to mask its greatest weakness - its lack of understanding - was by redirecting the narrative to far more simplistic and digestible profile stories. To be sure, there have always been fringe reporters/analysts in the periphery of the media world who were great experts in one area or another, but rarely was there a medium that successfully meshed the macro with the micro, fusing topics between the equity, credit, FX, commodity, and derivative worlds, and, increasingly more importantly, the political arena.
Zero Hedge has attempted to fill this hole.
As for whether or not we have a bearish bias, that is debatable. We judge the prevailing sentiment by feedback from our readers, who constantly opine on any latest story, thus preventing an echo-chamber effect. Some may find it surprising that we have just as many bullish as bearish readers. But more to the point, we pride ourselves in always providing a fact-based perspective that at least attempts to dig behind the headlines, which in our day and age are becoming increasingly more biased by outright propaganda. Instead of screaming that the end is nigh (which it may very well be; after all, we now live in a world in which the ultimate backstops are two perfectly human, and thus error-prone, individuals - Ben Bernanke and Jean Claude Trichet), we prefer to debunk prevailing lies and popular myths, borne out of either stupidity or laziness. It is not our fault if the end product of such an activity ends up revealing a less than optimistic result.
Ultimately, we strive, no matter what, to present the objective and verifiable truth. Which is perhaps why each week brings us new record numbers of readers: As we assumed on day one of Zero Hedge, Americans are not as stupid as the administration would believe they are, and are starved for the truth, unmarred by a political bias or corporate affiliations, two niches which we strive to fill without a conflict of interest, each and every day.
2. Is "Tyler Durden" a real person or a collective of editors? What advantages does ZH gain by operating under pseudonyms and what does it lose?
Tyler Durden is the embodiment of the idea that the only thing that matters is content. And since ideas tend to be ephemeral, the right question is not who or what he or she may be, but what the sought-after goal is. To wit: content, especially in the context of often complicated financial matters, succeeds in its goal not if it convinces, but if it makes the reader think and reevaluate existing preconceptions. Often, that involves forcefully breaking (and sometimes destroying) established, often petrified, structures and modes of thought, and who better to achieve this than Tyler Durden. Additionally, by avoiding the same “personality cult” trap with which traditional corporate-entrenched media often attempts to lure its ideological opponents, we enjoy forcing them to acknowledge just how much (or, much more often, how little) of the actual content they can overturn in order to establish the veracity of their ideas.
Naturally, on the other end of the contextual spectrum, there is the recently popular phenomenon of WikiLeaks. But that is a topic for another day.
3. ZH cultivates a counterculture, in-your-face approach to journalism. Is this approach intrinsic to your mission? Does inflaming passions help increase awareness of your message? Is it ever counterproductive?
As noted above, many of the topics we address fly straight in the face of what can be classified as established, propaganda thought. It is these ideas, many of which are not based on any semblance of fact but are merely an appeal to the lowest common intellectual denominator, that we most actively seek to ridicule, disparage, and ultimately discredit. Zero Hedge has been known to utilize such stylistic tropes as hyperbole, sarcasm, and irony on occasion, but always with the end goal of making the reader aware that style is merely secondary, or more apropos, immersive, to the fundamental message, which is always dead serious, and, more importantly, backed up 100% by facts (one of the biggest boons of contextual hyperlinking). And yes, so far this approach has yielded numerous and extensive results, both in the realm of activism as well as voluntary and enforced regulatory overhaul.
4. Do you see yourself as part of a greater tradition of ‘exposé journalism’ in the mold of Ida Tarbell or Upton Sinclair? Or are you just frustrated by the way major media organizations cover the paramount issues of our day and determined to do something about it?
We don’t really see ourselves as part of any tradition. We believe that any time we observe someone manipulating truth or reality in order to achieve ulterior, selfish goals while masking these in some form of a hypocritical aura, we will expose such an action and certainly make our voices heard. Furthermore, we are confident that the “major media” will soon realize that Americans no longer have any interest in being lied to, can do their own homework, and after a while will leave (permanently) all media outlets, whether on air, wired, or printed format, that tend to manipulate truth (in part or in whole) while making overarching (and underestimating) assumptions about the intelligence of its audience. And for a business in which eyeball equivalents are all that matter, said media will need to revamp its business model to one which is increasingly more reflective of factual expose, or it will go extinct.
5. Thinking ahead three years, where do you want ZH to be? At that future time, what has it accomplished, and what is it doing?
Zero Hedge tends to evolve with the times. While last year we covered primarily the dysfunctional equity markets, with tangents into broader capital markets, and predicted such stressful market events as the May “flash crash” well over a year in advance, as time has progressed and as the economic depression has spread, we have become increasingly more macro-oriented, currently focusing on the intersection of global capital flows and political spheres of influence. We may very well be doing this for a long time, or the Fed may collapse tomorrow and we will need to find a whole new focal area in 24 hours. And since predicting the future is a fool’s game (unless, of course, one has several very-connected and better-compensated expert networks on speed dial…which is, incidentally, a topic we discussed in the middle of 2009, long before anyone had even heard of expert networks) the last thing we hope to know is where we will be in three years, or what we may look like. One thing I can promise you is that we will adapt.
6. Having written so much about what's wrong with our current economic/financial/political system, what specific actions do you think need to be undertaken to fix things? Is an all-out collapse avoidable?
This is a question that we ask ourselves every day, and no matter how we spin it, we fail to see how an unwind to a previous “restore point” to borrow a computer analogy, is possible at this very late stage in the global Ponzi scheme. We tend to simplify the world: When everything else is stripped, the only two things that matter are a) where is the money coming from? and b) where is it going? And never in the history of the world have so many assets created so little cash flow. To a big extent, this is due to the fact that a bulk of asset purchases in the past three decades have been due not to asset turnover, but as a result of cheap credit resulting from an explosion of credit money through the quadrillion dollar derivative boom. As a result, most incremental dollars go not to organic business growth and economic output, but to satisfying what has become the biggest debt burden in the history of the world, whereby the labor and intellectual output of most goes to fund the living standards of a very few.
Indicatively, when looking at total exchange and OTC traded derivatives, which eventually are converted into some form of credit money, the total tally at last check is just over $1.3 quadrillion. This is about 20 times the total economic output in the world each year. It becomes very clear why the current status quo is unsustainable absent a major global corporate and sovereign liability restructuring: In the bankruptcy business, this process is known as “growing into your balance sheet.” Yet the main reason why the kleptocratic elite has been so opposed to this act is because no debt impairment is possible without eliminating the equity tranche below it. And in an ironic twist in which the Fed supports both the debt and equity markets, there is now about $13 trillion in equity capitalization in the US, which is backed by debt that for all intents and purposes needs to be impaired.
As a result, unless stakeholders in the liabilities of corporate America realize that the assets that collateralize these liabilities are woefully insufficient and come to a compromise in which either they alone or in combination with the creditors come to a consensual “restructuring” of the underlying claims, there is no other possible outcome than a free-fall bankruptcy. However, this will not be some Chapter 7 filed in the bankruptcy court of Southern District of New York. This will be the end of the current financial system. This is also what some consider a "deflationary death spiral." And yes, no matter how much paper the Fed prints, this outcome is inevitable: All the Fed does through money printing is dilute the claims on both sides of the ledger. The best the Fed could then hope for to counteract the deflationary outcome is to generate hyperinflation through a collapse in the reserve currency (i.e., the Zimbabwe outcome). And since this is far more palatable to the Fed, we believe that one way or another, whether by fire or ice (to paraphrase Robert Frost), the existing, very unstable financial system will reach a point when the global systematic reset is inevitable.
7. What are your views on Peak Oil? Assuming you think its arrival is relevant to people alive today, when do you forecast the market will recognize its significance? If we have to cut our use of oil, will we also have to cut our addiction to economic growth in conjunction?
The rate of global consumption of oil is certainly rising. While the debate over Peak Oil has numerous proponents and opponents on both sides, we tend to not have so much a view on Peak Oil per se, as much as marginal consumption and production at any given moment. What is without doubt is that like any natural resource, the accelerating extraction of oil will deplete the resource, once again based on increasing marginal rates of utilization. While we certainly would wish that the G20 countries were investing capital in alternative energy infrastructures, this will come sooner or later, voluntarily or otherwise. The longer the delay, the greater the ultimate incurred cost. In the meantime, should oil and other commodity prices surge, well-known higher priced alternatives (solar, geothermal, wind) will suddenly become equitable, and as more and more energy production shifts to less efficient modes of energy creation, increasingly more R&D spending will occur in those alternative fields, which in turn will result in a decline of the energy equivalent costs as efficiencies improve. Ultimately, and probably after a violent cyclical shift, there will be a new pricing equilibrium, but one which will nonetheless see an increasing need to shift away to renewable energy sources. We can only hope that in addition to the trillions of dollars spent to fund bank-sector capital deficiencies, the government will find it in its heart to invest a few hundred billion in this venture earlier rather than later. Of course, as we know far too well how the game is played, we are very skeptical than anything like that will happen until it is far too late.
8. What is your advice to concerned individuals looking to position/protect themselves from the likely economic turmoil ahead of us? What strategies and tactics should they consider?
We always recommend looking at the opportunity costs of behavior that is an alternative to prevailing modes. In other words, look at potential outcomes the way an investment manager evaluates an investing opportunity: in terms of upside/downside and associated probabilities. While currently the probability of a truly dire outcome is very, very minor, the cost of insurance is very small. One can buy a year’s worth of provisions, medicine, and other forms of protection for a very cheap price. Should the worst happen, and such items be required, they would be unprocurable, period. This is probably our first advice to those who, like Paolo Pellegrini, wish to insure themselves, very cheaply, to the equivalent of a collapse in the subprime market back in 2006. While many laughed in his face at the time, his obstinacy and persistence is what made both him and John Paulson billions. It is always better to be early on a trade that has even very small chances of success, then too late on a sure trade. And aside from such unpleasant “survivalist” thoughts, we can only recommend, as we have been doing on Zero Hedge for nearly two years, that readers purchase as many hard assets as they can. Anything that Ben Bernanke will dilute by printing, he will; this we are certain of. Which is why purchasing precious metals, hard assets, non-perishable supplies, arable land, and means to protect the above four, is probably the best advice we can give to anyone.
9. Lamestream media is, has, and will probably continue to fail in its mission to inform with appropriate context in most important matters (as, we expect, The Nero Times did too). Do you think the most respected blogs can organize and elevate themselves to actually supplant the increasingly irrelevant LSM by holding themselves to higher standards?
Having seen and interacted with some of the egos in the blogosphere over the past several years, we believe that any form of coordinated attempt to supplant the LSM, as you call it, will be next to impossible. Simply put there are far too many voices that demand to be heard if such an attempt is to be successful.
That said, we believe traditional media will increasingly render itself obsolete as readers find cheaper alternatives in the blogosphere, where many more erudite voices on any matter of things than a collection of journalists at a given highly leveraged traditional media outlet can be found. As a result, mainstream media will most certainly not exist in its current form five years from now. Increasingly more will give focus to independent online microspecialists within any given field, and as such, the background for a successful financial blogger, for example, will not be a journalism degree, but a stint on Wall Street coupled with extended financial training. The same will be true for all other specialized fields. We expect that in a last-ditch attempt to prevent its extinction, the MSM will attempt to roll up the blogosphere into its existing business model. And while this may be lucrative for a few parties, the end losers will be the readers, as this will merely represent the same form of "extend and pretend" in content presentation that America is currently suffering from.
As for enforcing standards, it is in every blog’s interest to be relevant and credible. To that end, higher standards are critical. As the blogosphere, which has over 2 million active blogs in its ranks, is currently a field of extremely active “natural selection,” bloggers have no choice but to perfect their work or lose readers and become irrelevant -- i.e., go extinct. After all, in the blogging world, one is only as good as one's latest post.
If you have not yet seen the other articles in this series, you can find them here:
- Straight Talk with Tyler Durden: The U.S. Is Free-Falling Into Bankruptcy - 12.15.10
- Straight Talk with Charles Hugh Smith: Why The Status Quo is Unsustainable - 12.05.10
- Straight Talk with G. Edward Griffin: What's Coming Next Isn't Pretty - 11.29.10
- Straight Talk with James Howard Kunstler: The World is Going to Get Rounder and Bigger Again - 11.17.10
- Straight Talk with Steve Keen: It's All About the Debt - 11.09.10
- Straight Talk with Mike Shedlock (aka "Mish") - 10.26.10
Readers can submit their preferences for future Straight Talk participants, as well as questions to ask them, via the Straight Talk forum.