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David Walker, comptroller general, warns of impending crisis

by max news Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2007 at 2:36 AM

Learn from the fall of Rome, the US is warned. There were striking similarities between America's current situation and the factors that brought down Rome including declining moral values, an over-confident and over-extended military and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government.

(1) David Walker, comptroller general of US, warns of impending crisis

(2) Credit crunch - banks now bundle their loans & sell them to Pension


(3) "Peak oil" theory vindicated? - Wall Street Journal says Oil profits

will decline

(1) David Walker, comptroller general of US, warns of impending crisis

Learn from the fall of Rome, US warned

By Jeremy Grant in Washington

Financial Times Published: August 14 2007 00:06 | Last updated: August 14

2007 00:06

The US government is on a burning platform‚ of unsustainable policies and

practices with fiscal deficits, chronic healthcare underfunding, immigration

and overseas military commitments threatening a crisis if action is not

taken soon, the country's top government inspector has warned.

David Walker, comptroller general of the US, issued the unusually downbeat

assessment of his country's future in a report that lays out what he called

"chilling long-term simulations".

These include "dramatic" tax rises, slashed government services and the

large-scale dumping by foreign governments of holdings of US debt.

Drawing parallels with the end of the Roman empire, Mr Walker warned there

were "striking similarities" between America's current situation and the

factors that brought down Rome, including "declining moral values and

political civility at home, an over-confident and over-extended military in

foreign lands and fiscal irresponsibility by the central government".

"Sound familiar?" Mr Walker said. "In my view, it's time to learn from

history and take steps to ensure the American Republic is the first to stand

the test of time."

Mr Walker's views carry weight because he is a non-partisan figure in charge

of the Government Accountability

Office, often described as the investigative arm of the US Congress.

While most of its studies are commissioned by legislators, about 10 per cent

- such as the one containing his latest warnings - are initiated by the

comptroller general himself.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Walker said he had mentioned

some of the issues before but now wanted to "turn up the volume". Some of

them were too sensitive for others in government to "have their name

associated with".

"I'm trying to sound an alarm and issue a wake-up call," he said. "As

comptroller general I‚ve got an ability to look longer-range and take on

issues that others may be hesitant, and in many cases may not be in a

position, to take on.

"One of the concerns is obviously we are a great country but we face major

sustainability challenges that we are not taking seriously enough," said Mr

Walker, who was appointed during the Clinton administration to the post,

which carries a 15-year term.

The fiscal imbalance meant the US was "on a path toward an explosion of


"With the looming retirement of baby boomers, spiraling healthcare costs,

plummeting savings rates and increasing reliance on foreign lenders, we face

unprecedented fiscal risks," said Mr Walker, a former senior executive at

PwC auditing firm.

Current US policy on education, energy, the environment, immigration and

Iraq also was on an "unsustainable path".

"Our very prosperity is placing greater demands on our physical

infrastructure. Billions of dollars will be needed to modernise everything

from highways and airports to water and sewage systems. The recent bridge

collapse in Minneapolis was a sobering wake-up call."

Mr Walker said he would offer to brief the would-be presidential candidates

next spring.

"They need to make fiscal responsibility and inter-generational equity one

of their top priorities. If they do, I think we have a chance to turn this

around but if they don‚t, I think the risk of a serious crisis rises


Commentar Max: he should know better than that... Rome was Gold-based - but

Fiat can never crash - since there is 'nothing' that cant collapse

(2) Credit crunch - banks now bundle their loans & sell them to Pension


Money market goes for broke

by David Uren

THE real economy and the financial economy are travelling in opposite

directions. In the real economy, 1.4billion Chinese are continuing to

consume vast quantities of steel and energy, companies the world over are

reaping record profits and there is work for all who want it. But in the

banking quarters of London, New York and Tokyo, fear stalks the streets.

Reserve Bank of Australia governor Glenn Stevens believes the fundamental

strength of the world economy will win out. He told the House of

Representatives economics committee yesterday: "We want to talk about the

volatility and why it is happening but remind people that underlying this is

an economy in good shape, corporate balance sheets are in good shape and

personal balance sheets are in most cases good. The economy is working well

and I think those fundamental forces will eventually reassert themselves."

Not everyone is convinced there will be a happy ending. The Swiss-based Bank

of International Settlements, which acts as banker and adviser to the

world's central banks, says no one should be deluded by the apparent health

of the real economy into thinking that all is fine.

"Virtually no one foresaw the Great Depression of the 1930s, or the crises

(that) affected Japan and Southeast Asia in the early and late 1990s,

respectively. In fact, each downturn was preceded by a period of

non-inflationary growth exuberant enough to lead many commentators to

suggest that a 'new era' had arrived," the bank said in its latest annual


Although politicians and the public have been mesmerised by the careening

share market, which has sliced about 0 billion from national

superannuation savings in the last month, the share slump has simply been

collateral damage from the ructions in financial markets.

Unlike the share dive in 1987, the tech wreck of 2000 or the great crash of

1929, share values are not particularly high compared with profits. The

Reserve Bank remarked in its review of the economy last week that earnings a

share for resource companies are at historically high levels and growth

prospects are sound. This is not a speculative share bubble that has been

pricked. Shares are in trouble because of fears for what will happen to the

real economy if central banks are unable to calm financial markets. No one

knows if they can.

European Central Bank president Claude Trichet announced on Wednesday that

financial markets were "progressively returning to normal". "What has been

observed can be interpreted as a normalisation of the pricing of risk," he


However, the panic appears to be spreading, with nothing normal about it.

What started as a reluctance by financial institutions to deal in securities

related to the US sub-prime market has become a generalised retreat by

lenders from all but the most secure government-backed bonds.

This financial crisis is completely different from any seen before because

of the transformation of the world's banks during the past 15 years. It used

to be the case that banks advanced loans to companies and individuals and

financed them by raising deposits on which they paid a lower rate of

interest. The loans remained on the bank balance sheet.

Now banks bundle their loans into parcels and sell them to investors. So the

Commonwealth Bank, for example, may gather together billion of its home

mortgages and sell bonds that give the investor a right to the income from

its mortgage interest payments and the security of the property. These bonds

are taken up by pension funds across the world.

The advantage of this, from the bank's point of view, is that it makes fee

income from writing the loan but it does not have a 20-year mortgage on its

balance sheet. Since banks worldwide are required to keep capital reserves

of about 8 per cent of their at-risk loans, they can do more business

without having to hoard more capital reserves if they can sell their loans.

Banks still have a front door through which they offer loans, but the risk

goes out the back door into a vast global securities market populated by

pension funds, hedge funds and investment banks.

Ever more inventive securities have been devised to shift risk. One that is

in the eye of the present storm is called a credit-default swap. If you buy

a bond that represents a bundle of mortgages or company loans, you can also

buy a credit default swap, which effectively insures you against the company

or the mortgagees going broke. For the past four years, investors have

become increasingly eager to buy these and other securities, with the margin

for risk being steadily whittled away.

Some banks are leaving loans on their books but selling bundles of credit

default swaps so that the risk in the loan is taken up by someone else.

Even trickier securities, called synthetic collateralised debt obligations,

bundle lots of credit default swaps into different parcels. If there is

billion of mortgage loans to thousands of home buyers, one parcel exposes

investors to the slight risk that they all default and pays them a small

interest margin. Another may expose investors to the risk that only 3 per

cent go broke and provides them with no security but offers instead an

interest margin several percentage points higher.

This is the realm of the hedge funds, which pass the parcels among

themselves, with investment banks, and even repackage them into products

sold to retail investors. Where the ultimate risk resides, should a borrower

default, nobody knows. A bank may buy insurance for its loans from a hedge

fund, but the financial viability of that fund may depend on its continued

access to loans from the bank.

Hedge funds are largely unregulated managers of private investor capital

that try to take advantage of financial market movements, up or down,

looking for opportunities where they believe markets have mispriced a

security. They revel in markets for derivative products, such as credit

default swaps, and borrow heavily so that a 1 per cent difference in the

price of a security can be turned into a 20 per cent return to their


It is this world that has been thrown akimbo. What started as a withdrawal

from securities linked to the sub-prime mortgage market has become a

generalised retreat as investors and banks lose faith in the system.

The Reserve Bank's Stevens said yesterday he did not believe the US

sub-prime mortgage problems were serious enough, given how widely disbursed

the risk is, to sink any large financial institution, but banks do not share

his faith.

Although credit risk - the chance that a borrower will default - can be

carved up and sold to hedge and pension funds, banks are the only suppliers

of liquidity, or ready cash, to financial markets.

During the past eight days, banks have become more reluctant to lend cash on

money markets to other banks. Central banks have stepped into the breach,

saying they will lend as much money as is required to keep cash rates

steady, and private banks have lapped up those offers by the billions.

But it is not clear the banks have been passing that guaranteed cash on to

their hedge funds and other customers. Pension funds and hedge funds are

also rattled and are no longer offering to take up new securities issues.

The only previous liquidity crunch in securities markets occurred in 1998

when the Long Term Capital Management hedge fund collapsed. However, this

lasted only a few days, as then US Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan

was able to rustle up a half-dozen New York investment banks to stump up

$US3.5 billion to bail out the troubled fund, and the market proceeded as

usual. This time the problem is global, with thousands of hedge funds

controlling an estimated $US1500 billion (00 billion).

In a speech delivered to a BIS conference on the eve of the market crisis,

Bank of England deputy governor John Grieve said the wide distribution of

risk made it less likely that any individual institution would default. But

he added: "Risk sharing can also become risk spreading. Greater

interconnectedness increases the potential for contagion to spread because

it increases the chance that institutions withstanding the effects of an

initial problem will be exposed to defaulting counterparties, making them

vulnerable to a second round default.

"Such network interactions are likely to be non-linear and, if so, the

impact on system losses may be substantial. In a world of greater

interconnections, a crisis is likely to be bigger and more complex and

international than in the past."

If the credit squeeze continues, the result will be rising interest rates

and unemployment worldwide as credit availability is squeezed for all but

the most credit-worthy. So it is to be hoped that the RBA's Stevens is

correct in his faith that the fundamental strength of the economy prevails.

(3) "Peak oil" theory vindicated? - Wall Street Journal says Oil profits

will decline

From: "Sino Economics"

A new energy pessimism emerges

By Michael T Klare

When "peak oil" theory was first widely publicized in such path-breaking

books as Kenneth Deffeyes' Hubbert's Peak (2001), Richard Heinberg's The

Party's Over (2002), David Goodstein's Out of Gas (2004), and Paul Roberts'

The End of Oil (2004), [1] energy-industry officials and their government

associates largely ridiculed the notion.

An imminent peak - and subsequent decline - in global petroleum output was

derided as crackpot science with little geological foundation. "Based on

[our] analysis," the US Department of Energy confidently asserted in 2004,

"[we] would expect conventional oil to peak closer to the middle than to the

beginning of the 21st century."

Recently, however, a spate of high-level government and industry reports

have begun to suggest that the original peak-oil theorists were far closer

to the grim reality of global oil availability than industry analysts were

willing to admit. Industry optimism regarding long-term energy-supply

prospects, these official reports indicate, has now given way to a

deep-seated pessimism, even in the biggest of Big Oil corporate


The change in outlook is perhaps best suggested by a July 27 article in the

Wall Street Journal headlined "Oil profits show sign of aging". Although

reporting staggering second-quarter profits for oil giants ExxonMobil and

Royal Dutch Shell - US.3 billion for the former, .7 billion for the

latter - the Journal sadly noted that investors are bracing for

disappointing results in future quarters as the cost of new production rises

and output at older fields declines.

"All the oil companies are struggling to grow production," explained Peter

Hitchens, an analyst at the Teather and Greenwood brokerage house. "[Yet]

it's becoming more and more difficult to bring projects in on time and on


To appreciate the nature of Big Oil's dilemma, peak-oil theory must be

briefly revisited. As originally formulated by petroleum geologist M King

Hubbert in the 1950s, the concept holds that worldwide oil production will

rise until about half of the world's original petroleum inheritance has been

exhausted; once this point is reached, daily output will hit a peak and

begin an irreversible decline.

Hubbert's successors, including Professor Emeritus Kenneth Deffeyes of

Princeton, contend that we have now consumed just about half the original

supply and so are at, or very near, the peak-production moment predicted by


Since the concept burst into public consciousness several years ago, its

proponents and critics have largely argued over whether or not we have

reached maximum worldwide petroleum output. In a way, this is a moot

argument, because the numbers involved in conventional oil output have

increasingly been obscured by oil derived from "unconventional" sources

- deep offshore fields, tar sands, and natural-gas liquids, for example

- that are being blended into petroleum feedstocks used to make gasoline and

other fuels.

In recent years, this has made the calculation of petroleum supplies ever

more complicated. As a result, it may be years more before we can be certain

of the exact timing of the global peak-oil moment.

On tap: The tough-oil era

There is, however, a second aspect to peak-oil theory, which is no less

relevant when it comes to the global-supply picture - one that is far easier

to detect and assess today. Peak-oil theorists have long contended that the

first half of the world's oil to be extracted and consumed will be the easy

half. They are referring, of course, to the oil that's found onshore or near

to shore; oil close to the surface and concentrated in large reservoirs; oil

produced in friendly, safe and welcoming places.

The other half - what (if they are right) is left of the world's petroleum

supply - is the tough oil. They mean oil that's buried far offshore or deep

underground; oil scattered in small, hard-to-find reservoirs; oil that must

be obtained from unfriendly, politically dangerous, or hazardous places. An

oil-investor's-eye-view of our energy planet today quickly reveals that we

already seem to be entering the tough-oil era. This explains the growing

pessimism among industry analysts as well as certain changes in behavior in

the energy marketplace.

In but one sign of the new reality, the price of benchmark US light, sweet

crude oil for next-month delivery soared to new highs on July 31, topping

the previous record for intraday trading of .03 per barrel set in July

2006. Some observers are predicting that a price of per barrel is just

around the corner; while John Kildruff, a perfectly sober analyst at futures

broker Man Financial, told, "We're only a headline of

significance away from 0 oil." New disruptions in Nigerian or Iraqi

supplies, or a US military strike against Iran, he explained, could trigger

such a price increase in the energy equivalent of a nanosecond.

A signal of another sort was provided by the government of Kazakhstan in

oil-rich Central Asia on August 7. It warned the private operators of the

giant offshore Kashagan oil project - in the Kazakh sector of the Caspian

Sea - to cut costs and speed the onset of production or face a possible

government takeover. In an interview, Prime Minister Karim Masimov said

threateningly: "We are very disappointed with the execution of this project.

If the operator can't resolve these problems, then we don't exclude their

possible replacement."

Kashagan, it must be borne in mind, is not just any oil project: it is the

largest field to be developed anywhere in the world since the discovery of

Alaska's Prudhoe Bay some 40 years ago. With estimated oil reserves of 9

billion to 13 billion barrels, it is crucial to the hopes of its principal

developers - Exxon, ConocoPhillips, Shell, Total (of France), and Eni (of

Italy) - to increase their output in the years ahead.

Consistent with the "tough oil" aspect of peak-oil theory, Kashagan is,

however, proving dauntingly difficult to turn into a successful font of

petroleum. The oil reservoir itself is buried beneath high-pressure strata

of gas, making its extraction exceedingly tricky, and it contains abnormally

high levels of deadly hydrogen sulfide; moreover, the entire field is in a

shallow area of the Caspian Sea that freezes over for five months of the

year and is the breeding ground for rare seals and beluga sturgeon.

As a result of these and other problems, the Kashagan operating consortium

has seen the price tag for launching the project nearly double - from

billion to billion - and has postponed the onset of initial production

from 2005 to 2010, infuriating the Kazakh government, which had hoped to be

earning billions of dollars in taxes and royalties by now.

A demanding world

And then there are those reports from high-level agencies and organizations

on the global energy picture, all coming to the same basic conclusion:

whether or not the peak in world oil output is at hand, the future of the

oil supply in a world of endlessly growing demand appears grim.

The first of these recent warnings, titled the "Medium-Term Oil Market

Report", was released on July 8 by the International Energy Agency (IEA), an

arm of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the

club of major industrial powers. Although filled with statistics and

technical analyses, the report, assessing the global oil supply-and-demand

equation through 2012, seemed to leak anxiety and came to a distinctly

worrisome conclusion: because world oil demand is likely to keep rising at a

rapid tempo and the development of new oilfields is not expected to keep

pace, significant shortfalls are likely to emerge within the next five


The IEA report predicts that world economic activity will grow by an average

of 4.5% per year during this period - driven largely by unbridled growth in

China, India, and other Asian dynamos. Global oil demand will rise, it

predicts, by about 2.2% per year, pushing world oil consumption from an

estimated 86.1 million barrels per day in 2007 to 95.8 million barrels by


With luck and substantial new investment, the global oil industry may be

able to increase output sufficiently to satisfy this higher level of demand

- but, if so, just barely. Beyond 2012, the production outlook appears far

grimmer. And keep in mind, this is the best-case scenario.

Underlying the report's conclusions are a number of specific fears. Despite

rising fuel prices, neither the mature consumers of the OECD countries nor

newly affluent consumers in the developing world are likely to curb their

appetite for petroleum significantly. "Demand is growing, and as people

become accustomed to higher prices, they are starting to return to their

previous trends of high consumption," was the way Lawrence Eagles, an oil

expert at the IEA, summed the situation up. This is clearly evident in the

United States, where record-high gasoline prices have not stopped drivers

from filling up their tanks and driving record distances.

In addition, oil output in the US and most other non-members of the

Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries has peaked, or is about to do

so, which means that the net contribution of non-OPEC suppliers will only

diminish between now and 2012. That, in turn, means that the burden of

providing the required additional oil will have to fall on the OPEC

countries, most of which are in unstable areas of the Middle East and


The numbers are actually staggering. Just to satisfy a demand for an extra

10 million or so barrels per day between now and 2012, 2 million barrels per

day in new oil would have to be added to global stocks yearly. But even this

calculation is misleading, as Eagles of the IEA made clear. In fact, the

world would initially need "more than 3 million barrels per day of new oil

each year [just] to offset the falling production in the mature fields

outside of OPEC" - and that's before you even get near that additional 2

million barrels.

In other words, what's actually needed is 5 million barrels of new oil each

year, a truly daunting challenge, since almost all of this oil will have to

be found in Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Algeria, Angola, Libya,

Nigeria, Venezuela, and one or two other countries. These are not places

that exactly inspire investor confidence of a sort that could attract the

many billions of dollars needed to ramp up production enough to satisfy

global requirements.

Read between the lines and one quickly perceives a worst-case scenario in

which the necessary investment is not forthcoming; OPEC production does not

grow by 5 million barrels per day year after year; production of ethanol and

other substitute fuels, along with alternative fuels of various sorts, does

not grow fast enough to fill the gap; and, in the not-too-distant future, a

substantial shortage of oil leads to a global economic meltdown.

The missing trillions

A very similar prognosis emerges from a careful reading of "Facing the Hard

Truths about Energy", the second major report to be released in July.

Submitted to the US Department of Energy by the National Petroleum Council

(NPC), an oil-industry association, this report encapsulated the view of

both industry officials and academic analysts.

It was widely praised for providing a "balanced" approach to the energy

dilemma. It called for both increased fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles

and increased oil and gas drilling on land owned by the US government.

Contributing to the buzz around its release was the identity of the report's

principal sponsor, former Exxon chief executive officer Lee Raymond. Having

previously expressed skepticism about global warming, he now embraced the

report's call for the talking of significant steps to curb carbon-dioxide


Like the IEA report, the NPC study does claim that - with the perfect mix of

policies and an adequate level of investment - the energy industry would be

capable of satisfying oil and gas demand for some years to come.

"Fortunately, the world is not running out of energy resources," the report

bravely asserts.

Read deep into the report, though, and these optimistic words begin to

dissolve as its emphasis switches to the growing difficulties (and costs) of

extracting oil and gas from less-than-favorable locations and the

geopolitical risks associated with a growing global reliance on potentially

hostile, unstable suppliers.

Again, the numbers involved are staggering. According to the NPC, an

estimated trillion in new investment (that's trillion, not billion) will

be needed between now and 2030 to ensure sufficient energy for anticipated

demand. This works out to ",000 per person alive today" in a world in

which a good half of humanity earns substantially less than that each year.

These funds, which can only come from those of us in the wealthier

countries, will be needed, the council notes, in "building new,

multibillion-dollar oil platforms in water thousands of feet deep, laying

pipelines in difficult terrain and across country borders, expanding

refineries, constructing vessels and terminals to ship and store liquefied

natural gas, building railroads to transport coal and biomass, and stringing

new high-voltage transmission lines from remote wind farms". Adding to the

magnitude of this challenge, "future projects are likely to be more complex

and remote, resulting in higher costs per unit of energy produced". Again,

think tough oil.

The report then notes the obvious: "A stable and attractive investment

climate will be necessary to attract adequate capital for evolution and

expansion of the energy infrastructure." And this is where any astute

observer should begin to get truly alarmed; for, as the study itself notes,

no such climate can be expected. As the center of gravity of world oil

production shifts decisively to OPEC suppliers and to state-centric energy

producers such as Russia, geopolitical rather than market factors will come

to dominate the energy industry and a whole new set of instabilities will

characterize the oil trade.

"These shifts pose profound implications for US interests, strategies, and

policymaking," the report states. "Many of the expected changes could

heighten risks to US energy security in a world where US influence is likely

to decline as economic power shifts to other nations. In years to come,

security threats to the world's main sources of oil and natural gas may


Read from this perspective, the recent reports from pillars of the

Big-Oil/wealthy-nation establishment suggest that the basic logic of

peak-oil theory is on the mark and hard times are ahead when it comes to

global oil and gas sufficiency.

Both reports claim that with just the right menu of corrective policies and

an unrealistic streak of pure luck - as in no set of major Katrina-like

hurricanes barreling into oilfields or refineries, no new wars in Middle

Eastern oil-producing areas, no political collapse in Nigeria - we can

somehow stagger through to 2012 and maybe just beyond without a global

economic meltdown. But in an era of tough oil, the odds tip toward tough

luck as well.

Buckle your seat-belt. Fill up that gasoline tank soon. The future is likely

to be a bumpy ride toward cliff's edge.

Note 1. For a review of Paul Roberts' The End of Oil, see Brave nightmare

world, Asia Times Online, January 14, 2005.

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