by John Mauldin, Goldseek:
If you’re idly conversing with someone you don’t know well, the weather is usually a safe topic. It affects everyone in some way, so it’s a shared experience – but there’s something else, too. The weather is no one’s fault. It is what it is, so you need not worry that the other person will blame you for it. None of us can control the weather. And lately, the weather has been interesting, unless you had to live through its more extreme manifestations. Then it’s been hell. Before this week, I would’ve said that Harvey and Irma wrought devastation in Texas and Florida. But then Maria thrashed Puerto Rico and took devastation to a whole new level. I have a lot of friends who live in Puerto Rico, and I’m not sure how things are going to go for them over the next few months.
We can prepare for storms when we know they’re coming, but we can’t stop them in their tracks or change their path. That’s true for both hurricanes and the public pension problem I wrote about last week. Where pensions are concerned, we have the financial equivalents of weather satellites and hurricane hunter aircraft feeding us detailed data. We know the barometer is dropping fast. The eyewall is forming. But we can’t do much about the growing storm, except get out of the way.
Problem is, the coming pension and unfunded government liabilities storm is so big that many of us simply can’t get out of the way, at least not without great difficulty. This holds true not just for the US but for almost all of the developed world.
Financially, we’re all trapped on small, vulnerable islands. Multiple storms are coming, and evacuation is not an option. All we can do is prepare and then ride them out. But as with recent hurricanes, the brewing financial storms will have different effects from country to country and region to region.
I did a lot of thinking after we published last week’s letter – especially as I was reading your comments – and I wished I had made my warning even more alarming. Being a Prophet of Doom doesn’t come easily for me; I’m known far and wide as “the Muddle Through Guy.” I think the world economy can handle most anything and bounce back, and I still believe it will handle what’s coming over the horizon. But some parts of the economy won’t bounce at all. Quite a few people will see their life savings and ability to support themselves utterly disappear, or will be otherwise badly hurt, and through no particular fault of their own.
I mentioned last week that the next few issues of Thoughts from the Frontline would outline my vision for the next two decades. We’ll get back to that next week. But today I want to continue with the hard-hitting analysis of our public pension problems and say more about personal storm preparation. We all have some very important choices to make.
As I’ve said, the state and local pension crisis is one that we can’t just muddle through. It’s a solid wall that we’re going to run smack into.
Police officers, firefighters, teachers, and other public workers who rightly expect to receive the retirement benefits that their elected officials promised them are going to be bitterly disappointed. And the taxpayers of those jurisdictions are going to complain vigorously if their taxes are raised beyond all reason.
Pleasing both those groups is not going to be possible in this universe. Maybe in some alternate quantum alternate universe where fuzzy math works differently and lets you get away with stuff, but not here in our very real world. It just can’t happen.
So what will happen? It’s impossible to say, exactly, just as we don’t know in advance where a hurricane will make landfall: We just know enough to say the storm will be bad for whoever is caught in its path. But here’s the twist: This financial storm won’t just strike those who live on the economic margins; all of us supposedly well-protected “inland” folk are vulnerable, too.
The damage won’t be random, but neither will it be orderly or logical or just. It will be a mess. Some who made terrible decisions will come out fine. Others who did everything right will sustain severe hits. The people we ought to blame will be long out of office. Lacking scapegoats, people will invent some.
Worse, it will be a local mess. Unlike the last financial crisis where one could direct anger at faraway politicians and bankers seen only on TV, this one will play out close to home. We’ll see families forced out of homes while neighbors collect six-figure pensions. Imagine local elections that pit police officers and teachers against once-wealthy homeowners whose property values are plummeting. All will want maximum protection for themselves, at minimum risk and cost.
They can’t all win. Compromises will be the only solution – but reaching those unhappy compromises will be unbelievably ugly.
In the next few paragraphs I will illustrate the enormity of the situation with a few more details, some of which were supplied this week by readers.
The Uneven Distribution of Pension Problems
I keep using the fabulous William Gibson line that “The future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” Well, paraphrasing, “The state and local pension crisis is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”
One reader noted that he has no sympathy for Houston when right next door, Katy, Texas, is building a $72 million football stadium for its high school.
That’s an aberration, and I might just mention that a few years back Allen, Texas, built a high school stadium for $60 million – 18,000 seats, which they fill every weekend they play. And the Eagles play really well, with several state championships in the 5A division (the biggest schools) in the last five years. There are other such examples. Sadly. I am not a fan of extravagant high school football stadiumsprograms. But then again, I am a former high school nerd turned curmudgeon.)
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