The Year Ahead: 2009, Part 2

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- Introduction -  

Part One of this column discussed the economic situation and government action, and several readers complained that I was not cheerful or optimistic in my views. Today's column won't be any more upbeat, I am afraid, although I do offer some positive notes and suggestions in the final section.  

An accurate sense of what is coming at least gives one better odds of making the most of what the future holds. Ask those who sold their stocks (or better still, sold short) before the Crash of 1929, or who left Hitler's Germany before the worst began (or Stalin's Soviet Union, or Fidel's Cuba, or Pol Pot's Cambodia, or Idi Amin's Uganda, or Mugabe's Zimbabwe, or – well, any of a hundred examples recent enough to still be within living memory, including natural disasters such as Mt. Saint Helen's [video; 1 min 21 sec]). No one wants to hear bad news, but for those not hoping to become Darwin Award candidates, listening carefully to the rumbles of potential oncoming disaster is simply another part of personal responsibility and even, at times, self-preservation.

This could indeed be one of those times. Decide for yourself, but at least take an open look at the situation before dismissing such thoughts.

Today, in Part 2 of this "Year Ahead" column, I'll discuss oil and precious metals, food, and environmental issues in varying degrees of detail. Inevitably, the economic situation (and government responses) will become part of the discussion. I'll finish up with predictions and, as mentioned, provide a few suggestions and offer some encouraging words.

- 1 -

The Peak Oil Sucker-Punch

Oil topped out at $147/barrel this past July, a gain of about $60/barrel from the lows of earlier in the year. As I write this sentence on Christmas Day, oil is pegged at $36.84. What a roller-coaster ride! Volatility is the sign of an unstable and unsettled market; exactly what one might expect when powerful forces are pushing prices in both directions. The obvious question: will oil stay cheap or quickly rise again in price? Note that "cheap" is a relative term: the average price for a barrel of oil in 1998 was $11.91, which is to say that oil is more than three times as expensive, even now, than it was a decade ago. (The link in the previous sentence shows oil prices back to March, 1946, at which time a barrel of oil cost $1.37).

Update 1/5/09: checking the price today at 321energy.com, I see oil is $48.73, up about 25% in just over a week; oil now costs more than four times as many dollars as in 1998 and over thirty-five times as many dollars as in 1946.

Long term, the dollar price of oil will go even higher – and eventually much higher. I believe "eventually" will arrive within the next year and a half – heck, maybe later this winter – even if the demand destruction we have seen in the last few months continues and worsens, for three reasons, each of which would raise the dollar price of oil all by itself:

- first, falling production will eventually outpace falling demand (and demand will not fall forever);

- second, the dollar is on a path to hyperinflation; and

- third, falling prices have already slowed or stopped some planned (and perhaps some operating) oil production and exploration projects.

Oh, wait – there is a fourth reason: government wants to help solve the problem (for example, via ethanol mandates). Always a bad sign . . . .

Like everyone else, I have been surprised at the speed and depth of the current price slump for crude oil and other commodities, but then I have often made the point that exact timing and velocity of markets and other dynamic phenomena are inherently unpredictable – and our current situation is truly unprecedented. Longer-term trends, on the other hand, are easier to discern and, especially when supported by multiple fundamentals, reasonably reliable.

What is the undeniable trend for oil? Diminishing production at higher cost per barrel, and thus higher – at some point, much higher – real pricing. Here is how I put it midyear (including the chart mentioned in the text below), and the fundamentals have not changed:

 

http://www.energyfiles.com/eurfsu/uk.html

 

"A note on conservation and other voluntary reductions of usage: yes, higher prices – even for crude oil and gasoline – tend to reduce demand, as consumers change their habits in response. It may happen that the economic downturn now in progress will reduce demand enough to lower prices temporarily. But take a good look at the down-slope of the graph above before telling yourself that voluntarily lower usage will lead to an ongoing match with available supply anytime soon. Once again, other nations, and almost certainly the world as a whole, have or will have very similar down-slopes for crude oil supply. Unlike the OPEC oil embargo of the 1970s, the escalating oil shock of today and tomorrow will increasingly be based on actual, systemic, unfixable (at least in the near term) shortages – as well as on Reasons Number One and Three. "  -- 2008 Update, Part 2*  

If you visit energyfiles.com, you can see for yourself that the UK graph above is representative of just about every oil-producing region on Earth. The exact shape and timing of the peak vary, but in every case a peak occurs and is followed by diminished production. The down slopes are, in many cases, quite steep.

Global oil production has already peaked, or will peak soon, depending on whose data you believe. Either way, big changes are coming. The global economic crisis has given us not only demand destruction but also deleveraging (see also here); individuals and institutions have been selling anything and everything to meet margin calls, replace lost income, and raise cash. This has depressed the price of precious metals, oil, and many other things commonly used as investments. While oil demand may remain lower for some time (although upward pressure will continue from global population growth, among other things), oil production at most existing sites will continue dropping, and new production will be far more expensive than what it replaces. Making the situation worse: the recent steep drop in prices combined with the credit crunch has, as mentioned, hammered new and financially marginal projects, some of which have shut down or been put on hold. This will further reduce our near-term ability to replace the accelerating loss of production from older sources. The same forces are at work for metals as well as for oil; today's lower prices will actually reduce near-term future supply.

Enjoy low gasoline prices while you can, because the price of oil will rebound at some point and then continue upward. Oil usage might contract even more in 2009 than it did in 2008, which could mean that pricing will remain low for most of the year or even a bit longer (on the other hand, recent oil pricing is below costs for many producers, so even-lower prices are unlikely).

Exact timing is always guesswork, but – especially given the current hyperinflation of the U.S. money supply – my expectation is nonetheless for oil prices to again breach $100/bbl before the end of 2009, and possibly before Spring. At the extreme, the dollar price of a barrel of oil could exceed today's price for an ounce of gold by 2010 or 2011, while gold's price could rise to multiple thousands of dollars per ounce. Hard to believe? See this list of hyperinflation episodes at WikiPedia or check out the numbers in the chart on Germany 's hyperinflation in last week's Part 1 of this column before dismissing the possibility.  Here's that chart again:

 

From How Deflation Creates Hyperinflation by Eric deCarbonnel  

I am not predicting $850 oil as a certainty, but I am suggesting it as a possibility in the surprisingly near-term. Recall that as late as 1933, one could (by law) exchange a $20 bill for (roughly) an ounce of gold; as I write this, it takes $881.70 to buy an ounce of gold, and significantly more if you want to take physical possession. Thus, it now takes (881.70 / 20 ≈) 44 $20 bills to buy an ounce of gold. Would your grandparents (or great-grandparents) have believed such a thing could ever happen? America has already suffered through a slow-motion hyperinflation, in other words – in addition to our rapid hyperinflations during the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. (War and hyperinflation are frequent dance partners; not surprising, given the cost of war.)  

Now remind yourself of the $trillions in new-from-thin-air bailout money and the $trillions still to come; think about America's $10 trillion official national debt, our skyrocketing federal deficits and our $100 trillion (or so; estimates vary) in unfunded federal obligations for Social Security, Medicare, pensions, and so many other things; consider the trillions of dollars held overseas by investment funds and central banks and individuals, all worried about whether it is time to spend their dollars back into the system in favor or Euros or Yuan or gold or, heck, a lifetime supply of vodka – and then, in light of all that, review the insanely escalating numbers you've seen in charts about hyperinflation, such as the chart above.  

I mentioned a recent oil price of $36.84; just for an example, what is that number times 44? Roughly $1,621 per barrel. For that matter, 44 x $48.73 (the oil price just a few days later) = $2,144.12. The dollar took decades to depreciate to where it now takes 44 $20 bills to buy an ounce of gold, instead of a single $20 bill. Are there any examples of such dramatic price inflation in short periods of time? You already know the answer: Yes, lots of them, and in many cases, the currency devalued by orders of magnitude more than the dollar has so far.  

My point is not that thousand-dollar-a-barrel pricing for oil is coming soon. Instead, my point is that thousand-dollar oil could and very well might arrive soon for the four reasons listed earlier. Hyperinflation may or may not hit with force before the Peak Oil chokepoint, but the two together will be absolutely stunning.  

The likely near-term effect of hyperinflation on the price of not only oil, but of almost everything, cannot be over-emphasized. The dollar is already near-worthless, trillions of new dollars are being electronically "printed" rapidly and with complete abandon, and it won't take much for confidence in the dollar as a store of value to go the way of confidence in the integrity of Bernie Madoff or Illinois Governor Blagojevich. The Federal Reserve, the Treasury, and Congress are all doing a bang-up job of hyperinflating the money supply (and our new Messiah of Hope and Change is promising to hyperinflate it even more), which at some point absolutely will end all confidence in the dollar's value. When that happens, the price of everything, including oil and food and shoes and paperback novels and anything else you might buy, will rise quickly enough to take your breath away, and to take your prosperity away along with it.  

After 95 years of having the dollar slowly over-printed into near-worthlessness by the Federal Reserve, many Americans (and plenty of Keynesian economists and media commentators, as described last week) are responding with the equivalent of "Thank you sir! May I have another?" [video, about 14 sec, and kind of creepy] – although it sounds more like "Please, government masters and bankster overlords, will you print up an ocean of new money to stimulate the economy for us?" Some are stamping their feet and pouting for emphasis.  

That "thank you sir, may I have another?" thing was good for a laugh in National Lampoon's Animal House, but today's equivalent seems a lot less funny. It especially won't be funny when Americans are rioting in the streets because their whole world has been taken from them. But perhaps I am getting ahead of myself.  

- 2 -

Food Supplies: Hunger Amidst Plenty  

The most immediate problem with food supplies will soon be lack of cash, among the American public and many others around the world, to pay for the next meal. This will be true across much of the planet, and the UN estimates that for the first time ever, a billion people will go hungry this year. For the most part, this won't be caused by food shortages – the global harvest was better than expected; a record, even – but will happen "because people are becoming too destitute to buy the food that is produced," according to an article in the December 28 London Independent. As you would imagine, the global financial crisis is making the situation worse in several ways. For one thing, food aid is drying up just as the need for it increases dramatically.  

Hunger in the poor nations is not surprising, but the present crisis seems likely to create enough poverty and disruption in the United States (and perhaps in other formerly-wealthy nations) that food banks, private charities, and government food programs will be overwhelmed. A great many Americans may experience real hunger for the first time in the coming year.  

It won't help that farmers, like everyone else, are having trouble getting credit needed to run their businesses. It won't help that Americans have off-loaded much of their food production to far-away places, or that our federal and some of our state governments have required increasing amounts of ethanol (mainly produced from corn) to be used in the nation's fuel supply. Perhaps a third of our corn now goes to this madness; the land could otherwise be used to grow not only corn but whatever foods the market demanded, increasing supply and lowering costs.  

It especially won't help when food deliveries slow to a crawl, or stop all together, in large parts of the country after banking gridlock, massive demonstrations, and other civil unrest and market dysfunction make commerce in general unreliable. Of course, the government will help, as it did in New Orleans before, during, and after hurricane Katrina. Need I say more?  

- 3 -

Environmental Issues  

Mankind continues its quest to turn the Earth into a toxic waste dump populated largely by cockroaches and bacteria, fueling what is widely acknowledged as the sixth great mass extinction on this planet since life began. We have only begun our work, but already some believe we will ultimately be more successful than any of the previous causes of mass extinction. Heck, mankind hasn't yet even unleashed more than a tiny handful of its zillions of nuclear bombs and missiles – just wait until we get serious about wrecking the biosphere. We're number one! We're number one!    

Poor attempts at humor aside, the biosphere is fragile (and possibly unique or at least exceedingly rare in the universe) and we are fouling the nest. I continue to be concerned that government "problem solving" in this area is doing what it always does: making things worse while crowding out non-government efforts that might actually be effective. In particular, global warming advocates have become an entrenched, government-financed special interest in science, government, politics, non-government organizations, and some business sectors – hampering, and often openly opposing, evidence and commentary that refutes or questions the global warming dogma. Given how quickly new scientific evidence can overturn accepted scientific belief (global cooling was the big worry about 30 years ago, for instance), government's propensity to back one side of an issue – which then soon becomes a protected and well-funded special interest – is exceedingly dangerous in an area such as this one.  

Thankfully, there is still enough integrity within the scientific community that a large and growing list of qualified and respected climate scientists, Ph.D.s, M.D.s, and others are speaking out on the scientific weakness and actual danger of the would-be global warming hegemony.  See, for instance, the Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change, which includes this:  

". . . attempts by governments to inflict taxes and costly regulations on industry and individual citizens with the aim of reducing emissions of CO2 will pointlessly curtail the prosperity of the West and progress of developing nations without affecting climate." [emphasis added]  

and ". . . a focus on such mitigation will divert the attention and resources of governments away from addressing the real problems of their peoples."

-- Excerpted from The Manhattan Declaration on Climate Change, March 4, 2008 , as signed by hundreds of endorsers (see also here)  

This science-based opposition to the warming dogma is leaking out into the mainstream as well, helped along by simple observations, including that the polar ice has not melted, the polar bears are still not extinct from drowning, and the weather over much of the world is getting colder recently instead of warmer.  

My environmental concerns continue to focus on the oceans, lakes, rivers, and other bodies of water. Much of the pollution that originates on land finds its way to water at some point, with our oceans being the final resting place for megatonnage of new chemical, plastic, radioactive, and other pollution every year. Depleted uranium, for one example, is both radioactive (with a half-life of over 4 billion years) and chemically poisonous, with this chemical toxicity being "about a million times greater in vivo than its radiological hazard" per the heavily-documented linked article. DU has been linked to lung cancer, and if you don't already know this, you will be thrilled to learn that the U.S., Russia, and other nations have been on an orgy of manufacturing, stockpiling, and using depleted uranium weapons for years now, both in battle and on practice ranges, putting thousands of tons of this poison into the air, water, and soil.  

Today's economic disaster is likely to hog the spotlight for quite some time, with harmful and repressive government responses not far behind. But tipping points can sneak up on us quietly – quietly enough that most of us miss their approach, anyway – as with the fall of the Soviet Union . Many fear such a tipping point from global warming; I suspect the environmental jolt that awaits us will instead be the result of problems – many different types of problems, in fact – with our oceans and other bodies of water. Could such a thing happen in 2009? I don't know, but I expect it to happen at some point. You'll know when it does, or shortly thereafter.  

- 4 -

Conclusion and Predictions  

2009 will not be a good year for most of us. It will not be a good year for most people around the world, but it will be an especially bad year for those in the United States (here is Paul Kennedy, professor of history and director of International Security Studies at Yale University, on why the U.S. will lose ground relative to most other nations – and for that matter, here's a Wall Street Journal article about Igor Panarin's forecast of the U.S. collapsing and breaking up).  

Below is my assessment of the bad news, with scientifically-accurate percentages arrived at by looking at the ceiling and thinking really, really hard (this is exactly how they do it in weather forecasting, if the results are any indication, and apparently also how they decide policy at the Federal Reserve, Congress, and the Treasury Department). Further comments and a thin gruel of positive thinking follow at the end.  

First, a note on the inflation versus deflation debate. Several commentators see severe deflation in the near future; traders Rick Ackerman, Mike Shedlock, John Mauldin of Millennium Wave Advisors, and Strike The Root's Jim Davies are among those in the deflation camp, while the inflation camp includes investor Jim Rogers (video, 6 min 50 sec) – who calls what's coming an "inflationary holocaust" – and Casey Research Senior Economist Terry Coxon (video, 3 min 33 sec), Euro Pacific Capital president Peter Schiff (YouTube audio, 10 min 40 sec), and financial newsletter bad-boys Bob Chapman and Jim Willie. For the most part, the "inflation" commentators see hyperinflation emerging after the present deleveraging has run its course. 321gold.com's Bob Moriarty thinks hyperinflation will begin shortly after the bond market crashes, which he expects "any day now" (he also expects riots in the streets – in the first quarter). Economist John Williams believes hyperinflation has actually been inevitable for some time:  

"By April, the rapidly deteriorating recession will be viewed commonly as the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Fearing same, the incoming Obama Administration is promising stimulus in the form of massive federal spending . . . . Unfortunately, with the economy in a structural downturn and with the U.S. government effectively bankrupt, there can be no rapid or normal recovery. As inflationary pressures mount anew and the financial markets increasingly shun U.S. Treasuries, an inflationary depression can evolve quickly into a hyperinflationary great depression. Although hyperinflation became inevitable in the last decade, the onset of the process just recently was triggered by Fed and the Treasury actions in addressing the systemic solvency crisis. The process would be accelerated by unfettered and unfunded government spending that appears to loom in early 2009." [emphasis added]  -- John Williams of ShadowStats.com, Jan 3, 2009  

Williams has also pointed out that hyperinflation in pricing typically lags hyperinflation of the money supply by several months (perhaps as long as a year and a half).  

The most common argument of the deflationists is that all the wealth recently vaporized in the stock market crash, in the housing crash, in pension fund losses, in investment firm bankruptcies, and in other such disasters is deflationary: less money = deflation. There are several counter arguments (for one thing, big financial losses are not unusual in a hyperinflation) and some are complex. Here is Jim Willie on one such factor (he discusses several others as well):  

". . . the staggering explosive growth in the credit derivative market since the mid-1990 decade. In just the last few years, the growth of credit derivatives, traded over the counter, has been enormous. This is widely recognized. The annual growth levels lie in the 40% to 60% annual range. How can the deflationists ignore this? THIS IS MONEY IN FLOW , NOT COUNTED BY DEFLATIONISTS IN MONEY SUPPLY DATA ."  -- Jim Willie CB, False Diagnosis of Deflation, January 2, 2009  

It seems clear that at least some factors in this issue are largely unseen and poorly understood. The complex financial structures and enormous and often hidden flows of money, the extreme leverage, the manipulation of markets (e.g., the "Plunge Protection Team", but not only that), and an unknown number of unknowns add up to a high level of uncertainty, especially in the near term.   

Despite all that, I remain convinced that historic examples and other reasons point to inflation in our future, especially beyond the very near term, and hyperinflation at that. Indeed, the most persuasive evidence for hyperinflation, to me, is that a great many nations have hyperinflated their way to poverty over the past several thousand years, even before paper money was in use (via diluting or removing the precious metal content of the coinage, as in Rome). I do not believe it will be long before the inflationary effects of our massive and rapid money-creation show up in pricing. Legendary and learned financial lunatic Richard Daughty, a.k.a. "The Mogambo Guru", agrees, and below he responds to Mike Shedlock and other deflationists:  

"Thus, with a staggering, unbelievable amount of money being created, these and many more deflationary problems will soon be just a quaint memory as voluntary fiscal and monetary restraints around the world are being thrown wholesale into the dumpster even as we speak, and humongous 'economic stimulus plans' financed by massive increases in fiat money are being trotted out across the globe, all meaning that inflation will rise and rise.

"As if to prove me right, the article went on to note that Professor Steve Hanke, formerly with Credit Suisse and now a senior fellow at the Cato Institute in the United States, said that this month, 'Zimbabwe's annual inflation had soared to 2.79 quintillion percent', which is the inevitable result of the moron government of Zimbabwe spending decades literally printing all the paper money that makes such inflation possible!

"In case you were wondering, 'a quintillion is a figure with 18 zeroes and is a rung above a quadrillion', which I will helpfully write out as 2,790,000,000,000,000,000%!!!!!"

-- The Mogambo Guru, When Inflation Comes a-Knockin'  

With multiple trillions of dollars now being created from thin air and more trillions promised for years, and with monetizing the debt apparently soon to replace foreign purchase of U.S. debt – plus other factors – hyperinflation seems inevitable. For now, much of this newly-created cash is sitting idle, but it will be spent into the system, much of it by banks and much of that as loans, using fractional reserve multipliers (which might turn $1 trillion into $10 trillion or more). To give some visual punch to the incredible recent creation of dollars, here's a look at the U.S. monetary base; the spike at far right is not an artifact:

From U.S. Inflation: Like a Hurricane! by Adrian Ash  

And now my detailed forecast with, for your amusement, estimates expressed in absurdly-precise fashion:  

Economics and Government Action:  

Chance of double-digit real inflation in the U.S this year:

95%  

Chance of "ohmigod" levels of hyperinflation this year:

50%  

Chance of such hyperinflation beginning by mid-summer:

25%  

Chance of such hyperinflation beginning, say, tomorrow afternoon:

10%  

Chance of the U.S. and other Western governments actually solving the economic problem by doing what is necessary (i.e., slashing spending, ending all interference in the market, and adopting gold standards – or, even better, getting out of the money business altogether):

0%  

Chance of the U.S. in particular continuing to print money like there's no tomorrow:

100%  

Chance of the U.S. government doing something particularly stupid in response to the crisis before Spring:

100%  

Chance of the U.S. dollar retaining more than half its current value by year's end:

50%  

Chance that other nations will continue buying trillions of dollars in U.S. debt, so that America doesn't have to monetize its coming trillion-dollar (perhaps multi-trillion dollar) deficits:

5%  

Chance that other nations will instead sell significant amounts of their existing U.S. debt, putting further inflationary pressure on the dollar:

95%  

Further likely problems with the dollar include loss of reserve currency status and loss of the "AAA" credit rating for U.S. debt:

50% chance for each  

Chance that the bond market will suffer a major meltdown (beyond the meltdown we've seen already):

95%  

Chance of riots, martial law, and use of those detention camps for U.S. citizens:

75%  

Chance of the Dow Jones dropping below 4,000 (as Jim Rogers believes might happen): this depends somewhat on the level of inflation – the Dow can rise in nominal terms while dropping in real terms – something it has done in the past repeatedly. The one thing that might prevent a lower inflation-adjusted value for the Dow would be a stock bubble, which is certainly possible given all the dollars being injected into the system. On the other hand, we can note that business fundamentals do not look good; profits are likely to trend lower and consumers are broke and in debt. Some observers believe that a third of banks will disappear in 2009 and many more will survive only via merger or bailout (video; 6 min 4 sec). It is widely expected that GM and Chrysler will be forced into bankruptcy next year. Neither employment nor any other major index for economic health looks positive, except for niche players (foreclosure specialists, for example). The financial sector, the housing sector, and – heck – most other sectors will not stage anything resembling a real recovery in 2009, although, again, monetary inflation may provide higher numbers for the stock touts to act excited about.  

Chance the Dow will be lower than today when measured in real terms:   

75%  

Chance for same without any stock bubble effect:

95%  

Chance the Dow will be lower than today in dollar terms:

50%  

Oil, precious metals, and other commodities:  

The recent drop in oil prices will prove short-lived. How far and how fast the price of oil climbs will be determined more by monetary issues than anything else, unless this is the year that the ongoing, long-term drop in supply finally crashes into demand sufficiently to create a double-digit shortfall. When (not if) that happens, the oil price will skyrocket even in constant-dollar (inflation adjusted) terms. If we see both factors hitting at the same time – a distinct possibility for 2009 – then the dollar price of oil will go far beyond anything most people would currently believe. When the dollar is worth nothing and oil demand outstrips supply by a significant margin, $1,000/barrel oil will seem cheap.  

Chance that oil pricing again tops $100/barrel this year:

95%  

Chance that oil pricing again tops $100/barrel before summer:

35%  

Chance that oil pricing tops $200/barrel this year:

90%  

Chance that oil pricing goes ballistic (say, over $350/barrel) in 2009:

50%  

Chance that oil trades at over $1,000/barrel in the next five years (assuming the U.S. hasn't disintegrated or replaced its failed currency with something else):

95%  

Unlike oil, gold has retained much of its price gains, with current pricing in the mid-$800s per ounce, having fallen from a high of just over $1,000 earlier in the year (versus oil's $147 to $30ish drop). Unlike almost any other investment you can name, gold finished 2008 higher than it was at the end of 2007 – in dollars and in every other major currency. As the Fed (and other central banks around the world) open the floodgates on new money creation, gold is one asset that will not only rise further in price but likely enter a new bubble. The $850 high of a few decades ago would be $2,400 or so if inflation-adjusted, and $3,000 or higher if a more accurate measure than the government CPI were used. Next, consider that today's fundamentals – debt levels, foreign exchange deficits, percentage of the economy now devoted to parasitic government, and much more – are far worse than in 1980. The wealthy are finally anxious enough about their usual debt-based investments to have begun moving to gold; the broader investing public will eventually do the same. Combine all that with today's frantic, gasp-inducing inflation of the money supply, and you have the makings of a truly epic price for gold, even before the gold market enters its next mania phase (i.e., bubble).  

If you have any investments or savings at all, you are simply a fool to not have a significant percentage of your holdings in gold, in my opinion. Don't keep it all in one basket, of course, and get some of it out of the country while you still can. Gold You Can Fold and Bullion Vault are two ways to do this (as always, caveat emptor, but I've seen nothing negative about either firm). Silver is another good addition to your portfolio (or an alternative to gold, for those with smaller nest-eggs). I could always be wrong (read that again, in case it slid by unnoticed), but history is certainly on my side here: when currencies are being debased, gold has always been the last-resort protection for wealth in a form that cannot be defaulted on, that cannot go bankrupt, that is no one else's liability, and which has never, in 5,000 years of history, gone to zero worth. Even during the deflationary depression of the 1930s, gold did well against other assets. In boom times, gold is a dog; in bad times, gold is a haven.  

Chance that gold will again top $1,000/oz in 2009:

98%  

Chance that the gold price will go higher than you'd believe:   

50%  

Chance that most people will figure this out in time to protect their personal wealth:

0.0%  

Prices of base metals and other commodities are near their production costs and will not likely drop much further, but – unlike both gold and oil – these lesser commodities are unlikely to rally too far beyond the level of inflation, at least this year.  

Food and other basic items:  

Higher prices and market disruptions will create problems for most Americans and for many others around the world. Advice: stock up now, while supplies are available and your dollars actually buy something. Today's huge discounts on many consumer items will evaporate when bloated inventories are depleted, and will then rise quickly. Also be ready for shortages, riots, and other things you'd rather not think about, just in case. Leaving the country for a while might not be a bad idea either, although there isn't any place that looks completely safe. The United States may be an especially bad location in 2009, though.  

Chance that food and dry goods will be either scarce or too expensive for the former middle class in the United States to easily afford at some point in 2009:

50%  

Environmental issues:  

While Algore and other big-money hucksters continue pushing and profiting from the global warming scare, the planet is reeling under assaults that have nothing to do with carbon dioxide – a very weak greenhouse gas which is a life-giving substance required by plants and exhaled by animals, including by you. No anti-carbon laws, no carbon-trading schemes, and no other such efforts of any kind will have the slightest effect on world climate. On the other hand, cleaning up the oceans, lakes, rivers, and so on might possibly do something useful, but hugely-expensive global-warming-inspired mandates will reduce our ability to clean up the environment and to do much else, besides.  

Chance that a major environmental crash will occur in 2009:

Non-zero, but otherwise unknown  

 

Final comments:  

Birds will still sing in the coming year.  

Life will go on despite the economic downturn, and despite whatever other problems we encounter. Economic turmoil and even hyperinflations are nothing new, and in fact they are common. Our ancestors – even our parents or grandparents, in many cases – lived through depression and war and political upheaval and all manner of other hardship. Difficult times are a normal part of the human condition – yet lovers still kiss, babies still smile, and a summer's afternoon remains a bit of heaven.  

A major goal for this column has been to encourage you to prepare, in whatever way makes sense to you, for unpleasant jolts in the year ahead. Learn to garden, start a neighborhood group, buy some silver coins, move to Argentina – whatever your own sense of the situation points to. Sensible preparation could make a huge positive difference in your life. That doesn't mean it will; nothing is certain and safety is always an illusion. Wearing your seatbelt might not save you in a car accident – but still, you'd be a fool not to buckle up.  

Preparing for a rough year (or a rough decade, which is probably more realistic) does not mean ignoring the truly important and positive things in life. If anything, the opposite is true. Pay attention to family and friends and to whatever large and small joys you find in life. Focus less on the superficial and more on what really matters, which means both sober preparation for hard times and conscious appreciation of the good in life. For one thing, you surely won't want to go through the next year alone. Family and friends, along with strategic acquaintances, will be an important shield against hardship in the coming year as well as a source of warmth and humanity in your life. If you are lacking in this area, now is the time to do something about it.  

Good times and bad intermingle; the recently ended 20th Century is a perfect example. Despite wars, the Great Depression, and much other pain, the 20th Century was in many ways an incredibly positive time, with dramatically improved lifespan, elimination or control of many once-common diseases, a powerful upward trend for prosperity, and technological advances that almost defy belief. The 21st Century will bring even more powerful transformations. For one thing, we are heading into a rapidly accelerating curve of technological advance. For a quick reminder of the joy and wonder (and useful benefits) of that, I suggest an occasional visit to Wired.com or Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity is Near website.  

In addition to the ongoing rush of new technology, we will live through an amazing social/political time in the next several months – a transition that will be remembered for thousands of years, in the same way that the fall of ancient Rome (or the American Revolution, for a more recent example) is still remembered today. The cult of coercive government, of centralized control, of statism, of belief in politicians as parent figures and messiahs – all of this is on its last legs, breathing its last gasps. Ultimately, although not immediately, this will be a very good thing. The challenge is to help "ultimately" arrive sooner than it otherwise might – to minimize the down time and to midwife a free and compassionate society in its wake, bypassing or foreshortening the Orwellian police state that the psychopathic power elite have planned for us.  

Western governments in particular have over-promised and underperformed, and their Ponzi-scheme social programs are going bankrupt before our eyes. The U.S. trillion-dollar-per-year overseas empire and the rest of our bizarre and harmful overspending has only been made possible in recent years by money from the Chinese and other foreigners – and this river of money is now coming to an end. Crashing to a halt is more like it. Taxes will be raised (no matter that we hear otherwise from politicians) but to no avail – Americans are broke, in debt up to their eyeballs, and tax rates of 100% wouldn't be enough to keep the corrupt Big Government game going. Money will be printed to cover the shortfall, and this will kill the dollar – something our creditors know and are starting to react to, by spending their sequestered dollars back into the system. Paper and electronic dollars are not wealth, and Americans have spent all the real wealth they had and then sold themselves into a level of debt never before seen in history. How much longer can that go on? In fact, the whole Rube Goldberg edifice has already begun to collapse – that is what the news has been telling us for most of 2008.  

It is possible, although I think very unlikely, that we will get through 2009 with another bubble rather than an epic crash – but there is no longer any way to avoid collapse at some point in the near future. What emerges from that collapse is up to us: a new dark age is possible, but I am hopeful that there is enough sentiment, world-wide, in favor of love and freedom to tilt things in a healthy direction. The information age has exposed and explained the corrupt and coercive nature of government, and its constant and inevitable failure, more widely than ever possible before; all the propaganda in the world cannot put that genie back in the bottle. Today, even before the inauguration, Obama's supporters are increasingly waking up to the reality that the new "decider" will continue the war, the empire, and nearly everything else Democrat voters had hoped to change, while – this is the part that will take a bit longer to hit home – finishing the destruction of America via debt, inflation, and police-state repression. In the end, the most violent and destructive organization ever conceived – the coercive State – will be ever-more-widely seen for what it is.  

That doesn't mean the lizard-eyed power elite and their psychopathic underlings won't do all they can to continue their so-far successful campaign to turn the U.S. into a vast, open-air prison camp (what else can you call it when you actually need permission from your masters just to leave?). But the bemused tolerance of the American people for all this, and their willingness to impute healthy motives to those imposing the tyranny, is already fading. I sense that much of that tolerance will be gone by summer – and the government seems to think so too, given that U.S. Army troops are already deployed on American streets (video; 7 min 3 sec) and that other preparations have clearly been made to "deal with" massive civil unrest.  

So be ready for the worst, but remember what might eventually be wrung from it: a world without tyrants, without war, without the ancient and murderous evil of systematic, organized violence and coercion. "A world without you" (MP3 audio, a minute or so, or listen to the WAV file version here), as Neo tells the inhuman overlords of the Matrix after breaking free of their control – a world, if we succeed, with love and freedom at its core.  

Notes:  

* I haven't always included mention of the possibility of a drop in prices in my discussions of Peak Oil – a temporary price drop due to lower demand seemed an obvious possibility, and a major drop seemed unlikely. What had seemed a reasonable editing choice now seems – well, less reasonable. 

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Glen Allport's picture
Columns on STR: 107

Glen Allport co-authored The User's Guide to OS/2 from Compute! Books and is the author of The Paradise Paradigm: On Creating a World of Compassion, Freedom, and Prosperity.