Sunday, February 15, 2009

Painful Lessons

In the feel good world of Canadian news, employers have taken a big clue from the politicians. Instead of laying off hundreds or thousands of employers in one go, most employers, at least in Alberta, are laying off people in smaller batches of 30 to 50 every day. Engineering firms are the primary culprit. Others are likely to join them in this 'non sensational', 'feel not too bad' way of laying off people.
I ran into three friends during the last week who work for engineering companies. The story is the same everywhere. EPC companies have vacated 'floors and floor's of engineers who used to work on the energy industry projects. His own concern was, "How would they pay their mortgage?"
Good question. But asked a bit too late.
During the last three years, the overwhelming attitude in Alberta (or indeed worldwide) was that bad times had been defeated forever. Much like those talking about the 'End of History', the idea of conquest of the business cycle proved a bit premature.
In several parts of Alberta, new immigrants or those who recently moved to Alberta, got themselves into huge mortgages, driven by the propaganda of the usual suspects (realtors, realtor associations, banks, mortgage brokers, newspapers etc). Most of these people have not seen even one real business cycle. That is, they have never tasted the pain that usually follows any huge boom. The bigger the boom, usually the bigger the bust is, especially if there were speculative elements built into the boom.
I had first hand experience of this while working in the IT industry during the dot com bust. But that bust was confined to a specific sector of the economy and was 'cured' by the magic potion of cheap credit, which at that time, had already been in good circulation. The central bankers merely increased it dosage to extreme levels and ended up creating a cure far worse than the disease.
Thousands of engineers are in the process of getting laid off in Alberta and lot of these engineers have huge mortgages to pay. These are all well paying jobs, with a good multiplier effect. The pittance of EI will not even cover the basic mortgage for most of these people, increasing the chances of bankruptcy and foreclosure.
Not to mention the case of all speculators who have multiple properties and were so far insulated by the relatively good rental market. The rental market is becoming softer everyday (the layoffs have something to do with it) and will pressure a lot of these speculators.

Until a few decades ago, people's hands would tremble before they committed themselves to a 20 or 25 year long mortgage. Now, it's just become a no brainer activity and an absolute essential thing to do as most people try to keep up with Joneses.
The real meaning of paying $2000 to $3000 to your banking masters, no matter what-rain or shine, health or sickness,good times or bad, strong economy or weak, fruitful employment or despairs of unemployment- over a really long period of time has been lost. For people have forgotten that the borrower is a slave to the lender. When times are good, not too many borrowers recognize this (Even though more than half of their pay cheque goes on to pay the interest over their deprecating assets such as cars and houses), but when the pay cheque stops, the reality begins to sink in. Too bad, in this day and age, you have to be a heretic to not have a mortgage when you can easily afford to.
The real estate complex has been incredibly successful at luring people by all means- fear, deceit, greed and specious economic reasoning. Buy now or be priced out. Smart people buy houses. Renting is throwing money away. Houses have appreciated at over 7 per cent per annum since the dawn of civilization.
As job losses mount and foreclosures increase and new employment opportunities continue to dwindle, a whole generation of people is about to get painful lesson on the basics of economics. That those in the media lie. Realtors lie. Bankers lie, cheat and swindle. They lie because they are in the business of selling their services and lying comes as a part of their training.
If you- the individual or the family-does not take care of affairs on your own by being economically literate and proactive, you will keep on getting painful lessons.
Once this fresh generation of 'suckers' get their lessons, speculation in real estate will freeze for a decade or more. Until the next generation of freshly minted (by immigration, emigration or from our glorious education system) 'suckers' is ready to take their place and the story begins again.
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