As Australia’s “miracle economy” chugs along at twice the clip of its first-world counterparts, markets remain absorbed and unnerved by events offshore – and as easily spooked by “Armageddon scenarios” as they were during the financial crisis four years ago.

The latest end-is-nigh theory doing the rounds of market inboxes hails from Raoul Pal, a hedge fund whizz-kid who retired to the Valencian coast in 2004 at the age of 36 to pen a newsletter on macro-economics. (See his End Game slide show here.)

As an alumnus of the ‘giant vampire squid’ Goldman Sachs, Pal enjoys some degree of market cred though it should be said that his conjecture about the future is just that, conjecture.

The wolves may be outflanking the sheep. Photo: AFP

According to Pal, it’s time to plant the vegie patch, shovel out the bomb shelter in the backyard and stockpile the tinned beans. The banking system will collapse in months, sovereign states will default like dominoes and paper money will be rendered worthless.

“The problem is not government debt per se,” says Pal. “The real problem is the $70 trillion in G10 debt is the collateral for $700 trillion in derivatives”.

Besides some perspectives on the terrifying leverage in the financial system – there is no secret in that – the presentation shows some foreboding looking charts, with distinct “head and shoulders” formations, often a sign for “technical” analysts’ of an impending crash.

Doom theories

The failed policies of governments and central bankers since the GFC have sown fertile ground for Pal and the purveyors of the Apocalypse.

Constant protestations from European leaders, among others, that everything is just about to be resolved only lend further credibility to the super-bears every time official assurances are found wanting.

The opinions of the market machine – the banks, institutions and bureaucracies – and the mainstream finance media are likewise caught out. During earlier cycles, during every economic cycle in history to be precise, information had been controlled by the establishment.

At the same time as the economic mainstream hopelessly failed to see the GFC coming, internet penetration was hitting its straps.

Now it is mainstream. Now contrarian viewpoints are ubiquitous. This shift has brought an erosion in confidence, which is not so much a bad thing as an inevitable thing. Thanks to the market machine, asset prices and leverage had run too high. Prices had to burst.

Contrarians prevail

It would be hard to break it out, or quantify it mathematically, but now share prices no longer carry the premium they did for good news. There is more bad news about, not simply because of the upheaval in financial markets, but because contrarian opinions are now so prevalent.

Ten years ago it would have been anathema – the domain of crackpots only – to criticise the US Federal Reserve. Alan Greenspan was beatified as a hero of the markets for his low interest rates, in retrospect a foolish approach which sparked the bubble in the first place.

Now the crackpots of doom call themselves the realists, indeed their predictions have proven more correct than the big city economists, and the Fed is subject to daily excoriation online.

Chairman Ben Bernanke might be called “Helicopter Ben” in the mainstream. In the blogosphere he is “Chairsatan”.

Sheep vs Wolves

It is now game-on between the sheep of the establishment – with their forecasts huddled in a herd – and the wolves of the hedge fund world talking up their “short” positions and pointing out the negatives.

The revolution in information technology will draw out any recovery as confidence is now so easily undermined.

The other thing to have changed since the GFC is that leverage has been transferred from banks to sovereign states and it is Europe’s banks that are in biggest trouble now. Moreover, the economic fortunes of the big developing nations, China and India, are on the slide.

Since Raoul Pal delivered his “The End Game” Armageddon thesis in Shanghai last month further economic data has corroborated the bearish trend in China and India. And the banking crisis in Spain, as Pal predicted, has got worse.

As investors are now more timid than ever, nursing their bruises from the latest share ructions, market sentiment is as susceptible as it ever was to “Armageddon scenarios”. They are whipping anxieties to a point only felt during the financial crisis four years ago.

The truth and the reality, as always, will fall somewhere between the wolves and the sheep – somewhere between Armageddon peddlers and ‘the cusp of the bull-market” scenarios expounded so tirelessly by the mainstream rhetoreticians.

The world is deleveraging and can’t rely on expanding credit to fuel the same rate of recovery as in previous cycles.

The sweet paradox is that the markets can either go up or down, yet despite this elementary choice which daily bewitches the world’s most highly paid pundits, the latter regularly get it wrong. The direction may be a 50-50 punt but predicting the timing is another thing.