ARROYO GRANDE, Calif. – "This is the first scenario I've seen where I question the survivability of mankind," said Richard Rainwater in a recent Fortune interview.
He's No. 112 on the Forbes 400 list of America's richest, worth $2.3 billion made in oil and real estate: "Most people invest and then sit around worrying what the next blowup will be. I do the opposite. I wait for the blowup, then invest."
The "survivability of mankind?" No wonder his wife Darla, a former bankruptcy financier, calls him "Dr. Doom."
He's a combination Noah building the Arc and Darth Vader building the Death Star, with a half-billion war-chest ready to pounce, bargain hunt, bottom-fish, buy distressed properties, prey on crises, again.
He reads books like "The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change and Other Converging Catastrophes of the 21st Century." He regularly checks blogs like Life AfterTheOilCrash.net, a clearinghouse for commentaries by "the best paid, most widely respected geologists, physicists, and investment bankers in the world."
Unfortunately, most people are blind and deaf to their warnings.
Oil is the biggest economic weapon of mass destruction on his radar. And when it reaches critical mass and the flash point, its impact will ripple across the planet and bring about "the end of life as we know it." That's the "Rainwater Doomsday Scenario." And compared to that, I'm a cockeyed optimist.
OK, so the collapse is coming, that's a given in his scenario. But still, two crucial uncertainties remain: When will it start? And what will trigger it?
My prediction: There's an 86% probability that America will collapse into a major economic recession and a sustained bear market in 2006, far worse than the dark days of 2000-2002 with its $8 trillion loss of market cap.
And as the FEMA/Katrina disaster proved, Congress, the White House and Homeland Security are in denial, lost in their self-serving narcissistic egotistic happy-talk, incapable of seeing, let alone anticipating, the perfect storm on the horizon.
Ergo, their response will likely add fuel to the spreading contagion rather than solve it. So if Rainwater's right and oil is at the center of the economic WMD, it looks like just about anything could trigger a worldwide meltdown. And today the world is full of triggers.
20 Triggers for the Coming Collapse:
1. Oil & energy as the trigger. Warnings: Crude at new records. Gas-guzzlers still feeding big egos. GM, Ford troubles. New political dangers: Venezuela, Bolivia, Russia's natural gas threats to Ukraine.
2. Foreign trade deficit as a trigger. Warnings: Recent monthly deficits top $65 billion. This year's deficit will beat 2004's $617 billion. Foreigners now own $2.5 trillion of America.
3. Federal budget deficits. Warnings: Federal debt now $7.8 trillion. Add another $400 federal deficit this year. By 2010, interest on debt will equal our defense budget.
4. Corporate pension defaults. Warnings: Congress lets pensions use absurd estimates of future returns, adding problems on top of problems. Airlines, auto, others heavily burdened, default to taxpayers.
5. Government pensions deficits. Warning: A near $400 billion mess draining local taxpayer resources.
6. Weak U.S. dollar as trigger. Warnings: Foreign nations may replace dollar reserves. Even Warren Buffett is now making foreign currency hedging bets of $20 billion.
7. Social Security deficit. Warnings: We have no choice, cut benefits or raise taxes; but politicians hate both in an election year, so it'll just get worse.
8. Health-care insurance costs. Warnings: Employees' costs increasing. Costs feed inflation. 43 million uninsured.
9. Medicare as a trigger. Warnings: Going broke faster than Social Security. Prescription drug benefit adding an unfunded $8 trillion. Long-term estimates of $36.6 trillion.
10. War and military defense deficit. Warnings: Iraq and Afghanistan wars cost over $200 billion a year. And lately we hear of new plans to invade Iran next.
11. Homeland Insecurity triggers. Warnings: Minimal legislation to protect ports and chemical plants. Federal budget cut border patrol 90%. Vigilantes patrolling. FEMA an under-funded disaster.
12. Class gap widening. Warnings: CEOs and the rich get increasing share of wealth, ownership and tax cuts, while labor's income is reduced and latest budget cuts mainly hurt lower economic classes.
13. Congressional pork-barrel. Warnings: Pork, tax cuts and out-of-control spending. And with no veto threats, Congress runs amuck like teenage addict with stolen credit cards.
14. International credibility. Warnings: Image problems: Wiretapping, Abu Ghraib, Gitmo, secret prisons, and more.
15. Real estate as a trigger. Warnings: Speculation. Cheap money. Home-equity loans used to fund current expenses.
16. Personal-savings shortfall. Warnings: National savings rate now below zero, down from 8% in early 80s. We're now obsessed consumers, blind to saving for tomorrow.
17. Consumer-debt bubble. Warnings: Americans are living beyond their means. Consumer debt is $2 trillion, an all-time high. Personal bankruptcies rising.
18. Political scandals and trials. Warnings: Libby, DeLay, Rove, Scanlon, Abramoff, Frist, Ney; the list is growing.
19. Hedge fund risks. Warning: Doubled since 2000 to over $1 trillion as pension funds, discouraged with the stock market, are taking bigger risks, further endangering retirement funds.
20. Excessive P/E ratios. Warnings: Not just Google at 50 times; the stock market is about 30% overvalued.
In last summer's poll 86% of our readers said there was a better than 50-50 chance of America's economic bubble exploding. With multiple trigger points, we have the makings of a perfect storm.