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Listening To Smart People

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As the mid-term election cycle reaches its climax, we find ourselves exposed to an increasing amount of stupid pronouncements by desperate politicians, overworked commentators and plain-old idiots, who managed to attract the interest of television news personnel.  I was particularly amused by the recent outburst from Juan Williams about the fact that he gets nervous when he sees people in “Muslim garb” boarding a plane in which he is a passenger.  NPR saw fit to fire him for making a remark described as “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices”.  Despite the widespread hand-wringing over the “bigoted” nature of the statement, I was more focused on its stupidity.  Does Juan Williams seriously believe that terrorists would board a plane dressed in Muslim garb?  I would assume that all terrorists learn in Jihad 101 that the traditional garb for airborne martyrdom is the Adidas warm-up suit.  Wearing “Muslim garb” for such an occasion would serve only as an offer to be waterboarded.

Another example of election year asininity is the thought that someone could get elected to the Senate by claiming that the incumbent opponent of said candidate “actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders”.  It was beginning to appear as though stupid has become the “new normal”.

Finally, some fresh air came along when a few news outlets reminded us that there are still some smart people among us.  The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to publish an interview with Elizabeth Warren, conducted by Jim Puzzanghera.  President Obama decided to appoint Professor Warren to launch the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau out of fear that a protracted confirmation battle would ensue if he appointed her as director of that agency.  With non-stop news coverage currently focused on the recent disclosures of fraudulent conduct extending from the mortgage origination process right through the foreclosure process, it would seem that the election-eve interview would provide an opportunity to assail the targets of the new agency.  When asked whether she would support the scattergun approach of seeking a nationwide foreclosure moratorium “while bank paperwork problems are being worked out”, Professor Warren gave us a glimpse of some traits we haven’t seen in a while:  restraint and common sense.  Here is her response to that tough question:

This agency will not veer from its support of American families, whether it’s in the foreclosure crisis or elsewhere.  But no one would want this agency … to act before it had collected all of the necessary data and thought through the options.  The (state) attorneys general are moving fast, and at this moment, I think that’s the right response … with emphasis on “at this moment.”

Professor Warren wasn’t the only smart person to draw some curiosity from the ADD-addled news media this week.  My favorite stock market guru, Jeremy Grantham, released his latest Quarterly Letter on Tuesday.  Its Halloween-based theme made it impossible to overlook.  As usual, Mr. Grantham gave us his unique, brilliant perspective in exposing how the Federal Reserve’s reckless (if not actually criminal) monetary policy helped cause the financial crisis and how Chairman Bernanke’s anticipated move toward more quantitative easing could make a bad situation worse.  Here are a few gems from Grantham’s must-read essay:

And these are most decidedly not normal times.  The unusual number of economic and financial problems has put extreme pressure on the Fed and the Administration to help the economy recover.  The atypical disharmony in Congress, however, has made the Federal government dysfunctional, and almost nothing significant – good or bad – can be done. Standard fiscal stimulus at a level large enough to count now seems impossible, even in the face of an economy that is showing signs of sinking back as the original stimulus wears off. This, of course, puts an even bigger burden on the Fed and induces, it seems, a state of panic.  Thus, the Fed falls back on its last resort – quantitative easing.  This has been used so rarely that its outcome is generally recognized as uncertain.

*   *   *

And of all of the many mistakes of the current Administration, the worst, in my opinion, are directly related to this fiasco:  the inexplicable choice of Geithner, who was actually placed at the scene of the crime in New York and whose fingerprints were on the murder weapon, and the reappointment of  … gulp … Bernanke himself, about whose reappointment much juicy Republican criticism was made, all of it completely justified in my view.  There may, however, be a small ray of hope.  The recent Fed appointee, Vice Chair Janet Yellen, said not long ago, “Of course asset bubbles must be taken seriously!”  She also said, “It is conceivable that accommodative monetary policy could provide tinder for a buildup of leverage and excessive risk taking.”  Yes, sir!  Or rather, madam!  A promising start.  These sentiments, of course, are completely contrary to the oft-repeated policies of Greenspan and his chief acolyte, Bernanke.  Perhaps she will slap some good sense into her boss on this issue.

*   *   *

Since it is customary in polite society to apologize for causing distress, on behalf of the Fed, let me apologize for the extraordinary destructiveness of its policies for the last 15 years.  Bernanke’s version of an apology, delivered in January this year to the American Economic Association, was to claim that the Fed’s monetary policy during the 2000-08 period was appropriate, and that there were no major failings, such as missing the housing bubble completely, that were worth mentioning.  This stubbornness in the face of clear data is right up there with efficient market believers.  And very impolite indeed.

Now I have to go back to waiting another three months for Jeremy Grantham’s next Quarterly Letter.  As always, the current one will be tough to beat.  In the mean time, it’s nice to know that there are some smart people around, capable of providing solutions to our most pressing problems.  If only those vested with the authority to implement those ideas were paying attention   .   .   .



Bad Report Card Haunts Democrats At Mid-Terms

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It doesn’t take much time or effort to find out how or why the Democrats have alienated so many independent voters (and so much of their own base) during the 2010 election cycle.  You don’t need to look to the Fox News or Andrew Breitbart for an explanation.   Reading through the opinion pages of The New York Times should provide you with a good understanding of what the Democrats have been doing wrong.

One common theme voiced by many critics of the Obama administration has been its lack of interest in prosecuting those responsible for causing the financial crisis.  Don’t hold your breath waiting for Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to initiate any criminal proceedings against such noteworthy individuals as Countrywide’s Angelo Mozilo or Dick Fuld of Lehman Brothers.  On October 23, Frank Rich of The New York Times mentioned both of those individuals while lamenting the administration’s failure to prosecute the “financial crimes that devastated the nation”:

The Obama administration seems not to have a prosecutorial gene.   It’s shy about calling a fraud a fraud when it occurs in high finance.
*   *   *
Since Obama has neither aggressively pursued the crash’s con men nor compellingly explained how they gamed the system, he sometimes looks as if he’s fronting for the industry even if he’s not.

The special treatment afforded to the perpetrators of the frauds that helped create the financial crisis wasn’t the only gift to Wall Street from the Democratically-controlled White House, Senate and Congress.  The financial “reform” bill was so badly compromised (by the Administration and Senate Democrats, themselves) as it worked its way through the legislative process, that it is now commonly regarded as nothing more than a hoax.  Frank Rich finds it ironic that the voters are about to return power to “those who greased the skids” to facilitate the financial catastrophe:

We can blame much of this turn of events on the deep pockets of oil billionaires like the Koch brothers and on the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which freed corporations to try to buy any election they choose.  But the Obama White House is hardly innocent.  Its failure to hold the bust’s malefactors accountable has helped turn what should have been a clear-cut choice on Nov. 2 into a blurry contest between the party of big corporations and the party of business as usual.

David Weidner of MarketWatch recently discussed the idea of appointing a special prosecutor to bring the Wall Street culprits to justice.  After acknowledging the often-used pushback argument made by those opposed to such a prosecutorial effort — that those cases are impossibly difficult to advance through the legal system — Weidner made this observation:

These cases may be difficult, but they’re not impossible.  And given the creation of a lawless marketplace where one economy-destroying decision can be made on top of another for short-term personal gains, something has to be done.

But nothing’s happening.  Maybe it’s because of the money Wall Street lavishes on Congress.  Perhaps it’s the close ties between the industry and the administration.   It could be, as Nouriel Roubini said in the new documentary “Inside Job,” investigators are “afraid” of what they will find.

A special prosecutor, in a bid to make a name for himself or herself, might be immune to such pressure.   It’s our best hope for outing the scoundrels and creating an industry where greed finally takes a backseat to the law.

Back at The New York Times, Charles Blow brought our attention to the recent rant by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless, who – despite his uselessness in the aftermath of the financial Ponzi-crisis – stands at the ready to prosecute marijuana smokers in the event that Proposition 19 becomes law in The Golden State.  One would think that the Obama administration might prefer that a large bloc of voters should remain stoned for as long as possible, so as to prevent those citizens from realizing what a lousy job their President is doing for them.  Worse yet, Charles Blow explained how the Democrats have been advancing the Clinton-era Byrne Formula Grant Program, as a vehicle for financing a war on pot smokers, over the objections of former President George W. Bush and conservative groups, who emphasized that the program “has proved to be an ineffective and inefficient use of resources.”  Nevertheless, the Democrats were able to direct two billion dollars from the financial stimulus program to the so-called Byrne Grants.  Remember: that’s two billion dollars from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – which was supposed to put people back to work and save the economy – misappropriated to the effort of putting pot smokers in jail.  I guess that the Obama Justice Department has to look like it’s doing something.

Another issue that has not escaped the public’s radar – despite the efforts of the Obama administration – is the never-ending catastrophe in the Gulf of Corexit, caused by the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout.  Washington’s Blog recently featured an important posting, with links to several articles about this environmental disaster, which the administration wants you to forget about (at least until after the election).  The BP-sponsored, mainstream media seem more than happy with the claim of  “mission accomplished” voiced by Coast Guard Rear Admiral Paul Zukunft (the man in charge of the federal response) and his top science adviser, Steve Lehmann.   A review of any one of the articles linked at the Washington’s Blog posting will scare the hell out of you — just in time for Halloween (and Election Day).  Nevertheless the people who will get the worst haunting of Halloween 2010 will be the Democrats.  Unfortunately for us, most of them deserve it.


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Absence Of Anger

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I’ve been reading quite a number of articles written in anticipation of a revolutionary uprising by outraged citizens in response to the fallout from Wall Street’s giant Ponzi scheme.  The writers of these items are talking about a more significant uprising than anything we have seen from the Tea Party demonstrators.  Some are expecting riots in the streets.  Since widespread civil unrest has recently taken place in Europe, much attention has been focused on the issue of whether anything like that could happen in the United States.  From my own perspective, I just don’t see it happening.  Nevertheless, I can’t understand what keeps the American public from getting really mad at this point.  It could be due to an epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder or excessive preoccupation with other distractions.  Perhaps some sort of far-flung conspiratorial effort is under way, involving mass hypnosis via television or drugged drinking water.

On the other hand, I do agree with those commentators on the point that the predicted insurgent reactions are entirely foreseeable.  Are they likely?  Consider what these pundits have said and decide for yourself   .  .  .

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, discussed an inevitable backlash against the super-rich, who are waging class warfare by victimizing those of us down the food chain.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t really make it clear how this revolution will manifest itself.  Will there be actual physical violence  . . .  or just a “bloodbath” in the stock market?  Here is how he described it:

Yes, it’s called the Doomsday Capitalism revolution.  And I’m betting you’ll be able to track it on Twitter.

*   *   *

This new preemptive war is already in progress, and America’s billionaires are the aggressors:  Buffett’s billionaire buddies on the Forbes lists, his Wall Street banker buddies, his exporter buddies in China, all of Buffett’s buddies in this “rich class” are already engaged in a hostile takeover war against the American middle class, against the working class and the poor, against all Americans not on the Forbes lists of billionaires.

*   *   *

Here’s how I imagine this revolution unfolding as a series of rapid-fire tweets, as citizen-warriors pass along this collection of earlier warnings to reenergize and drive the rest of America to rebel against Buffett’s “rich class,” tweets that will trigger an anti-capitalist revolution.

Warning to all investors:  Prepare now, play defense.  Expect an economic upheaval rivaling the 1929 crash, creating a climate for true reform that will make the 1930s look like a real tea party.

At The Curious Capitalist blog, Stephen Gandel pondered what would result from all the fear and loathing about whether the Federal Reserve would begin another round of quantitative easing.  His essay was entitled, “Will the Federal Reserve Cause a Civil War?”  Mr. Gandel focused on a recent posting at the Zero Hedge website, which quoted this observation by Karl Denninger:

In a very real sense, Bernanke is throwing Granny and Grandpa down the stairs – on purpose.  He is literally threatening those at the lower end of the economic strata, along with all who are retired, with starvation and death, and in a just nation where the rule of law controlled instead of being abused by the kleptocrats he would be facing charges of Seditious Conspiracy, as his policies will inevitably lead to the destruction of our republic.

Stephen Gandel analyzed the potential for civil war as a consequence of more quantitative easing with this logic:

Lower rates do tend to favor borrowers over savers.  And the largest borrowers in the country are banks, speculators and large corporations.  The largest spenders in our country though tend to be individuals.  Consumer spending makes up 70% of the economy.  And the vast majority of consumers are on the low-end of the income scale.  So I think it is a valid question to ask whether the Fed’s desire to drive down interest rates at all costs policy is working.  Companies are already borrowing at low rates. They are just not spending.        .   .   .

That being said, civil war, probably not.  “It is a gross exaggeration,” says Allan Meltzer, who is a top Fed historian at Carnegie Mellon.  “I cannot recall ever learning about riots or civil war even when the Fed made other mistakes.”

Meanwhile, the prognostications of a gentleman named Gerald Celente appear to be gaining a good deal of traction.  Here are some of Celente’s thoughts as they appeared in his own Trend Alert newsletter, back in April of 2009:

“Nothing short of total repudiation of our entrenched systems can rescue America,” said Celente.  “We are under the control of a two-headed, one party political system.  Wall Street controls our financial lives; the media manipulates our minds.  These systems cannot be changed from within. There is no alternative.  Without a revolution, these institutions will bankrupt the country, keep fighting failed wars, start new ones, and hold us in perpetual intellectual subjugation.”

*   *   *

“I am calling for an ‘Intellectual Revolution’.  I ask American citizens to free their minds from the tyranny of ‘Dumb Think.’  This is a revolution about thinking – not manning the barricades.  It’s about brain power – not brute force.”

It would seem that some degree of anger would be required to incite an “Intellectual Revolution” —  even one without any acts of insurrection.  At this point, it just doesn’t appear as though the American taxpayers are really there yet – Tea Party or not.  People who “want their country back” aren’t the people who will lead this charge.  Watch out for the people who want their jobs, homes and money back.  They will be the ones with the requisite anger to seek real change – as opposed to the “change you can believe in”.


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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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Re-Make Re-Model

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Welcome to the new incarnation of TheCenterLane.com !

For a number of reasons, I changed to a new web host and switched over to a WordPress-based platform.  This was a big project and I am still in the process of updating links to my archived postings, as they may appear in pieces written before this changeover.  While doing this set-up, I found that WordPress resisted my initial efforts to have a two-tier blogroll with my favorite sites at the top, as was the case previously.  Nevertheless, having the list in alphabetical order makes it easier to find the links, so I’m inclined to leave it this way.

As I went through the blogroll, I gave some thought to bumping some sites and adding others.  When I came across the link to CenterMovement.org, I was reminded of something they said about this site:  that I was “not afraid of sounding radical at outrages to common sense”.  The concept of  “radical centrism” became the subject of a recent article by Gerald Seib at The Wall Street Journal.   Mr. Seib appeared to share my expectation that the rise of the Tea Party movement has inspired voters (and more importantly:  aspiring candidates) from all perspectives to escape from  the two-party trap.  Here are some of Seib’s points that resonated well with me:

Many of  those seriously estranged from the political system and its practitioners appear to sit in the political center.  They are shaping this year’s campaign, but equally important is the question of what happens to them after the election Nov. 2, and especially on the road toward the next presidential campaign in 2012.

*   *   *

Mostly they want solutions — economic and job-creating solutions — and they seem to think Democrats have failed to provide them.  They also thought that of  Republicans previously.  And they seem to think this failure to produce in Washington is, at least in some measure, the result of  both parties being in the thrall of  “special interests,” a term with various definitions.

Some of this frustration is being channeled into the tea-party movement, but not all of it by any means.  The tea-party movement is more conservative, and more Republican at heart, than many of these independent voters appear to be.

*   *   *

But perhaps the tea-party influence will push the Republican Party too far to the right for many of these independents.  And perhaps Mr. Obama will tack too far to the left in the next two years, to protect his liberal flank and preclude the possibility that he, like Jimmy Carter in 1980, faces a primary challenger from his party’s liberal base when he seeks re-election.

If that’s what happens after this year’s election, Washington may descend into true partisan and ideological gridlock, and independent voters’ frustration and estrangement may only grow.

Seib concluded that such a scenario could give rise to “a third-party challenge in 2012”.  As I have stated previously:  by 2012 I would hope to see a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth party, as well.

As I said when I first started this blog in April of 2008:  It’s an exciting time to be a centrist.  Since that point, we have seen a number of politicians claiming to be centrists, simply because their positions on most major political issues were constantly changing — in order to “follow the money”.  Claiming to be “pragmatists”, many of those politicians have been more than willing to horse-trade away any accomplishments made in advancing a particular cause for their supporters.  Unlike Gerald Seib, I believe that many “middle-of-the-road radicals” are peeved by the absolute lack of any ideological principles behind the actions taken by too many of those in government.  We can expect a number of diverse political groups to form after the 2010 elections.  Hopefully. the voters will have better alternatives next time around.



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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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We Took The Wrong Turn

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October 7, 2010

The ugly truth has raised its head once again.  We did it wrong and Australia did it right.  It was just over a year ago – on September 21, 2009 – when I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”.  I concluded that posting with this statement:

If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.

I focused that piece on a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

With the passing of time, it has become painfully obvious that President Obama took the country down the wrong path.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  Economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

Fast-forward to October 6, 2010.  Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Jobs in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile — back in the States — on October 6, ADP released its National Employment Report for September, 2010.  It should come as no surprise that our fate is 180 degrees away from that of Australia:  Private sector employment in the U.S. decreased by 39,000 from August to September on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the ADP report.   Beyond that, October 6 brought us a gloomy forecast from Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist for the ever-popular Goldman Sachs Group.  Wes Goodman of Bloomberg News quoted Hatzius as predicting that the United States’ economy will be “fairly bad” or “very bad” over the next six to nine months:

“We see two main scenarios,” analysts led by Jan Hatzius, the New York-based chief U.S. economist at the company, wrote in an e-mail to clients.  “A fairly bad one in which the economy grows at a 1 1/2 percent to 2 percent rate through the middle of next year and the unemployment rate rises moderately to 10 percent, and a very bad one in which the economy returns to an outright recession.”

Aren’t we lucky!  How wise of President Obama to rely on Larry Summers to the exclusion of most other economists!

Charles Ferguson, director of the new documentary film, Inside Job, recently offered this analysis of the milieu that facilitated the opportunity for Larry Summers to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Then, after the 2008 financial crisis and its consequent recession, Summers was placed in charge of coordinating U.S. economic policy, deftly marginalizing others who challenged him.  Under the stewardship of Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke, the Obama administration adopted policies as favorable toward the financial sector as those of the Clinton and Bush administrations — quite a feat.  Never once has Summers publicly apologized or admitted any responsibility for causing the crisis.  And now Harvard is welcoming him back.

Summers is unique but not alone.  By now we are all familiar with the role of lobbying and campaign contributions, and with the revolving door between industry and government.  What few Americans realize is that the revolving door is now a three-way intersection.  Summers’ career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society:  the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

*     *     *

Now, however, as the national recovery is faltering, Summers is being eased out while Harvard is welcoming him back.  How will the academic world receive him?  The simple answer:  Better than he deserves.

Australia is looking better than ever  —  especially when you consider that their spring season is just beginning right now     .   .   .




Party Out Of Bounds

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October 4, 2010

It’s refreshing to witness the expansion in the number of people looking forward to the demise of our two-party political system.  Tom Friedman of The New York Times recently gushed with enthusiasm about the idea of  “a serious third party”, capable of rising to the challenge of enacting important, urgently-needed legislation without offending the far left, the far right or “coal state Democrats”.  Friedman is only half-right.  We need a third, a fourth, a fifth and a sixth party, as well.  Placing all of one’s hope in THE Third Party is a formula for more disappointment.

I frequently complain that we no longer have two distinct political parties running America.  We are currently stuck under the regime of the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party.  The widely-expressed disappointment resulting from President Obama’s failure to keep his campaign promises was discussed in my previous four postings.

Salena Zito of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review wrote a great article about her year of traveling 6,609 miles to interview 432 people identifying themselves as Democrats.  Here’s what she learned:

In coffee shops, on streetcorners and farms, at factories, the narrative was always the same:  How could such great promise have let the country down so much, so quickly?

Ms. Zito reached the conclusion that the man elected President by these voters was really no improvement from the 2004 candidate, John Kerry:

Obama is no less out of touch than the Kerry whom America watched windsurf  before the 2004 election — the same man who said last week that one reason Democrats will lose this year is that “we have an electorate that doesn’t always pay that much attention to what’s going on, so people are influenced by a simple slogan rather than the facts or the truth or what’s happening.”

Here’s where Kerry and Obama are both wrong:  The electorate that was influenced by a simple slogan – “Yes, we can” — in 2008 actually is very well-informed.

This time, that electorate isn’t voting for a dream, but for its pocketbook.

Throughout the current election cycle, the Democratic establishment has avoided the sort of challenge experienced by the Republican establishment in the form of the Tea Party movement.  That will change after November 2, at which point disgruntled Democrats will feel more comfortable jumping ship.  It took consecutive humiliations at the polls in 2006 and 2008 before the Tea Partiers were motivated to break ranks with the Republican powers that be and undertake campaigns to challenge Republican incumbents.  Their efforts paid off so well, many Tea Partiers have become enthused about having a distinct party from the Republican organization.  After the 2010 elections are concluded, we can expect to see splinter groups breaking away from the Democratic Party.

Back on April 22, Mark Willen, Senior Political Editor of The Kiplinger Letter, wrote an interesting piece, lamenting the disadvantage experienced by moderate candidates because the political primary process facilitates victory for the choices of extremist voters as a result of the enthusiasm gap.  (Extremists are more motivated to vote in primaries than moderate voters, who don’t consider themselves crusaders for a particular agenda.)  Willen sees the two parties being pushed to ideological extremes, despite the fact that most Americans consider themselves to be in the center of the political spectrum.  Another important point from that piece concerns the fact that info-tainment programs presenting extremist views get better ratings than programs featuring commentary that really is “fair and balanced”.  As a result, cable television audiences are regularly exposed to a bombardment of caustic rhetoric.

The 2012 elections could bring us a significant increase in the number of  “independent” candidates, as well as nominees from new political parties.  A change of that nature could close future mid-term enthusiasm gaps, occurring in the November elections (such as the one expected for this year).  The prospects for a larger, more diverse group of political parties are looking better with each passing day.



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