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Screw The People And Save The Banks

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The economic crisis in Ireland (and the rest of Europe) has resulted in a morass of published commentaries, some of which make sense and most of which don’t.  Sometimes it appears as though the writer hasn’t really formed an opinion on the issue, even though the tone of the article seems to be expressing one.  The problem experienced in Ireland is the same as it is everywhere else:  During tough economic times, governments always choose to bail out the banks regardless of the expense and suffering to be endured by the citizens.  The Pragmatic Capitalist recently upbraided the writer of one of the more poorly-thought-out essays dealing with the Irish predicament:

Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC, has remained one of the more levelheaded and helpful leaders during the financial crisis.  But in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning she took a decisive turn for the worse when she waded into waters that were certain to drown her.  Bair is now echoing the cries that have been heard across Ireland for the last 2 years – cries of fiscal austerity.  Of course, the USA is nothing like Ireland and has an entirely different monetary system, but Bair ignores all of this (in fact proves she is entirely ignorant of this).  What’s sad is that Bair clearly understands that this crisis is still largely hurting Main Street America   .   .   .

To the extent that the Irish situation bears any resemblance to what we are experiencing (or may soon experience) in the United States, economist John Hussman has written the best essay on this issue.  Hussman began with this point, made by another economist:

“If you have bad banks then you very urgently want to clean up your banks because bad banks go only one way:  they get worse. In the end every bank is a fiscal problem.  When you have bad banks, it is in a political environment where it is totally understood that the government is going to bail them out in the end.  And that’s why they are so bad, and that’s why they get worse.  So cleaning up the banks is an essential counterpart of any attempt to have a well functioning economy.  It is a counterpart of any attempt to have a dull, uninteresting macroeconomy.  And there is no excuse to do it slowly because it is very expensive to postpone the cleanup.  There is no technical issue in doing the cleanup.  It’s mostly to decide to start to grow up and stop the mess.”

MIT Economist Rudiger Dornbusch, November 1998

The TARP bailout was not the only time when our government chose a temporary fix (as in cure or heroin injection) at great taxpayer expense.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  John Hussman discussed the consequences:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The present situation

Europe will clearly be in the spotlight early this week, as a run on Irish banks coupled with large fiscal deficits has created a solvency crisis for the Irish government itself and has been (temporarily) concluded with a bailout agreement.  Ireland’s difficulties are the result of a post-Lehman guarantee that the Irish government gave to its banking system in 2008.  The resulting strains will now result in a bailout, in return for Ireland’s agreement to slash welfare payments and other forms of spending to recipients that are evidently less valuable to society than bankers.

*   *   *

Over the short run, Ireland will promise “austerity” measures like Greece did – large cuts in government spending aimed at reducing the deficit.  Unfortunately, imposing austerity on a weak economy typically results in further economic weakness and a shortfall on the revenue side, meaning that Ireland will most probably face additional problems shortly anyway.

The “austerity” approach is more frequently being used as a dividing line to distinguish “liberal” economists from “conservative” economists.  The irony here is that many so-called liberal politicians are as deeply in the pocket of the banking lobby as their conservative counterparts.  Economist Dean Baker recently wrote an article for The Guardian, urging Ireland to follow the example of Argentina and simply default on its debt:

The failure of the ECB or IMF to take steps to rein in the bubble before the crisis has not made these international financial institutions shy about using a heavy hand in imposing conditions now.  The plan is to impose stiff austerity, requiring much of Ireland’s workforce to suffer unemployment for years to come as a result of the failure of their bankers and the ECB.

While it is often claimed that these institutions are not political, only the braindead could still believe this.  The decision to make Ireland’s workers, along with workers in Spain, Portugal, Latvia and elsewhere, pay for the recklessness of their country’s bankers is entirely a political one.  There is no economic imperative that says that workers must pay; this is a political decision being imposed by the ECB and IMF.

Bloomberg News columnist, Matthew Lynn wrote a great article for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, setting out five reasons why Ireland should refuse a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to opt for default as the logical approach.

Pay close attention to how your favorite politicians weigh-in on the Irish situation.  It should give you a fairly good tip as to what actions those pols can be expected to take when the Wall Street bankers dash back to Capitol Hill for TARP 2 The Sequel.


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MythBusting

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How many times have you heard politicians or mainstream media pundits dump on “The Internet” as an unreliable source of information, due to an abundance of unchecked, dubious reports, which are touted as the truth?  To the contrary, politicians are the least reliable sources of information in our society because – as everyone knows – they are crooks and liars.

The mainstream media have been vested with unchallenged credibility for too long.  It wasn’t until the advent of on-line news reporting (and blogging) when the news “authorities” were subjected to a regular scheme of serious fact-checking.  Nevertheless, the mainstream media still persist in promoting erroneous stories that seem to take on a life of their own – partly because so many news outlets stumble over each other for the sake of parroting the same meme reported by a competitor.  Remember the “Balloon Boy” story?  For an entire afternoon last year, the nation stayed glued to the television, watching a UFO-styled balloon float across Colorado with helicopters in hot pursuit.  Throughout that entire episode, no news reporter or TV commentator saw fit to raise the question:  Is that balloon really large enough to lift a little boy into the sky and haul him through the air like that while it is obviously deflating?  Of course not.  That would have killed the story.

This week brought us a few commentaries, which have done a good job of running against the mainstream media-generated consensus reality to show us what is hiding under the rock.  The first item was something I found on The Big Picture website:  a 50-page, on-line book by Jonathan Tasini entitled, It’s Not Raining, We’re Getting Peed On:  The Scam of the Deficit Crisis.  Tasini went beyond deflating the hype of the deficit crisis to challenge nine other myths, referred to as “Stupid Statements”.  He followed that with his discussion of a disease afflicting politicians and media commentators:  Elititis Experitits.  Tasini covered a lot of ground in a mere 50 pages, concluding with the point that the only deficit being experienced by America right now is a deficit of moral leadership.

Another fine example of mythbusting was provided by Brett Arends in a piece for MarketWatch entitled, “The Truth about California”.  Brett Arends took a noble step forward to challenge the popular myth that California is about to default on its debts and that the Golden State is in desperate need of a bailout from Uncle Sam.  Arends began the essay with this statement:

I know that facts and truth seem to be optional these days.  I know that in the exciting new world of infinite media everyone can choose to believe whatever fantasies they want. But in the case of California, it’s getting on my nerves.

Arends relied on data from the Tax Foundation to go beyond debunking the myth that “California needs a bailout” – to argue that California has been bailing out the rest of the country:

The numbers are simply staggering.  In the quarter century through 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data), Californians bailed out the rest of America to the tune of about $620 billion in today’s dollars.  In 2005 alone it came to nearly $50 billion.

That is 30 times next year’s forecast “budget shortfall” in Sacramento. The only reason California has a budget problem at all is because they have, foolishly, spent so much money subsidizing everyone else.

If it weren’t for that, California could cut its state and local taxes by around $1,300 a person.  That’s a $1,300 tax cut for every man, woman and child. Hmmm.  Funny you never read about that anywhere, isn’t it?

Our third example of mythbusting comes from recent California expatriate, Jr. Deputy Accountant, who exposed the “man behind the curtain” in Catherine Rampell’s article for The New York Times entitled, “Corporate Profits Were the Highest on Record Last Quarter”:

Filed under:  totally unbelievable headlines that are even less believable once you actually dig into the truth behind the big fancy headline.

As Jr. Deputy Accountant points out, Reading Rampell’s article as far as the third paragraph brings you to the disclaimer, which lets the air out of this UFO balloon:

The government does not adjust the numbers for inflation, in part because these corporate profits can be affected by pricing changes from all over the world and because the government does not have a price index for individual companies.

Beyond that, near the end of the Times article, the reader is confronted with an unpleasant fact, which undermines the optimistic tone of the headline:

“The economy is not growing fast enough to reduce significantly the unemployment rate or to prevent a slide into deflation,” Paul Dales, a United States economist for Capital Economics, wrote in a note to clients.  “This is unlikely to change in 2011 or 2012.”

At least the ugly truth was available to those willing to actually read the article.

As Jonathan Tasini pointed out in his on-line book, the traditional media are “uninformed, lazy and always desperate to be part of the insider crowd”.  Perhaps that is another reason why traditional media outlets are finding themselves replaced by Internet-based news sources.


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Betting Against Obama

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Most Congressional Democrats and supporters of President Obama are anxious to see an end to the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  Nevertheless, as of this writing, the President has yet to even vote “present” on this issue.  Obama’s waffling throughout the tax cut debate has once again exposed his weak leadership skills, which are never overlooked by the people at Fox News:

“The players on the field want a game plan,” said one senior Democratic congressional aide who requested anonymity to be candid about caucus sentiment. “There’s an increasing frustration from members that there is not a plan … There is just tremendous frustration.  I mean, where are they?”

The aide noted that Senate Democrats, meeting behind closed doors Wednesday and most likely Thursday, intend to discuss the tax cuts, but there is one notable absence.

“Where is the White House?  There’s no one here talking to us today or tomorrow,” the aide fumed   .   .   .

*   *   *

Democrats are waiting for an express statement from the President, despite the fact that Obama opened the window on a temporary extension just after the midterm elections.

“We should have done this already.  Our bosses go home and are hounded about this.  I don’t get it.  Just extend the cuts for a few years and be done with it.  There are way too many fingers in the wind on this from both sides (of the aisle),” another senior Democratic aide involved in tax policy for years told Fox.

Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor for President Clinton, began a recent blog posting with this observation:

The President says a Republican proposal to extend the Bush tax cuts to everyone for two years is a “basis for conversation.”  I hope this doesn’t mean another Obama cave-in.

Unfortunately, in all likelihood it does mean “another Obama cave-in”  — and it probably won’t be the last.  Professor Reich ended that piece with this rhetorical question:

If the President can’t or won’t take a stand now — when he still has a chance to prevail in the upcoming lame-duck Congress — when will he ever?

Answer:  Never (unless it means taking a stand – once again – in support of the Wall Street banks).

In the mean time, while Obama dithers, a group of 40 “Patriotic Millionaires” has stepped forward after writing a letter to the President, in which they urged him not to renew the Bush tax cuts for anyone earning more than $1 million a year.  Joe Conason included the text of that letter in a recent piece for Salon.  The Patriotic Millionaires expressed an opinion, which the President apparently fears might not be shared by his top campaign contributors:

We have done very well over the last several years.  Now, during our nation’s moment of need, we are eager to do our fair share.  We don’t need more tax cuts, and we understand that cutting our taxes will increase the deficit and the debt burden carried by other taxpayers.  The country needs to meet its financial obligations in a just and responsible way.

A similar stance was taken by billionaire financier Warren Buffet, during an interview conducted by Christiane Amanpour on the ABC News program This Week.  When confronted by Amanpour about the claim that those tax cuts for the very wealthy are what energize business and capitalism, Buffet gave this response:

“The rich are always going to say that, you know, just give us more money and we’ll go out and spend more and then it will all trickle down to the rest of you.  But that has not worked the last 10 years, and I hope the American public is catching on,” Buffett explained.

Writing for The Hill, Alexander Bolton discussed the frustrations experienced by Congressional Democrats, who are often left twisting in the wind while the President works out a strategy for traveling up a fork in the road:

Senate Democrats want President Obama to take a more hands-on role in legislative battles next year, when Republicans will have additional clout on Capitol Hill.

Democratic lawmakers say Obama could have done more to connect his legislative agenda to the concerns of voters — a shortcoming the president himself has admitted.

As the moment approaches for 2012 Presidential aspirants to declare their candidacy, Mr. Obama’s shortcomings are widely understood.  If the Democrats want to hold the White House, somebody with some guts should step forward pretty soon.


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Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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Geithner Kool-Aid Is All The Rage

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Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s “charm offensive”, began one year ago.  At that time, a number of financial bloggers were invited to the Treasury Department for an “open discussion” forum led by individual senior Treasury officials (including Turbo Tim himself).  Most of the invitees were not brainwashed to the desired extent.  I reviewed a number of postings from those in attendance – most of whom demonstrated more than a little skepticism about the entire affair.  Nevertheless, Secretary Geithner and his team held another conclave with financial bloggers on Monday, August 16, 2010.  The second meeting worked more to Geithner’s advantage.  The Treasury Secretary made a favorable impression on Alex Tabarrok, just as he had done last November with Tabarrok’s partner at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen.  Steve Waldman of Interfluidity provided a candid description of his own reaction to the August 16 event.  Waldman’s commentary exposed how the desired effect was achieved:

First, let me confess right from the start, I had a great time.  I pose as an outsider and a crank.  But when summoned to the court, this jester puts on his bells.  I am very, very angry at Treasury, and the administration it serves.  But put me at a table with smart, articulate people who are willing to argue but who are otherwise pleasant towards me, and I will like them.

*   *   *

I like these people, and that renders me untrustworthy. Abstractly, I think some of them should be replaced and perhaps disgraced.  But having chatted so cordially, I’m far less likely to take up pitchforks against them.  Drawn to the Secretary’s conference room by curiosity, vanity, ambition, and conceit, I’ve been neutered a bit.

More recently, a good deal of attention has focused on a November 4 article from Bloomberg News, revealing that back on April 2, Turbo Tim paid a call on Jon Stewart.  The disclosure by Ian Katz raised quite a few eyebrows:

Geithner and Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” held an off-the-record meeting at Stewart’s office in New York on April 2, according to Geithner’s appointments calendar, updated through August on Treasury’s website.

Since that time, we have heard nothing from Jon Stewart about his meeting with Geithner.  I expect that Stewart will continue his silence about that topic, focusing our attention, instead, on the controversy concerning a book, which should have been titled, Pedophilia For Dummies, while referring to Amazon.com as “NAMBLAzon.com”.  If he uses that joke  – remember that you saw it here, first.

The November 13 New York Times article by Yale economics professor, Robert Shiller, raises the question of whether Professor Shiller is the latest victim of the Geithner Kool-Aid.  Shiller’s essay reeks of the Obama administration’s strategy of approaching the nation’s most pressing crises as public relations concerns — a panacea for avoiding the ugly task of actually solving those problems.  The title of Shiller’s article, “Bailouts, Reframed as ‘Orderly Resolutions’” says it all:  spin means everything.  The following statement is a perfect example:

Our principal hope for dealing with the next big crisis is the Dodd-Frank Act, signed by President Obama in July.  It calls for bailouts of a sort, but has reframed them so they may look better to taxpayers.  Now they will be called “orderly resolutions.”

Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism website had no trouble ripping this assertion (as well as Shiller’s entire essay) to shreds:

Huh?  It’s widely acknowledged that Dodd Frank is too weak.  In the Treasury meeting with bloggers last August, Geithner didn’t argue the point much, but instead contended that big enough capital levels, which were on the way with Basel III, were the real remedy.

It’s also widely recognized that the special resolution process in Dodd Frank is a non-starter as far as the institutions that pose the greatest systemic risk are concerned, the really big international dealer banks.  A wind-up of these firms is subject to the bankruptcy proceedings of all the foreign jurisdictions in which it operates; the US can’t wave a magic wand in Dodd Frank and make this elephant in the room vanish.

In addition, no one has found a way to resolve a major trading firm without creating major disruption.

*   *   *

Shiller’s insistence that the public is so dumb as to confuse a windown with a bailout reveals his lack of connection with popular perceptions.  The reason the public is so angry with the bailouts is no one, particularly among the top brass, lost his job, and worse, the firms were singularly ungrateful, thumbing their noses at taxpayers and paying themselves record bonuses in 2009.

Bill Maher’s Real Time program of November 12 is just the most recent example of how Bill Maher and most of his guests from the entire season are Geithner Kool-Aid drinkers.  The show marked the ten-trillionth time Maher claimed that TARP was a “success” because the banks have “paid back” those government bailouts.  Bill Maher needs to invite Yves Smith on his program so that she can debunk this myth, as she did in her June 23 piece. “Geithner Yet Again Misrepresents TARP ‘Performance’”.  Ms. Smith is not the only commentator who repeatedly calls out the administration on this whopper.  Marshall Auerback and almost everyone else at the Roosevelt Institute have said the same thing.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns wrote this piece for the Seeking Alpha website, in support of Aureback’s TARP critique.  Will Wilkinson’s October 8 essay in The Economist’s Democracy in America blog presented the negative responses from a number of authorities in response to the claim that TARP was a great success.  With all that has been written to dispute the glorification of TARP, one would think that the “TARP was a success” meme would fade away.  Nevertheless, the Geithner Kool-Aid is a potent brew and its effects can, in some cases, be permanent.


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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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It seems as though everyone is bashing the Federal Reserve these days.  In my last posting, I criticized the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).  Since that time, I’ve seen an onslaught of outrage directed against the Fed from across the political spectrum.  Bethany McLean of Slate made a similar observation on November 9.  As the subtitle to her piece suggested, people who criticized the Fed were usually considered “oddballs”.  Ms. McLean observed that the recent Quarterly Letter by Jeremy Grantham (which I discussed here) is just another example of anti-Fed sentiment from a highly-respected authority.  Ms. McLean stratified the degrees of anti-Fed-ism this way:

If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters.  The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time.  The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

From the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican-oriented Investor’s Business Daily provided an editorial on November 9 entitled, “Fighting The Fed”.  More famously, in prepared remarks to be delivered during a trade association meeting in Phoenix, Sarah Palin ordered Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to “cease and desist” his plan to proceed with QE2.  As a result of the criticism of her statement by Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, it may be a while before we hear Ms. Palin chirping about this subject again.

The disparagement directed against the Fed from the political right has been receiving widespread publicity.  I was particularly impressed by the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009.  Here is the most-frequently quoted portion of Bunning’s diatribe:

.   .   .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

Michael Grunwald, author of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2009” cover story on Ben Bernanke, saw fit to write a sycophantic “puff piece” in support of Bernanke’s re-confirmation as Fed chairman.  In that essay, Grunwald attempted to marginalize Bernanke’s critics with this statement:

The mostly right-leaning (deficit) hawks rail about Helicopter Ben, Zimbabwe Ben and the Villain of the Year,   . . .

The “Helicopter Ben” piece was written by Larry Kudlow.  The “Zimbabwe Ben” and “Villain of the Year” essays were both written by Adrienne Gonzalez of the Jr. Deputy Accountant website, who saw her fanbase grow exponentially as a result of Grunwald’s remark.  The most amusing aspect of Grunwald’s essay in support of Bernanke’s confirmation was the argument that the chairman could be trusted to restrain his moneyprinting when confronted with demands for more monetary stimulus:

Still, doves want to know why he isn’t providing even more gas. Part of the answer is that he doesn’t seem to think that pouring more cash into the banking system would generate many jobs, because liquidity is not the current problem.  Banks already have reserves; they just aren’t using them to make loans and spur economic activity.  Bernanke thinks injecting even more money would be like pushing on a string.
*   *   *

To Bernanke, the benefits of additional monetary stimulus would be modest at best, while the costs could be disastrous. Reasonable economists can and do disagree.

Compare and contrast that Bernanke with the Bernanke who explained his rationale for more monetary stimulus in the November 4, 2010 edition of The Washington Post:

The FOMC decided this week that, with unemployment high and inflation very low, further support to the economy is needed.

*   *   *

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability. Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.

Bernanke should have said:  “Pushing on a string should help us fulfill that obligation.”

Meanwhile, the Fed is getting thoroughly bashed from the political left, as well.  The AlterNet website ran the text of this roundtable discussion from the team at Democracy Now (Michael Hudson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez – with a cameo appearance by Joseph Stiglitz) focused on the question of whether QE2 will launch an “economic war on the rest of the world”.  I enjoyed this opening remark by Michael Hudson:

The head of the Fed is known as “Helicopter Ben” because he talks about dropping money into the economy.  But if you see helicopters, they’re probably not your friends.  Don’t go out and wait for them to drop the money, because the money is all going electronically into the banks.

At the progressive-leaning TruthDig website, author Nomi Prins discussed the latest achievement by that unholy alliance of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve:

The Republicans may have stormed the House, but it was Wall Street and the Fed that won the election.

*   *   *

That $600 billion figure was about twice what the proverbial “analysts” on Wall Street had predicted.  This means that, adding to the current stash, the Fed will have shifted onto its books about $1 trillion of the debt that the Treasury Department has manufactured.  That’s in addition to $1.25 trillion more in various assets backed by mortgages that the Fed is keeping in its till (not including AIG and other backing) from the 2008 crisis days.  This ongoing bailout of the financial system received not a mention in pre- or postelection talk.

*   *   *

No winning Republican mentioned repealing the financial reform bill, since it doesn’t really actually reform finance, bring back Glass-Steagall, make the big banks smaller or keep them from creating complex assets for big fees.  Score one for Wall Street.  No winning Democrat thought out loud that maybe since the Republican tea partyers were so anti-bailouts they should suggest a strategy that dials back ongoing support for the banking sector as it continues to foreclose on homes, deny consumer and small business lending restructuring despite their federal windfall, and rake in trading profits.  The Democrats couldn’t suggest that, because they were complicit.  Score two for Wall Street.

In other words, nothing will change.  And that, more than the disillusionment of his supporters who had thought he would actually stand by his campaign rhetoric, is why Obama will lose the White House in 2012.

The only thing I found objectionable in Ms. Prins’ essay was her reference to “the pro-bank center”.  Since when is the political center “pro-bank”?  Don’t blame us!

As taxpayer hostility against the Fed continues to build, expect to see this book climb up the bestseller lists:  The Creature from Jekyll Island.   It’s considered the “Fedbashers’ bible”.


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Well-Deserved Scrutiny For The Fed

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In the wake of the 2010 elections, it’s difficult to find a pundit who doesn’t mention the Tea Party at least once while discussing the results.  This got me thinking about whether the man referred to as “The Godfather” of the Tea Party movement, Congressman Ron Paul (father of Tea Party candidate, Senator-elect Rand Paul) will become more influential in the next Congress.  More important is the question of whether Ron Paul’s book, End The Fed will be taken more seriously – particularly in the aftermath of the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).

The announcement by the Federal Open Market Committee to proceed with QE2 drew immediate criticism.  The best rebuke against QE 2 came from economist John Hussman, whose Weekly Market Comment – entitled, “Bubble, Crash, Bubble, Crash, Bubble …” was based on this theme:

We will continue this cycle until we catch on.  The problem isn’t only that the Fed is treating the symptoms instead of the disease.  Rather, by irresponsibly promoting reckless speculation, misallocation of capital, moral hazard (careless lending without repercussions), and illusory “wealth effects,” the Fed has become the disease.

One issue raised by Mr. Hussman – which should resonate well with supporters of the Tea Party – concerns the fact that the Fed is undertaking an unconstitutional exercise of fiscal policy (rather than monetary policy) most notably by its purchase of mortgage-backed securities:

In this example, the central bank is not engaging in monetary policy, but fiscal policy.  Creating government liabilities to acquire goods and assets, unless those assets are other government liabilities, is fiscal policy, pure and simple.

Hussman’s analysis of how the “the economic impact of QE2 is likely to be weak or even counterproductive” was best expressed in this passage:

We are betting on the wrong horse.  When the Fed acts outside of the role of liquidity provision, it does more harm than good. Worse, we have somehow accepted a situation where the Fed’s actions are increasingly independent of our democratically elected government.  Bernanke’s unsound leadership has placed the nation’s economic stability on two pillars:  inflated asset prices, and actions that – in Bernanke’s own words – should be “correctly viewed as an end run around the authority of the legislature” (see below).

The right horse is ourselves, and the ability of our elected representatives to create an economic environment that encourages productive investment, research, development, infrastructure, and education, while avoiding policies that promote speculation, discourage work, or defend reckless lenders from experiencing losses on bad investments.

On November 6, another brilliant critique of the Fed came from Ashvin Pandurangi (a/k/a “Ash”) of the Simple Planet website.  His essay began with a reminder of what the Fed really is:

The most powerful, influential economic policy-making institution in the country, the Federal Reserve (“Fed”), is an unelected body that is completely unaccountable to the people.

*   *   *

The Fed, by its own admission, is an independent entity within the government “having both public purposes, and private aspects”.  By “private aspects”, they mean the entire operation is wholly-owned by private member banks, who are paid dividends of 6% each year on their stock.  Furthermore, the Fed’s decisions “do not have to be ratified by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branch of government” and the Fed “does not receive funding appropriated by Congress”.  In 1982, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed this view when it held that “federal reserve banks are not federal instrumentalities … but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations”.

As we all know:  “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  At the end of his essay, Ash connected the dots for those either unable to do so or unwilling to face an ugly reality:

In the last two years, the almighty Fed has printed trillions of dollars in our name to buy worthless mortgage assets from “too big to fail” banks.  It has lent these banks our hard-earned money at about 0% interest, so they could lend our own money back to us at 3%+.  These banks also used our free money to ramp equity and commodity markets, which mostly benefited the top 1% of our population who owns 43% of financial wealth [2], and conveniently, also owns the Fed.  The latter has kept interest rates at next to nothing to punish savers and encourage speculation, making everything less affordable for average Americans who have seen their wages stay the same, decrease or disappear.  What’s left standing is the perniciously powerful, highly secretive and entirely unaccountable Fed, who now epitomizes the state of American democracy.

At least we still have freedom of speech!  As part of the Fed’s roll-out of QE2, Chairman Ben Bernanke found it necessary to write a public relations piece for The Washington Post – perhaps as an apology.  Stock market commentator Bill Fleckenstein had no trouble ripping Bernanke’s article to shreds:

Bernanke goes on to say:  “Although low inflation is generally good, inflation that is too low can pose risks to the economy — especially when the economy is struggling.  In the most extreme case, very low inflation can morph into deflation.”

Oh, yeah?  Says who?  I have not seen any instance where a “too low” inflation rate led to deflation.  When deflation is caused by new inventions or increased productivity (or in the old days, bumper crops), which we might term “good” deflation, it was not a consequence of too little inflation; it was due to progress.  Similarly, the “bad” deflation isn’t created via inflation that is too low; it tends to come from burst bubbles.  In other words, misguided policies, not low inflation, are the cause of deflation.

Because the timing of the Fed’s controversial move to proceed with QE2 dovetails so well with the “energizing” of the Tea Party movement, it will be interesting to observe whether life will become more uncomfortable for Chairman Bernanke.  A recent article by Joshua Zumbrun of Bloomberg News gave us this hint:

Six out of 10 self-identified Tea Party supporters who said they were likely to vote supported overhauling or abolishing the Fed, according to a Bloomberg News national poll conducted Oct. 7-10.

The article made note of the fact that Ron Paul’s ill-fated effort to Audit the Fed (HR 1207) received bipartisan support:

“You had a really strange alliance last year that supported the audit of the Fed and that may come back into play,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Here’s to bipartisanship!


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Maria Cantwell For President

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I was going to hold off on this and give President Obama the benefit of a doubt – at least for a few months.  Nevertheless, after reading the magnificent piece by Barry Ritholtz, entitled:  “The Tragedy of the Obama Administration”, I decided that it was time to start discussing leadership alternatives for the next Presidential term.

On October 30, the Associated Press published the results of a poll it conducted with Knowledge Networks.  Forty-seven percent of the Democrats surveyed expressed the opinion that Obama should be challenged for the 2012 Democratic Presidential nomination.  In the wake of the mid-term election massacre, I expect that more Democrats will be anxious to find a new standard-bearer for their party in 2012.  The AP article concerning the AP-KN poll, mentioned the theory that the public’s opinion of Obama could change if the economy improves.  Unfortunately, most American consumers will not observe any significant improvement in the economy during the next two years.  There is a greater likelihood that the Chicago Cubs will win next year’s World Series.

We currently find ourselves bombarded with a wide spectrum of opinions, which purport to explain what the results of the 2010 elections really mean.  The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this event is that the voters resent being taken for chumps.  Obama’s supporters were promised change they could believe in by a President and a party that sold its soul to the Wall Street megabanks at the cost of America’s future economic health.  When he had the opportunity to do so in early 2009, Obama refused to put those too-big-to-fail, zombie banks through temporary receivership.  As a result, we are now approaching a situation which – according to financial risk management expert Chris Whalen – will necessitate another round of bank bailouts.  When President Obama had the opportunity and the public support (not to mention Democratic control over both houses of Congress) to enact an adequate stimulus program to save the economy from a decade(s) – long, Japanese-style recession, he refused to so.  If an extra $600 billion had been added to the $787 billion in 2009 (as part of a better-thought-out, infrastructure-based stimulus program) we would be experiencing significant economic growth and a recovering job market right now.  Australia keeps reminding us of this.  (Oops!  Australia just did it again!)  Instead, America finds itself in a situation wherein the Fed is now appropriating that $600 billion toward another round of quantitative easing, which will serve no other purpose than to push investors into the stock market.  According to economist Andy Xie, those stock investors will have an unpleasant experience when Chairman Bernanke’s latest asset bubble pops in 2012.

While many Senate Democrats (along with operatives from the Treasury Department) were busy removing all of the teeth from the financial reform bill, Maria Cantwell was fighting those efforts as one of the few advocates for the American taxpayers.  Back on May 19, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post described how Senator Cantwell stood up to the efforts of Harry Reid to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Senator Cantwell has proven herself worthy of our trust.  Her nomination as the 2012 Democratic Presidential candidate will revive the excitement and voter enthusiasm witnessed during the 2008 campaign.  On the other hand, if President Obama decides to seek a second term and wins the nomination, we will likely find a greater enthusiasm gap than the example of November 2.  As a result, by January of 2013 we could have a new administration in the White House, espousing what economist Nouriel Roubini describes as “the economic equivalent of creationism”.

Here’s to a bright future!


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Turning Point

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As we approach Election Day, many commentators are confirming an observation used as the theme of my posting from September 6:

The steps taken by the Obama administration during its first few months have released massive, long-lasting fallout, destroying the re-election hopes of Democrats in the Senate and House.

Too many people whom the President thought he could count among his supporters have become his biggest critics.  One might expect that after eight years of outrage over the antics of the Bush administration, Maureen Dowd would be thrilled about the work done by the Obama White House.  Nevertheless, her most recent discussion of Obama’s performance was less than flattering:

In 2008, the message was him.  The promise was him.  And that’s why 2010 is a referendum on him.

With his coalition and governing majority shattering around him, President Obama will have to summon political skills — starting Wednesday — that he has not yet shown he has.

*   *   *

With the exception of Obama, most Americans seemed to agree that the “right” thing to do until the economy recovered was to focus on jobs instead of getting the Congress mired for months in making over health insurance and energy policy.  And the “right” thing to do was to come down harder on the big banks for spending on bonuses instead of lending to small businesses that don’t get bailouts.

Contrary to the President’s expectations, the voting public has not overlooked the administration’s refusal to heed the advice of Bill Black, Robert Reich, and the roster of economists that included Adam Posen and Matthew Richardson advocating the use of the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  To the dismay of everyone in the world (outside of Obama’s inner circle) the new President chose to follow the advice of Larry Summers and put the welfare (as in corporate welfare) of those insolvent, too-big-to-fail banks ahead of the nation’s economic health.  When President Obama appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on October 27, Stewart began the discussion by asking Obama to explain the rationale underlying his appointment of Larry Summers (a retread from the Clinton administration) as director of the National Economic Council.  President Obama fell back on his two-year-old claim that to follow any course other than that recommended by Summers, would have resulted in the failure of at least 100 banks.  Obama’s claim that the cost of the financial crisis was less than 1% of GDP did not slip past Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism website.  Ms. Smith (who voted for Obama in 2008) didn’t pull any punches in refuting that claim:

I’m so offended by the latest Obama canard, that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 cost less than 1% of GDP, that I barely know where to begin.  Not only does this Administration lie on a routine basis, it doesn’t even bother to tell credible lies.  And this one came directly from the top, not via minions.  It’s not that this misrepresentation is earth-shaking, but that it epitomizes why the Obama Administration is well on its way to being an abject failure.

*   *   *

The reason Obama makes such baldfacedly phony statements is twofold:  first, his pattern of seeing PR as the preferred solution to all problems, and second, his resulting slavish devotion to smoke and mirrors over sound policy.

*   *   *

But Team Obama is no doubt rationalizing this chicanery:  if they can keep from recognizing losses until the recovery takes place, then the ultimate damage will be lower.  But Japan’s post bubble record shows that doesn’t work.  You simply don’t get a recovery with a diseased financial system.  You need to purge the bad assets, only then will meaningful growth resume.

Financial risk management guru, Chris Whalen, recently expressed his anguish over the administration’s unwillingness to restructure the zombie banks:

The reluctance comes partly from what truths restructuring will reveal.  As a result, these same large zombie banks and the U.S. economy will continue to shrink under the weight of bad debt, public and private.  Remember that the Dodd-Frank legislation was not so much about financial reform as protecting the housing GSEs.

Because President Barack Obama and the leaders of both political parties are unwilling to address the housing crisis and the wasting effects on the largest banks, there will be no growth and no net job creation in the U.S. for the next several years.  And because the Obama White House is content to ignore the crisis facing millions of American homeowners, who are deep underwater and will eventually default on their loans, the efforts by the Fed to reflate the U.S. economy and particularly consumer spending will be futile.

The idea that Obama sees “PR as the preferred solution to all problems” surfaced again in a great piece by Peter Baker of The New York Times, which included this observation:

Rather than entertaining the possibility that the program they have pursued is genuinely and even legitimately unpopular, the White House and its allies have concluded that their political troubles amount to mainly a message and image problem.

Baker’s article focused on the most recent gripe made by Obama at another one of his highbrow fundraisers.  Remember the blowback from the President’s recent diatribe at a fundraiser hosted by the appropriately-named Rich Richman?  Well, something similar happened again.  The setting this time was a $15,200-per-ticket affair for doctors at the home of a wealthy hospital executive in Boston.  While addressing this audience, the President explained that the reason why the voters have not embraced the Democrats during this election cycle is because the voters are having trouble thinking clearly, as they are “scared”.  Not surprisingly, this re-ignited the controversy focused on Obama’s elitism.

The Tea Party spokespeople aren’t the only ones who are accusing President Obama of elitism.  The Progressive-oriented TruthDig website, recently published an interesting essay by Chris Hedges, author of  Death of the Liberal Class.  Hedges points out that elitism is exactly the problem afflicting not only Obama, but the entire group, referred to as “the liberal class”.  Consider his argument:

The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve.  During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal.  During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement.  But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless.  It offers nothing but empty rhetoric.  It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant.  It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass.  And the disparity between the rhetoric of liberal values and the rapacious system of inverted totalitarianism the liberal class serves makes liberal elites, including Barack Obama, a legitimate source of public ridicule.  The liberal class, whether in universities, the press or the Democratic Party, insists on clinging to its privileges and comforts even if this forces it to serve as an apologist for the expanding cruelty and exploitation carried out by the corporate state.

*   *   *
As long as the liberal class had even limited influence, whether through the press or the legislative process, liberals were tolerated and even respected.  But once the liberal class lost all influence it became a class of parasites.  The liberal class, like the déclassé French aristocracy, has no real function within the power elite.  And the rising right-wing populists, correctly, ask why liberals should be tolerated when their rhetoric bears no relation to reality and their presence has no influence on power.

As Maureen Dowd pointed out, Wednesday is going to be a big day.  If President Obama thought he had his hands full going into this election   .  .  .  wait until the aftermath.