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More Wisdom From Jeremy Grantham

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One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently discussed some of the prescient essays of Jeremy Grantham, who manages over $100 billion as chief executive of an asset management firm – GMO.  Paul Farrell reminded us that Grantham warned of the impending financial crisis in July of 2007, which came as a surprise to those vested with the responsibility of paying attention to such advice.  As Farrell pointed out:

Our nation’s leaders are in denial, want happy talk, bull markets, can’t even see the crash coming, even though the warnings were everywhere for years. Why the denial?  Grantham hit the nail on the head:  Our leaders are “management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget and are somewhat impatient.”

Paul Farrell is warning of an “inevitable crash that is coming possibly just before the Presidential election in 2012”.  He incorporated some of Grantham’s rationale in his own discussion about how and why this upcoming crash will come as another surprise to those who are supposed to help us avoid such things:

Most business, banking and financial leaders are short-term thinkers, focused on today’s trades, quarterly earnings and annual bonuses.  Long-term historical thinking is a low priority.

Paul Farrell’s article was apparently written in anticipation of the release of Jeremy Grantham’s latest Quarterly Letter at the conclusion of the first quarter of 2011.  Grantham’s newest discourse is entitled, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”.  The theme is best summed-up by these points from the “summary” section:

  • From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives.  This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
  • We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies.  There is little time to waste.

After applying some common sense and simple mathematics to the bullish expectations of immeasurable growth ahead, Grantham obviously upset many people with this sober observation:

Rapid growth is not ours by divine right; it is not even mathematically possible over a sustained period.  Our goal should be to get everyone out of abject poverty, even if it necessitates some income redistribution.  Because we have way overstepped sustainable levels, the greatest challenge will be in redesigning lifestyles to emphasize quality of life while quantitatively reducing our demand levels.

We have all experienced the rapid spike in commodity prices:  more expensive gas at the pump, higher food prices and widespread cost increases for just about every consumer item.  Many economists and other commentators have blamed the Federal Reserve’s ongoing program of quantitative easing for keeping interest rates so low that the enthusiasm for speculation on commodities has been enhanced, resulting in skyrocketing prices.  Surprisingly, Grantham is not entirely on board with that theory:

The Monetary Maniacs may ascribe the entire move to low interest rates.  Now, even I know that low rates can have a large effect, at least when combined with moral hazard, on the movement of stocks, but in the short term, there is no real world check on stock prices and they can be, and often are, psychologically flakey.  But commodities are made and bought by serious professionals for whom today’s price is life and death. Realistic supply and demand really is the main influence.

Grantham demonstrated that most of the demand pressure on commodities is being driven by China.  This brings us to his latest prediction and dire warning:

The significance here is that given China’s overwhelming influence on so many commodities, especially in terms of the percentage China represents of new growth in global demand, any general economic stutter in China can mean very big declines in some of their prices.

You can assess on your own the probabilities of a stumble in the next year or so.  At the least, I would put it at 1 in 4, while some of my colleagues think the odds are much higher.  If China stumbles or if the weather is better than expected, a probability I would put at, say, 80%, then commodity prices will decline a lot.  But if both events occur together, it will very probably break the commodity markets en masse.  Not unlike the financial collapse.  That was a once in a lifetime opportunity as most markets crashed by over 50%, some much more, and then roared back.

Modesty should prevent me from quoting from my own July 2008 Quarterly Letter, which covered the first crash.

*   *   *

In the next decade, the prices of all raw materials will be priced as just what they are, irreplaceable.  If the weather and China syndromes strike together, it will surely produce the second “once in a lifetime” event in three years.

For the near-term, we appear to be in an awful double-bind:  either we get crushed by increasing commodity prices – or – commodities will become plentiful and cheap, causing the world economy to crash once again.  It won’t bother Wall Street at all, because The Ben Bernank and “Turbo” Tim will be ready and willing to provide abundant bailouts – again, at taxpayer expense.


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Congress Could Be Quite Different After 2012 Elections

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They come up for re-election every two years.  Each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is in a constant “campaign mode” because the term of office is so short.  Lee White of the American Historical Association summed-up the impact of the 2010 elections this way:

On Tuesday, November 2, 2010, U.S. voters dramatically changed the landscape in Washington.  Republicans gained control of the House and, although the Democrats retained control of the Senate their margin in that body has been reduced to 53-47.

*   *   *

Clearly the most dramatic change will be in the House with new Republican committee and subcommittee chairs taking over.

Voter discontent was revealed by the fact that just before the 2010 elections, the Congressional approval rating was at 17 percent.  More recently, according to a Gallup poll, taken during April 7-11 of 2011, Congressional job approval is now back down to 17 percent, after a bump up to 23 percent in February.  Of particular interest were the conclusions drawn by the pollsters at Gallup concerning the implications of the latest polling results:

Congress’ approval rating in Gallup’s April 7-11 survey is just four points above its all-time low.  The probability of a significant improvement in congressional approval in the months ahead is not high. Congress is now engaged in a highly contentious battle over the federal budget, with a controversial vote on the federal debt ceiling forthcoming in the next several months.  The Republican-controlled House often appears to be battling with itself, as conservative newly elected House members hold out for substantial cuts in government spending.  Additionally, Americans’ economic confidence is as low as it has been since last summer, and satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is at 19%.

At this point, it appears as though we could be looking at an even larger crop of freshmen in the 2013 Congress than we saw in January, 2011.  (According to polling guru, Nate Silver, the fate of the 33 Senate incumbents is still an open question.)

One poster child for voter ire could be Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama.  You might recall that at approximately this time last year, Matt Taibbi wrote another one of his great exposés for Rolling Stone entitled, “Looting Main Street”.  In his exceptional style, Taibbi explained how JPMorgan Chase bribed the local crooked politicians into replacing Jefferson County’s bonds, issued to finance an expensive sewer project, with variable interest rate swaps (also known as synthetic rate swaps).  Then came the financial crisis.  As a result, the rate Jefferson County had to pay on the bonds went up while the rates paid by banks to the county went down.  It didn’t take long for the bond rating companies to downgrade those sewer bonds to “junk” status.

JPMorgan Chase unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss a lawsuit arising from this snafu.  Law 360 reported on April 15 that the Alabama Supreme Court recently affirmed the denial of JPMorgan’s attempt to dismiss the case, which was based on these facts:

Jefferson County accuses JPMorgan of paying bribes to county officials in exchange for an appointment as lead underwriter for what turned out to be a highly risky refinancing of the county’s sewer debt, which caused Jefferson County billions of dollars in losses.  According to the complaint, JPMorgan, JPMorgan Chase and underwriting firm Blount Parrish & Co. handed out bribes, kickbacks and payoffs to swindle the county out of millions in inflated fees.

JPMorgan claimed that only the Governor of Alabama had authority to bring such a suit.  I wonder why former Alabama Governor Bob Riley didn’t bother to join Jefferson County as a party plaintiff, making the issue moot and saving Jefferson County some legal fees, before the case found its way to the state Supreme Court?

Joe Nocera of The New York Times recently put the spotlight on another character from Alabama politics:

Has Spencer Bachus, as the local congressman, decried this debacle?  Of course – what local congressman wouldn’t?  In a letter last year to Mary Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., he said that the county’s financing schemes “magnified the inherent risks of the municipal finance market.”

*   *   *

Bachus is not just your garden variety local congressman, though.  As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he is uniquely positioned to help make sure that similar disasters never happen again – not just in Jefferson County but anywhere.  After all, the new Dodd-Frank financial reform law will, at long last, regulate derivatives.  And the implementation of that law is being overseen by Bachus and his committee.

Among its many provisions related to derivatives – all designed to lessen their systemic risk – is a series of rules that would make it close to impossible for the likes of JPMorgan to pawn risky derivatives off on municipalities.  Dodd-Frank requires sellers of derivatives to take a near-fiduciary interest in the well-being of a municipality.

You would think Bachus would want these regulations in place as quickly as possible, given the pain his constituents are suffering.  Yet, last week, along with a handful of other House Republican bigwigs, he introduced legislation that would do just the opposite:  It would delay derivative regulation until January 2013.

As Joe Nocera suggested, this might be more than simply a delaying tactic, to keep derivatives trading unregulated for another two years.  Bachus could be counting on Republican takeovers of the Senate and the White House after the 2012 election cycle.  At that point, Bachus and his fellow Tools of Wall Street could finally drive a stake through the heart of the nearly-stillborn baby known as “financial reform”.

On the other hand, the people vested with the authority to cast those votes that keep Spencer Bachus in office, could realize that he is betraying them in favor of the Wall Street banksters.  The “public memory” may be short but – fortunately – the term of office for a Congressman is equally brief.


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A True Libertarian Steps Forward

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The Tea Party movement brought us more than a few Republicans who described themselves as “libertarian”, only to advance the agenda of the televangelist lobby once they were elected to office.  Beyond that, the “tax reform” they espouse applies only to corporations and the wealthy, with the middle class left to pay the difference to the Corporate Welfare State.

The 2012 Presidential campaign is now wide-open with the entry of an authentic libertarian, who has jumped into contention for the Republican nomination.  Although Ron Paul (a former Presidential nominee, representing the Libertarian Party in the 1988 election) has been receiving more than a little encouragement to make another White House bid (he won the straw poll at the Conservative Political Action Conference – CPAC) his age is a huge obstacle.  As Congressman Paul approaches his 76th birthday, many consider him too old for the job.

April 21 brought us the entry of Gary Johnson, a former Governor of New Mexico, into the race for the Republican Presidential Nomination.  At age 58, he is an active triathlete, who successfully climbed to the summit of Mt. Everest in 2003.  This guy brings loads of excitement into the race and is likely the only Republican who could defeat Barack Obama.  Gary Johnson’s support from outside the ranks of the Republican Party extends – not only to Independent voters – but to Democrats.  That’s right.  Gary Johnson could actually win the votes of a significant number of Democrats – something no other Republican could accomplish.  Republicans are going to have to take Johnson very seriously.  Nevertheless, Gary Johnson will surely make the televangelist lobby sick with his hardcore libertarian views.

Some recent articles about Johnson are the stuff of Bill O’Reilly’s worst nightmares.  For example, an April 20 piece by Christian Heinze for The Hill included this tidbit about the new candidate:

He’s running for the Republican presidential nomination on a platform that calls for withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq – a position that’s anathema to the party’s ruling class.  He also supports abortion rights and, most controversially, favors legalizing marijuana.

See what I mean?  Johnson has the guts to speak out for the changes which many Democratic voters would like to see – and which Barack Obama would never even bother to include among his trademark, false campaign promises.

Republican pundits regularly emphasize the importance of a candidate’s history of success in the business world, which is perhaps why they are now fretting that the party could be stuck with Donald Trump as its 2012 nominee.  Willard Romney’s inherited wealth gave him the opportunity to participate in the private equity business (Bain Capital) which he left in 1999 to become CEO of the 2002 Olympic Games in Salt Lake City.  As a result, Romney has been able to contrast that background against the qualifications of his political opponents, who have generally spent their adult lives at the public trough.  Gary Johnson presents a fresh challenge to Romney in the area of business credentials.  Johnson started his own construction business in the 1970s and became a self-made millionaire.

As a two-term Governor of New Mexico, Johnson didn’t hesitate to veto bills.  He used the veto pen more than 750 times and kept the state budget under control.

Johnson’s view of the 2012 budget proposed by Congressional Republicans is not likely to win him any new friends in the party’s establishment.  Here is what we learned from The Hill:

He claims the biggest threat to U.S. security is the nation’s debt, and to show how serious he is about fighting it, he says Rep. Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) proposed budget actually isn’t serious enough.

“It takes too long, and only get us a quarter of where we should be many years down the road,” he said.

One of the more informative essays about Gary Johnson was written by Niall Stanage for Salon on May 5, 2010.  That piece points out how Johnson doesn’t have much use for Rush Limbaugh or Jesus, which could cause him some trouble with the Republican base – many of whom have trouble differentiating between those two individuals.  Worse yet, the people at Fox News probably pulled out their hair after reading this:

Ask Johnson what he thinks of Barack Obama, for instance, and rather than the stream of vitriol that might issue semi-automatically from the lips of some party colleagues, he answers:  “You can’t help but like him.”

Obama, he says, “touched” him with his rhetoric during the 2008 campaign, though he adds that the president has proven disappointing and disingenuous since then.

After reading that remark, I was on the verge of giving Gary Johnson my unqualified endorsement.  Let’s see how he does on the campaign trail.

The 2012 Presidential race just became really interesting!


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Crazy Like Fox

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Donald Trump has enjoyed a good deal of publicity during the past few weeks, since he jumped on the “birther” bandwagon, voicing skepticism as to whether Barack Obama was really born in the United States.  Many of Trump’s critics insist that The Donald is not a serious Presidential candidate and that his newfound “birther” agenda demonstrates that his Presidential campaign is nothing more than a flimflam publicity stunt.

I have a different theory.  I believe that Trump is running a “decoy” campaign.  Keep in mind that Trump is currently the #2 contender for the Republican nomination.  Remember also that the Republican Presidential primaries for 11 states (and the District of Columbia) are conducted on a “winner-take-all” basis – meaning that when a candidate wins a state primary, that candidate wins all of the delegates who will represent that state at the Republican National Convention.  If Trump can win a few of those states, he could amass an impressive amount of “pledged” delegates.  I suspect that Trump’s goal is to win the support from the extreme right wing of the Republican Party and “hijack” those delegates who would have been otherwise pledged to candidates acceptable to the Tea Party.  Bill O’Reilly’s intervention to defuse the “birther” controversy (at which point he insisted that Trump has not been seriously seeking the nomination) was apparently motivated by the fact that the candidates most likely to be eliminated from contention because of Trump’s presence – Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin – are both darlings of Fox News.  In fact, Palin is a Fox News contributor.

At the 2012 Republican Convention in Tampa, Trump could step aside and support Willard Romney, who is despised my many Tea Party activists for having created what is now known as “Obamacare”.  Trump’s elimination of the Tea Party favorites before the convention would solve Romney’s problem with that voting bloc.  Romney can be expected to have an equally difficult time winning the support of dog lovers, as a result of his decision to strap the family dog, Seamus, to the car roof for a 12-hour family vacation drive to Ontario.  Despite his “Presidential” appearance, this Homer Simpson-esque episode from Romney’s life has already impaired efforts to portray him as a potentially effective Commander-In-Chief.

Meanwhile, President Obama is busy trumpeting his newly-minted, false campaign promises.  Gallup reported that on April 15, Obama’s approval rating had tied its all-time low of 41%.  More interestingly, his approval rating among African-American and Hispanic voters is beginning to slip from its enormously-high levels:

Though majorities of blacks (85%) and Hispanics (54%) continue to approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, his ratings among these groups slipped in March and have set or tied new lows.

*   *   *

Obama, elected to office with strong support from minority voters, has averaged better than 90% approval among blacks, and 65% among Hispanics, during his term.  Prior to March, Obama’s lowest monthly average among blacks was 88% in July 2010 and December 2010.  The president’s 54% March job approval rating among Hispanics ties the low from July and August 2010.

Despite the efforts of Republican commentators, such as Peggy Noonan, to create a narrative to the effect that Obama’s waning popularity – as well as the losses sustained by the Democrats in the 2010 elections – resulted from voter concern about government spending and the deficit, I suspect that Americans have simply become alienated by the failure of Obama and his party to deliver on their 2008 promises.  Worse yet, the capitulation to the interests of Wall Street by Democrats who promised “reform” has reinforced voter apathy – the real factor in the 2010 Democratic setbacks.

Cord Jefferson of Good provided this graphic of what Congress would look like if it truly represented America.  The failure of Democrats to win the support of Independent and centrist voters is readily apparent.  You can blame gerrymandering all you want, but as long as the Democrats fail to provide alternatives to Republican policies, they will continue to lose.  I believe it was William Black who said:

Under America’s two-party system, we have one party that is owned by big business and another party that sells out to big business.

I was pleased to see my own sentiments shared and articulated quite well by Mike Kimel of the Presimetrics Blog, in his recent posting entitled, “Why I Will Not be Voting for Obama in 2012”.  Although Mr. Kimel doesn’t have an alternative candidate in mind, the very reason for his disillusionment with Obama is that – with respect to the nation’s most significant problems – our current President has proposed no alternative policies to those of his predecessor:

And yes, there are a handful of things Obama did that GW might not do, but let’s be realistic – this has looked from the very beginning like GW’s third term.

Which leaves just one question – if the policies of the Republicans are even worse than Obama’s – and they tend to support anti-growth tax policies (calling them pro-growth doesn’t change the data), what should a rational person do?  I don’t know.  But I think if I’m going to see Republican policies enacted, I’d prefer to see them run under a Republican label.  See, Democratic policies may not be very good, but historically they have tended to produce better results than Republican policies.  (BTW – Michael Kanell and I have an entire book called Presimetrics looking at how Presidents performed on a wide range of topics.)  Another four years spent bringing the feeble Democratic brand down to the levels of the even more feeble Republican brand will cause lasting damage.

Obama will never re-ignite the enthusiasm of 2008 by presenting himself to the voters as “the devil you know” or “the lesser of two evils”.  What America’s middle class really needs is an honest, Independent candidate to make a run for The White House in 2012.


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Federal Reserve Bailout Records Provoke Limited Outrage

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On December 3, 2009 I wrote a piece entitled, “The Legacy of Mark Pittman”.  Mark Pittman was the reporter at Bloomberg News whose work was responsible for the lawsuit, brought under the Freedom of Information Act, against the Federal Reserve, seeking disclosure of the identities of those financial firms benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs.

The suit, Bloomberg LP v. Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve System, 08-CV-9595, (U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York) resulted in a ruling in August of 2009 by Judge Loretta Preska, who rejected the Fed’s defense that disclosure would adversely affect the ability of those institutions (which sought loans at the Fed’s discount window) to compete for business.  The suit also sought disclosure of the amounts loaned to those institutions as well as the assets put up as collateral under the Fed’s eleven lending programs, created in response to the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve appealed Judge Preska’s decision, taking the matter before the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.  The Fed’s appeal was based on Exemption 4 of the Freedom of Information Act, which exempts trade secrets and confidential business information from mandatory disclosure.  The Second Circuit affirmed Judge Preska’s decision on the basis that the records sought were neither trade secrets nor confidential business information because Bloomberg requested only records generated by the Fed concerning loans that were actually made, rather than applications or confidential information provided by persons, firms or other organizations in attempt to obtain loans.  Although the Fed did not attempt to appeal the Second Circuit’s decision to the United States Supreme Court, a petition was filed with the Supreme Court by Clearing House Association LLC, a coalition of banks that received bailout funds.  The petition was denied by the Supreme Court on March 21.

Bob Ivry of Bloomberg News had this to say about the documents produced by the Fed as a result of the suit:

The 29,000 pages of documents, which the Fed released in pdf format on a CD-ROM, revealed that foreign banks accounted for at least 70 percent of the Fed’s lending at its October, 2008 peak of $110.7 billion.  Arab Banking Corp., a lender part- owned by the Central Bank of Libya, used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the window in the 18 months after Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. collapsed.

As government officials and news reporters continue to review the documents, a restrained degree of outrage is developing.  Ron Paul is the Chairman of the House Financial Services Subcommittee on Domestic Monetary Policy.  He is also a longtime adversary of the Federal Reserve, and author of the book, End The Fed.  A recent report by Peter Barnes of FoxBusiness.com said this about Congressman Paul:

.   .   .   he plans to hold hearings in May on disclosures that the Fed made billions — perhaps trillions — in secret emergency loans to almost every major bank in the U.S. and overseas during the financial crisis.

*   *   *

“I am, even with all my cynicism, still shocked at the amount this is and of course shocked, but not completely surprised, [that] much [of] this money went to help foreign banks,” said Rep. Ron Paul (R-TX),   .   .   .  “I don’t have [any] plan [for] legislation …  It will take awhile to dissect that out, to find out exactly who benefitted and why.”

In light of the fact that Congressman Paul is considering another run for the Presidency, we can expect some exciting hearings starring Ben Bernanke.

Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont became an unlikely ally of Ron Paul in their battle to include an “Audit the Fed” provision in the financial reform bill.  Senator Sanders was among the many Americans who were stunned to learn that Arab Banking Corporation used a New York branch to get 73 loans from the Fed during the 18 months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers.  The infuriating factoid in this scenario is apparent in the following passage from the Bloomberg report by Bob Ivry and Donal Griffin:

The bank, then 29 percent-owned by the Libyan state, had aggregate borrowings in that period of $35 billion — while the largest single loan amount outstanding was $1.2 billion in July 2009, according to Fed data released yesterday.  In October 2008, when lending to financial institutions by the central bank’s so- called discount window peaked at $111 billion, Arab Banking took repeated loans totaling more than $2 billion.

Ivry and Griffin provided this reaction from Bernie Sanders:

“It is incomprehensible to me that while creditworthy small businesses in Vermont and throughout the country could not receive affordable loans, the Federal Reserve was providing tens of billions of dollars in credit to a bank that is substantially owned by the Central Bank of Libya,” Senator Bernard Sanders of Vermont, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, wrote in a letter to Fed and U.S. officials.

The best critique of the Fed’s bailout antics came from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi.  He began his report this way:

After the financial crash of 2008, it grew to monstrous dimensions, as the government attempted to unfreeze the credit markets by handing out trillions to banks and hedge funds.  And thanks to a whole galaxy of obscure, acronym-laden bailout programs, it eventually rivaled the “official” budget in size – a huge roaring river of cash flowing out of the Federal Reserve to destinations neither chosen by the president nor reviewed by Congress, but instead handed out by fiat by unelected Fed officials using a seemingly nonsensical and apparently unknowable methodology.

As Matt Taibbi began discussing what the documents produced by the Fed revealed, he shared this reaction from a staffer, tasked to review the records for Senator Sanders:

“Our jaws are literally dropping as we’re reading this,” says Warren Gunnels, an aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont.  “Every one of these transactions is outrageous.”

In case you are wondering just how “outrageous” these transactions were, Mr. Taibbi provided an outrageously entertaining chronicle of a venture named “Waterfall TALF Opportunity”, whose principal investors were Christy Mack and Susan Karches.  Susan Karches is the widow of Peter Karches, former president of Morgan Stanley’s investment banking operations.  Christy Mack is the wife of John Mack, the chairman of Morgan Stanley.  Matt Taibbi described Christy Mack as “thin, blond and rich – a sort of still-awake Sunny von Bulow with hobbies”.  Here is how he described Waterfall TALF:

The technical name of the program that Mack and Karches took advantage of is TALF, short for Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility.  But the federal aid they received actually falls under a broader category of bailout initiatives, designed and perfected by Federal Reserve chief Ben Bernanke and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, called “giving already stinking rich people gobs of money for no fucking reason at all.”  If you want to learn how the shadow budget works, follow along.  This is what welfare for the rich looks like.

The venture would have been more aptly-named, “TALF Exploitation Windfall Opportunity”.  Think about it:  the Mack-Karches entity was contrived for the specific purpose of cashing-in on a bailout program, which was ostensibly created for the purpose of preventing a consumer credit freeze.

I was anticipating that the documents withheld by the Federal Reserve were being suppressed because – if the public ever saw them – they would provoke an uncontrollable degree of public outrage.  So far, the amount of attention these revelations have received from the mainstream media has been surprisingly minimal.  When one compares the massive amounts squandered by the Fed on Crony Corporate Welfare Queens such as Christy Mack and Susan Karches ($220 million loaned at a fraction of a percentage point) along with the multibillion-dollar giveaways (e.g. $13 billion to Goldman Sachs by way of Maiden Lane III) the fighting over items in the 2012 budget seems trivial.

The Fed’s defense of its lending to foreign banks was explained on the New York Fed’s spiffy new Liberty Street blog:

Discount window lending to U.S. branches of foreign banks and dollar funding by branches to parent banks helped to mitigate the economic impact of the crisis in the United States and abroad by containing financial market disruptions, supporting loan availability for companies, and maintaining foreign investment flows into U.S. companies and assets.

Without the backstop liquidity provided by the discount window, foreign banks that faced large and fluctuating demand for dollar funding would have further driven up the level and volatility of money market interest rates, including the critical federal funds rate, the Eurodollar rate, and Libor (the London interbank offered rate).  Higher rates and volatility would have increased distress for U.S. financial firms and U.S. businesses that depend on money market funding.  These pressures would have been reflected in higher interest rates and reduced bank lending, bank credit lines, and commercial paper in the United States.  Moreover, further volatility in dollar funding markets could have disrupted the Federal Reserve’s ability to implement monetary policy, which requires stabilizing the federal funds rate at the policy target set by the Federal Open Market Committee.

In other words:  Failure by the Fed to provide loans to foreign banks would have made quantitative easing impossible.  There would have been no POMO auctions.  As a result, there would have been no supply of freshly printed-up money to be used by the proprietary trading desks of the primary dealers to ramp-up the stock market for those “late-day rallies”.  This process was described as the “POMO effect” in a 2009 paper by Precision Capital Management entitled, “A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation”.

Thanks for the explanation, Mr. Dudley.


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Leadership Void

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In my last posting, I re-ran a passage from what I wrote on December 2, which was supported by Robert Reich’s observation that, unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is not at the helm of a country with an expanding economy.  As I said on December 2:

After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.

After I posted my April 7 piece, I felt a bit remorseful about repeating a stale theme.  Nevertheless, a few days later, Ezra Klein’s widely-acclaimed Washington Post critique of President Obama’s misadventure in “negotiating” the 2011 budget was entitled, “2011 is not 1995”.  Ezra Klein validated the point I was trying to make:

Clinton’s success was a function of a roaring economy.  The late ‘90s were a boom time like few others — and not just in America.  The unemployment rate was less than 6 percent in 1995, and fell to under 5 percent in 1996. Cutting deficits was the right thing to do at that time.  Deficits should be low to nonexistent when the economy is strong, and larger when it is weak.  The Obama administration’s economists know that full well.  They are, after all, the very people who worked to balance the budget in the 1990s, and who fought to expand the deficit in response to the recession.

Right now, the economy is weak.  Giving into austerity will weaken it further, or at least delay recovery for longer.  And if Obama does not get a recovery, then he will not be a successful president, no matter how hard he works to claim Boehner’s successes as his own.

President Obama’s attempt at spin control with a claim of “bragging rights” for ending the budget stalemate brought similar criticism from economist Brad DeLong:

To reduce federal government spending by $38 billion in the second and third quarters of 2011 when the unemployment rate is 8.9% and the U.S. Treasury can borrow on terms that make pulling spending forward from the future into the present essentially free is not an accomplishment.

It will knock between 0.5% and 1.0% off the growth rate of real GDP in the second half of 2011, and leave us at the start of 2012 with an unemployment rate a couple of tenths of a percent higher than it would have been otherwise.

Robert Reich expressed his disappointment with the President’s handling of the 2011 budget deal by highlighting Mr. Obama’s failure to put the interests of the middle class ahead of the goals of the plutocracy:

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth:  That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

That we got into the Great Recession because Wall Street went bonkers and government failed to do its job at regulating financial markets.  And that much of the current deficit comes from the necessary response to that financial crisis.

That the only ways to deal with the long-term budget problem is to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, and to slow down soaring health-care costs.

And that, at a deeper level, the increasingly lopsided distribution of income and wealth has robbed the vast working middle class of the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going at full capacity.

“We preserved the investments we need to win the future,” he said last night.  That’s not true.

The idea that a huge portion of our current deficit comes from the response to the financial crisis created by Wall Street banks was explored in more detail by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The approach of saving the banks, under the misguided notion that relief would “trickle down” to Main Street didn’t work.  The second round of quantitative easing (QE 2) has proven to be nothing more than an imprudent decision to follow Japan’s ineffective playbook:

And in 2008 our government was convinced by Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke that if we just saved the banks we would fix the economy.  So we embarked on the “recovery” plan that has led us to one of the weakest recoveries in US economic history.  Because of the keen focus on the banking system there is a clear two tier recovery.  Wall Street is thriving again and Main Street is still struggling.

Thus far, we have run budget deficits that have been large enough to offset much of the deleveraging of the private sector.  And though the spending was poorly targeted it has been persistent enough that we are not repeating the mistakes of Japan – YET.  By my estimates the balance sheet recession is likely to persist well into 2013.

*   *   *

QE2 has truly been a “monetary non-event”.  As many of us predicted at its onset, this program has shown absolutely no impact on the US money supply (much to the dismay of the hyperinflationists).  And now its damaging psychological impact (via rampant speculation) has altered the options available to combat the continuing balance sheet recession.  While more stimulus is almost certainly off the table given the Fed’s misguided QE2 policy, it would be equally misguided to begin cutting the current budget deficit.  Sizable cuts before the end of the balance sheet recession will almost guarantee that the US economy suffers a Japan-like relapse.  It’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of Japan.

So where is the leader who is going to save us from a Japanese-style “lost decade” recession?  It was over two years ago when I posed this question:

Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” – by avoiding bank nationalization – send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

Two years down – eight years to go.


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Wisconsin Bogeymen Could Save Democrats From Themselves

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Until this week, it was beginning to appear as though November 6, 2012 would be the day when Barack Obama and the entire Democratic Party would fall victim to their incurable case of The Smug.  I discussed this syndrome back on December 2:

The Democratic Party is suffering from a case of terminal smugness. Democrats ignored the warning back in 2006, when the South Park television series ran the episode, “Smug Alert”.

*   *   *

In the 2008 Democratic Primary elections, voters chose “change” rather than another Clinton administration.  Nevertheless, what the voters got was another Clinton administration.  After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.  Obama’s creation of a bipartisan deficit commission has been widely criticized as an inept fallback to the obsolete Bill Clinton playbook.  Robert Reich, Labor Secretary for the original Clinton administration recently upbraided President Obama for this wrongheaded approach:

Bill Clinton had a rapidly expanding economy to fall back on, so his appeasement of Republicans didn’t legitimize the Republican world view.  Obama doesn’t have that luxury.  The American public is still hurting and they want to know why.

More recently, Robert Scheer lamented how President Obama’s economic team of recycled Clinton advisors shared the blame with Republicans in helping bring about the financial crisis and the ever-worsening income inequality between the “haves” and the “have nots”.  Mr. Scheer reminded us that the Democrats who promised “change” have been no less corrupted by lobbyists than their Republican counterparts:

The lobbyists are deliberately bipartisan in their bribery, and the authors of our demise are equally marked as Democrats and Republicans.  Ronald Reagan first effectively sang the siren song of ending government’s role in corporate crime prevention, but it was Democrat Bill Clinton who accomplished much of that goal.  It is the enduring conceit of the top Democratic leaders that they are valiantly holding back the forces of evil when they actually have continuously been complicit.

*   *   *

Thanks to President Clinton’s deregulation and the save-the-rich policies of George W. Bush, the situation deteriorated further from 2002 to 2006, a period in which the top 1 percent increased its income 11 percent annually while the rest of Americans had a truly paltry gain of 1 percent per year.

And that was before the meltdown that wiped out the jobs and home values of so many tens of millions of American families.

Thanks to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, the Democrats now have two bogeymen, who can personify the “reverse Robin Hood” crusade of the modern Republican Party.  E.J. Dionne of The Washington Post recently placed the burden on centrists to prevent the draconian budget proposal introduced by Representative Ryan, from finding its way to the President’s desk (probably because it would be signed if it got there):

Ryan’s truly outrageous proposal, built on heaping sacrifice onto the poor, slashing scholarship aid to college students and bestowing benefits on the rich, ought to force middle-of-the-roaders to take sides.  No one who is even remotely moderate can possibly support what Ryan has in mind.

Mr. Dionne then focused his attack more directly on two “middle-of-the-road” political figures:

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson, the co-chairs of the deficit commission and the heroes of the budget-cutting center, put out a statement saying some nice things about the idea of the Ryan budget.  They called it “serious, honest, straightforward,” even though there is much about its accounting that is none of those.

What Mr. Dionne conveniently ignores is that it was President Obama who appointed Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson as co-chairs of the deficit commission.  Those guys were never my heroes.  Last December, when I criticized Obama’s elevation of Alan Simpson and a Clinton retread to leadership of his own deficit commission, I incorporated some pointed observations by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The platitudinous insistence by Erskine Bowles (Clinton’s former Chief of Staff) that it’s time for an “adult conversation about the dangers of this debt” drew this blistering retort from Cullen Roche:

Yes.  America has a debt problem.  We have a very serious household, municipality and state debt crisis that is in many ways similar to what is going on in Europe.   What we absolutely don’t have is a federal government debt problem.  After all, a nation with monopoly supply of currency in a floating exchange rate system never really has “debt” unless that debt is denominated in a foreign currency.  He says this conversation is the:

“exact same conversation every family, every single business, every single state and every single municipality has been having these last few years.”

There is only one problem with this remark.  The federal government is NOTHING like a household, state or municipality.   These entities are all revenue constrained.  The Federal government has no such constraint.  We don’t need China to lend us money.  We don’t need to raise taxes to spend money.  When the US government wants to spend money it sends men and women into a room where they mark up accounts in a computer system.   They don’t call China first or check their tax revenues.   They just spend the money.

*   *   *
Mr. Bowles finished his press conference by saying that the American people get it:

“There is one thing I am absolutely sure of.  If nothing else, I know deep down the American people get it.   They know this is the moment of truth”

The American people most certainly don’t get it.  And how can you blame them?  When a supposed financial expert like Mr. Bowles can’t grasp these concepts how could we ever expect the average American to understand it?  It’s time for an adult conversation to begin before this misguided conversation regarding the future bankruptcy of America sends us towards our own “moment of truth” – a 1937 moment.

We centrists actually know better than to take Simpson and Bowles seriously.  Unfortunately, E.J. Dionne’s hero – Barack Obama – doesn’t.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has become the second bogeyman for the Democrats to spotlight in their efforts to cleanse their own tarnished images after selling out to Wall Street lobbyists.  As Amanda Terkel reported for The Huffington Post:

A divisive budget battle between labor unions and Gov. Scott Walker (R-Wis.) turned a state Supreme Court race into a nationally watched bellwether on the electorate’s mood heading into a recall campaign and the 2012 elections.

Nearly 1.5 million people turned out to vote, representing 33.5 percent of voting-age adults — 68 percent higher than the 20 percent turnout officials had expected.  JoAnne Kloppenburg has already declared victory, with the vote tallies showing her beating incumbent David Prosser by just a couple hundred votes.  The race is expected to head to a recount.

*   *   *

There were no party affiliations on the ballot, but Kloppenburg was heavily backed by Democrats and Prosser by Republicans, making it a fierce proxy battle for the two parties.

Will the Wisconsin Bogeymen provide the Democrats with the inspiration and motivation they need to put the interests of the American middle class ahead of the goals of the Plutocracy?  Don’t bet on it.


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Magic Numbers

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As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.