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Recession Watch

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A recession relapse is the last thing Team Obama wants to see during this election year.  The President’s State of the Union address featured plenty of “happy talk” about how the economy is improving.  Nevertheless, more than a few wise people have expressed their concerns that we might be headed back into another period of at least six months of economic contraction.

Last fall, the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) predicted that the United States would fall back into recession.  More recently, the ECRI’s weekly leading index has been showing small increments of improvement, although not enough to dispel the possibility of a relapse.  Take a look at the chart which accompanied the January 27 article by Mark Gongloff of The Wall Street Journal.  Here are some of Mr. Gongloff’s observations:

The index itself actually ticked down a bit, to 122.8 from 123.3 the week before, but that’s still among the highest readings since this summer.

*   *   *

That’s still not great, still in negative territory where it has been since the late summer.  But it is the best growth rate since September 2.

Whatever that means.  It’s hard to say this index is telling us whether a recession is coming or not, because the ECRI’s recession call is based on top-secret longer leading indexes.

Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds has been in full agreement with the ECRI’s recession call since it was first published.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman discussed the impact of an increasingly probable recession on deteriorating stock market conditions:

Once again, we now have a set of market conditions that is associated almost exclusively with steeply negative outcomes.  In this case, we’re observing an “exhaustion” syndrome that has typically been followed by market losses on the order of 25% over the following 6-7 month period (not a typo).  Worse, this is coupled with evidence from leading economic measures that continue to be associated with a very high risk of oncoming recession in the U.S. – despite a modest firming in various lagging and coincident economic indicators, at still-tepid levels.  Compound this with unresolved credit strains and an effectively insolvent banking system in Europe, and we face a likely outcome aptly described as a Goat Rodeo.

My concern is that an improbably large number of things will have to go right in order to avoid a major decline in stock market value in the months ahead.

Another fund manager expressing similar concern is bond guru Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital. Daniel Fisher of Forbes recently interviewed Gundlach, who explained that he is more afraid of recession than of higher interest rates.

Many commentators have discussed a new, global recession, sparked by a recession across Europe.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), recently emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  It is feared that the recession in Europe – where America exports most of its products – could cause another recession in the United States, as a result of decreased demand for the products we manufacture.  The January 24 World Economic Outlook Update issued by the IMF offered this insight:

The euro area economy is now expected to go into a mild recession in 2012 – consistent with what was presented as a downside scenario in the January 2011 WEO Update.

*   *   *

For the United States, the growth impact of such spillovers is broadly offset by stronger underlying domestic demand dynamics in 2012.  Nonetheless, activity slows from the pace reached during the second half of 2011, as higher risk aversion tightens financial conditions and fiscal policy turns more contractionary.

On January 28, Steve Odland of Forbes suggested that the Great Recession, which began in the fourth quarter of 2007, never really ended.  Odland emphasized that the continuing drag of the housing market, the lack of liquidity for small businesses to create jobs, despite trillions of dollars in cash on the sidelines, has resulted in an “invisible recovery”.

Jennifer Smith of The Wall Street Journal explained how this situation has played out at law firms:

Conditions at law firms have stabilized since 2009, when the legal industry shed 41,900 positions, according to the Labor Department.  Cuts were more moderate last year, with some 2,700 positions eliminated, and recruiters report more opportunities for experienced midlevel associates.

But many elite firms have shrunk their ranks of entry-level lawyers by as much as half from 2008, when market turmoil was at its peak.

Regardless of whether the economic recovery may have been “invisible”, economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) has consistently described the recovery as “U-shaped” rather than the usual “V-shaped” graph pattern we have seen depicting previous recessions.  Today Online reported on a discussion Dr. Roubini held concerning this matter at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos:

Slow growth in advanced economies will likely lead to “a U-shaped recovery rather than a typical V”, and could last up to 10 years if there is too much debt in the public and private sector, he said.

At a panel discussion yesterday, Dr Roubini also said Greece will probably leave Europe’s single currency within 12 months and could soon be followed by Portugal.

“The euro zone is a slow-motion train wreck,” he said.  “Not only Greece, other countries as well are insolvent.”

In a December 8 interview conducted by Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance Midday”, Lakshman Achuthan, chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, explained his position:

“The downturn we have now is very different than the downturn in 2010, which did not persist.  This one is persisting.”

*  *  *

“If there’s no recession in Q4 or in the first half I’d say of 2012, then we’re wrong.  …   You’re not going to know whether or not we’re wrong until a year from now.”

I’m afraid that we might know the answer before then.


 

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Instead Of Solving a Problem – Form a Committee

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It’s become a stale joke about the Obama administration.  Every time a demand is made for the White House to take decisive action on an important issue  .  .  .  the President’s solution is always the same:  Form a committee to study the matter.

In my last posting, I discussed the January 20 article written by Scot Paltrow for Reuters, which revealed that Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, had been partners in the Washington law firm, Covington & Burling.  As Scot Paltrow pointed out, during the years while Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm’s clients included the four largest U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co.

Less than a week after publication of Paltrow’s report, which raised “conflict of interest” questions concerning Holder’s reluctance to prosecute banks or mortgage servicers for fraudulent foreclosure practices, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address.  With Paltrow’s revelations still fresh in my mind, I was particularly surprised to hear President Obama make the following statement:

And tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.  This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.

If it weren’t bad enough that critics had already been complaining about the Attorney General’s failure to prosecute mortgage fraud cases, Obama has most recently appointed Holder to supervise “investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis”.  It’s hard to avoid the assumption that those “investigations” will lead to nowhere.  By Wednesday, I found that I was not alone in my cynicism concerning what is now called the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses.

Wednesday morning brought an essay by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, in which she expressed dread about the possibility that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may have been seduced by Team Obama to join the effort exerting pressure on each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  Ms. Smith compared that initiative with Obama’s most recent announcement about the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses:

So get this:  this is a committee that will “investigate.”    .   .   .  Neil Barofsky, former prosecutor and head of SIGTARP, doesn’t buy the logic of this committee either:

Neil Barofsky @neilbarofsky

If task force created either b/c DOJ hasn’t done an investigation, or b/c 3-yr investigation a failure, how does Holder keep his job?

A lot of soi-disant liberal groups have fallen in line with Obama messaging, which was the plan (I already have the predictable congratulatory Move On e-mail in my inbox). Let’s get real.  The wee problem is that this committee looks like yet another bit of theater for the Administration to pretend, yet again, that it is Doing Something, while scoring a twofer by getting Schneiderman, who has been a pretty effective opponent, hobbled.

If you wanted a real investigation, you get a real independent investigator, with a real budget and staffing, and turn him loose.  We had the FCIC which had a lot of hearings and produced a readable book that said everyone was responsible for the mortgage crisis, which was tantamount to saying no one was responsible.  We even had an eleven-regulator Foreclosure Task Force that looked at 2800 loan files (and a mere 100 foreclosures) and found nothing very much wrong.

Neil Barofsky’s question deserves repetition:  Why does Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless still have his job if – after three years – the Justice Department has taken no action against those responsible for originating and securitizing the risky mortgages which led to the housing crisis?

David Dayen of Firedoglake weighed-in with his own skeptical take on Obama’s purported crakdown on mortgage origination and securitization abuses:

First of all, this becomes part of a three year-old Financial Fraud Task Force which has done approximately nothing on Wall Street accountability outside of a few insider trading arrests.  So that’s the context of this investigative panel, part of the same entity that has spun its wheels.  Second, the panel would only look at origination, where there have been plenty of lawsuits and where the main offenders are all out of business, and securitization, which may aid investors (that includes pension funds, of course) but not necessarily homeowners.     .   .   .

Given the fact that this is an election year, President Obama knows that mere lip service toward a populist cause will not be enough to win back those disgruntled former supporters, who have now learned – the hard way – that talk is cheap.  Obama is now going the extra mile – he’s forming a committee!  Trouble is – those disgruntled former supporters have already learned that committee formation is simply the disingenuous “follow-through” on a false campaign promise.  Nice try, Mr. President!


 

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Captive Justice

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The Obama administration’s failure to prosecute any of the crimes which caused (or resulted from) the financial crisis has been a continuing source of outrage for voters across the country.

Last summer, Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times earned a great deal of praise for her August 21 report, exposing the Obama administration’s vilification of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his refusal to play along with Team Obama’s efforts to insulate the fraud-closure banks from the criminal prosecution they deserve.  The administration has been attempting to pressure each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  The $25 billion is to be used for loan modifications.

The administration’s effort to push this fraud-closure settlement is ongoing.  On January 21, David Dayen provided an update on this crusade at the Firedoglake website.

The American public is no longer content to sit back and do nothing while the Obama administration sits back and does nothing to prosecute those criminals whose fraudulent conduct devastated the American economy.  On December 22, I discussed the intensifying wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.  Since that time, Scot Paltrow wrote a great piece for Reuters, concerning the Justice Department’s failure to intervene against improper foreclosure procedures.  Paltrow’s widely-acclaimed essay inspired several commentators to express their disgust about government permissiveness toward such egregious conduct.  At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz shared his reaction to the Reuters article:

The fraud is rampant, self-evident, easy to prosecute.  The only reason it hasn’t been done so far is that this nation is led by corrupt cowards and suffers from a ruinous two-party system.

We were once a great nation that set a shining example for the rest of the world as to what the Rule of Law meant.  That is no more, as we have become a corrupt plutocracy.  Why our prosecutors cower in front of the almighty banking industry is beyond my limited ability to comprehend.

Without any sort of legal denouement, we should expect an angry electorate and an unhappy nation.

Scot Paltrow wrote another great article for Reuters on January 20, which is causing quite a stir.  The opening paragraphs provide us with some insight as to why our Attorney General deserves to be called Mr. Hold-harmless:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who’s Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud, a Reuters inquiry shows.

The firm, Covington & Burling, is one of Washington’s biggest white shoe law firms.  Law professors and other federal ethics experts said that federal conflict of interest rules required Holder and Breuer to recuse themselves from any Justice Department decisions relating to law firm clients they personally had done work for.

Both the Justice Department and Covington declined to say if either official had personally worked on matters for the big mortgage industry clients.

*   *   *

The evidence, including records from federal and state courts and local clerks’ offices around the country, shows widespread forgery, perjury, obstruction of justice, and illegal foreclosures on the homes of thousands of active-duty military personnel.

In recent weeks the Justice Department has come under renewed pressure from members of Congress, state and local officials and homeowners’ lawyers to open a wide-ranging criminal investigation of mortgage servicers, the biggest of which have been Covington clients.  So far Justice officials haven’t responded publicly to any of the requests.

The revelations in Scot Paltrow’s most recent report should create quite a scandal requiring significant damage control efforts by the Obama administration.  Given the fact that this is an election year, Republican politicians should be smelling red meat at this point.  After all, Obama’s Attorney General is being accused of conflict of interest.  Nevertheless, will any Republicans (or their Super PACs) seize upon this issue?  To do so could place them in a conflict-of-interest situation – as far as those banks are concerned.  Dare they risk biting the hands that feed them?  It could be quite a high-wire act to undertake.  Will any Republicans rise to this challenge?


 

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Scary Economic News

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The information which I’m passing along to you today might come as a shock to those listening to the usual stock market cheerleaders, who predict good times ahead.  Let’s start with economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  For quite a while, Dr. Hussman has been warning us to avoid drinking the Kool-Aid served by the perma-bulls.  In his latest Weekly Market Comment, Hussman offers yet more sound advice to those under the spell of brokerage propagandists:

I want to emphasize again that I am neither a cheerleader for recession, nor a table-pounder for recession.  It’s just that given the data that we presently observe, an oncoming recession remains the most probable outcome.  When unseen states of the world have to be inferred from imperfect and noisy observable data, there are a few choices when the evidence isn’t 100%.  You can either choose a side and pound the table, or you can become comfortable dwelling in uncertainty, and take a position in proportion to the evidence, and the extent to which each possible outcome would affect you.

With most analysts dismissing the likelihood of recession, I have been vocal about ongoing recession concerns not because I want to align myself with one side, but because the investment implications are very asymmetric.  A slow but steady stream of modestly good economic news is largely priced in by investors, but a recession and the accompanying earnings disappointments would destroy some critical pillars of hope that investors are relying on to support already rich valuations.

Yale Professor Robert Shiller is the guy who invented the term “irrational exuberance”, which was title of his bestselling book – published in May of 1996.  Although the widely-despised, former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan is often credited with creating the term, Greenspan didn’t use it until December of that year, in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute.  Shiller is most famous for his role as co-creator of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, which he developed with his fellow economists Karl Case and Allan Weiss.  While many commentators decried the idiotic economic austerity programs which have been inflicted across Europe, Professor Shiller investigated whether austerity is at all effective in spurring economic growth, seeking a better understanding of austerity’s consequences.  In a recent essay on the subject, Dr. Shiller cited the work by Jaime Guajardo, Daniel Leigh, and Andrea Pescatori of the International Monetary Fund, who recently studied austerity plans implemented by governments in 17 countries in the last 30 years.  The conclusion reached by Professor Shiller should sober-up the “rose-colored glasses” crowd, as well as those aspiring to implement similar measures in the United States:

The austerity plans being adopted by governments in much of Europe and elsewhere around the world, and the curtailment of consumption expenditure by individuals as well, threaten to produce a global recession.

*   *   *

There is no abstract theory that can predict how people will react to an austerity program.  We have no alternative but to look at the historical evidence.  And the evidence of Guajardo and his co-authors does show that deliberate government decisions to adopt austerity programs have tended to be followed by hard times.

Policymakers cannot afford to wait decades for economists to figure out a definitive answer, which may never be found at all.  But, judging by the evidence that we have, austerity programs in Europe and elsewhere appear likely to yield disappointing results.

The really scary news concerning the state of the global economy came in the form of a report published by the World Bank, entitled Global Economic Prospects (Uncertainties and vulnerabilities).  The 157-page treatise was written by Andrew Burns and Theo Janse van Rensburg.  It contains more than enough information to induce a serious case of insomnia.  Here are some examples:

The world economy has entered a very difficult phase characterized by significant downside risks and fragility.

*   *   *

The downturn in Europe and weaker growth in developing countries raises the risk that the two developments reinforce one another, resulting in an even weaker outcome.  At the same time, the slow growth in Europe complicates efforts to restore market confidence in the sustainability of the region’s finances, and could exacerbate tensions.

*   *   *

While contained for the moment, the risk of a much broader freezing up of capital markets and a global crisis similar in magnitude to the Lehman crisis remains.  In particular, the willingness of markets to finance the deficits and maturing debt of high-income countries cannot be assured.  Should more countries find themselves denied such financing, a much wider financial crisis that could engulf private banks and other financial institutions on both sides of the Atlantic cannot be ruled out.  The world could be thrown into a recession as large or even larger than that of 2008/09.

*   *   *

In the event of a major crisis, activity is unlikely to bounce back as quickly as it did in 2008/09, in part because high-income countries will not have the fiscal resources to launch as strong a countercyclical policy response as in 2008/09 or to offer the same level of support to troubled financial institutions.

*   *   *

Developing countries need to prepare for the worst

In this highly uncertain environment, developing countries should evaluate their vulnerabilities and prepare contingencies to deal with both the immediate and longer-term effects of a downturn.

If global financial markets freeze up, governments and firms may not be able to finance growing deficits.

*   *   *

One major uncertainty concerns the interaction of the policy-driven slowing of growth in middle-income countries, and the financial turmoil driven slowing in Europe.  While desirable from a domestic policy point of view, this slower growth could interact with the slowing in Europe resulting in a downward overshooting of activity and a more serious global slowdown than otherwise would have been the case.

In other words, Europe’s economic austerity programs could turn another round of economic contraction into a global catastrophe (as if we needed another).

This is what happens when economic policymaking is left to the plutocrats and their tools.  “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”  It appears as though we are well on our way to a second financial crisis – with more severe consequences than those experienced as a result of the 2008 episode.


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Too Cool To Fool

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It’s always reassuring to see that there are a good number of people among us who aren’t easily manipulated by “the powers that be”.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

Glen Ford is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.  On January 11, Mr. Ford discussed how – up until now – the Occupy Wall Street movement has managed to avoid being co-opted by the Democratic Party and MoveOn.org.  Unfortunately, the Obama regime may have succeeded in establishing a grip on OWS.  Glen Ford offered this explanation:

The Democratic Party may have entered the Occupy Wall Street movement through the “Black door,” in the form of Occupy The Dream, the Black ministers’ group led by former NAACP chief and Million Man March national director Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Baltimore mega-church pastor Rev. Jamal Bryant.  Both are fervent supporters of President Obama.

*   *   *

It appears that Occupy Wall Street’s new Black affiliate is also in “lock-step” with the corporate Democrat in the White House, whose administration has funneled trillions of dollars to Wall Street and greatly expanded U.S. theaters of war.

*   *   *

Black ministers in campaign mode routinely depict Obama’s political troubles as indistinguishable from threats to “The Dream,” whose embodiment is ensconced in the White House.  That’s simply common currency among Black preachers pushing for Obama.

*   *   *

It is highly unlikely – damn near inconceivable – that Occupy The Dream will do anything that might embarrass this president.  Its ministers can be expected to electioneer for Obama at every opportunity.  Their January 16 actions are directed at the Federal Reserve, which is technically independent from the executive branch of government – although, in practice, the Fed has been Obama’s principal mechanism for bailing out the banks.  Will the ministers pretend, next Monday, that the president is somehow removed from the Fed’s massive transfers of the people’s credit and cash to Wall Street over the past three years?

*   *   *

At this late stage, there is no antidote to the potential cooptation, except to rev up the movement’s confrontation with the oligarchic powers-that-be – including Wall Street’s guy in the White House.  Let’s see what happens if OWS demonstrators join with Occupy The Dream at Federal Reserve sites on January 16 carrying placards unequivocally implicating Obama in the Fed’s bailouts of the banksters, as Occupy demonstrators have done so often in the past.  Will the Dream’s leadership be in “lock-step” with that?  Maybe so – I’ve heard that miracles sometimes do happen.

Anyone who challenges the Obama administration’s symbiotic relationship with the Wall Street banksters invites accusations of advancing the Republican agenda for regaining control of the White House.  This problem will be solved once a populist third-party or Independent candidate rises to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent.  Beyond that, an African-American commentator who dares to expose Obama as a tool of Wall Street is likely to face harsh criticism.  Glen Ford has demonstrated more courage than most Americans by taking a stand against this venal administration.

Another exemplary individual, whose opinions were never compromised to justify or rationalize the current administration’s tactics, has been economist Joseph Stiglitz – the Nobel laureate who found himself ignored and shut out by the Obama administration ab initio.  Professor Stiglitz recently wrote a commentary entitled, “The Perils of 2012” in which he dared to predict an election year fraught with economic despair.  Such conditions make for an incumbent President’s worst nightmare.  As a result, non-Republican economists are expected to avoid such prognostication.  Nevertheless, Professor Stiglitz proceeded to paint an ugly picture of what we can expect in the near term, after first reminding us that there has been no sound policy advanced for mitigating the devastation experienced by the middle class as a result of the 2008 financial crisis:

The year 2011 will be remembered as the time when many ever-optimistic Americans began to give up hope.  President John F. Kennedy once said that a rising tide lifts all boats.  But now, in the receding tide, Americans are beginning to see not only that those with taller masts had been lifted far higher, but also that many of the smaller boats had been dashed to pieces in their wake.

In that brief moment when the rising tide was indeed rising, millions of people believed that they might have a fair chance of realizing the “American Dream.”  Now those dreams, too, are receding.  By 2011, the savings of those who had lost their jobs in 2008 or 2009 had been spent.  Unemployment checks had run out.  Headlines announcing new hiring – still not enough to keep pace with the number of those who would normally have entered the labor force – meant little to the 50 year olds with little hope of ever holding a job again.

Indeed, middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realized that they were, in fact, forcibly retired.  Young people who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all.  People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless.  Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss.  More than seven million American families have lost their homes.

*   *   *

The pragmatic commitment to growth that one sees in Asia and other emerging markets today stands in contrast to the West’s misguided policies, which, driven by a combination of ideology and vested interests, almost seem to reflect a commitment not to grow.

As a result, global economic rebalancing is likely to accelerate, almost inevitably giving rise to political tensions.  With all of the problems confronting the global economy, we will be lucky if these strains do not begin to manifest themselves within the next twelve months.

Another commentator who has been “too cool to fool” is equities market analyst, Barry Ritholtz.  One of his recent blog postings documented how Ritholtz never accepted the propagandistic pronouncements of the National Retailers Association about Christmas season retail sales.  Once the hype began on Black Friday, Ritholtz began his own campaign of debunking the questionable data, touted to boost unjustified confidence about the direction of our economy.  Ritholtz concluded the piece with this statement:

Those of you who may have downplayed the potential for a recession to start over the next 12-18 months way want to revisit your views on this.  It is far from the low possibility many economists have it pegged at.

Fortunately, not everyone has been as imperceptive as those on the Obama administration’s economic team who admitted that as late as 2009, they underestimated the extent of economic contraction resulting from the 2008 crisis.  It’s time for the voting public to dis-employ the political hacks who have allowed this condition to fester.  One effective path toward this goal involves voting against incumbents in primary elections.  Keep in mind that America’s Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to protect incumbents.  As a result, any plan to defeat those officeholders in a general election could be an exercise in futility.  Voting against current members of Congress during the primary process can open the door for more capable candidates during the general election.  Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 primary season.


 

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Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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Psychopaths Caused The Financial Crisis

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Two months ago, Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post in rebuttal to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s parroting of what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

Ritholtz then proceeded to list and discuss the true causes of the financial crisis.  Among those causes were Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve monetary policy – wherein interest rates were reduced to 1 percent; the deregulation of derivatives trading by way of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act; the Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Bear Stearns exemption” – allowing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns to boost their leverage as high as 40-to-1; as well as the “bundling” of sub-prime mortgages with higher-quality mortgages into sleazy “investment” products known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Purveyors of The Big Lie are also big on advancing the claim that the “too big to fail” beneficiaries of the TARP bailout repaid the money they were loaned, at a profit to the taxpayers.  Immediately after her arrival at CNN, former Goldman Sachs employee, Erin Burnett made a point of interviewing a young, Occupy Wall Street protester, asking him if he was aware that the government actually made a profit on the TARP.  Unfortunately, the fiancée of Citigroup executive David Rubulotta didn’t direct her question to Steve Randy Waldman – who debunked that propaganda at his Interfluidity website:

Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants.  Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses.  So there really was no bailout, right?  The banks took loans and paid them back.

Bullshit.

*   *   *

During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest.  Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran).  The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion).  The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps.  Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars.  We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers.  Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.

The banks were bailed out.  Big time.

Another overlooked cause of the financial crisis was the fact that there were too many psychopaths managing the most privileged Wall Street institutions.  Not only had the lunatics taken over the asylum – they had taken control of the world’s largest, government-backed casino, as well.  William D. Cohan of Bloomberg News gave us a peek at the recent work of Clive R. Boddy:

It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along:  The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

Professor Boddy wrote a book on the subject – entitled, Corporate Psychopaths.  The book’s publisher, Macmillan, provided this description of the $90 opus:

Psychopaths are little understood outside of the criminal image.  However, as the recent global financial crisis highlighted, the behavior of a small group of managers can potentially bring down the entire western system of business.  This book investigates who they are, why they do what they do and what the consequences of their presence are.

Matt Taibbi provided a less-expensive explanation of this mindset in a recent article for Rolling Stone:

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors.  It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here.  Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India.  They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets.  They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest.  Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Do you think that Mayor Bloomberg learned his lesson  .  .  .  that spreading pro-bankster propaganda can provoke the infusion of an overwhelming dose of truth into the mainstream news?   Nawwww  .  .  .


 

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2011 Jackass Of The Year

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There were so many contenders for TheCenterLane.com’s 2011 Jackass Of The Year award, I was ready to give up on making a decision.  Former Congressman Anthony Weiner (who never even “got lucky” with any of the women who received his “Peter Tweets”) was certainly a contender.  Another runner-up was Arnold Schwarzenegger, who chose to have an affair with his unattractive housekeeper – apparently just because she was there.

This year’s winner is Jon S. Corzine, the former Senator and Governor of New Jersey – in addition to having been the former CEO of Goldman Sachs.  Most infamously, Corzine was named chairman and CEO of MF Global in March of 2010.  It took Corzine only 20 months to drive the firm into bankruptcy.  As Stephen Foley of The Independent reported, Corzine gambled $6 billion of the firm’s money on his belief that Italy would not default on its government bonds.  When that wager was exposed, MF Global’s clients and trading partners stopped doing business with the firm.  Within a few days, MF Global went belly-up, in what became one of the ten biggest bankruptcies in American history.

On Halloween, the Deal Book blog at The New York Times discussed what happened after a discovery by federal regulators that hundreds of millions of dollars (perhaps 950) in MF Global customers’ money had gone missing:

The recognition that money was missing scuttled at the 11th hour an agreement to sell a major part of MF Global to a rival brokerage firm.  MF Global had staked its survival on completing the deal. Instead, the New York-based firm filed for bankruptcy on Monday.

Regulators are examining whether MF Global diverted some customer funds to support its own trades as the firm teetered on the brink of collapse.

One of those customers was a gentleman named Gerald Celente.  On December 17, Mr. Celente appeared on Max Keiser’s television program, On the Edge to describe what happened with his contract (placed through MF Global in April) to purchase an undisclosed quantity of December gold for an amount slightly in excess of $1,400 per ounce.  Celente skewered more individuals than Jon Corzine while describing a travesty which exposed even more of the ways by which the Commodity Futures Modernization Act has been destroying America.  Be sure to watch the interview.

On the same day as the Celente interview, The Washington Post published a piece by Barry Ritholtz, which focused on six astonishing elements of the MF Global story.  Let’s take a look at a few of those elements:

3.  As a result of MF Global’s lobbying, key rules were deregulated.  This allowed the firm to use client money to buy risky sovereign debt.

4.  In 2010, someone from the Commodities Futures Trading Commission recognized these prior deregulations had dramatically ramped clients’ exposure to risk and proposed changing those rules. Jon Corzine, MF Global’s chief executive, successfully prevented the tightening of these regulations.  Had the regulations been tightened, it would have prevented the kind of bets that lost MF Global’s segregated client monies.

5.  None of MF Global’s Canadian clients lost any money thanks to tighter regulations there.

One would think that someone in Jon Corzine’s position would have learned something from the mistakes (such as excessive leveraging and risky bets) which contributed to the financial crisis.  He didn’t.  That’s why Jon S. Corzine is the winner of TheCenterLane.com’s 2011 Jackass Of The Year award.  Congratulations, Jackass!


 

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