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More Great Thoughts from Jeremy Grantham

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I always look forward to Jeremy Grantham’s Quarterly Letter.  Grantham is the Co-founder and Chief Investment Strategist of Grantham Mayo Van Otterloo (GMO), an investment management firm, entrusted to oversee approximately $97 billion in client assets.

Unlike many asset managers, Jeremy Grantham has a social conscience.  As a result, during the past few years we have seen him direct some sharp criticism at President Obama, Tim Geithner, Ben Bernanke and – of course – Goldman Sachs.  Grantham fell behind schedule when his Third Quarter 2011 Letter was delayed by over a month.  As a result, Grantham’s Fourth Quarter 2011 Letter was just released a few days ago.  At 15 pages, it earned the title “The Longest Quarterly Letter Ever”.  As usual, Grantham has provided us with some great investment insights – along with some pointed criticism of our ignorant legislators and mercenary corporate managers.  What follows are some selected passages.  Be sure to read the entire letter here (when you have time).

To leave it to capitalism to get us out of this fix by maximizing its short-term profits is dangerously naïve and misses the point: capitalism and corporations have absolutely no mechanism for dealing with these problems, and seen through a corporate discount rate lens, our grandchildren really do have no value.

To move from the problem of long time horizons to the short-term common good, it is quickly apparent that capitalism in general has no sense of ethics or conscience.  Whatever the Supreme Court may think, it is not a person.  Why would a company give up a penny for the common good if it is not required to by enforced regulation or unless it looked like that penny might be returned with profit in the future because having a good image might be good for business?  Ethical CEOs can drag a company along for a while, but this is an undependable and temporary fix.  Ethical humans can also impose their will on corporations singly or en masse by withholding purchases or bestowing them, and companies can anticipate this and even influence it through clever brand advertising, “clean coal” being my favorite.  But that is quite different from corporate altruism. Thus, we can roast our planet and firms may offer marvelous and profitable energy-saving equipment, but it will be for profit today, not planet saving tomorrow.

It gets worse, for what capitalism has always had is money with which to try to buy influence.  Today’s version of U.S. capitalism has died and gone to heaven on this issue. A company is now free to spend money to influence political outcomes and need tell no one, least of all its own shareholders, the technical owners.  So, rich industries can exert so much political influence that they now have a dangerous degree of influence over Congress.  And the issues they most influence are precisely the ones that matter most, the ones that are most important to society’s long-term well-being, indeed its very existence.  Thus, taking huge benefits from Nature and damaging it in return is completely free and all attempts at government control are fought with costly lobbying and advertising.  And one of the first victims in this campaign has been the truth.  If scientific evidence suggests costs and limits be imposed on industry to protect the long-term environment, then science will be opposed by clever disinformation.

*   *   *

Capitalism certainly acts as if it believes that rapid growth in physical wealth can go on forever.  It appears to be hooked on high growth and avoids any suggestion that it might be slowed down by limits.  Thus, it exhibits horror at the thought (and occasional reality) of declining population when in fact such a decline is an absolute necessity in order for us to end up gracefully, rather than painfully, at a fully sustainable world economy.  Similarly with natural resources, capitalism wants to eat into these precious, limited resources at an accelerating rate with the subtext that everyone on the planet has the right to live like the wasteful polluting developed countries do today.  You don’t have to be a PhD mathematician to work out that if the average Chinese and Indian were to catch up with (the theoretically moving target of) the average American, then our planet’s goose is cooked, along with most other things.  Indeed, scientists calculate that if they caught up, we would need at least three planets to be fully sustainable.  But few listen to scientists these days.  So, do you know how many economic theories treat resources as if they are finite?  Well, the researchers at the O.E.C.D say “none” – that no such theory exists.  Economic theory either ignores this little problem or assumes you reach out and take the needed resources given the normal workings of supply and demand and you can do it indefinitely.  This is a lack of common sense on a par with “rational expectations,” that elegant theory that encouraged the ludicrous faith in deregulation and the wisdom of free markets, which brought us our recent financial fiascos.  But this failure in economic theory – ignoring natural limits – risks far more dangerous outcomes than temporary financial crashes.

*   *   *

As described above, the current U.S. capitalist system appears to contain some potentially fatal flaws.  Therefore, we should ask what it would take for our system to evolve in time to save our bacon.  Clearly, a better balance with regulations would be a help. This requires reasonably enlightened regulations, which are unlikely to be produced until big money’s influence in Congress, and particularly in elections, decreases.  This would necessitate legal changes all the way up to the Supreme Court.  It’s a long haul, but a handful of other democratic countries in northern Europe have been successful, and with the stakes so high we have little alternative but to change our ways.

*   *   *

Capitalism, by ignoring the finite nature of resources and by neglecting the long-term well-being of the planet and its potentially crucial biodiversity, threatens our existence.  Fifty and one-hundred-year horizons are important despite the “tyranny of the discount rate,” and grandchildren do have value. My conclusion is that capitalism does admittedly do a thousand things better than other systems:  it only currently fails in two or three.  Unfortunately for us all, even a single one of these failings may bring capitalism down and us with it.

Keep in mind that the foregoing passages were just from Part II of the Quarterly Letter.  Part III is focused on “Investment Observations for the New Year”.  Be sure to check it out – it’s not as bearish as you might expect.  Enjoy!



 

Rampant Stock Market Pumping

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It has always been one of my pet peeves.  The usual stock market cheerleaders start chanting into the echo chamber.  Do they always believe that their efforts will create a genuine, consensus reality?  A posting at the Daily Beast website by Zachary Karabell caught my attention.  The headline said, “Bells Are Ringing!  Confidence Rises as the Dow –  Finally – Hits 13,000 Again”.  After highlighting all of the exciting news, Mr. Karabell was thoughtful enough to mention the trepidation experienced by a good number of money managers, given all the potential risks out there.  Nevertheless, the piece concluded with this thought:

The crises that have obsessed markets for the past years – debt and defaults, housing markets, Europe and Greece– are winding down.  And markets are gearing up.  Maybe it’s time to focus on that.

As luck would have it, my next stop was at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog, where I came across a clever essay by Lance Roberts, which had been cross-posted from his Streettalklive website.  The title of the piece, “Media Headlines Will Lead You To Ruin”, jumped right out at me.  Here’s how it began:

It’s quite amazing actually.   Two weeks ago Barron’s ran the cover page of “Dow 15,000?.  Over the weekend Alan Abelson ran a column titled “Everyone In The Pool”.  Today, CNBC leads with “Dow 13,000 May Finally Lure Investors Back Into Stocks”.   Unfortunately, for most investors, the headline is probably right.  Investors, on the whole, have a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what they should do when it comes to investing – “Buy High and Sell Low.”  The reality is that the emotions of greed and fear do more to cause investors to lose money in the market than being robbed at the point of a gun.

Take a look at the chart of the data from ICI who tracks flows of money into and out of mutual funds.  When markets are correcting investors panic and sell out of stocks with the majority of the selling occurring near the lows of the market.  As the markets rally investors continue to sell as they disbelieve the rally intially and are just happy to be getting some of their money back.  However, as the rally continues to advance from oversold conditions – investors are “lured” back into the water as memories of the past pain fades and the “greed factor” overtakes their logic.  Unfortunately, this buying always tends to occur at, or near, market peaks.

Lance Roberts provided some great advice which you aren’t likely to hear from the cheerleading perma-bulls – such as, “getting back to even is not an investment strategy.”

As a longtime fan of the Zero Hedge blog, I immediately become cynical at the first sign of irrational exuberance demonstrated by any commentator who downplays economic headwinds while encouraging the public to buy, buy, buy.  Those who feel tempted to respond to that siren song would do well to follow the Weekly Market Comments by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In this week’s edition, Dr. Hussman admitted that there may still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

Economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  Dr. Roubini focused on the fact that “at least four downside risks are likely to materialize this year”.  These include:  “fiscal austerity pushing the eurozone periphery into economic free-fall” as well as “evidence of weakening performance in China and the rest of Asia”.  The third and fourth risks were explained in the following terms:

Third, while US data have been surprisingly encouraging, America’s growth momentum appears to be peaking.  Fiscal tightening will escalate in 2012 and 2013, contributing to a slowdown, as will the expiration of tax benefits that boosted capital spending in 2011.  Moreover, given continuing malaise in credit and housing markets, private consumption will remain subdued; indeed, two percentage points of the 2.8% expansion in the last quarter of 2011 reflected rising inventories rather than final sales.  And, as for external demand, the generally strong dollar, together with the global and eurozone slowdown, will weaken US exports, while still-elevated oil prices will increase the energy import bill, further impeding growth.

Finally, geopolitical risks in the Middle East are rising, owing to the possibility of an Israeli military response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  While the risk of armed conflict remains low, the current war of words is escalating, as is the covert war in which Israel and the US are engaged with Iran; and now Iran is lashing back with terrorist attacks against Israeli diplomats.

Any latecomers to the recent festival of bullishness should be mindful of the fact that their fellow investors could suddenly feel inspired to head for the exits in response to one of these risks.  Lance Roberts said it best in the concluding paragraph of his February 21 commentary:

With corporate earnings now slowing sharply, the economy growing at a sub-par rate, the Eurozone headed towards a prolonged recession and the American consumer facing higher gas prices and reduced incomes, a continued bull market rally from here is highly suspect.   Add to those economic facts the technical aspects of a very extended market with overbought internals – the reality is that this is a better place to be selling investments versus buying them.  Or – go to Vegas and bet on black.


 

Once Upon A Crisis

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As the 2012 Presidential election campaign heats up, there is plenty of historical revisionism taking place with respect to the 2008 financial / economic crisis.  Economist Dean Baker wrote an article for The Guardian, wherein he debunked the Obama administration’s oft-repeated claim that the newly-elected President saved us from a “Second Great Depression”:

While the Obama administration, working alongside Ben Bernanke at the Fed, deserves credit for preventing a financial meltdown, a second great depression was never in the cards.

*   *   *

The attack on the second Great Depression myth is not simply an exercise in semantics.  The Obama Administration and the political establishment more generally want the public to be grateful that we managed to avoid a second Great Depression. People should realize that this claim is sort of like keeping our kids safe from tiger attacks.  It’s true that almost no kids in the United States are ever attacked by tigers, but we don’t typically give out political praise for this fact, since there is no reason to expect our kids to be attacked by tigers.

In the same vein, we all should be very happy we aren’t in the middle of a second Great Depression; however, there was never any good reason for us to fear a second Great Depression.  What we most had to fear was a prolonged period of weak growth and high unemployment.  Unfortunately, this is exactly what we are seeing.   The only question is how long it will drag on.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider directed our attention to the interview with economist Paul Krugman appearing in the current issue of Playboy.  Krugman, long considered a standard bearer for the Democratic Party’s economic agenda, was immediately thrown under the bus as soon as Obama took office.  I’ll never forget reading about the “booby prize” roast beef dinner Obama held for Krugman and his fellow Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz – when the two economists were informed that their free advice would be ignored. Fortunately, former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was able to make sure that pork wasn’t the main course for that dinner.  Throughout the Playboy interview, Krugman recalled his disappointment with the new President.  Here’s what Joe  Weisenthal had to say about the piece:

There’s a long interview with Paul Krugman in the new Playboy, and it’s excellent.

We tend to write a lot about his economic commentary here, but he probably doesn’t get enough credit for his commentary on politics, and his assessment of how things will play out.

Go back and read this column, from March 2009, and you’ll see that he basically called things correctly, that the stimulus would be too small, and that the GOP would be emboldened and gain success arguing that the problem was that we had stimulus at all.

*   *   *
At least as Krugman sees it, the times called for a major boost in spending and so on, and Obama never had any intention to deliver.

What follows is the prescient excerpt from Krugman’s March 9, 2009 essay, referenced by Joe Weisenthal:

The broader public, by contrast, favors strong action.  According to a recent Newsweek poll, a majority of voters supports the stimulus, and, more surprising, a plurality believes that additional spending will be necessary.  But will that support still be there, say, six months from now?

Also, an overwhelming majority believes that the government is spending too much to help large financial institutions.  This suggests that the administration’s money-for-nothing financial policy will eventually deplete its political capital.

So here’s the picture that scares me:  It’s September 2009, the unemployment rate has passed 9 percent, and despite the early round of stimulus spending it’s still headed up.  Obama finally concedes that a bigger stimulus is needed.  But he can’t get his new plan through Congress because approval for his economic policies has plummeted, partly because his policies are seen to have failed, partly because job-creation policies are conflated in the public mind with deeply unpopular bank bailouts.  And as a result, the recession rages on, unchecked.

In early July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, in which I observed that President Obama had already reached the milestone anticipated by Krugman for September of that year.  I made a point of including a list of ignored warnings about the inadequacy of the stimulus program.  Most notable among them was the point that there were fifty economists who shared the concerns voiced by Krugman, Stiglitz and Jamie Galbraith:

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.

Mike Grabell of ProPublica has written a new book entitled, Money Well Spent? which provided an even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  As I pointed out on February 13, some of the criticisms voiced by Mike Grabell concerning the programs funded by the Economic Recovery Act had been previously expressed by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) in a June 3, 2009 posting at Hennessey’s blog.  I was particularly intrigued by this suggestion by Keith Hennessey from back in 2009:

Had the President instead insisted that a $787 B stimulus go directly into people’s hands, where “people” includes those who pay income taxes and those who don’t, we would now be seeing a stimulus that would be:

  • partially effective but still quite large – Because it would be a temporary change in people’s incomes, only a fraction of the $787 B would be spent.  But even 1/4 or 1/3 of $787 B is still a lot of money to dump out the door.  The relative ineffectiveness of a temporary income change would be offset by the enormous amount of cash flowing.
  • efficient – People would be spending money on themselves. Some of them would be spending other people’s money on themselves, but at least they would be spending on their own needs, rather than on multi-year water projects in the districts of powerful Members of Congress.  You would have much less waste.
  • fast – The GDP boost would be concentrated in Q3 and Q4 of 2009, tapering off heavily in Q1 of 2010.

Why did the President not do this?  Discussions with the Congress began in January before he took office, and he faced a strong Speaker who took control and gave a huge chuck of funding to House Appropriations Chairman Obey (D-WI).  I can think of three plausible explanations:

  1. The President and his team did not realize the analytical point that infrastructure spending has too slow of a GDP effect.
  2. They were disorganized.
  3. They did not want a confrontation with their new Congressional allies in their first few days.

Given the fact that the American economy is 70% consumer-driven, Keith Hennessey’s proposed stimulus would have boosted that sorely-missing consumer demand as far back as two years ago.  We can only wonder where our unemployment level and our Gross Domestic Product would be now if Hennessey’s plan had been implemented – despite the fact that it would have been limited to the $787 billion amount.


 

Occupy Movement Gets Some Respect

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Much has changed since the inception of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  The participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.  Obviously, some of this prattle continues to emanate from unimaginative bloviators.  Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for respectable news sources to give serious consideration to the OWS effort.

One month after the occupation of Zuccotti Park began, The Economist explained why the movement had so much appeal to a broad spectrum of the population:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

Reports eventually began to surface, revealing that many “Wall Street insiders” actually supported the occupiers.  Writing for the DealBook blog at The New York Times, Jesse Eisinger provided us with the laments of a few Wall Street insiders, whose attitudes have been aligned with those of the OWS movement.

By late December, it became obvious that the counter-insurgency effort had expanded.   At The eXiled blog, Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement.  In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out against the OWS protesters by parroting 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.”

The counterpunch to Mayor Bloomberg’s remark was swift and effective.  Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled “What caused the financial crisis?  The Big Lie goes viral”.  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“.

Once the new year began, the Occupy Oakland situation quickly deteriorated.  Chris Hedges of Truthdig took a hard look at the faction responsible for the “feral” behavior, raising the question of whether provocateurs could have been inciting the ugly antics:

The presence of Black Bloc anarchists – so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property – is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Chris Hedges gave further consideration to the involvement of provocateurs in the Black Bloc faction on February 13:

Occupy’s most powerful asset is that it articulates this truth.  And this truth is understood by the mainstream, the 99 percent.  If the movement is severed from the mainstream, which I expect is the primary goal of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, it will be crippled and easily contained.  Other, more militant groups may rise and even flourish, but if the Occupy movement is to retain the majority it will have to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.

Despite the negative publicity generated by the puerile pranks of the Black Bloc, the Occupy movement turned a corner on February 13, when Occupy the SEC released its 325-page comment letter concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s draft “Volcker Rule”.  (The Volcker Rule contains the provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act which restrict the ability of banks to make risky bets with their own money).  Occupy the SEC took advantage of the “open comment period” which is notoriously exploited by lobbyists and industry groups whenever an administrative agency introduces a new rule.  The K Street payola artists usually see this as their last chance to “un-write” regulations.

The most enthusiastic response to Occupy the SEC’s comment letter came from Felix Salmon of Reuters:

Occupy the SEC is the wonky finreg arm of Occupy Wall Street, and its main authors are worth naming and celebrating:  Akshat Tewary, Alexis Goldstein, Corley Miller, George Bailey, Caitlin Kline, Elizabeth Friedrich, and Eric Taylor.  If you can’t read the whole thing, at least read the introductory comments, on pages 3-6, both for their substance and for the panache of their delivery.  A taster:

During the legislative process, the Volcker Rule was woefully enfeebled by the addition of numerous loopholes and exceptions.  The banking lobby exerted inordinate influence on Congress and succeeded in diluting the statute, despite the catastrophic failures that bank policies have produced and continue to produce…

The Proposed Rule also evinces a remarkable solicitude for the interests of banking corporations over those of investors, consumers, taxpayers and other human beings. 

*   *   *

There’s lots more where that comes from, including the indelible vision of how “the Volcker Rule simply removes the government’s all-too-visible hand from underneath the pampered haunches of banking conglomerates”.  But the real substance is in the following hundreds of pages, where the authors go through the Volcker Rule line by line, explaining where it’s useless and where it can and should be improved.

John Knefel of Salon emphasized how this comment letter exploded the myth that the Occupy movement is simply a group of cynical hippies:

The working group’s detailed policy position gives lie to the common claim that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “well intentioned but misinformed.”  It shows there’s room in the movement both for policy wonks and those chanting “anti-capitalista.”

Even Mayor Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek spoke highly of Occupy the SEC’s efforts.  Karen Weise interviewed Occupy’s Alexis Goldstein, who had previously worked at such Wall Street institutions as Deutsche Bank, where she built IT systems for traders:

Like Goldstein, several members have experience in finance.  Kline says she used to be a derivatives trader.  Tewary is a lawyer who worked on securitization cases at the firm Kaye Scholer, according to his bio on the website of his current firm, Kamlesh Tewary.  Mother Jones, which reported on the group in December, says O’Neil is a former Wall Street quant.

There are parts of the rule that Occupy the SEC would like to see toughened.  For example, Goldstein sees a “big loophole” in the proposed rule that allows banks to make proprietary trades using so-called repurchase agreements, by which one party sells securities to another with the promise to buy back the securities later.  The group wants to make sure other parts aren’t eroded.

Chris Sturr of Dollars & Sense provided this reaction:

From the perspective of someone who’s spent a lot of time in working groups of Occupy Boston, what I love about this story is that it’s early evidence of what Occupy can and will do, beyond “changing the discourse,” which is the best that sympathetic people who haven’t been involved seem to be able to say about Occupy, or just going away and dying off, which is what non-sympathizers think has happened to Occupy.  Many of us have been quietly working away over the winter, and the results will start to be seen in the coming months.

If Chris Sturr’s expectation ultimately proves correct, it will be nice to watch the pro-Wall Street, teevee pundits get challenged by some worthy opponents.


 

Struggles of a Passive Centrist

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In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  It began with this statement:  “One could write an 800-page book on this subject.”  Noam Scheiber has just written that book in only 368 pages.  It’s called The Escape Artists and it is scheduled for release at the end of this month.  The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

The following graph from The Economic Populist website depicts the persistence of unemployment in America:

Noam Scheiber’s new book piqued my interest because, back in July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled “The Second Stimulus”, which began with this thought:

It’s a subject that many people are talking about, but not many politicians want to discuss.  It appears as though a second economic stimulus package will be necessary to save our sinking economy and get people back to work.  Because of the huge deficits already incurred in responding to the financial meltdown, along with the $787 billion price tag for the first stimulus package and because of the President’s promise to get healthcare reform enacted, there aren’t many in Congress who are willing to touch this subject right now, although some are.

The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House.  Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”.  Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus.  Ultimately Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:

BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance.  With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough.  “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded.  She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television.  She was dead serious about the sentiment.  Axelrod did not seem amused.

For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one.  While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts.  The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag.  Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule.      .   .   .

The debate was not only a question of policy.  It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency.  Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach.  It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible.  A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this.  When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.  Obama could have educated the American people by directing their attention to a June 3, 2009 essay by Keith Hennessey (former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush) which described the Recovery Act as “effective”.

Noam Scheiber’s New Republic article detailed Obama’s evolution from inexperienced negotiator to President with “newfound boldness”:

FOR TWO AND A HALF YEARS, Obama had been hatching proposals with an eye toward winning over the opposition.  In most cases, all it had gotten him was more extreme demands from Republicans and not even a pretense of bipartisan support.  Now, after the searing experience of the deficit deal, he still wanted reasonable, centrist policies.  But he was done trying to fit them to the ever-shifting conservative zeitgeist.  When he finally turned back to jobs in August, he told his aides not to “self-edit” proposals to improve their chances of passing the Republican House.  “He pushed us to make sure this was not simply a predesigned legislative compromise,” one recalls.

Many readers will be surprised to learn that Larry Summers had aligned himself with Christina Romer by advocating for additional fiscal stimulus during the summer of 2009.  In fact, Ms. Romer herself has already confirmed this.  The Romer-Summers alliance for stimulus was also discussed in Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men.

As for the stimulus program itself, a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? provided the most even-handed analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.  Mike Grabell gave us a glimpse of his new book with an article which appeared in The New York Times.  The piece was cross-posted to the ProPublica website.  Keith Hennesssey’s prescient observations about the shortcomings of that program, which he discussed  in June of 2009, were somewhat consistent with those discussed by Mike Grabell, particularly on the subject of “shovel-ready” programs.  Here is what Keith Hennessey said, while supporting his argument with the observations of Congressional Budget Office Director Doug Elmendorf:

In fact, the infrastructure spending in the stimulus law will peak in fiscal year 2011, which goes from October 1, 2010 to September 30, 2011.  That’s too late from a macro perspective.

The Director further points out that the 2009 stimulus law created many new programs.  This slows spend-out, as it takes time to create and ramp up the new programs.

The Administration has made much of working with federal and state bureaucracies to find “shovel-ready” projects to accelerate infrastructure spending.  All of my conversations with budget analysts suggest this claim is tremendously overblown, and Director Elmendorf asks, “Is this practical on a large scale?”

On February 11, 2012, Mike Grabell said this:

But the stimulus ultimately failed to bring about a strong, sustainable recovery.  Money was spread far and wide rather than dedicated to programs with the most bang for the buck.  “Shovel-ready” projects, those that would put people to work right away, took too long to break ground.  Investments in worthwhile long-term projects, on the other hand, were often rushed to meet arbitrary deadlines, and the resulting shoddy outcomes tarnished the projects’ image.

The Economic Recovery Act of 2009 will surely become a central subject of debate during the current Presidential election campaign.  Regardless of what you hear from partisan bloviators, Messrs. Hennessey and Garbell have provided you with reliable guides to the unvarnished truth on this subject.



 

Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  Back in November of 2010, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

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

*   *   *

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

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


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Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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