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Seeing Through Obama

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Now that Mitt Romney has secured the Republican presidential nomination, commentators are focusing on the question of whether the candidate can motivate the conservative Republican base to vote for the “Massachusetts moderate” in November.

Meanwhile, it is becoming obvious that after three years in the White House, Barack Obama has managed to alienate the liberal base of the Democratic Party.  The Firedog Lake website has been among the most vocal, left-leaning blogs to regularly criticize the President.  The site’s publisher, Jane Hamsher, has picked up on Public Citizen’s campaign against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Obama is attempting to sneak past the public before November.  On April 27, Ms. Hamsher provided us with this warning:

The White House wants to fast track the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) “free trade” agreement with Australia, Brunei, Chile, Malaysia, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, and Vietnam.  Japan is waiting in the wings, Canada and Mexico want in, Taiwan has announced its intention to meet membership requirements and China says it will “earnestly study” whether to seek entry into the agreement.

Basically, the TPP is NAFTA on steroids.  The White House wants to reach a deal prior to the election because they know all the apparatchiks feeding on the $1 billion in Obama campaign money flowing through the system will launch tribalistic attacks on anyone organizing against it (activists, labor unions, workers) for “helping Mitt Romney win” – thus facilitating its easy passage.

*   *   *

At an April 4 press conference in the Rose Garden, President Obama said that TPP “could be a real model for the world.”  Earlier this month the US limited the ability of public interest groups to have input into the process.  So much for the “most transparent administration ever.”

At her Naked Capitalism blog, Yves Smith introduced a video clip of Matt Stoller’s appearance on Cenk Uygur’s television program with the following anecdote:

Matt Stoller, in this video clip from an interview last week with Cenk Uygur (hat tip Doug Smith), sets forth what should be widely accepted truths about Obama:  that he’s an aggressive proponent of policies that favor the 1%.  Yet soi disant progressives continue to regard him as an advocate of their interests, when at best, all he does is pander to them.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with a black woman after an Occupy Wall Street Alternative Banking Group meeting.  She was clearly active in New York City housing politics and knowledgeable about policy generally.  I started criticizing Obama’s role in the mortgage settlement.  She said:

I have trouble with members of my community.  I think Obama needs not to be President.  I think he needs to be impeached.  But no one in my community wants to hear that.  I tell them it’s like when your mother sees you going out with someone who is no good for you.

“Why don’t you leave him?  What does he do for you?”

“But Momma, I love him.”

“He knocked you down the stairs, took your keys, drove your car to Florida, ran up big bills on your credit card, and Lord only knows what else he did when he was hiding from you.”

“But Momma, I still love him.”

Her story applies equally well to the oxymoron of the Establishment Left in America. Obama is not only not their friend, but he abuses them, yet they manage to forgive all and come back for more.

In an article published by The Nation, Naomi Klein pulled the rose-colored glasses off the faces of many Obama fans with this review of the President’s performance so far:

After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player.  Again and again, US negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.

After discussing Obama’s failure to take a leading role to promote global efforts to combat pollution, or to promote human rights, Ms. Klein moved on to highlight Obama’s subservience to the financial oligarchy:

And then there are the G-20 summits, Obama’s highest-profile multilateral engagements.  When one was held in London in April, it seemed for a moment that there might be some kind of coordinated attempt to rein in transnational financial speculators and tax dodgers.  Sarkozy even pledged to walk out of the summit if it failed to produce serious regulatory commitments.  But the Obama administration had no interest in genuine multilateralism, advocating instead for countries to come up with their own plans (or not) and hope for the best – much like its reckless climate-change plan.  Sarkozy, needless to say, did not walk anywhere but to the photo session to have his picture taken with Obama.

Of course, Obama has made some good moves on the world stage – not siding with the coup government in Honduras, supporting a UN Women’s Agency… But a clear pattern has emerged:  in areas where other wealthy nations were teetering between principled action and negligence, US interventions have tilted them toward negligence.  If this is the new era of multilateralism, it is no prize.

While watching Saturday evening’s White House Correspondents’ Dinner, I was particularly impressed by Jimmy Kimmel’s face-to-face confrontation with President Obama concerning the administration’s crackdown on medical marijuana clinics.  One of Obama’s most outspoken critics from the left – Constitutional lawyer Glenn Greenwald – pulled no punches while upbraiding the President for yet another broken campaign promise:

President Obama gave an interview to Rolling Stone‘s Jann Wenner this week and was asked about his administration’s aggressive crackdown on medical marijuana dispensaries, including ones located in states where medical marijuana is legal and which are licensed by the state; this policy is directly contrary to Obama’s campaign pledge to not “use Justice Department resources to try and circumvent state laws about medical marijuana.”  Here’s part of the President’s answer:

I never made a commitment that somehow we were going to give carte blanche to large-scale producers and operators of marijuana – and the reason is, because it’s against federal law.  I can’t nullify congressional law.  I can’t ask the Justice Department to say, “Ignore completely a federal law that’s on the books” . . . .

The only tension that’s come up – and this gets hyped up a lot – is a murky area where you have large-scale, commercial operations that may supply medical marijuana users, but in some cases may also be supplying recreational users.  In that situation, we put the Justice Department in a very difficult place if we’re telling them, “This is supposed to be against the law, but we want you to turn the other way.”  That’s not something we’re going to do. 

Aside from the fact that Obama’s claim about the law is outright false – as Jon Walker conclusively documents, the law vests the Executive Branch with precisely the discretion he falsely claims he does not have to decide how drugs are classified – it’s just extraordinary that Obama is affirming the “principle” that he can’t have the DOJ “turn the other way” in the face of lawbreaking.

*   *   *

The same person who directed the DOJ to shield torturers and illegal government eavesdroppers from criminal investigation, and who voted to retroactively immunize the nation’s largest telecom giants when they got caught enabling criminal spying on Americans, and whose DOJ has failed to indict a single Wall Street executive in connection with the 2008 financial crisis or mortgage fraud scandal, suddenly discovers the imperatives of The Rule of Law when it comes to those, in accordance with state law, providing medical marijuana to sick people with a prescription.

It’s becoming obvious that Mitt Romney is not the only candidate who will have to worry about whether his party’s “base” will bother to stand in line at the polls in November, to vote for a candidate who does not find it necessary to accommodate the will of the voters who elect him.


 

Austeri-FAIL

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I have never accepted the idea that economic austerity could be at all useful in resolving our unending economic crisis.  I posted my rant about this subject on December 19, 2011:

The entire European economy is on its way to hell, thanks to an idiotic, widespread belief that economic austerity measures will serve as a panacea for the sovereign debt crisis.  The increasing obviousness of the harm caused by austerity has motivated its proponents to crank-up the “John Maynard Keynes was wrong” propaganda machine.  You don’t have to look very far to find examples of that stuff.  On any given day, the Real Clear Politics (or Real Clear Markets) website is likely to be listing at least one link to such a piece.  Those commentators are simply trying to take advantage of the fact that President Obama botched the 2009 economic stimulus effort.  Many of us realized – a long time ago – that Obama’s stimulus measures would prove to be inadequate.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I pointed out that another stimulus program would be necessary because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was not going to accomplish its intended objective.  Beyond that, it was already becoming apparent that the stimulus program would eventually be used to support the claim that Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Economist Stephanie Kelton anticipated that tactic in a piece she published at the New Economic Perspectives website  . . .

It has finally become apparent to most rational thinkers that economic austerity is of no use to any national economy’s attempts to recover from a severe recession.  There have been loads of great essays published on the subject this week and I would like to direct you to a few of them.

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider wrote a great piece which included this explanation:

This morning brings news that Europe may finally be beginning to soften on the “austerity” philosophy that has brought it nothing but misery over the past several years.

The “austerity” idea, you’ll remember, was that the huge debt and deficit problem had ushered in a “crisis of confidence” and that, once business-people saw that governments were serious about debt reduction, they’d get confident and start spending again.

That hasn’t worked.

Instead, spending cuts have led to cuts in GDP which has led to greater deficits and the need for more spending cuts.  And so on.

On April 23, Nicholas Kulich wrote an article for The New York Times which began with the ugly truth that austerity has turned out to be a fiasco:

With political allies weakened or ousted, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seat at the head of the European table has become much less comfortable, as a reckoning with Germany’s insistence on lock-step austerity appears to have begun.

“The formula is not working, and everyone is now talking about whether austerity is the only solution,” said Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, a political scientist and director of the Barcelona Center for International Affairs in Spain.  “Does this mean that Merkel has lost completely?  No.  But it does mean that the very nature of the debate about the euro-zone crisis is changing.”

A German-inspired austerity regimen agreed to just last month as the long-term solution to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has come under increasing strain from the growing pressures of slowing economies, gyrating financial markets and a series of electoral setbacks.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider provided us with this handy round-up of essays proclaiming the demise of economic austerity.  Here is his own nail in the coffin:

As we wrote this morning, the bad news for Angela Merkel is that the jig is up: There’s almost nobody left who is willing to go along with the German idea that the sole solution forEurope is spending discipline and “reform,” whatever that means.

One of the best essays on this subject was written by Hale Stewart for The Big Picture.  The title of the piece was “People Are Finally Figuring Out: Austerity is Stupid”.

Those in denial about the demise of economic austerity have found it necessary to ignore the increasing refutations of the policy from conservative economists, which began appearing early this year.  The most highly-publicized of these came from Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) criticized the policy on a number of occasions, such as his posting of January 11, 2012:

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

One would think that a consensus of reasonable people, speaking out against this ill-conceived policy, should be enough to convince The Powers That Be to pull the plug on it.  In a perfect world   .  .  .



More Ugly Truth about Deepwater Horizon

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Too many of the news reports concerning the second anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig blowout are suspiciously similar to the BP commercials featuring testimonials about how the company’s wonderful clean-up job has brought life along the Gulf Coast “back to normal”.  Unfortunately, the ugly truth about life along the Gulf of Corexit has not been thrust before the American public with the same aggressiveness as BP’s public relations propaganda.

Since the catastrophe occurred back in April of 2010, one steady source of unvarnished reports on the matter has been Washington’s Blog.  On April 18 of this year, Washington’s Blog posted this great piece which links to a number of reports documenting the extent of ongoing damage to the Gulf ecosystem.

We are constantly bombarded with propaganda emphasizing how offshore oil rigs create jobs.  What we don’t hear are reports concerning the number of people from the fishing industry who lost their jobs (and their health) as a result of the Deepwater Horizon incident.  Consider this AFP report from last year:

Local chemist Wilma Subra has been helping test people’s blood for volatile solvents, and said levels of benzene among cleanup workers, divers, fishermen and crabbers are as high as 36 times that of the general population.

“As the event progresses we are seeing more and more people who are desperately ill,” she said.

“Clearly it is showing that this is ongoing exposure,” Subra said, noting that pathways include contact with the skin, eating contaminated seafood or breathing polluted air.

“We have been asking the federal agencies to please provide medical care from physicians who are trained in toxic exposure.”

She said she has received no response.

The most devastating exposé on the Deepwater Horizon disaster came from Greg Palast, who wrote a two-part report for EcoWatch.  A British investigative television program – Dispatches – sent Palast into Baku, Azerbaijan, with a cameraman to investigate a whistleblower’s report that in September of 2008, a BP off-shore rig in the Caspian Sea suffered a nearly identical blow-out to the Deepwater Horizon incident.  BP concealed the true cause and extent of the Caspian Sea event from the U.S. regulators and Congress.  From Part One:

The witness, whose story is backed up by rig workers who were evacuated from BP’s Caspian platform, said that had BP revealed the full story as required by industry practice, the eleven Gulf of Mexico workers “could have had a chance” of survival.  But BP’s insistence on using methods proven faulty sealed their fate.

One cause of the blow-outs was the same in both cases:  the use of a money-saving technique – plugging holes with “quick-dry” cement.

By hiding the disastrous failure of its penny-pinching cement process in 2008, BP was able to continue to use the dangerous methods in the Gulf of Mexico – causing the worst oil spill in U.S. history.  April 20 marks the second anniversary of the Gulf oil disaster.

There were several failures in common to the two incidents identified by the eyewitness.  He is an industry insider whose identity and expertise we have confirmed.  His name and that of other witnesses we contacted must be withheld for their safety.

The failures revolve around the use of “quick-dry” cement, the uselessness of blow-out preventers, “mayhem” in evacuation procedures and an atmosphere of fear which prevents workers from blowing the whistle on safety problems.

In Part Two of the report, Greg Palast revealed that one of the classified cables leaked by Private Bradley Manning through WikiLeaks.org to The Guardian was a briefing from the U.S. Embassy in Azerbaijan to the State Department in Washington.  The cable summarized information obtained from Bill Schrader, President of BP-Azerbaijan, about the cause and extent of the 2008 blowout.  The collusion of the State Department in this cover-up became an important aspect of Palast’s report:

From other sources, we discovered the cement which failed had been mixed with nitrogen as a way to speed up drying, a risky process that was repeated on the Deepwater Horizon.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr., president of Waterkeeper Alliance and senior attorney for Natural Resources Defense Council, calls the concealment of this information, “criminal.  We have laws that make it illegal to hide this.”

The cables also reveal that BP’s oil-company partners knew about the blow-out but they too concealed the information from Congress, regulators and the Securities Exchange Commission.  BP’s major U.S. partners in the Caspian Sea drilling operation were Chevron and Exxon.

*   *   *

Kennedy’s particular concern goes to the connivance of the State Department, then headed by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, in the cover-up and deception.  Chevron, noted Kennedy, named an oil tanker after Rice who had served on the oil company’s board of directors.  “BP felt comfortable – and Chevron and Exxon – in informing the Bush State Department, which was run by Condoleezza Rice,” he said, “and they felt comfortable that that wasn’t going to come out.”

The U.S. Securities Exchange Commission requires companies to report “material” events.  BP filed a “20-F” report in 2009 stating, “a subsurface gas release occurred below the Central Azeri platform,” suggesting a naturally occurring crack in the seafloor, not a blow-out.  This contradicted the statements of three eyewitnesses and the secret statement of BP’s Azerbaijan President in then WikiLeaks cable.

“The three big actors, Chevron, Exxon and BP all concealed this from the American public,” concludes Kennedy.  “This is a criminal activity.”

At this point, anyone who believes that Condoleezza Rice could be chosen as Mitt Romney’s running mate is headed for a big disappointment.

With the passing of time, the Deepwater Horizon story isn’t getting any better.  It just keeps getting worse.


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Another Slap On the Wrists

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In case you might be wondering whether the miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis might ever be prosecuted by Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless – don’t hold your breath.  At the close of 2010, I expressed my disappointment and skepticism that the culprits responsible for having caused the financial crisis would ever be brought to justice.  I found it hard to understand why neither the Securities and Exchange Commission nor the Justice Department would be willing to investigate malefaction, which I described in the following terms:

We often hear the expression “crime of the century” to describe some sensational act of blood lust.  Nevertheless, keep in mind that the financial crisis resulted from a massive fraud scheme, involving the packaging and “securitization” of mortgages known to be “liars’ loans”, which were then sold to unsuspecting investors by the creators of those products – who happened to be betting against the value of those items.  In consideration of the fact that the credit crisis resulting from this scam caused fifteen million people to lose their jobs as well as an expected 8 – 12 million foreclosures by 2012, one may easily conclude that this fraud scheme should be considered the crime of both the last century as well as the current century.

During that same week, former New York Mayor Ed Koch wrote an article which began with the grim observation that no criminal charges have been brought against any of the malefactors responsible for causing the financial crisis:

Looking back on 2010 and the Great Recession, I continue to be enraged by the lack of accountability for those who wrecked our economy and brought the U.S. to its knees.  The shocking truth is that those who did the damage are still in charge.  Many who ran Wall Street before and during the debacle are either still there making millions, if not billions, of dollars, or are in charge of our country’s economic policies which led to the debacle.

“Accountability” is a relative term.  If you believe that the imposition of fines – resulting from civil actions by the Justice Department – could provide accountability for the crimes which led to the financial crisis, then you might have reason to feel enthusiastic.  On the other hand if you agree with Matt Taibbi’s contention that some of those characters deserve to be in prison – then get ready for another disappointment.

Last week, Reuters described plans by the Justice Department to make use of President Obama’s Financial Fraud Task Force (which I discussed last January) by relying on a statute (FIRREA- the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act) which was passed in the wake of the 1980s Savings & Loan crisis:

FIRREA allows the government to bring civil charges if prosecutors believe defendants violated certain criminal laws but have only enough information to meet a threshold that proves a claim based on the “preponderance of the evidence.”

Adam Lurie, a lawyer at Cadwalader, Wickersham & Taft who worked in the Justice Department’s criminal division until last month, said that although criminal cases based on problematic e-mails without a cooperating witness could be difficult to prove, the same evidence could meet a “preponderance” standard.

On the other hand, William K. Black, who was responsible for many of the reforms which followed the Savings & Loan Crisis, has frequently emphasized that – unlike the 2008 financial crisis – the S&L Crisis actually resulted in criminal prosecutions against those whose wrongdoing was responsible for the crisis.  On December 28, Black characterized the failure to prosecute those crimes which led to the financial crisis as “de facto decriminalization of elite financial fraud”:

The FBI and the DOJ remain unlikely to prosecute the elite bank officers that ran the enormous “accounting control frauds” that drove the financial crisis.  While over 1000 elites were convicted of felonies arising from the savings and loan (S&L) debacle, there are no convictions of controlling officers of the large nonprime lenders.  The only indictment of controlling officers of a far smaller nonprime lender arose not from an investigation of the nonprime loans but rather from the lender’s alleged efforts to defraud the federal government’s TARP bailout program.

What has gone so catastrophically wrong with DOJ, and why has it continued so long?  The fundamental flaw is that DOJ’s senior leadership cannot conceive of elite bankers as criminals.

This isn’t (just) about revenge.  Bruce Judson of the Roosevelt Institute recently wrote an essay entitled “For Capitalism to Survive, Crime Must Not Pay”:

In effect, equal enforcement of the law is not simply important for democracy or to ensure that economic activity takes place, it is fundamental to ensuring that capitalism works.  Without equal enforcement of the law, the economy operates with participants who are competitively advantaged and disadvantaged.  The rogue firms are in effect receiving a giant government subsidy:  the freedom to engage in profitable activities that are prohibited to lesser entities.  This becomes a self-reinforcing cycle (like the growth of WorldCom from a regional phone carrier to a national giant that included MCI), so that inequality becomes ever greater.  Ultimately, we all lose as our entire economy is distorted, valuable entities are crushed or never get off the ground because they can’t compete on a playing field that is not level, and most likely wealth is destroyed.

Does the Justice Department really believe that it is going to impress us with FIRREA lawsuits?  We’ve already had enough theatre – during the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission hearings and the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal.  It’s time for some “perp walks”.


 

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Tales From The Dark Side

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Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently discuss my skepticism about the true state of America’s economy.  It gets painful listening to the “usual cheerleaders” constantly tell us about the robust state of our economy.  The most recent Federal Reserve Beige Book serves as the Bible for these true believers.  One need only check in on a few of the websites listed on my blogroll (at the right side of this page) to find plenty of opinions which run contrary to the current dogma that America is on its way to a full economic recovery.

One of my favorite websites from this blogroll is Edward Harrison’s Credit Writedowns.  When I visited that site this evening, I was amazed at the number of contrarian commentaries posted there.  One piece, “The economy is nowhere near as robust as stocks would have you believe” dealt with one of my favorite subjects:  the Federal Reserve’s inflation of the stock market indices by way of quantitative easing.  Here is an interesting passage from Harrison’s essay:

My view is that the stock market has gotten way ahead of itself.  Easy money has caused people to pile into risk assets as risk seeks return in a zero-rate environment.  The real economy is nowhere near as robust as the increase in shares would have you believe. Moreover, even the falling earnings growth is telling you this.

Bottom line: The US economy is getting a sugar high from easy money, economic stimulus, and the typical cyclical aides to GDP that have promoted some modest releveraging.  But the underlying issues of excess household indebtedness, particularly as related to housing and increasingly student debt, will keep this recovery from being robust until more of the debts are written down or paid off.  That means the cyclical boost that comes from hiring to meet anticipated demand, construction spending, and increased capital spending isn’t going to happen at a good clip.  Meanwhile, people are really struggling.

The hope is we can keep this going for long enough so that the cyclical hiring trends to pick up before overindebted consumers get fatigued again.  Underneath things are very fragile. Any setback in the economy will be met with populist outrage – that you can bet on.

Another posting at Credit Writedowns was based on this remark by financier George Soros:  ”People don’t realize that the system has actually collapsed.”

Bloomberg News has been running a multi-installment series of articles by financial analyst Gary Shilling, which are focused on the question of whether the United States will avoid a recession in 2012.  In the third installment of the series, Shilling said this:

In the first two installments, I laid out the reasons why the U.S. economy, despite current strong consumer spending and the recent euphoria of investors over stocks, will weaken into a recession as the year progresses, led by renewed consumer retrenchment.

If my forecast pans out, the Federal Reserve and Congress may be compelled to take further action to bolster the economy.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, a number of economic indicators are pointing in the direction of a faltering economy.  The Economic Cycle Research Institute index remains in recession territory.  The ratio of coincident to lagging economic indicators, often a better leading indicator than the leading indicator index itself, is declining.  Electricity generation, though influenced by the warm winter, is falling rapidly.

One of the most popular blogs among those of us who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid being served by the “rose-colored glasses crowd” is Michael Panzner’s Financial Armageddon.  In a recent posting, Mr. Panzner underscored the fact that those of us who refuse to believe the “happy talk” are no longer in the minority:

In “Americans Agree: There Is No Recovery,” I highlighted a recent Washington PostABC News poll, noting that

no matter how you break it down — whether by party/ideology, household income, age, or any other category — the majority of Americans agree on one thing: there is no recovery.

But the fact that things haven’t returned to normal isn’t just a matter of (public) opinion. As the Globe and Mail’s Market Blog reveals in “These Are Bad Days for Garbage,” the volume of waste being created nowadays essentially means that, despite persistent talk (from Wall Street, among others) of a renaissance in consumer spending, people are continuing to consume less and recycle more than they used to.

Many people (especially commentators employed by the mainstream media) prefer to avoid “dwelling on negativity”, so they ignore unpleasant economic forecasts.  Others appear trapped in a new-age belief system, centered around such notions as the idea that you can actually cause the economy to go bad by simply perceiving it as bad.  Nevertheless, the rest of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that effective use of one’s peripheral vision can be of great value in avoiding a “sucker punch”.  Keep your eyes open!


 

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Doomsday Deluxe

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I frequently enjoy watching the Doomsday Preppers program on the National Geographic Channel.  I get a particular kick out of hearing the reason each particular family gives for building a bunker and making plans for Armageddon.  At the end of each story, the producers at Nat Geo usually reference the consensus of expert opinion concerning the particular doomsday scenario discussed by the featured family.  A popular fear is that earth will get knocked off its axis, causing a polar shift.  (You’ve probably heard Matt Damon mention that one on the TD Ameritrade commercial – wherein he credits the Mayans for starting the rumor.)  Although many of the preppers’ fears are far-fetched, there are certainly many legitimate causes for the sort of concern which could lead a perfectly reasonable person to initiate efforts toward the Ultimate Plan B.  My personal favorite threat is Fukushima.

A number of reports have recently been published concerning the efforts made by more upscale preppers to build designer bunkers.  This situation really cries out for a new television program:  Beverly Hills Bunkers or Celebrity Preppers of Palm Beach.

The Raw Story website ran an AFP report describing the efforts by developer Larry Hall to convert abandoned missile silos into luxury bunkers.  At this point, Hall has found four buyers who have plunked down nearly $2 million each for a silo bunker:

“They worry about events ranging from solar flares, to economic collapse, to pandemics to terrorism to food shortages,” Hall told AFP on a tour of the site.

These “doomsday preppers”, as they are called, want a safe place and he will be there with them because Hall, 55, bought one of the condos for himself. He says his fear is that sun flares could wipe out the power grid and cause chaos.

*   *   *

Built to withstand an atomic blast, even the most paranoid can find comfort inside concrete walls that are nine feet thick and stretch 174 feet (53 meters) underground.

Instead of simply setting up shop in the old living quarters provided for missile operators, Hall is building condos right up the missile shaft. Seven of the 14 underground floors will be condo space selling for $2 million a floor or $1 million a half floor. Three and a half units have been sold, two contracts are pending and only two more full units are available, Hall said.

*   *   *

He is also installing an indoor farm to grow enough fish and vegetables to feed 70 people for as long as they need to stay inside and also stockpiling enough dry goods to feed them for five years.

The top floor and an outside building above it will be for elaborate security. Other floors will be for a pool, a movie theater and a library, and when in lockdown mode there will be floors for a medical center and a school.

Complex life support systems provide energy supplies from sources of conventional power, as well as windmill power and generators. Giant underground water tanks will hold water pre-filtered through carbon and sand.

*   *   *

Interested buyers have included an NFL player, a racing car driver, a movie producer and famous politicians, he said, but he now requires all the money up front.

Blake Ellis of CNN Money gave us a peek at how “the one percent” is getting ready for doomsday:

Northwest Shelter Systems, which offers shelters ranging in price from $200,000 to $20 million, has seen sales surge 70% since the uprisings in the Middle East, with the Japanese earthquake only spurring further interest. In hard numbers, that’s 12 shelters already booked when the company normally sells four shelters per year.

Who spent $20 million on a bunker?  Oprah?  Bill Gates?  Lloyd Blankfein?

Inquiring minds want to know how their favorite celebrities will be riding out The Apocalypse.  Which porn stars will Charlie Sheen invite to his Doomsday Den?  How many people within one degree of Kevin Bacon will Kyra Sedgwick allow into his bunker?

There is definitely a television show here – and it’s bound to draw a bigger audience than the number watching Doomsday Preppers.  Any guesses as to which network runs with this?


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Geithner Redeems Himself – For Now

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I’ve never been a fan of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.  Nevertheless, I have to give the guy credit for delivering a great speech at the Economic Club of Chicago on April 4.  The event took place in a building which was formerly home to an off-track betting parlor, with an “upscale” section called The Derby Club (where Gene Siskel spent lots of time and money)  – in an era before discretionary income became an obsolete concept.

At a time when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suffering from “buyer’s remorse” after bankrolling the election of ideologues opposed to infrastructure spending, Geithner spoke out in favor of common sense.  We have come a long, painful way from the days when the Chamber of Commerce aligned itself against the interests of the “little people”.  As Keith Laing reported for The Hill, the Chamber no longer considers “stimulus” to be such a dirty word.  Laing discussed the joint efforts by the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO executive Edward Wytkind to advance the transportation bill through a Congressional roadblock:

“We’re going to be pounding away during the recess to get House members to know they’ve got to check their party at the door,” Wytkind said of Republicans in the House who opposed accepting the Senate’s transportation bill.

Other transportation supporters were similarly pessimistic.  U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of transportation and infrastructure Janet Kavinoky said the 90-day extension could lead to a longer agreement, but only if lawmakers get right back to work after the two-week recess.

“No length of time is going to be good for construction or business, but at least 90 days provides a length of time Congress could get a long-term bill done,” Kavinoky said.  “But the House in particular is going to have their nose to the grindstone, or whatever metaphor you want to use, to get a bill off the House floor and into a conference.”

The timing could not have been better for someone in a position of national leadership to deliver a warning that premature austerity policies (implemented before economic recovery gains traction) can have the same destructive consequences as we are witnessing in Europe.  To his credit, Tim Geithner stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.  Here are his most important remarks, delivered in Chicago on Wednesday:

Much of the political debate and the critiques of business lobbyists misread the underlying dynamics of the economy today.  Many have claimed that the basic foundations of American business are in crisis, critically undermined by taxes and regulation.

And yet, business profits are higher than before the crisis and have recovered much more quickly than overall growth and employment.  Business investment in equipment and software is up by 33 percent over the past 2 ½ years.  Exports have grown 24 percent in real terms over the same period.  And manufacturing is coming back, with factory payrolls up by more than 400,000 since the start of 2010.

The business environment in the United States is in numerous ways better than that of many of our major competitors, as measured by international comparisons of regulatory burden, the tax burden on workers, the quality of legal protections of property rights, the ease of starting a business, the availability of capital, and the broader flexibility of the economy.

The challenges facing the American economy today are not primarily about the vibrancy or efficiency of the business community.  They are about the barriers to economic opportunity and economic security for many Americans and the political constraints that now stand in the way of better economic outcomes.

These challenges can only be addressed by government action to help speed the recovery and repair the remaining damage from the crisis and reforms and investments to lay the foundation for stronger future growth.

This means taking action to support growth in the short-term – such as helping Americans refinance their mortgages and investing in infrastructure projects – so that we don’t jeopardize the gains our economy has made over the last three years.

And it means making the investments and reforms necessary for a stronger economy in the future. Investments in things like education, to help Americans compete in the global economy.  Investments in innovation, so that our economy can offer the best jobs possible.  Investments in infrastructure, to reduce costs and increase productivity.  Policies to expand exports. And reforms to improve incentives for investing in the United States – including reform of our business tax system.

A growth strategy for the American economy requires more than promises to cut taxes and spending.

We have to be willing to do things, not just cut things.

To expand exports, we have to support programs like the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing at no cost to the government for American businesses trying to compete in foreign markets.

To make us more competitive, we have to be willing to make larger long-term investments in infrastructure, not just limp forward with temporary extensions.

Any credible growth agenda has to recognize that there are parts of the economy, like the financial system, that need reform and regulation.  Businesses need to be able to rely on a more stable source of capital, with a financial system that allocates resources to their most productive uses, not misallocating them to an unsustainable real estate boom.

Cutting government investments in education and infrastructure and basic science is not a growth strategy.  Cutting deeply into the safety net for low-income Americans is not financially necessary and cannot plausibly help strengthen economic growth. Repealing Wall Street Reform will not make the economy grow faster – it would just make us more vulnerable to another crisis.

This strategy is a recipe to make us a declining power – a less exceptional nation.  It is a dark and pessimistic vision of America.

Is this simply another example of the Obama administration’s habit of  “doing the talk” without “doing the walk”?  Time will tell.


 

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When the Music Stops

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Forget about all that talk concerning the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The date you should be worried about is January 1, 2013.  I’ve been reading so much about it that I decided to try a Google search using “January 1, 2013” to see what results would appear.  Sure enough – the fifth item on the list was an article from Peter Coy at Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “The End Is Coming:  January 1, 2013”.  The theme of that piece is best summarized in the following passage:

With the attention of the political class fixated on the presidential campaign, Washington is in danger of getting caught in a suffocating fiscal bind.  If Congress does nothing between now and January to change the course of policy, a combination of mandatory spending reductions and expiring tax cuts will kick in – depriving the economy of oxygen and imperiling a recovery likely to remain fragile through the end of 2012.  Congress could inadvertently send the U.S. economy hurtling over what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently called a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.”

Peter Coy’s take on this impending crisis seemed a bit optimistic to me.  My perspective on the New Year’s Meltdown had been previously shaped by a great essay from the folks at Comstock Partners.  The Comstock explanation was particularly convincing because it focused on the effects of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programs, emphasizing what many commentators describe as the Fed’s “Third Mandate”:  keeping the stock market inflated.  Beyond that, Comstock pointed out the absurdity of that cherished belief held by the magical-thinking, rose-colored glasses crowd:  the Fed is about to introduce another round of quantitative easing (QE 3).  Here is Comstock’s dose of common sense:

A growing number of indicators suggest that the market is running out of steam.  Equities have been in a temporary sweet spot where investors have been factoring in a self-sustaining U.S. economic recovery while also anticipating the imminent institution of QE3.  This is a contradiction.  If the economy were indeed as strong as they say, we wouldn’t need QE3.  The fact that market observers eagerly look forward toward the possibility of QE3 is itself an indication that the economy is weaker than they think.  We can have one or the other, but we can’t have both.

After two rounds of quantitative easing – followed by “operation twist” – the smart people are warning the rest of us about what is likely to happen when the music finally stops.  Here is Comstock’s admonition:

The economy is also facing the so-called “fiscal cliff” beginning on January 1, 2013.  This includes expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cuts, emergency unemployment benefits and the sequester.  Various estimates placed the hit to GDP as being anywhere between 2% and 3.5%, a number that would probably throw the economy into recession, if it isn’t already in one before then.  At about that time we will also be hitting the debt limit once again.   U.S. economic growth will also be hampered by recession in Europe and decreasing growth and a possible hard landing in China.

Technically, all of the good news seems to have been discounted by the market rally of the last three years and the last few months.  The market is heavily overbought, sentiment is extremely high, daily new highs are falling and volume is both low and declining.  In our view the odds of a significant decline are high.

Charles Biderman is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of TrimTabs Investment Research.  He was recently interviewed by Chris Martenson.  Biderman’s primary theme concerned the Federal Reserve’s “rigging” of the stock market through its quantitative easing programs, which have steered so much money into stocks that stock prices have now become a “function of liquidity” rather than fundamental value.  Biderman estimated that the Fed’s liquidity pump has fed the stock market “$1.8 billion per day since August”.  He does not believe this story will have a happy ending:

In January of ’10, I went on CNBC and on Bloomberg and said that there is no money coming into stocks, and yet the stock market keeps going up.  The law of supply and demand still exists and for stock prices to go up, there has to be more money buying those shares.  There is no other way in aggregate that that could happen.

So I said it has to be coming from the government.  And everybody thought I was a lunatic, conspiracy theorist, whatever.  And then lo and behold, on October of 2011, Mr. Bernanke then says officially, that the purpose of QE1 and QE2 is to raise asset prices.  And if I remember correctly, equities are an asset, and bonds are an asset.

So asset prices have gone up as the Fed has been manipulating the market. At the same time as the economy is not growing (or not growing very fast).

*   *   *

At some point, the world is going to recognize the Emperor is naked. The only question is when.

Will it be this year?  I do not think it will be before the election, I think there is too much vested interest in keeping things rosy and positive.

One of my favorite economists is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman warned us that the “music” must eventually stop:

What remains then is a fairly simple assertion:  the primary way to boost corporate profits to abnormally high – but unsustainable – levels is for the government and the household sector to both spend beyond their means at the same time.

*   *   *

The conclusion is straightforward.  The hope for continued high profit margins really comes down to the hope that government and the household sector will both continue along unsustainable spending trajectories indefinitely.  Conversely, any deleveraging of presently debt-heavy government and household balance sheets will predictably create a sustained retreat in corporate profit margins.  With the ratio of corporate profits to GDP now about 70% above the historical norm, driven by a federal deficit in excess of 8% of GDP and a deeply depressed household saving rate, we view Wall Street’s embedded assumption of a permanently high plateau in profit margins as myopic.

Will January 1, 2013 be the day when the world realizes that “the Emperor is naked”?  Will the American economy fall off the “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” eleven days after the end of the Mayan calendar?  When we wake-up with our annual New Year’s Hangover on January 1 – will we all regret not having followed the example set by those Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel?

Get your “bug-out bag” ready!  You still have nine months!


 

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