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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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


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Call Him The Dimon Dog

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November 16, 2009

It seems as though once an individual rises to a significant level of influence and authority, that person becomes “too big for straight talk”.  We’ve seen it happen with politicians, prominent business people and others caught-up in the “leadership” racket.  Influential people are well aware of the unforeseen consequences resulting from a candid, direct response to a simple question.  Mindful of those hazards, a rhetorical technique employing equivocation, qualification and obfuscation is cultivated in order to avoid responsibility for what could eventually become exposed as a brain fart.

Since last year’s financial crisis began, we have heard plenty of debate over the concept of “too big to fail” —  the idea that a bank is so large and interconnected with other important financial institutions that its failure could pose a threat to the entire financial system.  Recent efforts at financial reform have targeted the “too big to fail” (TBTF) concept, with differing approaches toward downsizing or breaking up those institutions with “systemic risk” potential.  Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the first to use doublespeak as a weapon against those attempting to eliminate TBTF status.  When he testified before the House Financial Services Committee on September 23 to explain his planned financial reform agenda, Geithner attempted to create the illusion that his plan would resolve the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to those institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence, Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  At a subsequent House Financial Services Committee hearing on October 29, Geithner again tried to trick his audience into believing that the administration’s latest reform plan was opposed to TBTF status.  As Jim Kuhnhenn and Anne Flaherty reported for The Huffington Post, representatives from both sides of the isle saw right through Geithner’s smokescreen:

Others argue that by singling out financial firms important to the economy, the government could inevitably set itself up to bail them out, and that even dismantling rather than rescuing them would take taxpayer money.

“Apparently, the ‘too big to fail’ model is too hard to kill,” quipped Republican Rep. Ed Royce of California.

Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., called the bill “TARP on steroids,” referring to the government’s $700 billion Wall Street rescue fund.

On Friday the 13th, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, stole the spotlight in this debate with an opinion piece published by The Washington Post.  Dimon pretended to be opposed to the TBTF concept and quoted from his fellow double-talker, Turbo Tim.  Dimon then made this assertion:  “The term ‘too big to fail’ must be excised from our vocabulary.”  He followed with the qualification that ending TBTF “does not mean that we must somehow cap the size of financial-services firms.”  Dimon proceeded to argue against the creation of “artificial limits” on the size of financial institutions.  In other words:  Dimon would like to see Congress enact a law that could never be applied because it would contain no metric for its own applicability.

Criticism of Dimon’s Washington Post piece was immediate and widespread, especially considering the fact that his own JP Morgan is a TBTF All Star.  David Weidner explained it for MarketWatch this way:

In other words, Dimon favors a regulatory system for unwinding failing institutions — he believes no bank should be too big to fail — but doesn’t seem to like the global effort, endorsed by the G-20, to encourage smaller, less-connected institutions.  He wants to let big institutions be big.

The best criticism of Dimon’s article came from my blogging buddy, Adrienne Gonzalez, a/k/a  Jr Deputy Accountant.  She pointed out that the report for the first quarter of 2009 by the Office of the Currency Comptroller revealed that JP Morgan Chase holds 81 trillion dollars’ worth of derivatives contracts, putting it in first place on the OCC list of what she called “derivatives offenders”.  After quoting the passage in Dimon’s piece concerning the procedure for winding-down “a large financial institution”, Adrienne made this point:

Interesting and a great read but useless in practical application.  Does Dimon really believe this?  With $81 TRILLION in notional derivatives exposure, I don’t see how an FDIC for investment banks could possibly unwind such a tangled mess in an orderly fashion.  He’s joking, right?

For an interesting portrayal of The Dimon Dog, you might want to take a look at an article by Paul Barrett, entitled “I, Banker”.   It was actually a book review Barrett wrote for The New York Times concerning a biography of Dimon by Duff McDonald, entitled The Last Man Standing.  I haven’t read the book and after reading Barrett’s review, I have no intention of doing so — since Barrett made the book appear to be the work of a fawning sycophant in awe of Dimon.  In criticizing the book, Paul Barrett gave us some of his own useful insights about Dimon:

The Dimon of  “Last Man Standing” emerges as a brilliant but flawed winner, one whose long and psychologically tangled apprenticeship to another legendary money man, Sanford Weill, helped lay the groundwork for the crisis of 2008.  In recent days, Dimon’s conduct suggests he is someone who puts the interests of his company ahead of those of society at large, which will be surprising only to those who naively look to modern Wall Street for statesmanship.

*   *   *

JPMorgan under Dimon’s leadership allowed home buyers to borrow without having to prove their income.  The bank did business with sleazy mortgage brokers who would lend to anyone with a heartbeat.  These habits ended only in 2008, when it was too late.  McDonald lauds Dimon for cleverly unloading huge volumes of the toxic subprime mortgages JPMorgan originated.  But that’s like praising a corporate polluter for trucking his poisonous sludge into the next state.  It doesn’t solve the problem; it merely moves it elsewhere.

Paul Barrett’s book review gave us a useful perspective on The Dimon Dog’s support of the administration’s financial reform agenda:

McDonald notes that the C.E.O. publicly endorses certain financial regulatory changes proposed by the Obama administration.  But critics point out that lobbyists employed by “Dimon and his team are actually stonewalling derivatives reform in order to protect the outsize margins the business generates” for JPMorgan.  The derivatives in question include “credit default swaps,” transactions akin to insurance policies that lenders can buy to buffer against loans that go bad.  In the wrong hands, credit derivatives become a form of gambling that can lead to ruin.  They need to be checked, and Dimon’s self-interested resistance isn’t helping matters.

Dimon may be the best of his breed, but when it comes to public-spirited leaders, today’s Wall Street isn’t a promising recruiting ground.

Well said!



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