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Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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Lack Of Stimulation

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September 9, 2010

You don’t have to look very far to find a rabid, hostile reaction to President Obama’s proposed $50 billion transportation infrastructure program.  After all – it’s an election year.  I was quite surprised when I read this paragraph from a BusinessWeek report about the proposal:

For companies that do the unglamorous work of pouring cement, crushing stones, and hauling earth, President Barack Obama’s $50 billion proposal outlined on Sept. 6 to rebuild U.S. roads, railways, and runways is welcome relief amid unrelenting economic gloom.  If approved by Congress (an uncertain proposition in an election year) Obama’s plan would pick up the slack when most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year, says Mike Betts, an analyst with London-based Jefferies.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  The phrase I wish to bring to your attention is:

.  .  .   most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year    .  .  .

The first question that came to mind was:  Why the hell wasn’t it spent last year?  We’ve been reading about how the effects of the “Obama stimulus bill” (a/k/a  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) have already stopped boosting the economy.  How much more of that money has been sitting on the sidelines?  Beyond that, why didn’t the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provide more funding for infrastructure?

The proposed transportation infrastructure program will cost approximately the same as the B-2 Stealth Bomber program, which produced 21 bombers at an average cost of $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997 dollars.

Since July of last year, I have been among those arguing that the $787 billion economic stimulus package was inadequate, after reading about a Bloomberg survey of economists, which supported that conclusion in February of 2009.  In early 2009, there was a greater sense of urgency about the state of the economy and a stronger political will to enact a more significant stimulus.  Unfortunately, President Obama was not up to the task of pushing a larger bill through.  As a result, the President is now making piecemeal stimulus efforts, such as the $50-billion infrastructure proposal.  The tragedy of not getting it right the first time seemed more unfortunate after I read a recent posting by Barry Ritholtz at his blog, The Big Picture.  Here is what Mr. Ritholtz had to say:

Yesterday on XM Sirius, we discussed Infrastructure.

One of the callers was a civil engineer who suggested we take a look at the US Infrastructure Report Card (infrastructurereportcard.org), which grades the US on a variety of factors.  The 2009 Grades include: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads(D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), and Wastewater (D-).

Overall, America’s Infrastructure GPA was graded a “D.”  To get to an “A” requires a 5 year infrastructure investment of $2.2 Trillion dollars.  Hence, you can understand if I am underwhelmed by the latest $50B proposal.

Each individual state is also graded;  NY’s is after the jump.

After reading about the Infrastructure Report Card, I couldn’t help but wonder how our economy would have benefited from a $2.2 trillion infrastructure program rather than the $850 billion stimulus program enacted in 2009.  Consider what economist Joseph Stiglitz had to say about how the global financial crisis was affecting Australia in August of 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon. So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked: Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

There’s a right way of doing economic stimulus and a wrong way of implementing such a program.  Unfortunately, America did it the wrong way.





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The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Geithner Watch

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August 19, 2010

It’s that time once again.  The Treasury Department has launched another “charm offensive” – and not a moment too soon.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner got some really bad publicity at the Daily Beast website by way of a piece by Philip Shenon.  The story concerned the fact that a man named Daniel Zelikow — while in between revolving door spins at JP Morgan Chase — let Geithner live rent-free in Zelikow’s $3.5 million Washington townhouse, during Geithner’s first eight months as Treasury Secretary.  Zelikow (who had previously worked for JP Morgan Chase from 1999 until 2007) was working at the Inter-American Development Bank at the time.  The Daily Beast described the situation this way:

At that time, Geithner was overseeing the bailout of several huge Wall Street banks, including JPMorgan, which received $25 billion in federal rescue funds from the TARP program.

Zelikow, a friend of Geithner’s since they were classmates at Dartmouth College in the early 1980s, begins work this month running JPMorgan’s new 12-member International Public Sector Group, which will develop foreign governments as clients.

*   *   *

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who is a specialist in government ethics and author of a leading textbook on legal ethics, described Geithner’s original decision to move in with Zelikow last year as “just awful” —  given the conflict-of-interest problems it seemed to create.

He tells The Daily Beast that Geithner now needs to avoid even the appearance of assisting JPMorgan in any way that suggested a “thank-you note” to Zelikow in exchange for last year’s free rent.

“He needs to be purer than Caesar’s wife — purer than Caesar’s whole family,” Gillers said of the Treasury secretary.

The Daily Beast story came right on the heels of Matt Taibbi’s superlative article in Rolling Stone, exposing the skullduggery involved in removing all the teeth from the financial “reform” bill.  Taibbi did not speak kindly of Geithner:

If Obama’s team had had their way, last month’s debate over the Volcker rule would never have happened.  When the original version of the finance-­reform bill passed the House last fall  – heavily influenced by treasury secretary and noted pencil-necked Wall Street stooge Timothy Geithner – it contained no attempt to ban banks with federally insured deposits from engaging in prop trading.

Just when it became clear that Geithner needed to make some new friends in the blogosphere, another conclave with financial bloggers took place on Monday, August 16.  The first such event took place last November.  I reviewed several accounts of the November meeting in a piece entitled “Avoiding The Kool -Aid”.  Since that time, Treasury has decided to conduct such meetings 4 – 6 times per year.  The conferences follow an “open discussion” format, led by individual senior Treasury officials (including Turbo Tim himself) with three presenters, each leading a 45-minute session.  A small number of financial bloggers are invited to attend.  Some of the bloggers who were unable to attend last November’s session were sorry they missed it.  The August 16 meeting was the first one I’d heard about since the November event.  The following bloggers attended the August 16 session:  Phil Davis of Phil’s Stock World, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, John Lounsbury for Ed Harrison’s Credit Writedowns, Michael Konczal of Rortybomb, Steve Waldman of Interfluidity, as well as Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution.  As of this writing, Alex Tabarrok and John Lounsbury were the only attendees to have written about the event.  You can expect to see something soon from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.

At this juncture, the effort appears to have worked to Geithner’s advantage, since he made a favorable impression on Alex Tabarrok, just as he had done last November with Tabarrok’s partner at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen:

As Tyler said after an earlier visit, Geithner is smart and deep.  Geithner took questions on any topic.  Bear in mind that taking questions from people like Mike Konczal, Tyler, or Interfluidity is not like taking questions from the press.  Geithner quickly identified the heart of every question and responded in a way that showed a command of both theory and fact.  We went way over scheduled time.  He seemed to be having fun.

It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming accounts of the meeting continue to provide Geithner with the image makeover he so desperately needs.


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Bogus Editorial Gets Exposed

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August 16, 2010

One of my favorite commentators, Bill Fleckenstein, wrote an interesting piece calling attention to the fact that the Patent Office is underfunded to the tune of about $1 billion.  The good news is that fixing this problem might create as many as 2.5 million new jobs over the next three years.  Fleck based his article on a New York Times essay by Paul Michel (former Chief Judge of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit) and Henry Nothhaft, co-author of the upcoming book, Great Again.

Bill Fleckenstein began his discussion by noting another letdown by our Disappointer-In-Chief:

As the financial crisis was unfolding in late 2008 and early 2009, I actually thought for a while that the incoming Obama administration might try to do something intelligent regarding incentivizing jobs.  That was 100% incorrect.  The only incentives it has created are ones not to hire more employees, which has only made a bad situation worse.

Unfortunately, Fleck decided to support his perspective with an editorial from the August 9 Wall Street Journal entitled, “Why I’m Not Hiring” by Michael Fleischer.  Fleischer whined about how President Obama has made things difficult for his “little company in New Jersey, where we provide audio systems for use in educational, commercial and industrial settings.”  Fleischer concluded the piece with this lament:

And even if the economic outlook were more encouraging, increasing revenues is always uncertain and expensive.  As much as I might want to hire new salespeople, engineers and marketing staff in an effort to grow, I would be increasing my company’s vulnerability to government decisions to raise taxes, to policies that make health insurance more expensive, and to the difficulties of this economic environment.

A life in business is filled with uncertainties, but I can be quite sure that every time I hire someone my obligations to the government go up.  From where I sit, the government’s message is unmistakable:  Creating a new job carries a punishing price.

Bill Fleckenstein was not the only commentator who was apparently “taken in” by this editorial.  It has been getting re-blogged all over the Web.

What most people don’t realize is that the author of the Wall Street Journal editorial, Michael Fleischer, is the brother of Ari Fleischer, the former press secretary to President George W. Bush.

Kevin Drum wrote a piece for Mother Jones, which began with his criticism of the Journal for not admitting that the aforementioned editorial was written by Ari Fleischer’s brother.  Beyond that, Mr. Drum provided us with a little more information about Michael Fleischer’s background:

Michael, thanks to his White House connections, was one of the squadron of free market evangelizers who parachuted into Baghdad to privatize Iraqi industry after the war.  We all know how well that went, which is probably what qualifies him to write op-eds about creeping Obama-ism for the Wall Street Journal.

Drum then quoted this reader’s comment, posted at the Outside The Beltway blog, concerning the Fleischer editorial:

The fact is that if Mr. Fleisher’s company has to buy an extra box of paper clips it will cause them to go belly up.  He’s in not position to hire anyone regardless of tax policy.

The reason Mr. Fleischer’s company isn’t hiring has nothing to do with taxes or the policies of any administration.  It’s because his business has been in decline for a decade.  As the CEO, that decline is his fault.  All his complaining about taxes and benefits is just a smokescreen for his own incompetence.

The world changed around them a decade ago and they failed to adapt.  In 2000, their annual sales were 66 million dollars with cash on hand of 12 million.  By 2003, sales were down to 55 million and cash was down to 6 million.  That was before the financial crisis and under the allegedly pro business policies of the previous administration.  In 2009, sales were down to 44 million and cash was down to 2 million.     They managed to lose 17 million dollars that year and got a carry back refund of some 5 million dollars.  Mr. Fleischer should spend less time complaining about taxes and more time thinking about how he can correct 10 years of mismanagement.

Don’t take my word for it, read the balance sheets yourself.

http://www.bogen.com/aboutus/financials/#historical

Another blogger had some fun digging into the truth about Fleischer’s Bogen Communications and hanging out the dirty laundry on the Internet:

Here’s the thing, though.  If you actually look into Bogen, you find out that there are far better reasons for why Fleischer isn’t hiring.  Like the stock price absolutely cratering last year.  Or the settlement that they reached with a contractor who alleged “multiple causes of action for breach of contract and various torts”; a settlement that came after the contractor had already been awarded a cool $12.5 mil in “compensatory and punitive damages.”

It’s always funny when a political hatchet job gets exposed.  It’s even funnier when the perpetrators are too dumb to realize that —  in  what Marshall McLuhan used to call “the electronic information environment” (back in the 1960s)  — it’s pretty easy to dig up the truth.

Anyone trying to ascertain the truth about why companies aren’t hiring would be better served to peruse websites such as MarketWatch or Bloomberg, rather than the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page.  Bill Fleckenstein should have known better.



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Jobless Recovery Myth Is Dead

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August 12, 2010

On July 29, I discussed the fact that for over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  Recent economic reports have exposed how the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting by mass layoffs (to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports) has finally taken its toll.  Although this tactic has helped to inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery, we are finding out that the opposite is true.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the fact the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.  Timothy Homan and Alex Tanzi of Bloomberg News gave us the ugly truth on Wednesday:

A lack of jobs will shackle consumer spending and restrain the U.S. recovery more than previously estimated, according to economists polled by Bloomberg News.

*   *   *

“Simply put, job growth in the private sector hasn’t improved as we would’ve expected,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.  “The consumer continues to contribute to growth but at a subpar pace.”

*   *   *

Purchases, which rose 3 percent on average over the past three decades, dropped 1.2 percent last year, the biggest decrease since 1942.

*   *   *

Joblessness will be slow to fall, signaling it will take years for the economy to recover the more than 8 million jobs lost during the recession that began in December 2007.  Unemployment will average 9.6 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent next year, according to the survey.

*   *   *

“We need a stronger economy, job creation and better consumer confidence,” Richard Dugas, chief executive officer of Pulte Group Inc., said in an Aug. 4 conference call.  “Our industry continues to face incredibly low demand.”

The August 10 press release from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) began this way:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months.  Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit.  Business spending on equipment and software is rising; however, investment in nonresidential structures continues to be weak and employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls.  Housing starts remain at a depressed level.  Bank lending has continued to contract.

Steve Goldstein of MarketWatch recently wrote a piece entitled, “The jobless recovery won’t go further without jobs”.   Mr. Goldstein explains that the corporations relying on layoffs to juice their earnings reports are running out of people to sacrifice for their bottom line:

Earnings per share grew 43% for the 450 members of the S&P 500 that have reported second-quarter results, according to FactSet Research data.

So what these productivity figures may be showing is that, as the Great Recession blew into town, companies stretched their employees to the limit.

The data suggest companies won’t be able to job-cut their way to continued profit growth — and, at some point, if companies want to expand, they will need to start offering jobs to the pool of 14.6 million out of work in July.

Business consultant Matthew C. Keegan wrote an essay for the SayEducate website entitled, “Jobless Recovery & Other Illusions”.  He began the piece with this thought:

The economic numbers continue to pour in with very few people believing that they offer a promise of a sustained recovery.  That’s bad news for America, because high unemployment (9.5 percent in July 2010) means that every sector of the economy will remain depressed longer than some imagined it would.

Steve Goldstein’s MarketWatch article raised the possibility that this cloud may have a silver lining:

The productivity report isn’t great news, but at least it shows that the jobless recovery won’t be able to recover much further without employment making a significant contribution.

Another myth bites the dust.





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Rare Glimpses Of Honesty And Sanity

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July 1, 2010

Too many of the commentaries we see these days are either motivated by or calculated to promote hysteria.  When someone expresses a rational point of view or an honest look at the skullduggery going on in Washington, it’s as refreshing as a cold beer on a hot, summer day.

With so much panic over sovereign debt and budget deficits afflicting the consensual mood,  it’s always great to read a piece by someone willing to analyze the situation from a perspective based on facts instead of fear.  Brett Arends wrote a great piece for MarketWatch, dissecting the debt panic and looking at the data to be considered by those implementing public policy on this issue.  His essay focused on “the three biggest lies about the economy”:  that unemployment is below ten percent, that the markets are panicking about the deficit and that the United States is sliding into socialism.  Here is some of what he had to say:

Most people have no idea what’s really going on in the economy.   They’re living on spin, myths and downright lies.  And if we don’t know the facts, how can we make intelligent decisions?

High unemployment exerts a huge deflationary force on the economy.  Beyond that, the income taxes those unemployed citizens used to pay are no longer helping to pick up the tab for our bloated budget.   Mr. Arends emphasized the importance of looking at the real unemployment rate – what is referred to as U6 – which includes those people deliberately disregarded when counting the “unemployed”:

For example it counts discouraged job seekers, and those forced to work part-time because they can’t get a full-time job.

That rate right now is 16.6%, just below its recent high and twice the level it was a few years ago.

*   *   *

Consider, for example, the situation among men of prime working age.  An analysis of data at the U.S. Labor Department shows that there are 79 million men in America between the ages of 25 and 65.  And nearly 18 million of them, or 22%, are out of work completely.  (The rate in the 1950s was less than 10%.)  And that doesn’t even count those who are working part-time because they can’t get full-time work.  Add those to the mix and about one in four men of prime working age lacks a full-time job.

In exploding the myth about claimed market panic concerning the debt, Arends dug back into his arsenal of common sense, explaining what would happen if the markets were panicked:

. . .  the interest rate on government bonds would be skyrocketing.  That’s what happens with risky debt:  Lenders demand higher and higher interest payments to compensate them for the dangers.

But the rates on U.S. bonds have been plummeting recently.  The yield on the 30-year Treasury bond is down to just 4%.  By historic standards that’s chickenfeed.  Panicked?  The bond markets are practically snoring.

The specious claims about domestic socialism don’t really deserve a response, but here is how Arends dealt with that narrative:

Meanwhile, federal spending, about 25% of the economy this year, is expected to fall to about 23% by 2013.  In 1983, under Ronald Reagan, it hit 23.5%.  In the early 1990s it was around 22%.  Some socialism.

Another prevalent false narrative being circulated lately (particularly by President Obama and his administration) concerns the hoax known as the “financial reform” bill.  Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold gave us a rare, disgusted insider’s look at how Wall Street was able to get what it wanted from its lackeys on Capitol Hill:

Since the Senate bill passed, I have had a number of conversations with key members of the administration, Senate leadership and the conference committee that drafted the final bill.  Unfortunately, not once has anyone suggested in those conversations the possibility of strengthening the bill to address my concerns and win my support.  People want my vote, but they want it for a bill that, while including some positive provisions, has Wall Street’s fingerprints all over it.

In fact, reports indicate that the administration and conference leaders have gone to significant lengths to avoid making the bill stronger.

Lest we forget that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by the antics of cretins such as “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, Senator Feingold’s essay mentioned that sleazy chapter in Senate history to put this latest disgrace in the proper perspective:

Many of the critical actors who shaped this bill were present at the creation of the financial crisis.  They supported the enactment of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, deregulating derivatives, even the massive Interstate Banking bill that helped grease the “too big to fail” skids.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the final version of the bill looks the way it does, or that I won’t fall in line with their version of  “reform.”

As I discussed in “Your Sleazy Government at Work”, the voters will not forget about the Democrats (including President Obama) who undermined financial reform legislation, while pretending to advance it.  The Democratic Party has until early 2012 to face up to the fact that their organization would be better off supporting a Presidential candidate with the integrity of Russ Feingold or Maria Cantwell if they expect to maintain control over the Executive branch of our government.





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Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

*   *   *

In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “Lev Is The Drug”:

Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a  23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.





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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

*   *   *

That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

*   *   *

Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.




Ignoring The Root Cause

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June 17, 2010

The predominant criticism of the so-called “financial reform” bill is its failure to address the problems caused by the existence of financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  In an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” economist Simon Johnson discussed the consequences of this legislative let-down:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.  In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks in America,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

*   *   *

The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

One would assume that an important lesson learned from the 2008 financial crisis was the idea that a corporation shouldn’t be permitted to blackmail the country with threats that its own financial collapse would have such a dire impact on society-at-large that the corporation should be bailed out by the taxpayers.  The resulting problem is called “moral hazard” because such businesses are encouraged to act irresponsibly by virtue of the certainty that they will be bailed out if their activities prove self-destructive.

Gonzalo Lira wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism blog, explaining how the moral hazard resulting from the “too big to fail” doctrine is facilitating a state of corporate anarchy:

In a nutshell, in this era of corporate anarchy, corporations do not have to abide by any rules — none at all.  Legal, moral, ethical, even financial rules are irrelevant.  They have all been rescinded in the pursuit of profit — literally nothing else matters.

As a result, corporations currently exist in a state of almost pure anarchy — but an anarchy directly related to their size:  The larger the corporation, the greater its absolute freedom to do and act as it pleases.  That’s why so many medium-sized corporations are hell-bent on growth over profits:  The biggest of them all, like BP and Goldman Sachs, live in a positively Hobbesian State of Nature, free to do as they please, with nary a consequence.

Good-old British Petroleum – the latest beneficiary of the “too big to fail doctrine”  — can rely on its size to avoid any sanctions it considers unacceptable because too many “small people” might lose their jobs if BP can’t stay fat and happy.  Gonzalo Lira’s analysis went a step further:

Worst of all, BP realizes that, if it finally cannot get a handle on the oil spill disaster, they can simply fob it off on the U.S. Government — in other words, the people of the United States will wind up cleaning BP’s mess.  BP knows that no one will hold it accountable — BP knows that it will get away with it.

*   *   *

This era of corporate anarchy is reaching a crisis point — we can all sense it.  Yet the leadership in the United States and Europe is making no effort to solve the root problem.  Perhaps they don’t see the problem.  Perhaps they are beholden to corporate masters.  Whatever the case, in his speech, President Obama made ridiculous references to “clean energy” while ignoring the cause of the BP oil spill disaster, the cause of the financial crisis, the cause of the spiralling health-care costs — the corporate anarchy that underlines them all.

This era of corporate anarchy is wrecking the world — literally, if you’ve been tuning in to images of the oil billowing out a mile down in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mr. Lira discussed how a leadership void has been helping corporate anarchy overtake democratic capitalism:

Obama is a corporatist — he’s one of Them.  So there’ll be more bullshit talk about “clean energy” and “energy independence”, while the root cause — corporate anarchy — is left undisturbed.

The failure of President Obama to take advantage of the opportunity to address this “root cause” in his Oval Office address concerning the Deepwater Horizon disaster, inspired Robert Reich to make this comment:

Whether it’s Wall Street or health insurers or oil companies, we are approaching a turning point.  The top executives of powerful corporations are pursuing profits in ways that menace the nation.  We have not seen the likes not since the late nineteenth century when the “robber barons” of finance, oil, and the giant trusts ran roughshod over America.  Now, as then, they are using their wealth and influence to buy off legislators and intimidate the regions that depend on them for jobs.  Now, as then, they are threatening the safety and security of our people.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently warned us about the consequences of allowing corporate anarchy to destroy democratic capitalism:

The rise of uncontrolled corporate greed killed the “Invisible Hand,” the “soul” of capitalism that Adam Smith saw in 1776 as a divine force serving “the common good.”  Today the system has no moral compass.  Wall Street’s insatiable greed has destroyed capitalism from within, turning America’s economy into a soulless zombie.

The “Invisible Hand” Adam Smith saw as essential to capitalism in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” died in endless battles fought by 261,000 lobbyists each wanting a bigger piece of the $1.7 trillion federal budget pie plus favorable laws protecting, vesting and increasing the power and wealth of their special interest clients.  Future historians will call this ideological battle replacing democracy the new “American Capitalists Anarchy.”

*   *   *

As a New York Times reviewer put it:  Nations like “China and Russia are using what he calls ‘state capitalism’ to advance the interests of their companies at the expense of their American rivals.”  Global pandemic?

Unfortunately while America wastes trillions to bail out inefficient too-stupid-to-fail banks, our competition is bankrolling healthy state-controlled corporations to destroy us  . . .

If we ever reach the point when the watered-down “financial reform” bill finally becomes law, the taxpayers should insist that their government move on to address the “root cause” of corporate anarchy by taking up campaign finance reform.  That should be one hell of a fight!



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