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From Cover-up to Bailout

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It has been one year since the earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe.  From the very beginning (March 14, 2011) I suspected a cover-up:

Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, we were given spotty, uninformative reports about the extent of the damage to the critical equipment, despite assurances that the “reactor vessels remain intact”.

Throughout the year following the Fukushima disaster, there has been an unending series of accounts concerning efforts by the plant operator, Tepco, as well as by governmental officials to cover-up the true extent of this tragedy.  The hazardous radiation levels to which local residents were subjected, have become the focus of the most recent news reports exposing cover-up tactics.  Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar was recently interviewed for Russia Today.  Escobar reported that Fukushima officials concealed radiation data vital to safely evacuate people from that area.  This was accomplished by the deletion of e-mails detailing the spread of radiation.  An unidentified official (or several officials) from Fukushima prefecture should face responsibility for the loss of that data.  At one point during the interview, Escobar remarked that the situation “sounds and looks and quacks like a major cover-up”.  He expects that ultimately, “a low-level official” will take the fall for this transgression, with no consequences other than a generous severance package.

The Mainichi Daily News report on this suspicious situation revealed that officials from Fukushima prefecture deleted five days of early radiation dispersion data.  In typical bureaucratic fashion, Fukushima prefecture officials claimed that “it was the responsibility of the central government to release the data”.

The obfuscation tactics employed by the plant operator, Tepco, have been apparent since the onset of this disaster.  Nevertheless, Tepco continues to “play dumb”.  In a March 28 report by Karen Sloan of the Associated Press, Tepco characterized the situation with the explanation that “conditions could be worse than officials had pictured”.  The report pointed out that there are “fatally–high radiation levels” at the #2 reactor with less water than anticipated available  for cooling the reactor.  The damage is so severe that Tepco will need to “develop special equipment and technology” to decommission the plant.  Worse yet, the other reactors which experienced meltdowns “could be in worse shape”.  You can watch the video version of Karen Sloan’s report here.  As for those “fatally–high radiation levels”, Anne Sewell of the Digital Journal pointed out that measurements revealed those levels to be “up to 10 times the lethal dose”.  Beyond that, Ms. Sewell didn’t hesitate to remind her readers of the continuing problems encountered by those who have reported on this crisis:

Japanese authorities and Tepco representatives have been caught lying about the true situation at Fukushima on numerous occasions, which adds to the overwhelming stress on the residents.

First-hand accounts of the situation in Fukushima prefecture are provided by blogger Lori Mochizuki and her cohorts at the Fukushima Diary website.  Their motto appears on the masthead of the site:  “We are against the media blackout – Please support us so that we may inform the world.”

Those interested in keeping-up with the slow trickle of truth about this tragedy can follow the Fukushima Update website.   Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, is another source who provides regular updates on Fukushima.

As we have witnessed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, those entities responsible for the world’s worst disasters always find themselves rewarded with taxpayer-funded bailouts.  The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is yet another example of this principle.  On March 29, Kentaro Hamada of Reuters reported that Tepco has asked the Japanese government for a $12.6 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.  (This amounts to 1 trillion yen.)  This amount would be in addition to the 850 billion yen which Tepco requested from the government in order to provide victim compensation.  That’s right – a free $10.7 billion insurance policy!  Is that coverage available to other companies?  I’m afraid to ask!  Nevertheless, some Japanese officials insist that the indemnity should come at a price – as the Reuters article explained:

The government is keen to obtain an initial majority stake in Tepco in return for the fund injection, with an option to boost the stake to two-thirds if the firm drags its feet on corporate reforms.  A final decision, however, would have to wait until the company finds a new chairman, a second source with knowledge of the matter said.

*   *   *

Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who is responsible for approving a public fund injection, has said he wants the government to have a significant say in managing Tepco, but the two sides have differed over how big the government stake should be.

Moral hazard and nuclear radiation hazard make such a wonderful combination!


 

Watching For Storm Clouds

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October 26, 2009

As the economy continues to flounder along, one need not look very far to find enthusiastic cheerleaders embracing any seemingly positive information to reinforce the belief that this catastrophic chapter in history is about to reach an end.  Meanwhile, others are watching out for signs of more trouble.  The recent celebrations over the return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the 10,000 level gave some sensible commentators the opportunity to point out that this may simply be evidence that we are experiencing an “asset bubble” which could burst at any moment.

October 21 brought the latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP, the Special Investigator General for TARP, who is a gentleman named Neil Barofsky.  Since the report is 256 pages long, it made more sense for Mr. Barofsky to submit to a few television interviews and simply explain to us, the latest results of his investigatory work.  In a discussion with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on that date, Mr. Barofsky voiced his concern about the potential consequences that could arise because those bailed-out banks, considered “too big to fail” have continued to grow, due to government-approved mergers:

“These banks that were too big to fail are now bigger,” Barofsky said.  “Government has sponsored and supported several mergers that made them larger and that guarantee, that implicit guarantee of moral hazard, the idea that the government is not going to let these banks fail, which was implicit a year ago, is now explicit, we’ve said it.  So if anything, not only have there not been any meaningful regulatory reform to make it less likely, in a lot of ways, the government has made such problems more likely.

“Potentially we could be in more danger now than we were a year ago,” he added.

In comparing where the economy is now, as opposed to this time last year, we haven’t seen much in the way of increased lending by the oversized banks.  In fact, we’ve only seen more hubris and bullying on their part.  Julian Delasantellis expressed it this way in his October 22 essay for the Asia Times:

Now, a year later, things have turned out exactly as expected – except that the roles are reversed.  The rulemakers have not disciplined the corrupted; it’s more accurate to say that the corrupted have abased the rulemakers.  If the intention was that the big investment banks would settle down into a sort of quiet, reserved suburban lifestyle, the reality has been that they’ve acted more like former gangsters placed into the US government’s witness protection program, taking over the numbers racket on the Saturday pee-wee soccer fields.

*   *   *

Obviously, there can’t be any inflation, or any real long-term earnings growth for consumer and business-oriented banks for that matter, as long as the economic crisis continues to destroy capital faster than Obama can ask Bernanke to print it.

These issues are of little concern to operations such as Goldman and Morgan, with their trading strategies and profit profiles essentially divorced from the real economy.  But down here on planetary level, as the little league baseball fields don’t get maintained because the businesses who funded the work go out of business after having their loans called, after elderly people with chest pains have to wait longer for one of the few ambulances on station after rescue service cutbacks, life is changing, changing for the long term, and it sure isn’t pretty.

“Proprietary trading” by banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, forms an important part of their business model.  This practice involves trading by those banks, on their own accounts, rather than the accounts of customers.  The possibility of earning lavish bonus payments helps to incentivize risk taking by the traders working on the “prop desks” of those institutions.  Gillian Tett wrote a report for the Financial Times on October 22, wherein she discussed an e-mail she received from a recently-retired banker, who stays in touch with his former colleagues — all of whom remain actively trading the markets.  Ms. Tett observed that this man was “feeling deeply shocked” when he shared his observations with her:

“Forget about the events of the past 12 months … the punters are back punting as aggressively as ever,” he wrote.  “Highly leveraged short-term trades are back in vogue as players … jostle to load up on everything from Reits [real estate investment trusts] and commercial property, commodities, emerging markets and regular stocks and bonds.

“Oh, I am sure the banks’ public relations people will talk about the subdued atmosphere in banking, but don’t you believe it,” he continued bitterly, noting that when money is virtually free — or, at least, at 0.5 per cent — traders feel stupid if they don’t leverage up.

“Any sense of control is being chucked out of the window.  After the dotcom boom and bust it took a good few years for the market to get its collective mojo back [but] this time it has taken just a few months,” he added.  He finished with a despairing question:  “Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal for the crash when this latest bubble bursts?”

*   *   *

Yet, if you talk at length to traders — or senior bankers — it seems that few truly believe that fundamentals alone explain this pattern.  Instead, the real trigger is the amount of money that central bankers have poured into the system that is frantically seeking a home, because most banks simply do not want to use that cash to make loans.  Hence, the fact that the prices of almost all risk assets are rallying — even as non-risky assets such as Treasuries bounce too.

Now, some western policymakers like to argue — or hope –that this striking rally could be beneficial, in a way, even if it is not initially based on fundamentals.  After all, the argument goes, if markets rebound sharply, that should boost animal spirits in a way that could eventually seep through to the “real” economy.

On this interpretation, the current rally could turn out to be akin to the firelighter that one uses to start a blaze in a pile of damp wood.

*   *   *

So I, like my e-mail correspondent, am growing uneasy.  Perhaps, the optimistic “firelighter-igniting-the-damp-wood” scenario will yet come to play; but we will probably not really know whether the optimists are correct for at least another six months.

Gillian Tett’s “give it six months” approach seems much more sober and rational than what we hear from many of the exuberant commentators appearing on television.  Beyond that, she reminds us that our current situation involves a more important issue than the question of whether our economy can experience sustained growth:  The continued use of leveraged risk-taking by TARP beneficiaries invites the possibility of a return to last year’s crisis-level conditions.  As long as those banks know that the taxpayers will be back to bail them out again, there is every reason to assume that we are all headed for more trouble.