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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!


 

Cairo In America

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We have seen quite a bit of hand-wringing by those in the mainstream news media about the repression against protests in Cairo during the past few weeks.  What we don’t see on television are the oppressive tactics used against protesters and journalists here in the United States.  Never mind the fact that the Obama administration refuses to prosecute any of the crimes which led to the financial crisis.  Simply protesting against the refusal of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to do his job can result in arrests and beatings administered by police.  At The eXiled blog,Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement:

Remember how in November, Bloomberg and the NYPD got a lot of heat from the city’s media establishment for the arrest rampage they unleashed on journalists covering the eviction raid on Liberty Plaza?  Cops arrested more than two dozen accredited journalists from major news outlets, including the New York Post, NPR, AFP and The Associated Press.  Hell, cops even clubbed a couple of reporters for the baggertarian rag The Daily Caller.  As a result, New York’s police commissioner made a big show of issuing an order that instructed police officers not to interfere with journalists covering OWS.

But clearly that was just for show.

Because this month the NYPD has gone out of its way to harass and arrest journalists covering OWS, especially targeting live streamers and indie journalists who can’t be counted on for propaganda support like the mainstream folks.  According to Free Press’ Josh Stearns, who has been maintaining a list of journalists arrested while covering the Occupy Movement across the country, at least five journalists and seven live streamers were arrested by the NYPD in the first half of December.

*   *   *

The NYPD continued harassing indie journalists five days later during the D17 protests.  Some were bashed with batons, others were threatened with having their official press passes revoked. By the end of the day, at least two journalists were arrested, including photojournalist Zach Roberts and Jennifer Dworkin, an independent filmmaker who had worked for PBS.

It will be interesting to see whether a new piece of technology, called the “Occucopter” will enable those reporters to obtain valuable images of abusive police tactics – without getting their own skulls crushed in the process.  The Guardian provided this report:

This week in New York, Occupy Wall Street protesters have a new toy to help them expose potentially dubious actions of the New York police department.  In response to constant police surveillance, police violence and thousands of arrests, Occupy Wall Street protesters and legal observers have been turning their cameras back on the police.  But police have sometimes made filming difficult through physical obstruction and “frozen zones”.  This occurred most notably during the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where police prevented even credentialed journalists from entering.

Now the protesters are fighting back with their own surveillance drone.  Tim Pool, an Occupy Wall Street protester, has acquired a Parrot AR drone he amusingly calls the “occucopter”.  It is a lightweight four-rotor helicopter that you can buy cheaply on Amazon and control with your iPhone.  It has an onboard camera so that you can view everything on your phone that it points at.  Pool has modified the software to stream live video to the internet so that we can watch the action as it unfolds.  You can see video clips of his first experiments here.  He told us that the reason he is doing this “comes back to giving ordinary people the same tools that these multimillion-dollar news corporations have.  It provides a clever loophole around certain restrictions such as when the police block press from taking shots of an incident.”

The American public is no longer content to sit back and do nothing while the Obama administration sits back and does nothing to prosecute those criminals whose fraudulent conduct devastated the American economy.  In my last posting, I discussed the intensifying wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.  Since that time, Scot Paltrow wrote a great piece for Reuters, concerning the Justice Department’s failure to intervene against improper foreclosure procedures.  Paltrow’s widely-acclaimed essay inspired several commentators to express their disgust about government permissiveness toward such egregious conduct.  At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz shared his reaction to the Reuters article:

The fraud is rampant, self-evident, easy to prosecute.  The only reason it hasn’t been done so far is that this nation is led by corrupt cowards and suffers from a ruinous two-party system.

We were once a great nation that set a shining example for the rest of the world as to what the Rule of Law meant.  That is no more, as we have become a corrupt plutocracy.  Why our prosecutors cower in front of the almighty banking industry is beyond my limited ability to comprehend.

Without any sort of legal denouement, we should expect an angry electorate and an unhappy nation.

Is there any hope for America or will we continue on our course of devolution toward becoming a banana republic?  At his Pragmatic Capitalism blog, Cullen Roche brought a glimmer of hope to some of us when he published Saxo Bank’s list of 10 outrageous predictions for 2012.  I was particularly encouraged by the third item on the list:

3. A yet unannounced candidate takes the White House

In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot managed to take advantage of a recessionary economy and popular disgust with US politics and reap 18.9 per cent of the popular vote.  Three years of Obama has brought too little change and only additional widespread disillusionment with the entire US political system, and conditions for a third party candidate have never been riper.  Someone with a strong programme for real change throws his or her hat in the ring early in 2012 and snatches the presidency in November in one of the most pivotal elections in US history, taking 38 per cent of the popular vote.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


 

Transparency Gives Way To Cover-Ups

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It hasn’t been limited to the Obama administration and it’s really catching on.  Transparency just isn’t working out anymore.  Things run much more smoothly after a good, old-fashioned cover-up.  This attitude is becoming more popular all over the world.

President Obama’s transition from transparency to opacity became obvious last summer, in his discussion about the catastrophe in the Gulf of Corexit.  Here’s how I discussed this situation on August 26, 2010:

Consider what our President said on August 4th:

“A report out today by our scientists shows that the vast majority of the spilled oil has been dispersed or removed from the water,” Obama said.

Beth Daley of the Boston Globe gave us another example of what our government told us about all that oil:

Earlier this month, Jane Lubchenco, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration chief, declared that “at least 50 percent of the oil that was released is now completely gone from the system, and most of the remainder is degrading rapidly or is being removed from the beaches.”

On August 20, we learned about the falsity of the government’s claims that the oil had magically disappeared.  The Washington Post put it this way:

Academic scientists are challenging the Obama administration’s assertion that most of BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico is either gone or rapidly disappearing — with one group Thursday announcing the discovery of a 22-mile “plume” of oil that shows little sign of vanishing.

After the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear power plant disaster in March, I immediately became suspicious about the lack of transparency concerning that crisis:

A good deal of the frustration experienced by those attempting to ascertain the status of the potential nuclear hazards at Fukushima, was obviously due to the control over information flow exercised by the Japanese government.  I began to suspect that President Obama might have dispatched a team of Truth Suppressors from the Gulf of Corexit to assist the Japanese government with spin control.

More recently, Vivian Norris reported on what she has learned about the extent of radioactive contamination resulting from the Fukushima events in the Huffington Post.  In the middle of the piece, she took a step back and shared a reaction that many of us were experiencing:

Why is this not on the front page of every single newspaper in the world?  Why are official agencies not measuring from many places around the world and reporting on what is going on in terms of contamination every single day since this disaster happened?  Radioactivity has been being released now for almost two full months!  Even small amounts when released continuously, and in fact especially continuous exposure to small amounts of radioactivity, can cause all kinds of increases in cancers.

In the United States, the EPA has apparently become so concerned that the plume of radioactivity may have contaminated fish, which are being caught off the Pacific coast and served-up at our fine restaurants – that the agency has decided to cut back on radiation monitoring.  That’s right.  Thorough radiation testing of water and fish causes too much transparency – and that’s bad for business.  Susanne Rust of California Watch discussed the reaction this news elicited from a group called Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (Public Employees – uh-oh!):

The EPA and the Food and Drug Administration increased their radiation monitoring efforts after a massive earthquake and tsunami off the coast of Japan set off the world’s worst nuclear disaster since Chernobyl.

But on May 3, the EPA announced [PDF] in a press release that it was falling back to a business-as-usual schedule of radiation monitoring, citing “consistently decreasing radiation levels.”

*   *   *

“With the Japanese nuclear situation still out of control and expected to continue that way for months and with elevated radioactivity continuing to show up in the U.S., it is inexplicable that EPA would shut down its Fukushima radiation monitoring effort,” said Jeff Ruch, executive director of the watchdog group, in a statement.

*   *   *

According to Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, the EPA has proposed raising their guideline radiation limits, or Protection Action Guides.  These values are used to guide decision makers about when a clean up is needed after a nuclear incident.

According to Ruch, the new clean up standards are “thousands of times more lax than anything the EPA has ever before accepted.”

Documents obtained by the watchdog group [PDF] via the Freedom of Information Act indicate the EPA made a decision to approve the revised guidelines months ago, but has yet to make a formal announcement.

Meanwhile, aversion to transparency is now being discussed in Geneva.  John Heilprin is reporting for the Associated Press that the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is considering a reversal of its policy of transparency regarding how it spends the billions of dollars contributed to it.  Mr. Heilprin’s report discusses the hostile reaction to this suggestion – which resulted from revelations (by the organization’s internal transparency program) that the fund lost millions of dollars as a result of fraud and mismanagement.  The proposed solution:  to hell with transparency!  Be sure to read Heilprin’s entire report.  It presents a fine example of the latest trend in coping with the “transparency problem”.



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Maria Cantwell For President

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I was going to hold off on this and give President Obama the benefit of a doubt – at least for a few months.  Nevertheless, after reading the magnificent piece by Barry Ritholtz, entitled:  “The Tragedy of the Obama Administration”, I decided that it was time to start discussing leadership alternatives for the next Presidential term.

On October 30, the Associated Press published the results of a poll it conducted with Knowledge Networks.  Forty-seven percent of the Democrats surveyed expressed the opinion that Obama should be challenged for the 2012 Democratic Presidential nomination.  In the wake of the mid-term election massacre, I expect that more Democrats will be anxious to find a new standard-bearer for their party in 2012.  The AP article concerning the AP-KN poll, mentioned the theory that the public’s opinion of Obama could change if the economy improves.  Unfortunately, most American consumers will not observe any significant improvement in the economy during the next two years.  There is a greater likelihood that the Chicago Cubs will win next year’s World Series.

We currently find ourselves bombarded with a wide spectrum of opinions, which purport to explain what the results of the 2010 elections really mean.  The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this event is that the voters resent being taken for chumps.  Obama’s supporters were promised change they could believe in by a President and a party that sold its soul to the Wall Street megabanks at the cost of America’s future economic health.  When he had the opportunity to do so in early 2009, Obama refused to put those too-big-to-fail, zombie banks through temporary receivership.  As a result, we are now approaching a situation which – according to financial risk management expert Chris Whalen – will necessitate another round of bank bailouts.  When President Obama had the opportunity and the public support (not to mention Democratic control over both houses of Congress) to enact an adequate stimulus program to save the economy from a decade(s) – long, Japanese-style recession, he refused to so.  If an extra $600 billion had been added to the $787 billion in 2009 (as part of a better-thought-out, infrastructure-based stimulus program) we would be experiencing significant economic growth and a recovering job market right now.  Australia keeps reminding us of this.  (Oops!  Australia just did it again!)  Instead, America finds itself in a situation wherein the Fed is now appropriating that $600 billion toward another round of quantitative easing, which will serve no other purpose than to push investors into the stock market.  According to economist Andy Xie, those stock investors will have an unpleasant experience when Chairman Bernanke’s latest asset bubble pops in 2012.

While many Senate Democrats (along with operatives from the Treasury Department) were busy removing all of the teeth from the financial reform bill, Maria Cantwell was fighting those efforts as one of the few advocates for the American taxpayers.  Back on May 19, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post described how Senator Cantwell stood up to the efforts of Harry Reid to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Senator Cantwell has proven herself worthy of our trust.  Her nomination as the 2012 Democratic Presidential candidate will revive the excitement and voter enthusiasm witnessed during the 2008 campaign.  On the other hand, if President Obama decides to seek a second term and wins the nomination, we will likely find a greater enthusiasm gap than the example of November 2.  As a result, by January of 2013 we could have a new administration in the White House, espousing what economist Nouriel Roubini describes as “the economic equivalent of creationism”.

Here’s to a bright future!



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Elizabeth Warren To The Rescue

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March 4, 2010

We reached the point where serious financial reform began to look like a lost cause.  Nothing has been done to address the problems that caused the financial crisis.  Economists have been warning that we could be facing another financial crisis, requiring another round of bank bailouts.  The watered-down financial reform bill passed by the House of Representatives, HR 4173, is about to become completely defanged by the Senate.

The most hotly-contested aspect of the proposed financial reform bill — the establishment of an independent, stand-alone, Consumer Financial Protection Agency — is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Back on January 18, Elizabeth Warren (Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel and the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA) explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

The latest effort to sabotage the proposed CFPA involves placing it under the control of the Federal Reserve.  As Craig Torres and Yalman Onaran explained for Bloomberg News:

Putting it inside the Fed, instead of creating a standalone bureau, was a compromise proposed by Senator Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, and Banking Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat.

*   *   *

Banking lobbyists say the Fed’s knowledge of the banking system makes it well-suited to coordinate rules on credit cards and other consumer financial products.

*   *   *

The financial-services industry has lobbied lawmakers to defeat the plan for a consumer agency.  JP Morgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon called the agency “just a whole new bureaucracy” on a December conference call with analysts.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, recently discussed the importance of having an independent CFPA:

Currently, there are several proposals floating around to change the basic concept of a consumer protection agency.  For the most part, these proposals are meaningless, watered down foolishness, bordering on idiotic.  Let the Fed do it? They were already charged with doing this, and under Greenspan, committed Nonfeasance — they failed to do their duty.

The Fed is the wrong agency for this.

In an interview with Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post, Congressman Barney Frank expressed a noteworthy reaction to the idea:

“It’s like making me the chief judge of the Miss America contest,” Frank said.

On Tuesday, March 2, Elizabeth Warren spent the day on the phone with reform advocates, members of Congress and administration officials, as she explained in an interview with Shahien Nasiripour of The Huffington Post.  The key point she stressed in that interview was the message:  “Pass a strong bill or nothing at all.”  It sounds as though she is afraid that the financial reform bill could suffer the same fate as the healthcare reform bill.  That notion was reinforced by the following comments:

My first choice is a strong consumer agency  . . .  My second choice is no agency at all and plenty of blood and teeth left on the floor.

*   *   *

“The lobbyists would like nothing better than for the story to be the [proposed] agency has died and everyone has given up,” Warren said.  “The lobbyists’ closest friends in the Senate would like nothing better than passing an agency that has a good name but no real impact so they have something good to say to the voters — and something even better to say to the lobbyists.”

Congratulations, Professor Warren!  At last, someone with some cajones is taking charge of this fight!

On Wednesday, March 3, the Associated Press reported that the Obama administration was getting involved in the financial reform negotiations, with Treasury Secretary Geithner leading the charge for an independent Consumer Financial Protection agency.  I suspect that President Obama must have seen the “Ex-Presidents” sketch from the FunnyOrDie.com website, featuring the actors from Saturday Night Live portraying former Presidents (and ghosts of ex-Presidents) in a joint effort toward motivating Obama to make sure the CFPA becomes a reality.  When Dan Aykroyd and Chevy Chase reunited, joining Dana Carvey, Will Ferrell and Darryl Hammond in promoting this cause, Obama could not have turned them down.




The Battle Over Bernanke

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January 25, 2010

Ben Bernanke’s four-year term as chairman of the Federal Reserve ends on January 31.  There is presently no vote scheduled to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Bernanke to that post because four Senators (Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.; Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C. and David Vitter, R-La.) have placed holds on Bernanke’s nomination.  In order for the Senate to proceed to a vote on the nomination, 60 votes will be required.  At this point, there is a serious question as to whether the pro-Bernanke faction can produce those 60 votes.  A number of commentators have described last week’s win by Scott Brown as a “chill factor” for those Senators considering whether to vote for confirmation.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post put it this way:

Opposition to the reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is growing in the Senate in the wake of a Republican Scott Brown’s victory, fueled by populist rage, in the Massachusetts Senate race.

James Pethokoukis of Reuters explained the situation in these terms:

Liberals in Congress want him gone.  Then again, they want pretty much the whole Obama economic team gone.  But Geithner and Summers aren’t up for a Senate vote.  Bernanke is.  And if Dems start bailing, don’t expect Republicans to save him.  No politician in America gains anything by voting for Bernanke.  A “no” vote is a free vote.  Wall Street still loves him, though.  Geithner, too.

At The Hill, Tony Romm reported:

Bernanke has taken heat as Wall Street’s profits have soared while unemployment has become stuck in double digits, and the wave of economic populism soaring through Washington in the wake of a stunning Democratic loss in the Massachusetts Senate races comes at a bad time for his confirmation.

If Bernanke is not confirmed, he will continue to sit on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors because each Fed Governor is appointed to a 14-year term.  Donald Kohn, the vice chairman, would serve as the interim chairman until Bernanke’s successor is nominated and confirmed.

The forces pushing for Bernanke’s confirmation have now resorted to scare tactics, warning that dire consequences will result from a failure to re-confirm Bernanke.  Senator “Countrywide Chris” Dodd warned that if Bernanke is not confirmed, the economy will go into a “tailspin”.  An Associated Press report, written by Jennine Aversa and carried by The Washington Post, warned that a failure to confirm Bernanke could raise the risk of a double-dip recession.  At The Atlantic, Megan McArdle exploited widespread concern over already-depleted retirement savings:

Spiking his nomination may have grim effects on 401(k)s throughout the land.

Not to be outdone, Judge Richard Posner issued this warning from his perch at The Atlantic:

If he is not confirmed, the independence of the Fed will take a terrible hit, because the next nominee will have to make outright promises to Congress of bank bashing, and of keeping interest rates way down regardless of inflation risk, in order to be confirmed.

I guess that these people forgot to mention that if Bernanke is not confirmed:

A plague of locusts shall be visited upon us,

The earth will be struck by a Texas-sized asteroid,

An incurable venereal disease will be spread via toilet seats,

The Internet will vanish, and   . . .

Osama bin Laden will become the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

At the Think Progress website, Matthew Yglesias pondered the issue:

What happens if Ben Bernanke isn’t reconfirmed?  Well, some folks seem to think it will send markets into a tailspin.  But it’s worth emphasizing that in literal terms almost nothing will happen.

Beyond that, as Sudeep Reddy and Damian Paletta explained in The Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Open Market Committee — which consists of the presidentially appointed Fed governors in Washington and the presidents of the regional Fed banks — meets Jan. 26-27 and traditionally elects a chairman and vice chairman at its first meeting of the year.  The committee, which makes monetary policy decisions, is set to elect Mr. Bernanke as its chairman at that meeting, a move that doesn’t require approval of the White House or the Senate.

Min Zeng of The Wall Street Journal filled us in as to what else we can expect from the FOMC this week:

Next week, the two-day FOMC meeting will end Wednesday afternoon with a statement on an interest-rate decision and policymakers’ latest outlook on the economy and inflation.

The FOMC is widely expected by market participants to keep its main policy rate — the fed-funds target rate — at ultra-low levels near zero as recent data haven’t demonstrated a persistent and strong economic recovery, with a jobless rate still hovering around the highest level in more than two decades.

Fed policymakers are also likely to stick to their plan to end the $1.25 trillion mortgage-backed securities purchases program at the end of March.  The central bank should also reiterate its plan to let some emergency lending programs expire Feb. 1.

The Fed could soon hike the rate it charges on emergency loans, known as the discount rate, but that would largely be symbolic now that banks have been borrowing less and less from it as financial markets stabilized.

Meanwhile, the battle against the Bernanke confirmation continues.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has urged his readers to contact the “undecided” Senators and voice opposition to Bernanke.  Mish has also provided the names and contact information for those Senators, as well as the names of those Senators who are currently on record as either supporting or opposing Bernanke.

I’d like to see Bernanke lose, regardless of the consequences.  The rationale for this opinion was superbly articulated by Senator Jim Bunning during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  If you’re not familiar with it — give it a read.  Here is Senator Bunning’s conclusion to those remarks, delivered directly to Bernanke:

From monetary policy to regulation, consumer protection, transparency, and independence, your time as Fed Chairman has been a failure.  You stated time and again during the housing bubble that there was no bubble.  After the bubble burst, you repeatedly claimed the fallout would be small.  And you clearly did not spot the systemic risks that you claim the Fed was supposed to be looking out for.  Where I come from we punish failure, not reward it.  That is certainly the way it was when I played baseball, and the way it is all across America.  Judging by the current Treasury Secretary, some may think Washington does reward failure, but that should not be the case.  I will do everything I can to stop your nomination and drag out the process as long as possible.  We must put an end to your and the Fed’s failures, and there is no better time than now.

Amen.




The Weakest Link

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November 2, 2009

Everything was supposed to be getting “back to normal” by now.  Since late July, we’ve been hearing that the recession is over.  When the Gross Domestic Product number for the third quarter was released on Thursday, we again heard the ejaculations of enthusiasm from those insisting that the recession has ended.  Investors were willing to overlook the most recent estimate that another 531,000 jobs were lost during the month of October, so the stock market got a boost.  Nevertheless, as was widely reported, the Cash for Clunkers program added 1.66 percent to the 3.5 percent Gross Domestic Product annualized rate increase.  Since Cash for Clunkers was a short-lived event, something else will be necessary to fill its place, stimulating economic activity.  Once that sobering aspect of the story was absorbed, Friday morning’s news informed us that consumer spending had dropped for the first time in five months.  The Associated Press provided this report:

Economists worry that the recovery could falter in coming months if households cut back on spending to cope with rising unemployment, heavy debt loads and tight credit conditions.

“With incomes so soft, increased spending will be a struggle,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S.economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

The Commerce Department said Friday that spending dropped 0.5% in September, the first decline in five months.  Personal incomes were unchanged as workers contend with rising unemployment.  Wages and salaries fell 0.2%, erasing a 0.2% gain in August.

Another report showed that employers face little pressure to raise pay, even as the economy recovers.  The weak labor market makes it difficult for people with jobs to demand higher pay and benefits.

*   *   *

. . .  some economists believe that consumer spending will slow sharply in the current quarter, lowering GDP growth to perhaps 1.5%.  Analysts said the risk of a double-dip recession cannot be ruled out over the next year.

With unemployment as bad as it is, those who have jobs need to be mindful of the Sword of Damocles, as it hangs perilously over their heads.  As the AP report indicated, employers are now in an ideal position to exploit their work force.  Worse yet, as Mish pointed out:

Personal income decreased $15.5 billion (0.5 percent), while real disposable personal income decreased 3.4 percent, in contrast to an increase of 3.8 percent last quarter. Those are horrible numbers.

The war on the American consumer finally bit Wall Street in the ass on Friday when the S&P 500 index took a 2.8 percent nosedive.  When mass layoffs become the magic solution to make dismal corporate earnings reports appear positive, when the consumer is treated as a chump by regulatory agencies, lobbyists and government leaders, the consumer stops fulfilling the designated role of consuming.  When that happens, the economy stands still.  As Renae Merle reported for The Washington Post:

“The government handed the ball off to the consumer and the consumer fell on it,” said Robert G. Smith, chairman of Smith Affiliated Capital in New York. “This is a function of there being no jobs and wages going lower.”

The sell-off on the stock market also reflected a report released Friday showing a decline in consumer sentiment this month, analysts said.  The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 70.6 in October, compared with 73.5 in September.

Rich Miller of Bloomberg News discussed the resulting apprehension experienced by investors:

Only 31 percent of respondents to a poll of investors and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers in the U.S., Europe and Asia see investment opportunities, down from 35 percent in the previous survey in July.  Almost 40 percent in the latest quarterly survey, the Bloomberg Global Poll, say they are still hunkering down.  U.S. investors are even more cautious, with more than 50 percent saying they are in a defensive crouch.

*   *   *

Worldwide, investors and analysts now view the U.S. as the weak link in the global economy, with its markets seen as among the riskiest by a plurality of those surveyed.  One in four respondents expects an unemployment rate of 11 percent or more a year from now, compared with a U.S. administration forecast of 9.7 percent.  The jobless rate now is 9.8 percent, a 26-year high.

Even before the release of “good news” on Thursday followed by Friday’s bad news, stock analysts who base their trading decisions primarily on reading charts, could detect indications of continuing market decline, as Michael Kahn explained for Barron’s last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis continues to generate criticism from across the political spectrum while breeding dissent from within.  As I said last month, the administration’s current strategy is a clear breach of candidate Obama’s campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  The widespread opposition to the administration’s proposed legislation to regulate (read that: placate) large financial companies was discussed by Stephen Labaton for The New York Times:

Senior regulators and some lawmakers clashed once again with the Obama administration on Thursday, finding fault with central elements of the White House’s latest plan to unwind large financial companies when their troubles imperil the financial system.

The Times article focused on criticism of the administration’s plan, expressed by Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  As Mr.Labaton noted, shortly after Mr. Obama was elected President, Turbo Tim Geithner began an unsuccessful campaign to have Ms. Bair replaced.

On Friday, economist James K. Galbraith was interviewed by Bill Moyers.  Here’s what Professor Galbraith had to say about the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis:

They made a start, and certainly in the stimulus package, there were important initiatives.  But the stimulus package is framed as a stimulus, as something which is temporary, which will go away after a couple of years.  And that is not the way to proceed here.  The overwhelming emphasis, in the administration’s program, I think, has been to return things to a condition of normalcy, to use a 1920s word, that prevailed five and ten years ago.  That is to say, we’re back to a world in which Wall Street and the major banks are leading, and setting the path–

*   *   *

. . . they’ve largely been preoccupied with keeping the existing system from collapsing.  And the government is powerful.  It has substantially succeeded at that, but you really have to think about, do you want to have a financial sector dominated by a small number of very large institutions, very difficult to manage, practically impossible to regulate, and ruled by, essentially, the same people and the same culture that caused the crisis in the first place.

BILL MOYERS:  Well, that’s what we’re getting, because after all of the mergers, shakedowns, losses of the last year, you have five monster financial institutions really driving the system, right?

JAMES GALBRAITH:  And they’re highly profitable, and they are already paying, in some cases, extraordinary bonuses.  And you have an enormous problem, as the public sees very clearly that a very small number of people really have been kept afloat by public action .  And yet there is no visible benefit to people who are looking for jobs or people who are looking to try and save their houses or to somehow get out of a catastrophic personal debt situation that they’re in.

This is just another illustration of how “trickle down economics” doesn’t work.  President Obama knows better.  He told us that he would not follow that path.  Yet, here we are:  a country viewed as the weak link in the global economy because the well-being of those institutions considered “too big to fail” is the paramount concern of this administration.




A Wake-up Call From Dennis Blair

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February 19, 2009

Although President Obama has been criticized for many of his appointments, the selection of retired Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence appears to have been a wise choice.  Blair graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1968.  He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar contemporaneously with Bill Clinton.  (However, I doubt that Blair was standing next to Bill when the former President “didn’t inhale”.)  Blair retired from the Navy in 2002.

On Thursday, February 12, Blair appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and surprised his audience with his new threat assessment.  As Tom Gjelten reported for National Public Radio:

National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair’s dramatic report last week — that the economic crisis is now the United States’ top “near-term security concern” — caught some members of Congress by surprise.  But it makes sense.

The global economic downturn could easily change the world. Previously stable countries could become unstable.  The geopolitical lineup could shift sharply, some countries becoming more powerful while others get weaker.  Allies could turn into adversaries.

Pamela Hess of the Associated Press provided this account of the hearing:

Blair’s 49-page statement opened with a detailed description of the economic crisis.  It was a marked departure from threat briefings of years past, which focused first on traditional threats and battlefields like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

“The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” he said in a written statement for the committee.

Blair cited the inability of other nations to meet their humanitarian obligations and hostility toward the United States for causing this crisis as potential causes for unrest, as this AFP report disclosed:

“Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period,” Blair said.

“Besides increased economic nationalism, the most likely political fallout for US interests will involve allies and friends not being able to fully meet their defense and humanitarian obligations.”

*   *   *

“It already has increased questioning of US stewardship of the global economy and the international financial structure,” Blair said, with trading partners already upset over a “Buy American” provision in a US stimulus bill.

Rosalie Westenskow of UPI noted Blair’s concern that the impact of climate change, coinciding with the economic crisis, could provide a troublesome combination to facilitate government instability:

“The impacts (of climate change) will worsen existing problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions,” Blair told senators last week.

As temperatures rise, scientists predict natural disasters like floods and drought will also increase and government instability worldwide is likely to follow, he said.

On February 17, during an interview in Tokyo with Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ratified Blair’s concern about the security threat posed by the global economic crisis:

“Yes, we have to look at this as part of our threat matrix,” the secretary of state said.  “I know some people have criticized him and said, ‘what does the economy have to do with terrorism.’ That’s a very short-sighted view.  I think what director Blair was saying is that we get fixated sometimes on the headlines of dangers, and that is not in any way to underestimate the continuing threat from terrorism, the instability in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere.”

“But this economic crisis, left unresolved, will create massive unemployment,” she said.  “It will upend governments, it will unfortunately breed instability, and I appreciated his putting that into the context of the threat matrix.”

It’s nice to know that we have an intelligence director who is not wedded to the Bush administration’s fixation on September 11 -style attacks.  As this February 16 editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out:

The new threat isn’t as easy to identify – or vilify – as al Queda, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious.

*    *    *

No one knows what form the next wave of instability will take. The United States must start making preparations now – by shoring up our own flailing economy and supporting our allies as much as we possibly can.  Blair’s warning shows how dangerous it will be for Washington to continue battling along the same tired ideological lines that it has for the last several weeks.  This economic crisis could be putting more than our wallets at risk.

Of course, we don’t really need another reason to stay awake at night and worry.  Fortunately, we now have someone in a crucial position, capable of identifying and focusing on new threats.  Thanks for the “heads up” Admiral Blair!

It’s Time For Obama And Geithner To Blink

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February 16, 2009

On Tuesday, February 10, our newly-appointed Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, rolled out a vague description of his new “Financial Stability Plan”.  Most commentators were shocked at the lack of information Geithner provided about this proposal.

This was in stark contrast with President Obama’s description of what we would hear from Geithner, as the President explained during his February 9 press conference.  In response to a question by Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, concerning his earlier statements about the worsening recession, Obama stated:

And so tomorrow my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again.

Later in the conference, Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News asked the President how he could expect the remaining $350 billion in available in TARP funds to solve the problems with the financial system when individuals, such as economist Nouriel Roubini, have explained that the price tag for such a fix could exceed a trillion dollars.  Again, the President explained:

We also have to deal with the housing issue in a clear and consistent way.  I don’t want to preempt my Secretary of the Treasury; he’s going to be laying out these principles in great detail tomorrow.

Yet again, in response to a question from Helene Cooper of The New York Times as to whether financial institutions receiving federal bailout money would be required to resume lending again, the President responded:

Again, Helene — and I’m trying to avoid preempting my Secretary of the Treasury, I want all of you to show up at his press conference as well; he’s going to be terrific.

Despite this hype, the following day’s presentation by Tim Geithner offered neither “clear and specific plans” nor “great detail” about the principles involved.  Nearly all of the editorials dealing with this strange event voiced a negative appraisal of Geithner’s discourse, particularly due to the complete absence of any discussion of specific measures to be employed by the Department of the Treasury.  Did something change between Monday night and Tuesday’s event?  Recent developments suggest that disagreements over the details of this plan, particularly those related to the possible “nationalization” of insolvent banks, forced the entire project into a state of flux.

Prior to last Tuesday’s fiasco, Geithner admitted to David Brooks of The New York Times that he was averse to the idea of nationalizing insolvent banks, even on a temporary basis:

Therefore, Geithner argues, the government doesn’t need to go in and nationalize the banks.  “It’s very important that we don’t look like there’s any intent of taking over or managing banks.  Governments are terrible managers of bad assets.  There’s no good history of governments doing that well.”

Geithner’s throwaway argument was disputed by Joe Nocera in the February 13 New York Times:

But that’s a canard.  The government did a terrific job managing banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.  It took over banks — “we called them bridge banks,” recalled William Seidman, the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with a chuckle — replaced their top managers and directors, stripped out bad assets that the government then managed brilliantly, and sold the newly healthy banks to private buyers.  It turned out not to be all that hard to find actual bankers who could run these S.& L.’s for the federal government.

Geithner’s resistance to nationalization of insolvent banks represents a stark departure from the recommendations of many economists.  While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month, Dr. Nouriel Roubini explained (during an interview on CNBC) that the cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.   So I think it’s a bad idea.   It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

Dr. Roubini’s solution is to face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.  On February 15, Dr. Roubini repeated this theme in a Washington Post article he co-wrote with fellow New York University economics professor, Matthew Richardson.

Even after Geithner’s disastrous press conference, President Obama voiced a negative reaction to the Swedish approach during an interview with Terry Moran of ABC News:

Sweden, on the other hand, had a problem like this.  They took over the banks, nationalized them, got rid of the bad assets, resold the banks and, a couple years later, they were going again.  So you’d think looking at it, Sweden looks like a good model.  Here’s the problem; Sweden had like five banks.  [LAUGHS] We’ve got thousands of banks.  You know, the scale of the U.S. economy and the capital markets are so vast and the problems in terms of managing and overseeing anything of that scale,  I think, would — our assessment was that it wouldn’t make sense.  And we also have different traditions in this country.

Obviously, Sweden has a different set of cultures in terms of how the government relates to markets and America’s different.  And we want to retain a strong sense of that private capital fulfilling the core — core investment needs of this country.

Obama’s strident resistance to the Swedish approach could force him into an embarrassing situation, in the event that he changes his view of that strategy.  This may happen once Geithner begins applying his “stress tests” this week, to measure the solvency of individual banks.  On the ABC News program “This Week”, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina expressed his opinion that the option of nationalizing these unhealthy banks should remain open:

GRAHAM:  Yes, this idea of nationalizing banks is not comfortable, but I think we have gotten so many toxic assets spread throughout the banking and financial community throughout the world that we’re going to have to do something that no one ever envisioned a year ago, no one likes, but, to me, banking and housing are the root cause of this problem.  And I’m very much afraid that any program to salvage the bank is going to require the government…

STEPHANOPOULOS:  So what would you do now?

GRAHAM:  I — I would not take off the idea of nationalizing the banks.

President Obama and Turbo Tim need to keep similarly open minds about the nationalization option.  They wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the “moral hazard” argument, forcing taxpayers to eat the losses risked by investors — especially with a prominent Republican wagging his finger at them.  This situation calls for only one response by the new administration:  Blink.

Another Troubling Appointment By Obama

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February 5, 2009

It all started with Bill Richardson.  On January 4, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson announced that he was withdrawing as nominee for the position of Commerce Secretary, due to an investigation into allegations of influence peddling.

Then there was a brief moment of concern over the fact that Treasury Secretary nominee, Timothy Geithner, was a little late with some self-employment tax payments.  Since his new position would put him in charge of the Internal Revenue Service, many people found this shocking.  Even more shocking was his admission that he prepared his income taxes using the TurboTax software program.  That entire controversy was overlooked because Geithner has been regarded as the only person in Washington who fully understands the TARP bailout bill (as Newsweek‘s Jonathan Alter once said).

On February 3, two more Obama appointees had to step aside.  The first was Nancy Killefer, who had been selected to become “Chief Performance Officer”, in which role she would have been tasked with cleaning up waste in government programs.  Her situation didn’t sound all that scandalous.  The Wall Street Journal explained that she “… had a $946.69 tax lien imposed on her home by the District of Columbia for unpaid taxes on household help, a debt she had satisfied long ago.”  Later that day, Tom Daschle had to withdraw his nomination to become Secretary of Health and Human Services.  It seemed that his failure to timely pay over $100,000 in taxes was just part of the problem.  As the previously-mentioned Wall Street Journal article pointed out, the Daschle nomination provided additional embarrassment for President Obama:

Beyond the tax issue, Mr. Daschle was increasingly being portrayed as a Washington insider who made a fortune by trading on his Beltway connections — an example of the kind of culture Mr. Obama had pledged to change.

Meanwhile, many Democrats were expressing dismay over the February 2 announcement that Republican Senator Judd Gregg had been tapped to become Commerce Secretary.  Back in 1995, as United States Senator representing New Hampshire, he voted in favor of a budget measure that would have abolished the Commerce Department.  To many, this seemed too much like the George W. Bush tactic of putting a saboteur in charge of an administrative agency.  Nevertheless, Senator Gregg was ready to address those concerns.  As Liz Sidoti reported for the Associated Press:

In a conference call with reporters, Gregg dismissed questions about the vote.

“I say those were my wild and crazy days,” he said.  “My record on supporting Commerce far exceeds any one vote that was cast early on in the context of an overall budget.”

Gregg said he’s strongly supported the agency, particularly its scientific initiatives, including at the agency’s largest department, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Finally, on Wednesday February 5, those who concurred with President Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had good reason to feel anxious.  That day brought us the long-awaited testimony of independent financial fraud investigator, Harry Markopolos, before the House Financial Services Committee.  Back in May of 2000, Mr. Markopolos tried to alert the SEC to the fact that Bernie Madoff’s hedge fund was a multi-billion-dollar Ponzi scheme.  As Markopolos explained in his testimony, he repeatedly attempted to get the SEC to investigate this scam, only to be rebuffed on every occasion.  Although his testimony included some good advice directed to Ms. Schapiro about “cleaning up” the SEC, this portion of his testimony, as discussed by Marcy Gordon of the Associated Press, deserves some serious attention:

While the SEC is incompetent, the securities industry’s self-policing organization, the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, is “very corrupt,” Markopolos charged.  That organization was headed until December by Schapiro, who has said Madoff carried out the scheme through his investment business and FINRA was empowered to inspect only the brokerage operation.

So Schapiro’s defense is that FINRA was empowered to inspect only brokerages and Madoff Investments was not a brokerage.  This doesn’t address Markopolos’ testimony that FINRA is “very corrupt”.  Mary Schapiro was the Chair and CEO of that “very corrupt” entity from 2006 until December of 2008.  Let’s not forget that during her tenure in that position she appointed Bernie Madoff’s son, Mark Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council.  The Mark Madoff appointment was discussed back on December 18 by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell, in The Wall Street Journal.  At that time, they provided an informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record, which should have discouraged the new President from appointing her as he did on his second day in office:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.

*   *   *

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers  . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

I would be much more comfortable with a small-time tax cheat in charge of the SEC, than I am with Mary Schapiro in that position.  As his testimony demonstrates, Harry Markopolos is the person who should be running the SEC.