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Geithner Gets Bashed in New Book

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Much has been written about “Turbo” Tim Geithner since he first became Treasury Secretary on January 26, 2009.  In his book, Too Big to Fail, Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote adoringly about Geithner’s athletic expertise.  On the other hand, typing “Turbo Tim Geithner” into the space on the upper-right corner of this page and clicking on the little magnifying glass will lead you to no less than 61 essays wherein I saw fit to criticize the Treasury Secretary.  I first coined the “Turbo” nickname on February 9, 2009 and on February 16 of that year I began linking “Turbo” to an explanatory article, for those who did not understand the reference.

Geithner has never lacked defenders.  The March 10, 2010 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title was meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system were working, although he was not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, the New Yorker piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he had been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the New Yorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

Another article on Geithner, appearing in the April 2010 issue of The Atlantic, was described by Edward Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

In November of 2008, President George W. Bush appointed Neil M. Barofsky to the newly-established position, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP).  Barofsky was responsible for preventing fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds.  From his first days on that job, Neil Barofsky found Timothy Geithner to be his main opponent.  On March 31 of 2009, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP.  The hearing included testimony by Neil Barofsky, who explained how the Treasury Department had been interfering with his efforts to ascertain what was being done with TARP funds which had been distributed to the banks.  Matthew Jaffe of ABC News described Barofsky’s frustration in attempting to get past the Treasury Department’s roadblocks.

On the eve of his retirement from the position of Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP), Neil Barofsky wrote an op-ed piece for the March 30, 2011 edition of The New York Times entitled, “Where the Bailout Went Wrong”.  Barofsky devoted a good portion of the essay to a discussion of the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”, with a particular focus on the Treasury Department:

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP — which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers — into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals — whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in — may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

It should come as no surprise that in Neil Barofsky’s new book, Bailout: An Inside Account of How Washington Abandoned Main Street While Rescuing Wall Street, the author pulls no punches in his criticism of Timothy Geithner.  Barofsky has been feeding us some morsels of what to expect from the book by way of some recent articles in Bloomberg News.  Here is some of what Barofsky wrote for Bloomberg on July 22:

More important, the financial markets continue to bet that the government will once again come to the big banks’ rescue.  Creditors still give the largest banks more favorable terms than their smaller counterparts — a direct subsidy to those that are already deemed too big to fail, and an incentive for others to try to join the club.  Similarly, the major banks are given better credit ratings based on the assumption that they will be bailed out.

*   *   *

The missteps by Treasury have produced a valuable byproduct: the widespread anger that may contain the only hope for meaningful reform. Americans should lose faith in their government.  They should deplore the captured politicians and regulators who distributed tax dollars to the banks without insisting that they be accountable.  The American people should be revolted by a financial system that rewards failure and protects those who drove it to the point of collapse and will undoubtedly do so again.

Only with this appropriate and justified rage can we hope for the type of reform that will one day break our system free from the corrupting grasp of the megabanks.

In his review of Barofsky’s new book, Darrell Delamaide of MarketWatch discussed the smackdown Geithner received from Barofsky:

Barofsky may have an axe to grind, but he grinds it well, portraying Geithner as a dissembling bureaucrat in thrall to the banks and reminding us all that President Barack Obama’s selection of Geithner as his top economic official may have been one of his biggest mistakes, and a major reason the White House incumbent has to fight so hard for re-election.

From his willingness to bail out the banks with virtually no accountability, to his failure to make holders of credit default swaps on AIG take a haircut, to his inability to mount any effective program for mortgage relief, Geithner systematically favored Wall Street over Main Street and created much of the public’s malaise in the aftermath of the crisis.

*    *    *

Barofsky, a former prosecutor, relates that he rooted for Geithner to get the Treasury appointment and was initially willing to give him the benefit of the doubt when it emerged that he had misreported his taxes while he worked at the International Monetary Fund.

But as more details on those unpaid taxes came out and Geithner’s explanations seemed increasingly disingenuous, Barofsky had his first doubts about the secretary-designate.

Barofsky, of course, was not alone in his skepticism, and Geithner’s credibility was damaged from the very beginning by the disclosures about his unpaid taxes.

*   *   *

Barofsky concludes his scathing condemnation of Geithner’s “bank-centric policies” by finding some silver lining in the cloud – that the very scale of the government’s failure will make people angry enough to demand reform.

Once Geithner steps down from his position at the end of the year, we may find that his legacy is defined by Neil Barofsky’s book, rather than any claimed rescue of the financial system.


 

EU-phoria Fades

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The most recent “light at the end of the tunnel” for the European sovereign debt crisis was seen on Friday June 29.  At a summit in Brussels, leaders of the European Union member nations agreed upon yet another “plan for a plan” to recapitalize failing banks – particularly in Spain.  The Summit Statement, which briefly summarized the terms of the plan, explained that an agreement was reached to establish a supervisory entity which would oversee the European banking system and to allow recapitalization of troubled banks without adding to sovereign debt.  By owning shares in the ailing banks, the European Stability Mechanism would no longer have a senior creditor status, in order to prevent investors from being scared away from buying sovereign bonds.

The bond markets were relieved to know that once again, taxpayers would be paying for the losses sustained by bondholders.  The reaction was immediate.  Spanish and Italian bond yields dropped faster than William Shatner’s pants when he passed through airport securitySpain’s ten-year bond yield dropped to 6.51 percent on June 29 from the previous day’s closing level of 6.87 percent.  Italy’s ten-year bond yield sank to 5.79 percent from the previous closing level of 6.24 percent.

Global stock indices went parabolic after the news from Brussels on June 29.  Nevertheless, many commentators expressed their skepticism about the latest plan.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the shortcomings of the proposal in his Weekly Market Comment:

The upshot here is that Spain’s banks are undercapitalized and insolvent, but rather than take them over and appropriately restructure them in a way that requires bondholders to take losses instead of the public, Spain hopes to tap European bailout funds so that it can provide capital directly to its banks through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and put all of Europe’s citizens on the hook for the losses.Spainhas been trying to get bailout funds without actually having the government borrow the money, because adding new debt to its books would drive the country further toward sovereign default.  Moreover, institutions like the ESM, the ECB, and the IMF generally enjoy senior status on their loans, so that citizens and taxpayers are protected.  Spain’s existing bondholders have objected to this, since a bailout for the banks would make their Spanish debt subordinate to the ESM.

As a side note, the statement suggests that Ireland, which already bailed its banks out the old-fashioned way, will demand whatever deal Spain gets.

So the hope is that Europe will agree to establish a single bank supervisor for all of Europe’s banks.  After that, the ESM – Europe’s bailout fund – would have the “possibility” to provide capital directly to banks.  Of course, since we’re talking about capital – the first buffer against losses – the bailout funds could not simply be lent to the banks, since debt is not capital.  Instead, it would have to be provided by directly purchasing stock (though one can imagine the Orwellian possibility of the ESM lending to bank A to buy shares of bank B, and lending to bank B to buy shares of bank A).  On the question of whether this is a good idea, as opposed to the alternative of properly restructuring banks, ask Spain how the purchase of Bankia stock has been working out for Spanish citizens (Bankia’s bondholders should at least send a thank-you note).  In any event, if this plan for a plan actually goes through, the bailout funds – provided largely by German citizens – would not only lose senior status to Spain’s government debt; the funds would be subordinate even to the unsecured debt held by the bondholders of Spanish banks, since equity is the first thing you wipe out when a bank is insolvent.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the German people to figure this out.

The criticism expressed by Charles Hugh Smith is particularly relevant because it addresses the latest move by the European Central Bank to lower its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points (0.25%) to a record low of 0.75 percent.  Smith’s essay, entitled “Sorry Bucko Europe Is Still in a Death Spiral” consisted of sixteen phases of the death spiral dynamic.  Here are the final seven:

10. Transferring bad debt to central banks does not mean interest will not accrue: interest on the debt still must be paid out of future income, impairing that income.

11. Lowering interest rates does not create collateral where none exists.

12. Lowering interest rates only stretches out the death spiral, it does not halt or reverse it.

13. Centralizing banking and oversight does not create collateral where none exists.

14. Europe will remain in a financial death spiral until the bad debt is renounced/written off and assets are liquidated on the open market.

15. Anything other than this is theater.  Pushing the endgame out a few months is not a solution, nor will it magically create collateral or generate sustainable “growth.”

16. The Martian Central Bank could sell bonds to replace bad debt in Europe, but as long as the MCB collects interest on the debt, then nothing has changed.

The Martians would be extremely bent when they discovered there is no real collateral for their 10 trillion-quatloo loan portfolio in Europe.

Of course, Mr. Smith is forgetting that the Martians could call upon those generous taxpayers from planet Zobion for a bailout   .   .   .


 

European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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MythBusting

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How many times have you heard politicians or mainstream media pundits dump on “The Internet” as an unreliable source of information, due to an abundance of unchecked, dubious reports, which are touted as the truth?  To the contrary, politicians are the least reliable sources of information in our society because – as everyone knows – they are crooks and liars.

The mainstream media have been vested with unchallenged credibility for too long.  It wasn’t until the advent of on-line news reporting (and blogging) when the news “authorities” were subjected to a regular scheme of serious fact-checking.  Nevertheless, the mainstream media still persist in promoting erroneous stories that seem to take on a life of their own – partly because so many news outlets stumble over each other for the sake of parroting the same meme reported by a competitor.  Remember the “Balloon Boy” story?  For an entire afternoon last year, the nation stayed glued to the television, watching a UFO-styled balloon float across Colorado with helicopters in hot pursuit.  Throughout that entire episode, no news reporter or TV commentator saw fit to raise the question:  Is that balloon really large enough to lift a little boy into the sky and haul him through the air like that while it is obviously deflating?  Of course not.  That would have killed the story.

This week brought us a few commentaries, which have done a good job of running against the mainstream media-generated consensus reality to show us what is hiding under the rock.  The first item was something I found on The Big Picture website:  a 50-page, on-line book by Jonathan Tasini entitled, It’s Not Raining, We’re Getting Peed On:  The Scam of the Deficit Crisis.  Tasini went beyond deflating the hype of the deficit crisis to challenge nine other myths, referred to as “Stupid Statements”.  He followed that with his discussion of a disease afflicting politicians and media commentators:  Elititis Experitits.  Tasini covered a lot of ground in a mere 50 pages, concluding with the point that the only deficit being experienced by America right now is a deficit of moral leadership.

Another fine example of mythbusting was provided by Brett Arends in a piece for MarketWatch entitled, “The Truth about California”.  Brett Arends took a noble step forward to challenge the popular myth that California is about to default on its debts and that the Golden State is in desperate need of a bailout from Uncle Sam.  Arends began the essay with this statement:

I know that facts and truth seem to be optional these days.  I know that in the exciting new world of infinite media everyone can choose to believe whatever fantasies they want. But in the case of California, it’s getting on my nerves.

Arends relied on data from the Tax Foundation to go beyond debunking the myth that “California needs a bailout” – to argue that California has been bailing out the rest of the country:

The numbers are simply staggering.  In the quarter century through 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data), Californians bailed out the rest of America to the tune of about $620 billion in today’s dollars.  In 2005 alone it came to nearly $50 billion.

That is 30 times next year’s forecast “budget shortfall” in Sacramento. The only reason California has a budget problem at all is because they have, foolishly, spent so much money subsidizing everyone else.

If it weren’t for that, California could cut its state and local taxes by around $1,300 a person.  That’s a $1,300 tax cut for every man, woman and child. Hmmm.  Funny you never read about that anywhere, isn’t it?

Our third example of mythbusting comes from recent California expatriate, Jr. Deputy Accountant, who exposed the “man behind the curtain” in Catherine Rampell’s article for The New York Times entitled, “Corporate Profits Were the Highest on Record Last Quarter”:

Filed under:  totally unbelievable headlines that are even less believable once you actually dig into the truth behind the big fancy headline.

As Jr. Deputy Accountant points out, Reading Rampell’s article as far as the third paragraph brings you to the disclaimer, which lets the air out of this UFO balloon:

The government does not adjust the numbers for inflation, in part because these corporate profits can be affected by pricing changes from all over the world and because the government does not have a price index for individual companies.

Beyond that, near the end of the Times article, the reader is confronted with an unpleasant fact, which undermines the optimistic tone of the headline:

“The economy is not growing fast enough to reduce significantly the unemployment rate or to prevent a slide into deflation,” Paul Dales, a United States economist for Capital Economics, wrote in a note to clients.  “This is unlikely to change in 2011 or 2012.”

At least the ugly truth was available to those willing to actually read the article.

As Jonathan Tasini pointed out in his on-line book, the traditional media are “uninformed, lazy and always desperate to be part of the insider crowd”.  Perhaps that is another reason why traditional media outlets are finding themselves replaced by Internet-based news sources.


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In Pursuit Of The TARP Thieves

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February 12, 2009

On Wednesday, February 11, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on a subject of concern to many taxpayers: “The Need for Increased Fraud Enforcement in the Wake of the Economic Downturn”.  With trillions of dollars being expended in bailouts while the corporate beneficiaries of this government largesse allow their executives to line their pockets with those very dollars, the outrage felt by the working (or unemployed) public has found its way to Capitol Hill.  What we learned from this hearing is that there is plenty of fraud taking place while the FBI and other branches of law enforcement are understaffed to cope with the immense rise in reported fraud cases.

The Committee heard testimony from John Pistole, Deputy Director of the FBI.  Pistole explained how the current economic crisis resulted in numerous areas of FBI scrutiny, only one of which is the overwhelming subject of mortgage fraud:

For example, current market conditions have helped reveal numerous mortgage fraud, Ponzi schemes and investment frauds, such as the Bernard Madoff alleged scam. These schemes highlight the need for law enforcement and regulatory agencies to be ever vigilant of White Collar Crime both in boom and bust years.

The FBI has experienced and continues to experience an exponential rise in mortgage fraud investigations. The number of open FBI mortgage fraud investigations has risen from 881 in fiscal year 2006 to more than 1,600 in fiscal year 2008. In addition, the FBI has more than 530 open corporate fraud investigations, including 38 corporate fraud and financial institution matters directly related to the current financial crisis. These corporate and financial institution failure investigations involve financial statement manipulation, accounting fraud and insider trading. The increasing mortgage, corporate fraud, and financial institution failure case inventory is straining the FBI’s limited White Collar Crime resources.

The most disgusting activity covered during this hearing concerned fraud related to the ongoing $700 billion TARP bailout.  Neil Barofsky, Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP) provided testimony concerning his plans to establish a mechanism for bringing TARP thieves to justice:

The SIGTARP Hotline is operational and can be accessed through the SIGTARP website at www.SIGTARP.gov by telephone at (877) SIG-2009, as well as through email. Plans are being formulated to develop a “fraud awareness program” with the objective of informing potential whistleblowers of the many ways available to them to provide key information to SIGTARP on fraud, waste and abuse involving TARP operations and funds, and explaining how they will be protected.

Mr. Barofsky’s testimony was largely a plea for passage of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act, sponsored by Senators Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.) and Senator Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa) as well as the SAFE Markets Act, sponsored by Senators Charles Schumer (D., N.Y.) and Richard Shelby (R., Ala.).  The latter bill would authorize hiring of the following personnel to investigate and prosecute “fraud relating to the financial markets”:  500 FBI agents, 50 Assistant United States Attorneys and 100 additional Securities and Exchange Commission enforcement staff members.  Mr. Barofsky’s explanation of the need for this legislation was an illustration of using “experience as our guide”:

Now, with $700 billion going out the door under TARP, additional hundreds of billions (if not trillions) of credit being provided through the Federal Reserve, and additional hundreds of billions through the proposed stimulus bill, we stand on the precipice of the largest infusion of Government funds over the shortest period of time in our Nation’s history.  Unfortunately, history teaches us that an outlay of so much money in such a short period of time will inevitably draw those seeking to profit criminally.  One need not look further than the recent outlay for Hurricane relief, Iraq reconstruction, or the not-so-distant efforts of the RTC as important lessons.

The Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (S 386) addresses TARP fraud, fraud related to economic stimulus funds, mortgage fraud and fraudulent activities in the commodities markets.  The measure will:

  • Amend the definition of “financial institution” to extend federal fraud laws to mortgage lending business not directly regulated or insured by the Federal government.
  • Amend the major fraud statute to protect funds expended under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) and the economic stimulus package.
  • Authorize funding to hire fraud prosecutors and investigators at the Department of Justice, the FBI, and other law enforcement agencies, and authorize funding for U.S. Attorneys’ Offices to help staff FBI mortgage fraud task forces.
  • Amend the federal securities statute to cover fraud schemes involving commodities futures and options.
  • Amend the criminal money laundering statute to make clear that the proceeds of specified unlawful activity include the gross receipts of the illegal activity, and not just the profits of the activity.
  • Improve the False Claims Act to clarify that the Act was intended to extend to any false or fraudulent claim for government money or property, whether or not the claim is presented to a government official or employee, whether or not the government has physical custody of the money, and whether or not the defendant specifically intended to defraud the government.

Once these new measures are implemented, I would love to see the Feds bust those miscreants whom I (and others) suspect were manipulating the equities markets with TARP money in the month after Thanksgiving.  During that time, we saw an almost-daily spate of “late day rallies” when stock prices would be run up during the last fifteen minutes of the trading day, before those numbers could have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them. The inflated “closing prices” for the day were then perceived as the market value of the stocks.  This process was taking place despite the constant flow of dire news reports, which would normally have sent stock prices tumbling.  News services covering the action on Wall Street were using the same three words to start each day’s headline:  “Stocks rally despite …”  This pattern ceased as legislators and commentators demanded to know what was being done with the first $360 billion of TARP money.  Hmmm . . .

At this point, we can only speculate as to who has been pilfering TARP money and what could have been done with a few billion here and a few billion there.  Perhaps in the not-too-distant future, we will be watching movies about the sleazoids who stole money intended to save the world economic system from ruin.

The World Holds Its Breath

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January 19, 2009

All over the world, people are waiting with abated breath as the Obama Presidency begins.  Some thought it would never happen.  I have often wondered whether, at the last minute, the Bush-Cheney junta might decide that it does not want to give up its authority.  Would they contrive some sort of “national security emergency” as a pretext for declaring martial law and suspending the Constitution?  Such a tactic would be entirely consistent with what we have seen for the past eight years.  Surely, there must be some provision buried in the so-called “Patriot Act” allowing the Bush-Cheney regime to continue, despite the expiration of its Constitutionally-prescribed existence.  Constitutional restrictions to unlimited executive power have been ignored by the outgoing administration for the past eight years.  Why should now be any different?  My skepticism on this matter will continue until Barack Obama completes his recitation of the Presidential Oath.

In the mean time, there are those who question whether President Obama will really deliver on his promise of change.  From the liberal side of the political spectrum, plenty of opinions have been published (by reputable commentators) expressing apprehension as to what likely will happen and what actually may not happen during Obama’s tenure in the White House.

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Meanwhile, there is worldwide concern about what Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can accomplish in the foreign relations and anti-terrorism arenas.  As discussed in an editorial from the January 18 Times of London:

Mr Obama’s biggest immediate challenge is in Afghanistan.  The president is hoping a troop surge, which he opposed in Iraq, will work. However, the prospect of a military solution in Afghanistan is remote and he may learn that the hard way.  In the meantime, he has to hope Iraq does not flare up again and that the Iran nuclear question remains one for diplomacy rather than military conflict.  His drive for a Middle East peace deal is not the first by a US president and nor will it be the last.

As the sun finally rises over the Obama Presidency, there are still plenty of clouds in the sky.  Does this mean we are in for more turmoil?  Some people might take this as a sign that it’s about to start raining money.

Pay Close Attention To This Man

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January 11, 2009

For several years, I have enjoyed following MSN’s Strategy Lab competition.  Strategy Lab is a stock-picking challenge.  They select six contestants: some seasoned professionals, some amateurs and occasionally, one of their own pundits.  Each contestant manages a mock, $100,000 portfolio for a six-month period.  Sometimes, the amateur will out-play the pros.  I always enjoy it when the “conventional wisdom” followed by the investing herd is proven wrong by a winning contestant, who ignores such dogma.

Our current economic situation requires original thinking.  Following the conventional wisdom during an unconventional economic crisis seems like a path to failure.  While checking in on the Strategy Lab website, I noticed an original thinker named Andrew Horowitz.  Mr. Horowitz is a contestant in the current Strategy Lab competition.  He is the only player who has made any money at all with his imaginary $100,000.  Andrew’s portfolio has earned him 13.44 percent as of Wednesday, January 21.  His competitors have been posting dismal results.  One of the regulars, John Reese (nicknamed “Guru Investor”) is down by 41.55 percent.  I think I’ll steer clear of his ashram.  The others currently have losses roughly equivalent to Andrew’s gains.

Andrew Horowitz is the president and founder of Horowitz & Co., an investment advisory firm serving individual and corporate clients since the late 1980’s.  He has written a book, entitled:  The Disciplined Investor.  It is focused on his experiences and what he has learned from twenty years in the investment advisory business.  He has been featured and quoted regularly in the media, including such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Barron’s and Reuters.  He also has a blog website with the same name as his book:  The Disciplined Investor.

His recent article for MSN caught my attention.  It is entitled:  “Why invest in this market anyway?” He began this journal entry discussing a “consider the source” approach to evaluating the advice given by those currently encouraging people to buy stocks now, while they are “cheap”.  His “where do we go from here” discussion resonated with my belief about where the stock market is headed:

The fourth-quarter earnings season kicked off with little fanfare last week and a great deal of bad news.  Many have asked if there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  My reply:  Sure there is, but it’s the headlights of a speeding 18-wheeler coming straight for us.  We have the choice of getting run over or stepping aside.

This is not a popular commentary.  I know that many investors would prefer to hear all about opportunities to make money on the “upside,” but until there is one shred of good news, I refuse to throw my hard-earned money into a bonfire just to watch it be incinerated.

Mr. Horowitz also made a point of emphasizing something we don’t hear often enough from those media darlings entrusted to preach the gospel of the brokerage firms:

With all the talk of change coming from our government officials, it is evident that if things continue down this path the only thing that will be left in our pockets is change.  It’s as if investors are waiting for something incredible and magical to be said, but there is only so much that words can accomplish.  Americans need action, assistance and reform in the banking system.

In an era when we are bombarded with investing advice from a multitude of “experts” appearing on television and all over the internet, it becomes difficult to distinguish a good signal from all of the noise.  One’s ability to give good investment advice in a bull market does not necessarily qualify that person to be a reliable advisor in the current milieu.  The performance by Andrew Horowitz in the Strategy Lab competition (so far) underscores the value of that old maxim:  “Money talks and bullshit walks”.  I’ll be paying close attention to what he has to say as we make our way through the treacherous economic times ahead.

Money Falling From The Sky

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November 17, 2008

The debate concerning a possible bailout of the “big three” automakers (General Motors, Ford and Daimler Chrysler) has now reached the House of Representatives.  House Minority Leader, John Boehner (Republican from Ohio) has voiced his opposition to this latest bailout, indicating that it will not receive much support from Congressional Republicans.

In the words of Yogi Berra, we are experiencing “déjà vu all over again”.  This process started with the plan of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, to bail out banks and other financial intuitions holding mortgages of questionable value, at a price to the taxpayers in excess of $700 billion.  Back on September 22, when that bailout bill (now known as TARP) was being considered, Jackie Kucinich and Alexander Bolton wrote an article for TheHill.com, discussing Republican opposition to this measure.  Their article included a prophetic remark by Republican Congressman Cliff Stearns of Florida:

“Bailout after bailout is not a strategy,” said Stearns, who said that taxpayers could be left with a huge bill.

Yet, “bailout after bailout” is exactly where we are now.  On November 15, T-Bone Pickings appeared on NBC’s Meet the Press.  Tom Brokaw asked T-Bone Pickings for his opinion on the proposed “Big Three Bailout”.  The response was:

I wonder what you’re going to do about the next industry.  Is it going to be the airlines or what if Toyota and Honda want some help, too?  I don’t know.  I don’t know where it stops.

Once again, we are presented with the need to bail out yet another American industry considered “too big to fail”.  However, this time, we are not being asked to save an entire industry, just a few players who fought like hell, resisting every change from rear-view mirrors, to fuel injection, seat belts, catalytic converters, air bags and most recently, hybrid technology.  Later on Meet the Press, we heard the BBC’s Katty Kay quote a rhetorical question from unidentified “smart economists” that included the magic word:

Can it withstand the shock to the economy if GM were to go?

Later on the CBS program, Face The Nation, Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank, Chairman of the House Financial Services Committee, used similar logic to that expressed by Katty Kay, when he stated:

When you talk about the negative shock that would result from bankruptcies of these companies, right now  …

The magic word “shock” is once again playing an important role for the advocates of this newest rescue package. I was immediately compelled to re-read my posting from September 22, concerning the introduction of the Paulson bailout plan, entitled:  “Here We Go Again”.  At that time, I discussed Naomi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Klein’s book explained how unpopular laws were enacted in a number of countries around the world, as a result of shock from disasters or upheavals.  She went on to suggest that some of these events were deliberately orchestrated with the intent of passing repugnant laws in the wake of crisis.  She made an analogy to shock therapy, wherein the patient’s mind is electrically reformatted to become a “blank slate”.  Klein described how advocates of “the shock doctrine” seek a cataclysmic destruction of economic order to create their own “blank slate” upon which to create their vision of a “free market economy”.  She described the 2003 Iraq war as the most thorough utilization of the shock doctrine in history.  Remember that this book was released a year before the crises we are going through now.

Ms. Klein’s article, “In Praise of a Rocky Transition” appeared in the December 1, 2008 issue of The Nation.  She discussed Washington’s handling of the Wall Street bailout, characterizing it as “borderline criminal”.  Would the financial rescue legislation (TARP) have passed if Congress and the public had been advised that the Federal Reserve had already fed a number of unnamed financial institutions two trillion dollars in emergency loans?  Naomi Klein expressed the need for the Obama Administration to stick with its mantra of “Change You Can Believe In” as opposed to any perceived need to soothe the financial markets:

There is no way to reconcile the public’s vote for change with the market’s foot-stomping for more of the same.  Any and all moves to change course will be met with short-term market shocks.  The good news is that once it is clear that the new rules will be applied across the board and with fairness, the market will stabilize and adjust.  Furthermore, the timing for this turbulence has never been better.  Over the past three months, we’ve been shocked so frequently that market stability would come as more of a surprise.  That gives Obama a window to disregard the calls for a seamless transition and do the hard stuff first.  Few will be able to blame him for a crisis that clearly predates him, or fault him for honoring the clearly expressed wishes of the electorate.  The longer he waits, however, the more memories fade.

When transferring power from a functional, trustworthy regime, everyone favors a smooth transition.  When exiting an era marked by criminality and bankrupt ideology, a little rockiness at the start would be a very good sign.

The Obama Administration would be wise to heed Ms. Klein’s suggestions.  It would also help to seriously consider the concerns of Republicans such as John Boehner, who is apparently not anxious to feed America another “crap sandwich”.

Here We Go Again

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September 22, 2008

Exactly one year ago, we saw the release of Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Klein’s book explained how unpopular laws were enacted in a number of countries around the world, as a result of shock from disasters or upheavals.  She went on to suggest that some of these events were deliberately orchestrated with the intent of passing repugnant laws in the wake of crisis.  She made an analogy to shock therapy, wherein the patient’s mind is electrically reformatted to become a “blank slate”.  Klein described how advocates of “the shock doctrine” seek a cataclysmic destruction of economic order to create their own “blank slate” upon which to create their vision of a “free market economy”.   She described the 2003 Iraq war as the most thorough utilization of the shock doctrine in history.  Remember that this book was released a year before the crisis we are going through now.

You may recall former Senator Phil Gramm’s recent appearance in the news for calling the United States a “nation of whiners” and positing that the only recession going on in the United States these days is a “mental recession”.  Gramm is a longtime buddy and mentor to a certain individual named John McCain.  Gramm is the architect of the so called “Enron Loophole” allowing speculators to drive the price of oil to absurd heights.  (Gramm’s wife, Wendy, was a former member of Enron’s Board of Directors.)  Gramm was most notorious for his successes in the deregulation of Wall Street (with the help of McCain) that facilitated the “mortgage crisis” as well as the current economic meltdown.  He sponsored the 1999 bill that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act.  The repeal of that law allowed “commercial” and “investment” banks to consolidate.  Gramm’s face appears in many campaign videos with McCain, taken earlier this year.  As a result of the outrage generated by Gramm’s remarks, McCain formally dismissed Gramm as his campaign’s economic advisor.  Despite the fact that Gramm no longer has a formal role in the McCain campaign, many believe that he would be McCain’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury in the event that McCain should win the Presidential election.  On September 21, MSNBC’s David Shuster grilled McCain campaign spokesman, Tucker Bounds, about the possibility that McCain is planning to appoint Phil Gramm as his Secretary of the Treasury, should McCain win.  Tucker Bounds squirmed all over the place, employing his usual tactic of deflecting the subject of the current economic crisis back to the Obama campaign.  Most noticeably, Mr. Bounds never made any attempt to deny that McCain plans to put Gramm in charge of the Treasury.

Our current Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, is on the covers of this week’s newsmagazines, pushing for uncritical acceptance of his (and hence, the Bush Administration’s) solution to the current economic crisis.  This basically amounts to a three-page “bailout” plan for banks and other financial intuitions holding mortgages of questionable value, at a price to the taxpayers of anywhere from $700 billion to One Trillion Dollars.  The Democrats are providing some “pushback” to this plan.  Barack Obama was quoted by Carrie Brown of Politico.com as saying that the Bush Administration has “offered a concept with a staggering price tag, not a plan”.  Obama went on to insist that the “American people must be assured that the deal reflects the basic principles of transparency, fairness and reform”.

As reported by Stephen Labaton in the September 21 New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that:

… the administration’s proposal did “not include the necessary safeguards. Democrats believe a responsible solution should include independent oversight, protections for homeowners and constraints on excessive executive compensation.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut was quoted in that article as saying:  “We need to offer some assurance to the American taxpayer that Congress is watching.”  Dodd went on to explain:

One of the things that got us into this mess was the lack of accountability and the lack of oversight that was occurring, and I don’t think we want to repeat those mistakes with a program of this magnitude.

The Times article then focused on the point emphasized by Republican Senator Arlen Specter:

I realize there is considerable pressure for the Congress to adjourn by the end of next week  . . .   But I think we must take the necessary time to conduct hearings, analyze the administration’s proposed legislation, and demonstrate to the American people that any response is thoughtful, thoroughly considered and appropriate.

Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Paulson made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to advocate pushing this bailout through quickly, without the safeguards and deliberation suggested by the Democrats and Senator Specter.  As Zachary Goldfarb reported in the September 21 Washington Post:

Paulson urged Congress not to load up the legislation with controversial provisions. “We need this to be clean and quick,” he said.

“Clean and quick”  . . .   Is that anything like “Shock and Awe”?  As usual, there is concern about whether Congressional Democrats will have the spine to resist the “full court press” by the Bush Administration to get this plan approved by Congress and on the President’s desk for signature.  As Robert Kuttner reported in The Huffington Post:

One senior Congressional Democrat told me, “They have a gun to our heads.” Paulson behaved as if he held all the cards, but in fact the Democrats have a lot of cards, too. The question is whether they have the nerve to challenge major flaws in Paulson’s plan as a condition of enacting it.

Here we go again.  Will the Democrats “grow a pair” in time to prevent “the shock doctrine” from being implemented once again?  If not, will we eventually see the day when Treasury Secretary Phil Gramm basks in glory, while presiding over his own manifestation of economic utopia?