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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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Rampant Stock Market Pumping

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It has always been one of my pet peeves.  The usual stock market cheerleaders start chanting into the echo chamber.  Do they always believe that their efforts will create a genuine, consensus reality?  A posting at the Daily Beast website by Zachary Karabell caught my attention.  The headline said, “Bells Are Ringing!  Confidence Rises as the Dow –  Finally – Hits 13,000 Again”.  After highlighting all of the exciting news, Mr. Karabell was thoughtful enough to mention the trepidation experienced by a good number of money managers, given all the potential risks out there.  Nevertheless, the piece concluded with this thought:

The crises that have obsessed markets for the past years – debt and defaults, housing markets, Europe and Greece– are winding down.  And markets are gearing up.  Maybe it’s time to focus on that.

As luck would have it, my next stop was at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog, where I came across a clever essay by Lance Roberts, which had been cross-posted from his Streettalklive website.  The title of the piece, “Media Headlines Will Lead You To Ruin”, jumped right out at me.  Here’s how it began:

It’s quite amazing actually.   Two weeks ago Barron’s ran the cover page of “Dow 15,000?.  Over the weekend Alan Abelson ran a column titled “Everyone In The Pool”.  Today, CNBC leads with “Dow 13,000 May Finally Lure Investors Back Into Stocks”.   Unfortunately, for most investors, the headline is probably right.  Investors, on the whole, have a tendency to do exactly the opposite of what they should do when it comes to investing – “Buy High and Sell Low.”  The reality is that the emotions of greed and fear do more to cause investors to lose money in the market than being robbed at the point of a gun.

Take a look at the chart of the data from ICI who tracks flows of money into and out of mutual funds.  When markets are correcting investors panic and sell out of stocks with the majority of the selling occurring near the lows of the market.  As the markets rally investors continue to sell as they disbelieve the rally intially and are just happy to be getting some of their money back.  However, as the rally continues to advance from oversold conditions – investors are “lured” back into the water as memories of the past pain fades and the “greed factor” overtakes their logic.  Unfortunately, this buying always tends to occur at, or near, market peaks.

Lance Roberts provided some great advice which you aren’t likely to hear from the cheerleading perma-bulls – such as, “getting back to even is not an investment strategy.”

As a longtime fan of the Zero Hedge blog, I immediately become cynical at the first sign of irrational exuberance demonstrated by any commentator who downplays economic headwinds while encouraging the public to buy, buy, buy.  Those who feel tempted to respond to that siren song would do well to follow the Weekly Market Comments by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In this week’s edition, Dr. Hussman admitted that there may still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

Economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  Dr. Roubini focused on the fact that “at least four downside risks are likely to materialize this year”.  These include:  “fiscal austerity pushing the eurozone periphery into economic free-fall” as well as “evidence of weakening performance in China and the rest of Asia”.  The third and fourth risks were explained in the following terms:

Third, while US data have been surprisingly encouraging, America’s growth momentum appears to be peaking.  Fiscal tightening will escalate in 2012 and 2013, contributing to a slowdown, as will the expiration of tax benefits that boosted capital spending in 2011.  Moreover, given continuing malaise in credit and housing markets, private consumption will remain subdued; indeed, two percentage points of the 2.8% expansion in the last quarter of 2011 reflected rising inventories rather than final sales.  And, as for external demand, the generally strong dollar, together with the global and eurozone slowdown, will weaken US exports, while still-elevated oil prices will increase the energy import bill, further impeding growth.

Finally, geopolitical risks in the Middle East are rising, owing to the possibility of an Israeli military response to Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  While the risk of armed conflict remains low, the current war of words is escalating, as is the covert war in which Israel and the US are engaged with Iran; and now Iran is lashing back with terrorist attacks against Israeli diplomats.

Any latecomers to the recent festival of bullishness should be mindful of the fact that their fellow investors could suddenly feel inspired to head for the exits in response to one of these risks.  Lance Roberts said it best in the concluding paragraph of his February 21 commentary:

With corporate earnings now slowing sharply, the economy growing at a sub-par rate, the Eurozone headed towards a prolonged recession and the American consumer facing higher gas prices and reduced incomes, a continued bull market rally from here is highly suspect.   Add to those economic facts the technical aspects of a very extended market with overbought internals – the reality is that this is a better place to be selling investments versus buying them.  Or – go to Vegas and bet on black.


 

Obama And The TARP

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I always enjoy it when a commentator appearing on a talk show reminds us that President Obama has become a “tool” for the Wall Street bankers.  This theme is usually rebutted with the claim that the TARP bailout happened before Obama took office and that he can’t be blamed for rewarding the miscreants who destroyed our economy.  Nevertheless, this claim is not entirely true.  President Bush withheld distribution of one-half of the $700 billion in TARP bailout funds, deferring to his successor’s assessment of the extent to which the government should intervene in the banking crisis.  As it turned out, during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department declared that there was no longer an “urgent need” for the TARP bailouts to continue.  Despite that development, Obama made it clear that anyone on Capitol Hill intending to get between the banksters and that $350 billion was going to have a fight on their hands.  Let’s jump into the time machine and take a look at my posting from January 19, 2009 – the day before Obama assumed office:

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.”

Of course, we all know how that worked out  .   .   .  another Obama promise bit the dust.

The new President’s efforts to enrich the Wall Street banks at taxpayer expense didn’t end with TARP.  By mid-April of 2009, the administration’s “special treatment” of those “too big to fail” banks was getting plenty of criticism.  As I wrote on April 16 of that year:

Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).

*   *   *

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

*   *   *

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

Although President Obama’s hunt for Osama bin Laden was a success, his decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – became Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment”, at which point he allowed economic recovery to continue on its elusive path away from us.  Economist Steve Keen recently posted this video, explaining how Obama’s failure to promote an effective stimulus program has guaranteed us something worse than a “double-dip” recession:  a quadruple-dip recession.

Many commentators are currently discussing efforts by Republicans to make sure that the economy is in dismal shape for the 2012 elections so that voters will blame Obama and elect the GOP alternative.  If Professor Keen is correct about where our economy is headed, I can only hope there is a decent Independent candidate in the race.  Otherwise, our own “lost decade” could last much longer than ten years.


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Those Smart Bond Traders

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*    *    *

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

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

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


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Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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Last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland turned out to be a bad time for The Dimon Dog to stage a “righteous indignation” fit.  One would expect an investment banker to have a better sense of timing than what was demonstrated by the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  Vito Racanelli provided this report for Barron’s:

The Davos panel, called “The Next Shock, Are We Better Prepared?” proceeded at a typically low emotional decibel level until Dimon was asked about what he thought of Americans who had directed their anger against the banks for the bailout.

Dimon visibly turned more animated, replying that “it’s not fair to lump all banks together.”  The TARP program was forced on some banks, and not all of them needed it, he said.  A number of banks helped stabilize things, noting that his bank bought the failed Bear Stearns.  The idea that all banks would have failed without government intervention isn’t right, he said defensively

Dimon clearly felt aggrieved by the question and the negative banker headlines, and went on for a while.

“I don’t lump all media together… .  There’s good and there’s bad.  There’s irresponsible and ignorant and there’s really smart media.  Well, not all bankers are the same.  I just think this constant refrain [of] ‘bankers, bankers, bankers,’ – it’s just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people…  People should just stop doing that.”

The immediate response expressed by a number of commentators was to focus on Dimon’s efforts to obstruct financial reform.  Although Dimon had frequently paid lip service to the idea that no single institution should pose a risk to the entire financial system in the event of its own collapse, he did all he could to make sure that the Dodd-Frank “financial reform” bill did nothing to overturn the “too big to fail” doctrine.  Beyond that, the post-crisis elimination of the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirement that a bank’s assets should be “marked to market” values, was the only crutch that kept JPMorgan Chase from falling into the same scrap heap of insolvent banks as the other Federal Reserve welfare queens.

Simon Johnson (former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund) obviously had some fun writing a retort – published in the Economix blog at The New York Times to The Dimon Dog’s diatribe.  Johnson began by addressing the threat voiced by Dimon and Diamond (Robert E. Diamond of Barclay’s Bank):

The newly standard line from big global banks has two components  .  .  .

First, if you regulate us, we’ll move to other countries.  And second, the public policy priority should not be banks but rather the spending cuts needed to get budget deficits under control in the United States, Britain and other industrialized countries.

This rhetoric is misleading at best.  At worst it represents a blatant attempt to shake down the public purse.

*   *   *

As we discussed at length during the Senate hearing, it is therefore not possible to discuss bringing the budget deficit under control in the foreseeable future without measuring and confronting the risks still posed by our financial system.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared last week: perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy is “the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’ ”

*   *   *

In this context, the idea that megabanks would move to other countries is simply ludicrous.  These behemoths need a public balance sheet to back them up, or they will not be able to borrow anywhere near their current amounts.

Whatever you think of places like Grand Cayman, the Bahamas or San Marino as offshore financial centers, there is no way that a JPMorgan Chase or a Barclays could consider moving there.  Poorly run casinos with completely messed-up incentives, these megabanks need a deep-pocketed and somewhat dumb sovereign to back them.

After Dimon’s temper tantrum, a pile-on by commentators immediately ensued.  Elinor Comlay and Matthew Goldstein of Reuters wrote an extensive report, documenting Dimon’s lobbying record and debunking a good number of public relations myths concerning Dimon’s stewardship of JPMorgan Chase:

Still, with hindsight it’s clear that Dimon’s approach to risk didn’t help him entirely avoid the financial crisis.  Even as the first rumblings of the crisis were sounding in the distance, he aggressively sought to boost Chase’s share of the U.S. mortgage business.

At the end of 2007, after JPMorgan had taken a $1.3 billion write-down on leveraged loans, Dimon told analysts the bank was planning to add as much as $20 billion in mortgages from riskier borrowers.  “We think we’d get very good spreads and … it will be a drop in the bucket for our capital ratios.”

By mid-2008, JPMorgan Chase had $95.1 billion exposure to home equity loans, almost $15 billion in subprime mortgages and a $76 billion credit card book.  Banks were not required to mark those loans at market prices, but if the loans were accounted for that way, losses could have been as painful for JPMorgan as credit derivatives were for AIG, according to former investment bank executives.

What was particularly bad about The Dimon Dog’s timing of his Davos diatribe concerned the fact that since December 2, 2010 a $6.4 billion lawsuit has been pending against JPMorgan Chase, brought by Irving H. Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for recovering the losses sustained by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam victims.  Did Dimon believe that the complaint would remain under seal forever?  On February 3, the complaint was unsealed by agreement of the parties, with the additional stipulation that the identities of several bank employees would remain confidential.  The New York Times provided us with some hints about how these employees were expected to testify:

On June 15, 2007, an evidently high-level risk management officer for Chase’s investment bank sent a lunchtime e-mail to colleagues to report that another bank executive “just told me that there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.”

Even before that, a top private banking executive had been consistently steering clients away from investments linked to Mr. Madoff because his “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.”  And the first Chase risk analyst to look at a Madoff feeder fund, in February 2006, reported to his superiors that its returns did not make sense because it did far better than the securities that were supposedly in its portfolio.

At The Daily Beast, Allan Dodds Frank began his report on the suit with questions that had to be fresh on everyone’s mind in the wake of the scrutiny The Dimon Dog had invited at Davos:

How much did JPMorgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon know about his bank’s valued customer Bernie Madoff, and when did he know it?

These two crucial questions have been lingering below the surface for more than two years, even as the JPMorgan Chase leader cemented his reputation as the nation’s most important, most upright, and most highly regarded banker.

Not everyone at Davos was so impressed with The Dimon Dog.  Count me among those who were especially inspired by the upbraiding Dimon received from French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

“Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy snapped at Dimon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

*   *   *
“We saw that for the last 10 years, major institutions in which we thought we could trust had done things which had nothing to do with simple common sense,” the Frenchman said.  “That’s what happened.”

Sarkozy also took direct aim at the bloated bonuses many bankers got despite the damage they did.

“When things don’t work, you can never find anyone responsible,” Sarkozy said.  “Those who got bumper bonuses for seven years should have made losses in 2008 when things collapsed.”

Why don’t we have a President like that?


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Financial Reform Might Actually Happen

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April 12, 2010

The long-overdue need for financial reform is finally getting some serious attention in Washington.  As banking lobbyists continue to grease palms in the Senate, we are beginning to hear a number of novel ideas from some clever commentators, focused on preventing another financial crisis.

On April 9, John Mauldin published a thought-provoking essay entitled, “Reform We Can Believe In”.  At one point in the piece, Mauldin considered the question that has been hanging over our heads for the past eighteen months:

What happens if we do nothing?

What happens when we have the next credit crisis, when a major sovereign government defaults, as I think will happen?  It will be a body blow to many banks, especially in Europe.  Once again, we could have banks worried about lending to each other or taking letters of credit, which would be a disaster for world trade and the recovery we are now in.

That we (and Europe and Britain) have taken so long to enact real reform has the potential to really put the world at risk.  In the next crisis, we will not have the tools available to stem the tide that we did the last time.  Rates are already low.  Do you think we could pass another TARP?  The Fed’s balance sheet is already bloated.  It could get much worse unless we get financial reforms that have some bite.

All this debating about a consumer protection agency and where it should be and all the other trivia is wasting time.  Fix the big things. Credit default swaps. Too big to fail.  Leverage. Then worry about the details.

Although I left out Mauldin’s suggestion to “leave the Fed alone” from that last paragraph, his essay contains a fantastic explanation of how the Federal Reserve System is organized.  Best of all, Mauldin spent plenty of time reflecting on Milton Friedman’s suggestion that we program a computer to set monetary policy, instead of leaving that authority with the Fed:

Let me be clear.  There are a lot of things not to like about the Federal Reserve System.  I think it was Milton Friedman who said we would be better off with a computer determining monetary policy.  A quote from an interview with him is instructive.  When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes.  Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed.  I am not saying that any computer program would do.  In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year.  There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions.  One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge.  We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System.

Another perspective on financial reform came from Jim McTague in the April 12 edition of Barron’s.  He began with the remark that both the House and Senate reform bills lack adequate measures for “efficient and intelligent policing”.  Nevertheless, the solution he embraced was simple:

The aptly named Richard Vigilante, who recently co-wrote a book called Panic with Minneapolis-based hedge-fund legend Andrew Redleaf, suggests this approach:  Force all firms managing other people’s money to publish their investment positions in detail before the market opens; this would include hedge funds.  Then, the short sellers could punish ineptness before it spreads by betting heavily against a particular institution’s stupid decisions.

“Bankers would hate it.  It’s their worst nightmare,” says Vigilante, whom I met with at Firehook bakery on Washington’s Farragut Square.  If the system had been in place in 2006, short sellers would have stamped out the smoldering subprime mania before it had a chance to spread, he asserts.

His suggestion is both brilliant and a model of simplicity — it could protect consumers against all kinds of risky financial products — but it will never become reality.

Bankers would scream about the need to protect their proprietary-trading information.  And, as was the case with health-insurance “reform,” Congress is bent on ramming a bill, no matter how flawed, through the legislative sausage works in order to mollify an uncommonly angry electorate before Nov. 2.  To entertain new ideas at this juncture, even good ones, would upset the ambitious timetable.

Like health care, the new financial regulatory regime is built atop the cracked masonry of the old one.  The same flatfoots who were on patrol when the subprime caper went down will be given larger beats to walk.  They will be overseen by a brain trust, a Council of Regulators, culled from their ranks, who, like chemical sniffers, would seek to uncover systemic threats to the volatile financial system.  In fact, COR is the core of the whole scheme.

The proposal for a Council of Regulators has drawn a good deal of criticism, primarily because it would be chaired by the Treasury Secretary.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of The Road From Ruin, had this to say about a Council of Regulators in a recent Huffington Post piece:

Indeed, with the Treasury Secretary in the chair, would this council really face down the political leaders and try to stop an emerging bubble spreading a feelgood factor across the nation (as bubbles do, before they burst)?  Even in his pomp Alan Greenspan knew that a Fed chairman couldn’t risk being too gloomy about the economy and keep his job. What chance then of a Treasury Secretary, a cabinet member, being so bold?

Rather than another layer on top of the dysfunctional existing regulatory system, America needs to sweep away its absurd proliferation of regulators and replace them with a powerful super regulator, independent of day-to-day politics and empowered to do the job properly.

Regardless of what the final product will include – one thing is becoming increasingly likely:  Some semblance of financial reform legislation will eventually become enacted.  It won’t be perfect but anything will be better than what we have now.  (Well, almost anything  .  .  .)



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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.



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Black And Reich

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April 16, 2009

I guess it’s because I was using TurboTax to work on my income tax return for the past few days, that I was constantly reminded of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).  I recently read an article by a couple of Economics professors named Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Boston University) and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) wherein they referred to this plan as the GASP (Geithner And Summers Plan).  Their bottom line:

The Geithner-and-Summers Plan should be scrapped.  President Obama should ask his advisors to canvas the economics and legal community to hear the much better ideas that are in wide circulation.

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).  During that time, the FSLIC helped block an attempted sale of Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan, which was subsequently seized by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, despite opposition from five United States Senators, who became known as the Keating Five.  A recent interview with Professor Black by Jack Willoughby of Barrons revealed that Black’s aversion to the PPIP starts with the fact that it is being implemented by Geithner and Summers:

We have failed bankers giving advice to failed regulators on how to deal with failed assets.  How can it result in anything but failure?  If they are going to get any truthful investigation, the Democrats picked the wrong financial team.  Tim Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury, and Larry Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, were important architects of the problems.  Geithner especially represents a failed regulator, having presided over the bailouts of major New York banks.

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

For the past month or so, I’ve been hearing many stock market commentators bemoan the fact that there is so much money “on the sidelines”.  In other words, people with trading accounts are letting their money sit in brokerage money market accounts, rather than risking it in the stock markets.  I believe that many of these people are so discouraged by the sleazy environment on Wall Street, they are waiting for things to get cleaned up before they take any more chances in a casino where so many games are rigged.  In the Barrons interview, Black made a point that reinforced my opinion:

His (Geithner’s) use of language like “legacy assets” — and channeling the worst aspects of Milton Friedman — is positively Orwellian.  Extreme conservatives wrongly assume that the government can’t do anything right.  And they wrongly assume that the market will ultimately lead to correct actions.  If cheaters prosper, cheaters will dominate.  It is like Gresham’s law:  Bad money drives out the good.  Well, bad behavior drives out good behavior, without good enforcement.

By asking Professor Black a few simple, straightforward questions (in layperson’s language) Jack Willoughby got some fantastic and refreshing information in return (also in layperson’s language) making this article a “must read”.  As Black and many others have pointed out, these huge financial institutions must be broken down into smaller businesses.  Why isn’t this being undertaken?  Professor Black looks to where the buck stops:

Obama, who is doing so well in so many other arenas, appears to be slipping because he trusts Democrats high in the party structure too much.

These Democrats want to maintain America’s pre-eminence in global financial capitalism at any cost.  They remain wedded to the bad idea of bigness, the so-called financial supermarket — one-stop shopping for all customers — that has allowed the American financial system to paper the world with subprime debt.  Even the managers of these worldwide financial conglomerates testify that they have become so sprawling as to be unmanageable.

Another critic of the Geithner-Summers PPIP is former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  Reich is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  His April 6 blog entry discussed the fact that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a total of $11.6 billion last year:

But what causes me severe heartburn is that these are exactly the sort of investors Tim Geithner is trying to lure in to buy troubled assets from banks, with an extraordinary offer financed by you and me and other taxpayers:  If it turns out the troubled assets are worth more than these guys pay for them, they could make a fortune.  If it turns out the assets are worth less, these guys won’t lose a thing because we taxpayers will bail them out.  Plus, they get to pick only the highest-rated of the big banks’ bad assets and can review them carefully before buying.

What a deal.  Why can’t you and I get in on this bonanza? Because we’re too small.  The government will designate only about five big investor funds — run or owned by the richest of the rich — as potential buyers.  Hedge funds fit the bill perfectly.

It’s nice to know that more and more prominent individuals in the world of economics and public policy are taking the ethical stand against a program based on the principle of “socialized loss and privatized gain”.  I just hope President Obama doesn’t take too long to realize that these people are right and that the Geithner – Summers team is wrong.

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.