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Nous Sommes Charlie!

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I have not been motivated to make a blog posting in quite a while.  One reason is that I have been too busy writing articles for which I can actually get paid.  Another reason is that I have been simply too disgusted by so many of the recent events during the past six months to bother with dwelling on them long enough to write something.

The recent outrage in Paris got me back here.  On one hand, I was annoyed by the milquetoast-y coverage of this event by most media outlets, and the equally-timid responses by public officials.  On the other hand, I was impressed by the fact that the Bloomberg website saw fit to run some of the very pictures which the Islamist psychos found so offensive.

What many people fail to understand is that Muhammad, the founder of the Islamic religion, did not want anyone painting, drawing or sculpting his image because he did not want people to worship those images.  It was a pretty good idea.  Unfortunately, authoritarian psychos began using that prohibition as an excuse to kill anyone who failed to adhere to it.  Once they began targeting people outside of the Muslim faith, they began infringing on the freedom of expression, which sane people hold dear.

The killings in Paris have sparked a number of public demonstrations.  Although candlelight vigils may have been appropriate when John Lennon was killed by a Jealous Guy, the outrage in Paris warrants some significant pushback.  We need to let those assholes know that the rest of the world will not be intimidated into submission to their psychotic authoritarianism.  One good way of delivering that message is to start publishing pictures of the Prophet Muhammad, whenever appropriate.  If that is what these creeps don’t want us doing, then we should do more of it.  It’s one thing to shout “Je Suis Charlie!” or “Nous Sommes Charlie!” but it’s another thing altogether to back that up with some action.  The most appropriate action would be to follow Charlie’s lead and post pictures of Muhammad.

One of the pictures which appeared on the Bloomberg website seemed especially appropriate.  It depicted a cover from a 2014 issue of Charlie Hebdo with the headline (in French), “If Muhammad Was Returning…”.  Muhammad was on his knees while a Jihadist held a knife to Muhammad’s throat.  Muhammad was saying, “I’m the Prophet, asshole!” and the Jihadist was responding, “Shut your trap, infidel!”  The magazine cover appears below:

CharlieHebdo1

 

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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.


 

Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:

“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated?  No.  Are you still getting growth in derivatives?  Yes.”

I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act.  Two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank Act – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

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

During the past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform.  We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions.  By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”.  Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls.  On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze.  The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:

Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.

Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.

Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.

Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation.  It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.

And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.

This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

…  I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached.  Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:

In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions.  Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided.  Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.

Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem.  It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.

More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008?  Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur?  Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”

Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.

Last month, Michael T. Snyder of The Economic Collapse blog wrote an essay for the Seeking Alpha website, enumerating the 22 Red Flags Indicating Serious Doom Is Coming for Global Financial Markets.  Of particular interest was red flag #22:

The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.  That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.  It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.

The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis.  The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs.  The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy.  As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode.  The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.

As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself  is to blame for sabotaging financial reform.  They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.

In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

The public can forget a good deal of information in two years.  They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform.  At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:

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

*   *   *

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

On May 17, Noam Scheiber explained why the White House is ”sweating” the JPMorgan controversy:

In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients.  And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan.  The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.

*   *   *

But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here.  The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign.  It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness.  It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed.  It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes.  In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual.  And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt   .   .   .

When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.


 

Dumping On The Dimon Dog

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The Dimon Dog has been eating crow for the past few days, following a very public humiliation.  The outspoken critic of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act found himself explaining a $2 billion loss sustained by his firm, JPMorgan Chase, as a result of involvement in the very type of activity the Act’s “Volcker Rule” was intended to prevent.  Financial industry lobbyists have been busy, frustrating regulatory attempts to implement Dodd-Frank’s provisions which call for stricter regulation of securities trading and transactions involving derivatives.  Appropriately enough, it was an irresponsible derivatives trading strategy which put Jamie Dimon on the hot seat.  The widespread criticism resulting from this episode was best described by Lizzie O’Leary (@lizzieohreally) with a single-word tweet:  Dimonfreude.

The incident in question involved a risky bet made by a London-based trader named Bruno Iksil – nicknamed “The London Whale” – who works in JP Morgan’s Chief Investment Office, or CIO.  An easy-to-understand explanation of this trade was provided by Heidi Moore, who emphasized that Iksil’s risky position was no secret before it went south:

Everyone knew.  Thousands of people.  Iksil’s bets have been well known ever since Bloomberg’s Stephanie Ruhle broke the news in early April.  A trader at rival bank, Bank of America Merrill Lynch wrote to clients back then, saying that Iksil’s huge bet was attracting attention and hedge funds believed him to be too optimistic and were betting against him, waiting for Iksil to crash.  The Wall Street Journal reported that the Merrill Lynch trader wrote, “Fast money has smelt blood.

When the media, analysts and other traders raised concerns on JP Morgan’s earnings conference call last month, JP Morgan CEO Jamie Dimon dismissed their worries as “a tempest in a teapot.”

Dimon’s smug attitude about the trade (prior to its demise) was consistent with the hubris he exhibited while maligning Dodd-Frank, thus explaining why so many commentators took delight in Dimon’s embarrassment.  On May 11, Kevin Roose of DealBook offered a preliminary round-up of the criticism resulting from this episode:

In a research note, a RBC analyst, Gerard Cassidy, called the incident a “hit to credibility” at the bank, while the Huffington Post’s Mark Gongloff said, “Funny thing:  Some of the constraints of the very Dodd-Frank financial reform act Dimon hates could have prevented it.”  Slate’s Matthew Yglesias pointed back to statements Mr. Dimon made in opposition to the Volcker Rule and other proposed regulations, and quipped, “Indeed, if only JPMorgan were allowed to run a thinner capital buffer and riskier trades.  Then we’d all feel safe.”

Janet Tavakoli pointed out that this event is simply the most recent chapter in Dimon’s history of allowing the firm to follow risky trading strategies:

At issue is corporate governance at JPMorgan and the ability of its CEO, Jamie Dimon, to manage its risk.  It’s reasonable to ask whether any CEO can manage the risks of a bank this size, but the questions surrounding Jamie Dimon’s management are more targeted than that.  The problem Jamie Dimon has is that JPMorgan lost control in multiple areas.  Each time a new problem becomes public, it is revealed that management controls weren’t adequate in the first place.

*   *   *

Jamie Dimon’s problem as Chairman and CEO–his dual role raises further questions about JPMorgan’s corporate governance—is that just two years ago derivatives trades were out of control in his commodities division.  JPMorgan’s short coal position was over sized relative to the global coal market.  JPMorgan put this position on while the U.S. is at war.  It was not a customer trade; the purpose was to make money for JPMorgan.  Although coal isn’t a strategic commodity, one should question why the bank was so reckless.

After trading hours on Thursday of this week, Jamie Dimon held a conference call about $2 billion in mark-to-market losses in credit derivatives (so far) generated by the Chief Investment Office, the bank’s “investment” book.  He admitted:

“In hindsight, the new strategy was flawed, complex, poorly reviewed, poorly executed, and poorly monitored.”

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson focused on the karmic significance of Dimon’s making such an admission after having belittled Paul Volcker and Dallas FedHead Richard Fisher at a party in Dallas last month:

During the party, Mr. Dimon took questions from the crowd, according to an attendee who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of alienating the bank. One guest asked about the problem of too-big-to-fail banks and the arguments made by Mr. Volcker and Mr. Fisher.

Mr. Dimon responded that he had just two words to describe them:  “infantile” and “nonfactual.”  He went on to lambaste Mr. Fisher further, according to the attendee.  Some in the room were taken aback by the comments.

*   *   *

The hypocrisy is that our nation’s big financial institutions, protected by implied taxpayer guarantees, oppose regulation on the grounds that it would increase their costs and reduce their profit.  Such rules are unfair, they contend.  But in discussing fairness, they never talk about how fair it is to require taxpayers to bail out reckless institutions when their trades imperil them.  That’s a question for another day.

AND the fact that large institutions arguing against transparency in derivatives trading won’t acknowledge that such rules could also save them from themselves is quite the paradox.

Dimon’s rant at the Dallas party was triggered by a fantastic document released by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas on March 21:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

With his own criticism of Dimon’s attitude, Robert Reich invoked the position asserted by the Dallas Fed:

And now – only a few years after the banking crisis that forced American taxpayers to bail out the Street, caused home values to plunge by more than 30 percent, pushed millions of homeowners underwater, threatened or diminished the savings of millions more, and sent the entire American economy hurtling into the worst downturn since the Great Depression – J.P. Morgan Chase recapitulates the whole debacle with the same kind of errors, sloppiness, bad judgment, and poorly-executed and excessively risky trades that caused the crisis in the first place.

In light of all this, Jamie Dimon’s promise that J.P. Morgan will “fix it and move on” is not reassuring.

The losses here had been mounting for at least six weeks, according to Morgan. Where was the new transparency that’s supposed to allow regulators to catch these things before they get out of hand?

*   *   *

But let’s also stop hoping Wall Street will mend itself.  What just happened at J.P. Morgan – along with its leader’s cavalier dismissal followed by lame reassurance – reveals how fragile and opaque the banking system continues to be, why Glass-Steagall must be resurrected, and why the Dallas Fed’s recent recommendation that Wall Street’s giant banks be broken up should be heeded.

At Salon, Andrew Leonard focused on the embarrassment this episode could bring to Mitt Romney:

Because if anyone is going to come out of this mess looking even stupider than Jamie Dimon, it’s got to be Mitt Romney – the presidential candidate actively campaigning on a pledge to repeal Dodd-Frank.

Perhaps Mr. Romney might want to consider strapping The Dimon Dog to the roof of his car for a little ride to Canada.


 

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Tales From The Dark Side

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Regular readers of this blog know that I frequently discuss my skepticism about the true state of America’s economy.  It gets painful listening to the “usual cheerleaders” constantly tell us about the robust state of our economy.  The most recent Federal Reserve Beige Book serves as the Bible for these true believers.  One need only check in on a few of the websites listed on my blogroll (at the right side of this page) to find plenty of opinions which run contrary to the current dogma that America is on its way to a full economic recovery.

One of my favorite websites from this blogroll is Edward Harrison’s Credit Writedowns.  When I visited that site this evening, I was amazed at the number of contrarian commentaries posted there.  One piece, “The economy is nowhere near as robust as stocks would have you believe” dealt with one of my favorite subjects:  the Federal Reserve’s inflation of the stock market indices by way of quantitative easing.  Here is an interesting passage from Harrison’s essay:

My view is that the stock market has gotten way ahead of itself.  Easy money has caused people to pile into risk assets as risk seeks return in a zero-rate environment.  The real economy is nowhere near as robust as the increase in shares would have you believe. Moreover, even the falling earnings growth is telling you this.

Bottom line: The US economy is getting a sugar high from easy money, economic stimulus, and the typical cyclical aides to GDP that have promoted some modest releveraging.  But the underlying issues of excess household indebtedness, particularly as related to housing and increasingly student debt, will keep this recovery from being robust until more of the debts are written down or paid off.  That means the cyclical boost that comes from hiring to meet anticipated demand, construction spending, and increased capital spending isn’t going to happen at a good clip.  Meanwhile, people are really struggling.

The hope is we can keep this going for long enough so that the cyclical hiring trends to pick up before overindebted consumers get fatigued again.  Underneath things are very fragile. Any setback in the economy will be met with populist outrage – that you can bet on.

Another posting at Credit Writedowns was based on this remark by financier George Soros:  ”People don’t realize that the system has actually collapsed.”

Bloomberg News has been running a multi-installment series of articles by financial analyst Gary Shilling, which are focused on the question of whether the United States will avoid a recession in 2012.  In the third installment of the series, Shilling said this:

In the first two installments, I laid out the reasons why the U.S. economy, despite current strong consumer spending and the recent euphoria of investors over stocks, will weaken into a recession as the year progresses, led by renewed consumer retrenchment.

If my forecast pans out, the Federal Reserve and Congress may be compelled to take further action to bolster the economy.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, a number of economic indicators are pointing in the direction of a faltering economy.  The Economic Cycle Research Institute index remains in recession territory.  The ratio of coincident to lagging economic indicators, often a better leading indicator than the leading indicator index itself, is declining.  Electricity generation, though influenced by the warm winter, is falling rapidly.

One of the most popular blogs among those of us who refuse to drink the Kool-Aid being served by the “rose-colored glasses crowd” is Michael Panzner’s Financial Armageddon.  In a recent posting, Mr. Panzner underscored the fact that those of us who refuse to believe the “happy talk” are no longer in the minority:

In “Americans Agree: There Is No Recovery,” I highlighted a recent Washington PostABC News poll, noting that

no matter how you break it down — whether by party/ideology, household income, age, or any other category — the majority of Americans agree on one thing: there is no recovery.

But the fact that things haven’t returned to normal isn’t just a matter of (public) opinion. As the Globe and Mail’s Market Blog reveals in “These Are Bad Days for Garbage,” the volume of waste being created nowadays essentially means that, despite persistent talk (from Wall Street, among others) of a renaissance in consumer spending, people are continuing to consume less and recycle more than they used to.

Many people (especially commentators employed by the mainstream media) prefer to avoid “dwelling on negativity”, so they ignore unpleasant economic forecasts.  Others appear trapped in a new-age belief system, centered around such notions as the idea that you can actually cause the economy to go bad by simply perceiving it as bad.  Nevertheless, the rest of us have learned (sometimes the hard way) that effective use of one’s peripheral vision can be of great value in avoiding a “sucker punch”.  Keep your eyes open!


 

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No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

*   *   *

Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

Psychopaths Caused The Financial Crisis

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Two months ago, Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post in rebuttal to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s parroting of what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis. It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

Ritholtz then proceeded to list and discuss the true causes of the financial crisis.  Among those causes were Alan Greenspan’s Federal Reserve monetary policy – wherein interest rates were reduced to 1 percent; the deregulation of derivatives trading by way of the Commodity Futures Modernization Act; the Securities and Exchange Commission’s “Bear Stearns exemption” – allowing Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Merrill Lynch, Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns to boost their leverage as high as 40-to-1; as well as the “bundling” of sub-prime mortgages with higher-quality mortgages into sleazy “investment” products known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).

After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Purveyors of The Big Lie are also big on advancing the claim that the “too big to fail” beneficiaries of the TARP bailout repaid the money they were loaned, at a profit to the taxpayers.  Immediately after her arrival at CNN, former Goldman Sachs employee, Erin Burnett made a point of interviewing a young, Occupy Wall Street protester, asking him if he was aware that the government actually made a profit on the TARP.  Unfortunately, the fiancée of Citigroup executive David Rubulotta didn’t direct her question to Steve Randy Waldman – who debunked that propaganda at his Interfluidity website:

Substantially all of the TARP funds advanced to banks have been paid back, with interest and sometimes even with a profit from sales of warrants.  Most of the (much larger) extraordinary liquidity facilities advanced by the Fed have also been wound down without credit losses.  So there really was no bailout, right?  The banks took loans and paid them back.

Bullshit.

*   *   *

During the run-up to the financial crisis, bank managers, shareholders, and creditors paid themselves hundreds of billions of dollars in dividends, buybacks, bonuses and interest.  Had the state intervened less generously, a substantial fraction of those payouts might have been recovered (albeit from different cohorts of stakeholders, as many recipients of past payouts had already taken their money and ran).  The market cap of the 19 TARP banks that received more than a billion dollars each in assistance is about 550B dollars today (even after several of those banks’ share prices have collapsed over fears of Eurocontagion).  The uninsured debt of those banks is and was a large multiple of their market caps.  Had the government resolved the weakest of the banks, writing off equity and haircutting creditors, had it insisted on retaining upside commensurate with the fraction of risk it was bearing on behalf of stronger banks, the taxpayer savings would have run from hundreds of billions to a trillion dollars.  We can get into all kinds of arguments over what would have been practical and legal. Regardless of whether the government could or could not have abstained from making the transfers that it made, it did make huge transfers.  Bank stakeholders retain hundreds of billions of dollars against taxpayer losses of the same, relative to any scenario in which the government received remotely adequate compensation first for the risk it assumed, and then for quietly moving Heaven and Earth to obscure and (partially) neutralize that risk.

The banks were bailed out.  Big time.

Another overlooked cause of the financial crisis was the fact that there were too many psychopaths managing the most privileged Wall Street institutions.  Not only had the lunatics taken over the asylum – they had taken control of the world’s largest, government-backed casino, as well.  William D. Cohan of Bloomberg News gave us a peek at the recent work of Clive R. Boddy:

It took a relatively obscure former British academic to propagate a theory of the financial crisis that would confirm what many people suspected all along:  The “corporate psychopaths” at the helm of our financial institutions are to blame.

Clive R. Boddy, most recently a professor at the Nottingham Business School at Nottingham Trent University, says psychopaths are the 1 percent of “people who, perhaps due to physical factors to do with abnormal brain connectivity and chemistry” lack a “conscience, have few emotions and display an inability to have any feelings, sympathy or empathy for other people.”

As a result, Boddy argues in a recent issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, such people are “extraordinarily cold, much more calculating and ruthless towards others than most people are and therefore a menace to the companies they work for and to society.”

Professor Boddy wrote a book on the subject – entitled, Corporate Psychopaths.  The book’s publisher, Macmillan, provided this description of the $90 opus:

Psychopaths are little understood outside of the criminal image.  However, as the recent global financial crisis highlighted, the behavior of a small group of managers can potentially bring down the entire western system of business.  This book investigates who they are, why they do what they do and what the consequences of their presence are.

Matt Taibbi provided a less-expensive explanation of this mindset in a recent article for Rolling Stone:

Most of us 99-percenters couldn’t even let our dogs leave a dump on the sidewalk without feeling ashamed before our neighbors.  It’s called having a conscience: even though there are plenty of things most of us could get away with doing, we just don’t do them, because, well, we live here.  Most of us wouldn’t take a million dollars to swindle the local school system, or put our next door neighbors out on the street with a robosigned foreclosure, or steal the life’s savings of some old pensioner down the block by selling him a bunch of worthless securities.

But our Too-Big-To-Fail banks unhesitatingly take billions in bailout money and then turn right around and finance the export of jobs to new locations in China and India.  They defraud the pension funds of state workers into buying billions of their crap mortgage assets.  They take zero-interest loans from the state and then lend that same money back to us at interest.  Or, like Chase, they bribe the politicians serving countries and states and cities and even school boards to take on crippling debt deals.

Do you think that Mayor Bloomberg learned his lesson  .  .  .  that spreading pro-bankster propaganda can provoke the infusion of an overwhelming dose of truth into the mainstream news?   Nawwww  .  .  .


 

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Wall Streeters Who Support The Occupy Movement

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Forget about what you have been hearing from those idiotic, mainstream blovaitors – who rose to prominence solely because of corporate politics.  Those bigmouths want you to believe that the Occupy Wall Street movement is anti-capitalist.  Nevertheless, the dogma spouted by those dunder-headed pundits is contradicted by the reality that there are quite a number of prominent individuals who voice support for the Occupy Wall Street movement, despite the fact that they are professionally employed in the investment business.  I will provide you with some examples.

On October 31, I discussed the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, finally released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he will be providing a special supplement, based specifically on that subject:

Meriting a separate, special point are the drastic declines in both U.S. income equality – the U.S. has become quite quickly one of the least equal societies – and in the stickiness of economic position from one generation to another.  We have gone from having been notably upwardly mobile during the Eisenhower era to having fallen behind other developed countries today, even the U.K.!  The net result of these factors is a growing feeling of social injustice, a weakening of social cohesiveness, and, possibly, a decrease in work ethic.  A healthy growth rate becomes more difficult.

*   *   *

Sitting on planes over the last several weeks with nothing to do but read and think, I found myself worrying increasingly about the 1% and the 99% and the appearance we give of having become a plutocracy, and a rather mean-spirited one at that.  And, one backed by a similarly mean-spirited majority on the Supreme Court.  (I will try to post a letter addressed to the “Occupy … Everywhere” folks shortly.)

Hedge fund manager Barry Ritholtz is the author of Bailout Nation and the publisher of one of the most widely-read financial blogs, The Big Picture.  Among the many pro-OWS postings which have appeared on that site was this recent piece, offering the movement advice similar to what can be expected from Jeremy Grantham:

To become as focused and influential as the Tea Party, what Occupy Wall Street needs a simple set of goals. Not a top 10 list — that’s too unwieldy, and too unfocused.  Instead, a simple 3 part agenda, that responds to some very basic problems regardless of political party.  It must address the key issues, have a specific legislative agenda, and finally, effect lasting change.  By keeping it focused on the foibles of Wall Street, and on issues that actually matter, it can become a rallying cry for an angry nation.

I suggest the following three as achievable goals that will have a lasting impact:

1. No more bailouts: Bring back real capitalism
2. End TBTF banks
3. Get Wall Street Money out of legislative process

*   *   *

You will note that these three goals are issues that both the Left and the Right — Libertarians and Liberals — should be able to agree upon. These are all doable measurable goals, that can have a real impact on legislation, the economy and taxes.

But amending the Constitution to eliminate dirty money from politics is an essential task. Failing to do that means backsliding from whatever gains are made. Whatever is accomplished will be temporary without campaign finance reform . . .

Writing for the DealBook blog at The New York Times, Jesse Eisinger provided us with the laments of a few Wall Street insiders, whose attitudes are aligned with those of the OWS movement:

Last week, I had a conversation with a man who runs his own trading firm.  In the process of fuming about competition from Goldman Sachs, he said with resignation and exasperation:  “The fact that they were bailed out and can borrow for free – it’s pretty sickening.”

*   *   *

Sadly, almost none of these closeted occupier-sympathizers go public.  But Mike Mayo, a bank analyst with the brokerage firm CLSA, which is majority-owned by the French bank Crédit Agricole, has done just that.  In his book “Exile on Wall Street” (Wiley), Mr. Mayo offers an unvarnished account of the punishments he experienced after denouncing bank excesses.  Talking to him, it’s hard to tell you aren’t interviewing Michael Moore.

*   *   *

I asked Richard Kramer, who used to work as a technology analyst at Goldman Sachs until he got fed up with how it did business and now runs his own firm, Arete Research, what was going wrong.  He sees it as part of the business model.

“There have been repeated fines and malfeasance at literally all the investment banks, but it doesn’t seem to affect their behavior much,” he said.  “So I have to conclude it is part of strategy as simple cost/benefit analysis, that fines and legal costs are a small price to pay for the profits.”

Mr. Kramer’s contention was supported by a recent analysis of Securities and Exchange Commission documents by The New York Times, which revealed “that since 1996, there have been at least 51 repeat violations by those firms. Bank of America and Citigroup have each had six repeat violations, while Merrill Lynch and UBS have each had five.”

At the ever-popular Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden provided us with the observations of a disillusioned, first-year hedge fund analyst.  Durden’s introductory comments in support of that essay, provide us with a comprehensive delineation of the tactics used by Wall Street to crush individual “retail” investors:

Regular readers know that ever since 2009, well before the confidence destroying flash crash of May 2010, Zero Hedge had been advocating that regular retail investors shun the equity market in its entirety as it is anything but “fair and efficient” in which frontrunning for a select few is legal, in which insider trading is permitted for politicians and is masked as “expert networks” for others, in which the government itself leaks information to a hand-picked elite of the wealthiest investors, in which investment banks send out their “huddle” top picks to “whale” accounts before everyone else gets access, in which hedge funds form “clubs” and collude in moving the market, in which millisecond algorithms make instantaneous decisions which regular investors can never hope to beat, in which daily record volatility triggers sell limits virtually assuring daytrading losses, and where the bid/ask spreads for all but the choicest few make the prospect of breaking even, let alone winning, quite daunting.  In short:  a rigged casino.  What is gratifying is to see that this warning is permeating an ever broader cross-section of the retail population with hundreds of billions in equity fund outflows in the past two years. And yet, some pathological gamblers still return day after day, in hope of striking it rich, despite odds which make a slot machine seem like the proverbial pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.  In that regard, we are happy to present another perspective:  this time from a hedge fund insider who while advocating his support for the OWS movement, explains, in no uncertain terms, and in a somewhat more detailed and lucid fashion, both how and why the market is not only broken, but rigged, and why it is nothing but a wealth extraction mechanism in which the richest slowly but surely steal the money from everyone else who still trades any public stock equity.

The anonymous hedge fund analyst concluded his discourse with this point:

In other words, if you aren’t in the .1%, you have no access to the derivatives markets, you have no access to the special deals that hedge funds and other wealthy investors get, and you have no access to the resources, information, strategic services, tax exemptions, and capital that the top .1% is getting.

If you have any questions about what some of the concepts above mean, ask and I will try my best to answer.  I’m a first-year analyst on Wall Street, and based on what I see day in and day out, I support the OWS movement 100%.

You are now informed beyond the influence of those presstitutes, who regularly attempt to convince the public that an important goal of the Occupy Movement is to destroy the livelihoods of those who work on Wall Street.


 

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Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

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The European sovereign debt crisis has generated an enormous amount of nonsensical coverage by the news media.  Most of this coverage appears targeted at American investors, who are regularly assured that a Grand Solution to all of Europe’s financial problems is “just around the corner” thanks to the heroic work of European finance ministers.

Fortunately, a number of commentators have raised some significant objections about all of the misleading “spin” on this subject.  Some pointed criticism has come from Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) who recently posted this complaint:

I am tired of nonsensical headlines that have a zero percent chance of happening.

In a subsequent piece, Mish targeted a report from Bloomberg News which bore what he described as a misleading headline:  “EU Sees Progress on Banks”.  Not surprisingly, clicking on the Bloomberg link will reveal that the story now has a different headline.

For those in search of an easy-to-read explanation of the European financial situation, I recommend an essay by Robert Kuttner, appearing at the Huffington Post.  Here are a few highlights:

The deepening European financial crisis is the direct result of the failure of Western leaders to fix the banking system during the first crisis that began in 2007.  Barring a miracle of statesmanship, we are in for Financial Crisis II, and it will look more like a depression than a recession.

*   *   *

Beginning in 2008, the collapse of Bear Stearns revealed the extent of pyramid schemes and interlocking risks that had come to characterize the global banking system.  But Western leaders have stuck to the same pro-Wall-Street strategy:  throw money at the problem, disguise the true extent of the vulnerability, provide flimsy reassurances to money markets, and don’t require any fundamental changes in the business models of the world’s banks to bring greater simplicity, transparency or insulation from contagion.

As a consequence, we face a repeat of 2008.  Precisely the same kinds of off-balance sheet pyramids of debts and interlocking risks that caused Bear Stearns, then AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch to blow up are still in place.

Following Tim Geithner’s playbook, the European authorities conducted “stress tests” and reported in June that the shortfall in the capital of Europe’s banks was only about $100 billion.  But nobody believes that rosy scenario.

*   *   *

But to solely blame Europe and its institutions is to excuse the source of the storms.  That is the political power of the banks to block fundamental reform.

The financial system has mutated into a doomsday machine where banks make their money by originating securities and sticking someone else with the risk.  None of the reforms, beginning with Dodd-Frank and its European counterparts, has changed that fundamental business model.

As usual, the best analysis of the European financial situation comes from economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Dr. Hussman’s essay explores several dimensions of the European crisis in addition to noting some of the ongoing “shenanigans” employed by American financial institutions.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from Hussman’s latest Weekly Market Comment:

Incomprehensibly large bailout figures now get tossed around unexamined in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis (blessed, of course, by Wall Street), while funding toward NIH, NSF and other essential purposes has been increasingly squeezed.  At the urging of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Europe has been encouraged to follow the “big bazooka” approach to the banking system.  That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we’ve become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner’s triumph and humanity’s collective loss.

*   *   *

A clean solution to the European debt problem does not exist. The road ahead will likely be tortuous.

The way that Europe can be expected to deal with this is as follows.  First, European banks will not have their losses limited to the optimistic but unrealistic 21% haircut that they were hoping to sustain.  In order to avoid the European Financial Stability Fund from being swallowed whole by a Greek default, leaving next-to-nothing to prevent broader contagion, the probable Greek default will be around 50%-60%.  Note that Greek obligations of all maturities, including 1-year notes, are trading at prices about 40 or below, so a 50% haircut would actually be an upgrade.  Given the likely time needed to sustainably narrow Greek deficits, a default of that size is also the only way that another later crisis would be prevented (at least for a decade, and hopefully much longer).

*   *   *

Of course, Europe wouldn’t need to blow all of these public resources or impose depression on Greek citizens if bank stockholders and bondholders were required to absorb the losses that result from the mind-boggling leverage taken by European banks.  It’s that leverage (born of inadequate capital requirements and regulation), not simply bad investments or even Greek default per se, that is at the core of the crisis.

Given the fact that the European crisis appears to be reaching an important crossroads, the Occupy Wall Street protest seems well-timed.  The need for significant financial reform is frequently highlighted in most commentaries concerning the European situation.  Whether our venal politicians will seriously address this situation remains to be seen.  I’m not holding my breath.


 

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Dubious Reassurances

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There appears to be an increasing number of commentaries presented in the mainstream media lately, assuring us that “everything is just fine” or – beyond that – “things are getting better” because the Great Recession is “over”.  Anyone who feels inclined to believe those comforting commentaries should take a look at the Financial Armageddon blog and peruse some truly grim reports about how bad things really are.

On a daily basis, we are being told not to worry about Europe’s sovereign debt crisis because of the heroic efforts to keep it under control.  On the other hand, I was more impressed by the newest Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Be sure to read the entire essay.  Here are some of Dr. Hussman’s key points:

From my perspective, Wall Street’s “relief” about the economy, and its willingness to set aside recession concerns, is a mistake born of confusion between leading indicators and lagging ones.  Leading evidence is not only clear, but on a statistical basis is essentially certain that the U.S. economy, and indeed, the global economy, faces an oncoming recession.  As Lakshman Achuthan notes on the basis of ECRI’s own (and historically reliable) set of indicators, “We’ve entered a vicious cycle, and it’s too late: a recession can’t be averted.”  Likewise, lagging evidence is largely clear that the economy was not yet in a recession as of, say, August or September. The error that investors are inviting here is to treat lagging indicators as if they are leading ones.

The simple fact is that the measures that we use to identify recession risk tend to operate with a lead of a few months.  Those few months are often critical, in the sense that the markets can often suffer deep and abrupt losses before coincident and lagging evidence demonstrates actual economic weakness.  As a result, there is sometimes a “denial” phase between the point where the leading evidence locks onto a recession track, and the point where the coincident evidence confirms it. We saw exactly that sort of pattern prior to the last recession. While the recession evidence was in by November 2007 (see Expecting A Recession ), the economy enjoyed two additional months of payroll job growth, and new claims for unemployment trended higher in a choppy and indecisive way until well into 2008. Even after Bear Stearns failed in March 2008, the market briefly staged a rally that put it within about 10% of its bull market high.

At present, the S&P 500 is again just 10% below the high it set before the recent market downturn began. In my view, the likelihood is very thin that the economy will avoid a recession, that Greece will avoid default, or that Europe will deal seamlessly with the financial strains of a banking system that is more than twice as leveraged as the U.S. banking system was before the 2008-2009 crisis.

*   *   *

A few weeks ago, I noted that Greece was likely to be promised a small amount of relief funding, essentially to buy Europe more time to prepare its banking system for a Greek default, and observed “While it’s possible that the equity markets will mount a relief rally in the event of new funding to Greece, it will be important to recognize that handing out a bit more relief would be preparatory to a default, and that would probably be reflected in a failure of Greek yields to retreat significantly on that news.”

As of Friday, the yield on 1-year Greek debt has soared to 169%. Greece will default. Europe is buying time to reduce the fallout.

As of this writing, the yield on 1-year Greek debt is now 189.82%.  How could it be possible to pay almost 200% interest on a one-year loan?

Despite all of the “good news” about America’s zombie megabanks, which were bailed out during the financial crisis (and for a while afterward) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has been keeping an ongoing “Bank of America Deathwatch”.  The story has gone from grim to downright creepy:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it.  I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC.  About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

*   *   *

This move reflects either criminal incompetence or abject corruption by the Fed.  Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail.  Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions:  derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs.  So this move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral.  It’s well nigh impossible to have an orderly wind down in this scenario.  You have a derivatives counterparty land grab and an abrupt insolvency.  Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.

But it’s even worse than that.  During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle.  It had to get more funding from Congress.  This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors.  No Congressman would dare vote against that.  This move is Machiavellian, and just plain evil.

It is the aggregate outrage caused by the rampant malefaction throughout American finance, which has motivated the protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those demonstrators have found it difficult to articulate their demands because any comprehensive list of grievances they could assemble would be unwieldy.  Most important among their complaints is the notion that the failure to enforce prohibitions against financial wrongdoing will prevent restoration of a healthy economy.  The best example of this is the fact that our government continues to allow financial institutions to remain “too big to fail” – since their potential failure would be remedied by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Hedge fund manager Barry Ritholtz articulated those objections quite well, in a recent piece supporting the State Attorneys General who are resisting the efforts by the Justice Department to coerce settlement of the States’ “fraudclosure” cases against Bank of America and others – on very generous terms:

The Rule of Law is yet another bedrock foundation of this nation.  It seems to get ignored when the criminals involved received billions in bipartisan bailout monies.

The line of bullshit being used on State AGs is that we risk an economic crisis if we prosecute these folks.

The people who claim that fail to realize that the opposite is true – the protest at Occupy Wall Street, the negative sentiment, the general economic angst – traces itself to the belief that there is no justice, that senior bankers have gotten away with economic murder, and that we have a two-tiered criminal system, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Today’s NYT notes the gloom that has descended over consumers, and they suggest it may be home prices. I think they are wrong – in my experience, the sort of generalized rage and frustration comes about when people realize the institutions they have trusted have betrayed them.  Humans deal with financial losses in a very specific way – and it’s not fury.  This is about a fundamental breakdown of the role of government, courts, and leadership in the nation.  And it all traces back to the bailouts of reckless bankers, and the refusal to hold them in any way accountable.

There will not be a fundamental economic recovery until that is recognized.

In the mean time, the quality of life for the American middle class continues to deteriorate.  We need to do more than simply hope that the misery will “trickle” upward.


 

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