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Occupy Movement Gets Some Respect

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Much has changed since the inception of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  The participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.  Obviously, some of this prattle continues to emanate from unimaginative bloviators.  Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for respectable news sources to give serious consideration to the OWS effort.

One month after the occupation of Zuccotti Park began, The Economist explained why the movement had so much appeal to a broad spectrum of the population:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

Reports eventually began to surface, revealing that many “Wall Street insiders” actually supported the occupiers.  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 have been aligned with those of the OWS movement.

By late December, it became obvious that the counter-insurgency effort had expanded.   At The eXiled blog, Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement.  In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out against the OWS protesters by parroting 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.”

The counterpunch to Mayor Bloomberg’s remark was swift and effective.  Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled “What caused the financial crisis?  The Big Lie goes viral”.  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“.

Once the new year began, the Occupy Oakland situation quickly deteriorated.  Chris Hedges of Truthdig took a hard look at the faction responsible for the “feral” behavior, raising the question of whether provocateurs could have been inciting the ugly antics:

The presence of Black Bloc anarchists – so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property – is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Chris Hedges gave further consideration to the involvement of provocateurs in the Black Bloc faction on February 13:

Occupy’s most powerful asset is that it articulates this truth.  And this truth is understood by the mainstream, the 99 percent.  If the movement is severed from the mainstream, which I expect is the primary goal of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, it will be crippled and easily contained.  Other, more militant groups may rise and even flourish, but if the Occupy movement is to retain the majority it will have to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.

Despite the negative publicity generated by the puerile pranks of the Black Bloc, the Occupy movement turned a corner on February 13, when Occupy the SEC released its 325-page comment letter concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s draft “Volcker Rule”.  (The Volcker Rule contains the provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act which restrict the ability of banks to make risky bets with their own money).  Occupy the SEC took advantage of the “open comment period” which is notoriously exploited by lobbyists and industry groups whenever an administrative agency introduces a new rule.  The K Street payola artists usually see this as their last chance to “un-write” regulations.

The most enthusiastic response to Occupy the SEC’s comment letter came from Felix Salmon of Reuters:

Occupy the SEC is the wonky finreg arm of Occupy Wall Street, and its main authors are worth naming and celebrating:  Akshat Tewary, Alexis Goldstein, Corley Miller, George Bailey, Caitlin Kline, Elizabeth Friedrich, and Eric Taylor.  If you can’t read the whole thing, at least read the introductory comments, on pages 3-6, both for their substance and for the panache of their delivery.  A taster:

During the legislative process, the Volcker Rule was woefully enfeebled by the addition of numerous loopholes and exceptions.  The banking lobby exerted inordinate influence on Congress and succeeded in diluting the statute, despite the catastrophic failures that bank policies have produced and continue to produce…

The Proposed Rule also evinces a remarkable solicitude for the interests of banking corporations over those of investors, consumers, taxpayers and other human beings. 

*   *   *

There’s lots more where that comes from, including the indelible vision of how “the Volcker Rule simply removes the government’s all-too-visible hand from underneath the pampered haunches of banking conglomerates”.  But the real substance is in the following hundreds of pages, where the authors go through the Volcker Rule line by line, explaining where it’s useless and where it can and should be improved.

John Knefel of Salon emphasized how this comment letter exploded the myth that the Occupy movement is simply a group of cynical hippies:

The working group’s detailed policy position gives lie to the common claim that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “well intentioned but misinformed.”  It shows there’s room in the movement both for policy wonks and those chanting “anti-capitalista.”

Even Mayor Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek spoke highly of Occupy the SEC’s efforts.  Karen Weise interviewed Occupy’s Alexis Goldstein, who had previously worked at such Wall Street institutions as Deutsche Bank, where she built IT systems for traders:

Like Goldstein, several members have experience in finance.  Kline says she used to be a derivatives trader.  Tewary is a lawyer who worked on securitization cases at the firm Kaye Scholer, according to his bio on the website of his current firm, Kamlesh Tewary.  Mother Jones, which reported on the group in December, says O’Neil is a former Wall Street quant.

There are parts of the rule that Occupy the SEC would like to see toughened.  For example, Goldstein sees a “big loophole” in the proposed rule that allows banks to make proprietary trades using so-called repurchase agreements, by which one party sells securities to another with the promise to buy back the securities later.  The group wants to make sure other parts aren’t eroded.

Chris Sturr of Dollars & Sense provided this reaction:

From the perspective of someone who’s spent a lot of time in working groups of Occupy Boston, what I love about this story is that it’s early evidence of what Occupy can and will do, beyond “changing the discourse,” which is the best that sympathetic people who haven’t been involved seem to be able to say about Occupy, or just going away and dying off, which is what non-sympathizers think has happened to Occupy.  Many of us have been quietly working away over the winter, and the results will start to be seen in the coming months.

If Chris Sturr’s expectation ultimately proves correct, it will be nice to watch the pro-Wall Street, teevee pundits get challenged by some worthy opponents.


 

An Army Of Lobbyists For The Middle Class

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Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke appeared before the Senate Banking Committee this week to testify about the Fed’s monetary policy.  Scot Kersgaard of The American Independent focused our attention on a five-minute exchange between Colorado Senator Michael Bennett and The Ben Bernank, with an embedded video clip.  Senator Bennett asked Bernanke to share his opinions concerning the recommendations made by President Obama’s bipartisan deficit commission.  Bernanke initially attempted to dodge the question with the disclaimer that the Fed’s authority extends to only monetary policy rather than fiscal policy – such as the work conducted by the deficit commission.  If Congressman Ron Paul had been watching the hearing take place, I’m sure he had a good, hard laugh at that statement.  Nevertheless, Bernanke couldn’t restrain himself from concurring with the effort to place the cost of Wall Street’s larceny on the backs of middle-class taxpayers.

The chant for “entitlement reform” continues to reverberate throughout the mainstream media as it has for the past year.  Last May, economist Dean Baker exposed this latest effort toward upward wealth redistribution:

Emboldened by the fact that none of them have gone to jail for their role in the financial crisis, the Wall Street gang is now gunning for Social Security and Medicare, the country’s most important safety net programs. Led by investment banker Pete Peterson, this crew is spending more than a billion dollars to convince the public that slashing these programs is the only way to protect our children and grandchildren from poverty.

A key propaganda tactic used by the “entitlement reform” crusaders is to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement” even though it is not (as I discussed here).  Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”, wrote a great essay, which refuted the claim that Social Security is “broken” while explaining why it is not an “entitlement”.  Unfortunately, there are very few politicians who are willing to step forward to provide the simple explanation that Social Security is not an entitlement.  Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) recently made a statement to that effect before a senior citizens’ group in East Haven, Connecticut – without really providing an explanation why it is not an entitlement.  Susan Feiner wrote a great commentary on the subject last fall for womensenews.org.  Here is some of what she said:

Moreover, Social Security is not an entitlement program as it’s paid for entirely by payroll taxes.  It is an insurance program, not an entitlement. Not one penny of anyone’s Social Security comes out of the federal government’s general fund.

Social Security is, by law, wholly self-financing.  It has no legal authority to borrow, so it never has.

If this incredibly successful and direly needed program hasn’t ever borrowed a dime, why is the president and his hand-picked commissioners putting Social Security cuts (and/or increases in the retirement age) in the same sentence as deficit reduction?

The attempt to mischaracterize Social Security as an “entitlement” is not a “Right vs. Left” dispute —  It’s a class warfare issue.  There have been commentaries from across the political spectrum emphasizing the same fact:  Social Security is not an “entitlement”.  The assertion has appeared on the conservative patriotsteaparty.net website, the DailyKos on the Left and in a piece by independent commentator, Marti Oakley.

The battle for “entitlement reform” is just one front in the larger war being waged by Wall Street against the middle class.  Kevin Drum discussed this conflict in a recent posting at his Plutocracy Now blog for Mother Jones:

It’s about the loss of a countervailing power robust enough to stand up to the influence of business interests and the rich on equal terms.  With that gone, the response to every new crisis and every new change in the economic landscape has inevitably pointed in the same direction.  And after three decades, the cumulative effect of all those individual responses is an economy focused almost exclusively on the demands of business and finance.  In theory, that’s supposed to produce rapid economic growth that serves us all, and 30 years of free-market evangelism have convinced nearly everyone — even middle-class voters who keep getting the short end of the economic stick — that the policy preferences of the business community are good for everyone.  But in practice, the benefits have gone almost entirely to the very wealthy.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch made this observation on March 1:

Wall Street’s corrupt banks have lost their moral compass … their insatiable greed has become a deadly virus destroying its host nation … their campaign billions buy senate votes, stop regulators’ actions, manipulate presidential decisions.  Wall Street money controls voters, runs America, both parties.  Yes, Wall Street is bankrupting America.

Wake up America, listen:

  • “Our country is bankrupt.  It’s not bankrupt in 30 years or five years,” warns economist Larry Kotlikoff, “it’s bankrupt today.”
  • Economist Peter Morici:  “Capitalism is broken, America’s government is two bankrupt political parties bankrupting the country.”
  • David Stockman, Reagan’s budget director:  “If there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians” the “tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.”
  • BusinessWeek recently asked analyst Mary Meeker to run the numbers.  How bad is it? America really is bankrupt, with a “net worth of a negative $44 trillion.” Bankrupt.

And it will get worse.  Unfortunately, nothing can stop America’s self-destructive Wall Street bankers.  They simply do not care that their “doomsday capitalism” is destroying themselves from within, and is bankrupting America too.

On February 21, I quoted a statement made by bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO, which included this thought:

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.

That essay by Bill Gross became the subject of an article by Terrence Keeley of Bloomberg News.  Mr. Keeley’s reaction to the suggestions made by Bill Gross was this:

To redeem Wall Street’s soul, radical solutions are clearly needed, but advocating the eradication of profit-based markets that have served humanity well on balance without a viable replacement is fanciful. Gross deserves an “A” for intent — but something more practical than a “heart transplant” is required to restore trust and efficacy to our banking system.

*   *   *

But an economy based on something other than profit risks misery and injustice of another sort.  The antibodies now needed aren’t those that negate profitability.  Rather, they are the ones that bind financial engineering to value creation and advancement of society.

Perhaps the most constructive solution to the problem is my suggestion from February 10:  Recruit and employ an army of lobbyists to represent and advance the interests of the middle class on Capitol Hill.  Some type of non-partisan, “citizens’ lobby” could be created as an online community.  Once its lobbying goals are developed and articulated, an online funding drive would begin.  The basic mission would be to defend middle-class taxpayers from the tyranny of the plutocracy that is destroying not just the middle class – but the entire nation.  Fight lobbyists with lobbyists!


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Lack Of Stimulation

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September 9, 2010

You don’t have to look very far to find a rabid, hostile reaction to President Obama’s proposed $50 billion transportation infrastructure program.  After all – it’s an election year.  I was quite surprised when I read this paragraph from a BusinessWeek report about the proposal:

For companies that do the unglamorous work of pouring cement, crushing stones, and hauling earth, President Barack Obama’s $50 billion proposal outlined on Sept. 6 to rebuild U.S. roads, railways, and runways is welcome relief amid unrelenting economic gloom.  If approved by Congress (an uncertain proposition in an election year) Obama’s plan would pick up the slack when most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year, says Mike Betts, an analyst with London-based Jefferies.

Stop and think about that for a moment.  The phrase I wish to bring to your attention is:

.  .  .   most of the highway stimulus funds under the $814 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is expected to be spent next year    .  .  .

The first question that came to mind was:  Why the hell wasn’t it spent last year?  We’ve been reading about how the effects of the “Obama stimulus bill” (a/k/a  the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) have already stopped boosting the economy.  How much more of that money has been sitting on the sidelines?  Beyond that, why didn’t the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provide more funding for infrastructure?

The proposed transportation infrastructure program will cost approximately the same as the B-2 Stealth Bomber program, which produced 21 bombers at an average cost of $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997 dollars.

Since July of last year, I have been among those arguing that the $787 billion economic stimulus package was inadequate, after reading about a Bloomberg survey of economists, which supported that conclusion in February of 2009.  In early 2009, there was a greater sense of urgency about the state of the economy and a stronger political will to enact a more significant stimulus.  Unfortunately, President Obama was not up to the task of pushing a larger bill through.  As a result, the President is now making piecemeal stimulus efforts, such as the $50-billion infrastructure proposal.  The tragedy of not getting it right the first time seemed more unfortunate after I read a recent posting by Barry Ritholtz at his blog, The Big Picture.  Here is what Mr. Ritholtz had to say:

Yesterday on XM Sirius, we discussed Infrastructure.

One of the callers was a civil engineer who suggested we take a look at the US Infrastructure Report Card (infrastructurereportcard.org), which grades the US on a variety of factors.  The 2009 Grades include: Aviation (D), Bridges (C), Dams (D), Drinking Water (D-), Energy (D+), Hazardous Waste (D), Inland Waterways (D-), Levees (D-), Public Parks and Recreation (C-), Rail (C-), Roads(D-), Schools (D), Solid Waste (C+), Transit (D), and Wastewater (D-).

Overall, America’s Infrastructure GPA was graded a “D.”  To get to an “A” requires a 5 year infrastructure investment of $2.2 Trillion dollars.  Hence, you can understand if I am underwhelmed by the latest $50B proposal.

Each individual state is also graded;  NY’s is after the jump.

After reading about the Infrastructure Report Card, I couldn’t help but wonder how our economy would have benefited from a $2.2 trillion infrastructure program rather than the $850 billion stimulus program enacted in 2009.  Consider what economist Joseph Stiglitz had to say about how the global financial crisis was affecting Australia in August of 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon. So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked: Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

There’s a right way of doing economic stimulus and a wrong way of implementing such a program.  Unfortunately, America did it the wrong way.





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Getting Rolled By Wall Street

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August 5, 2010

For the past few years, investors have been flocking to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as an alternative to mutual funds, which often penalize investors for bailing out less than 90 days after buying in.  The ETFs are traded on exchanges in the same manner as individual stocks.  Investors can buy however many shares of an ETF as they desire, rather than being faced with a minimum investment as required by many mutual funds.  Other investors see ETFs as a less-risky alternative than buying individual stocks, since some funds consist of an assortment of stocks from a given sector.

The most recent essay by one of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, is focused on the ETFs that are based on commodities, rather than stocks.  As it turns out, the commodity ETFs have turned out to be yet another one of Wall Street’s weapons of mass financial destruction.  Paul Farrell brings the reader’s attention to a number of articles written on this subject – all of which bear a theme similar to the title of Mr. Farrell’s piece:  “Commodity ETFs: Toxic, deadly, evil”.

Mr. Farrell discussed a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, exposing the hazards inherent in commodity ETFs.  That article began by discussing the experience of a man who invested $10,000 in an ETF called the U.S. Oil Fund (ticker symbol: USO), designed to track the price of light, sweet crude oil.  The investor’s experience became a familiar theme for many who had bought into commodity ETFs:

What happened next didn’t make sense.  Wolf watched oil go up as predicted, yet USO kept going down.  In February 2009, for example, crude rose 7.4 percent while USO fell by 7.4 percent.  What was going on?

What was going on was something called “contango”.  The BusinessWeek article explained it this way:

Contango is a word traders use to describe a specific market condition, when contracts for future delivery of a commodity are more expensive than near-term contracts for the same stuff.  It is common in commodity markets, though as Wolf and other investors learned, it can spell doom for commodity ETFs. When the futures contracts that commodity funds own are about to expire, fund managers have to sell them and buy new ones; otherwise they would have to take delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of raw materials.  When they buy the more expensive contracts — more expensive thanks to contango — they lose money for their investors.  Contango eats a fund’s seed corn, chewing away its value.

*   *   *

Contango isn’t the only reason commodity ETFs make lousy buy-and-hold investments.  Professional futures traders exploit the ETFs’ monthly rolls to make easy profits at the little guy’s expense.  Unlike ETF managers, the professionals don’t trade at set times.  They can buy the next month ahead of the big programmed rolls to drive up the price, or sell before the ETF, pushing down the price investors get paid for expiring futures.  The strategy is called “pre-rolling.”

“I make a living off the dumb money,” says Emil van Essen, founder of an eponymous commodity trading company in Chicago.  Van Essen developed software that predicts and profits from pre-rolling.  “These index funds get eaten alive by people like me,” he says.

A look at 10 well-known funds based on commodity futures found that, since inception, all 10 have trailed the performance of their underlying raw materials, according to Bloomberg data.

*   *   *

Just as they did with subprime mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street banks are transferring wealth from their clients to their trading desks.  “You walk into a casino, you expect to lose money,” says Greg Forero, former director of commodities trading at UBS (UBS).  “It’s the same with these products.  You’re playing a game with a very high rake, a very high house advantage, and you’re not the house.”

Another problem caused by commodity ETFs is the havoc they create by raising prices of consumer goods – not because of a supply and demand effect – but purely by financial speculation:

Wheat prices jumped 52 percent in early 2008, setting records before plunging again, and sugar more than doubled last year even as the economy slowed, forcing Reinwald’s Bakery in Huntington, N.Y., to fire five of its 32 employees.  “You try and budget to make money, but that’s becoming impossible to predict,” says owner Richard Reinwald, chairman of the Retail Bakers of America.

Paul Farrell also brought our attention to an article entitled “ETFs Gone Wild” to highlight the hazards these products create for the entire financial system:

In Bloomberg Markets’ “ETFs Gone Wild,” investors are warned that many ETFs are “stuffed with exotic derivatives,” at risk of becoming “the next financial time bomb.”  In short, thanks to ETFs, Wall Street is already creating a dangerous new kind of global weapon of mass destruction — a bomb primed to detonate like the 2000 dot-coms, the 2008 subprimes — and detonation is dead ahead.

Mr. Farrell’s essay included a discussion of a Rolling Stone article by McKenzie Funk, describing the exploits of Phil Heilberg, a former AIG commodity trader.  The Rolling Stone piece demonstrated how commodity ETFs are just the latest weapon used to advance “Chaos Capitalism”:

And yet, as Funk puts it:  “Heilberg’s bet on chaos is beginning to play out on the streets.”  The toxic trail of commodity ETFs is already proving to be deadly, starving thousands worldwide, while the new Capitalists of Chaos only see incredible profit opportunities, as they make huge bets that they’ll get even richer in the next round of catastrophes, disasters, poverty, starvation and wars.

Bottom line: Commodity ETF/WMDs are mutating into a toxic pandemic fueled (and protected by) the insatiable greed of banks, traders and politicians whose brains are incapable of giving up their profit machine, won’t until it implodes and self-destructs.  The Wall Street Banksters have no sense of morals, no ethics, no soul, no goal in life other than getting very rich, very fast.  They care nothing of democracy, civilization or the planet.

Don’t count on the faux financial “reform” bill to remedy any of the problems created by commodity ETFs.  As the BusinessWeek article pointed out, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is going to have its hands full:

How much the new law will help remains to be seen, says Jill E. Sommers, one of the agency’s five commissioners, because Congress still needs to appropriate funds and write guidelines for implementation and enforcement.

Let’s not overlook the fact that those “guidelines” are going to be written by industry lobbyists.  The more things change — the more they remain the same.



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