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Inviting More Trouble

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I frequently revert to my unending criticism of President Obama for “punting” on the 2009 economic stimulus program.  The most recent example was my June 13 posting, wherein I noted how Stephanie Kelton provided us with an interesting reminiscence of that fateful time during the first month of Obama’s Presidency, in a piece she published on William Black’s New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

As it turned out – that is exactly what happened.  Obama’s lack of leadership and his apologetic, half-assed use of government power to fight the recession has brought us to where we are today.  It may also bring Barack Obama and his family to a new address in January of 2013.

At this point, the “austerian” economists are claiming that the attenuated stimulus program’s failure to bring us more robust economic growth is “proof” that Keynesian economics “doesn’t work”.  The fact that many of these economists speak the way they do as a result of conflicts of interest – arising from the fact that they are on the payrolls of private firms with vested interests in maintaining the status quo – is lost on the vast majority of Americans.  Unfortunately, President Obama is not concerned with rebutting the arguments of these “hired guns”.  A recent poll by Bloomberg News revealed that the American public has successfully been fooled into believing that austerity measures could somehow revive our economy:

As the public grasps for solutions, the Republican Party is breaking through in the message war on the budget and economy.  A majority of Americans say job growth would best be revived with prescriptions favored by the party:  cuts in government spending and taxes, the Bloomberg Poll shows.  Even 40 percent of Democrats share that view.

*   *   *

Though Americans rate unemployment and the economy as a greater concern than the deficit and government spending, the issues are now closely connected.  Sixty-five percent of respondents say they believe the size of the federal deficit is “a major reason” the jobless rate hasn’t dropped significantly.

*   *   *

Republican criticism of the federal budget growth has gained traction with the public.  Fifty-five percent of poll respondents say cuts in spending and taxes would be more likely to bring down unemployment than would maintaining or increasing government spending, as Obama did in his 2009 stimulus package.

The voters are finally buying the corporatist propaganda that unemployment will recede if the government would just leave businesses alone. Forget about any government “hiring programs” – we actually need to fire more government employees!  With those annoying regulators off their backs, corporations would be free to hire again and bring us all to Ayn Rand heaven.  You are supposed to believe that anyone who disagrees with this or contends that government can play a role in job creation is a socialist.

Nevertheless, prominent individuals from the world of business and finance are making an effort to debunk these myths.  Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently addressed the subject:

Solutions from policymakers on the right or left, however, seem focused almost exclusively on rectifying or reducing our budget deficit as a panacea. While Democrats favor tax increases and mild adjustments to entitlements, Republicans pound the table for trillions of dollars of spending cuts and an axing of Obamacare.  Both, however, somewhat mystifyingly, believe that balancing the budget will magically produce 20 million jobs over the next 10 years.  President Obama’s long-term budget makes just such a claim and Republican alternatives go many steps further.  Former Governor Pawlenty of Minnesota might be the Republicans’ extreme example, but his claim of 5% real growth based on tax cuts and entitlement reductions comes out of left field or perhaps the field of dreams.  The United States has not had a sustained period of 5% real growth for nearly 60 years.

Both parties, in fact, are moving to anti-Keynesian policy orientations, which deny additional stimulus and make rather awkward and unsubstantiated claims that if you balance the budget, “they will come.”  It is envisioned that corporations or investors will somehow overnight be attracted to the revived competitiveness of the U.S. labor market:  Politicians feel that fiscal conservatism equates to job growth.

*   *   *

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Hedge fund manager, Barry Ritholtz discussed his own ideas for “Jump Starting the U.S. Economy” on his website, The Big Picture.  He concluded the piece by lamenting the fact that the federal debt/deficit debate is sucking all the air out of the room at the very time when people should be discussing job creation:

The focus on Deficits today is absurd, forcing us towards another 1938-type recession.  The time to reduce the government’s economic deficit and footprint is during a robust expansion, not during (or just after) major contractions.

During the de-leveraging following a credit crisis is the worst possible time to be deficit obsessed.

Don’t count on President Obama to say anything remotely similar to what you just read.  You would be expecting too much.


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License To Steal

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People are finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions.  Voters have seen so many politicians breach their campaign promises while providing new meaning to the expression “follow the money”, that there now seems to be a resigned acceptance that political payoffs are an uncomfortable fact of life.  Worse yet, most people aren’t aware of another loophole in the law allowing Congress-cretins to make real money.

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

Here is a summary of the most important provisions of the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act”:

Amends the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Commodities Exchange Act to direct both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to prohibit purchase or sale of either securities or commodities for future delivery by a person in possession of material nonpublic information regarding pending or prospective legislative action if the information was obtained:  (1) knowingly from a Member or employee of Congress; (2) by reason of being a Member or employee of Congress; and (3) other federal employees.

Amends the Code of Official Conduct of the Rules of the House of Representatives to prohibit designated House personnel from disclosing material nonpublic information relating to any pending or prospective legislative action relating to either securities of a publicly-traded company or a commodity if such personnel has reason to believe that the information will be used to buy or sell the securities or commodity based on such information.

Back in September of 2009, a report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn discussed the investment transactions made by some Senators in September of 2008, after having been informed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that our financial system was on the verge of a meltdown.  After quoting then GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public acknowledgement that:

We clearly have an unprecedented crisis in our financial system.    .   .   .

On behalf of the American people our job is to put our partisan differences aside and to work together to help solve this crisis.

Mr. Henn proceeded to explain how swift Senatorial action resulted in a bipartisan exercise of greed:

The next day, according to personal financial disclosures, Boehner cashed out of a fund designed to profit from inflation.  Since he sold, it’s lost more than half its value.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was also at that meeting sold more than $40,000 in mutual funds and reinvested it all with Warren Buffett.

Durbin said like millions of others he was worried about his retirement.  Boehner says his stock broker acted alone without even talking to him.  Both lawmakers say they didn’t benefit from any special tips.

But over time members of Congress do much better than the rest of us when playing the stock market.

*   *   *

The value of information that flows from the inner workings of Washington isn’t lost on Wall Street professionals.

Michael Bagley is a former congressional staffer who now runs the OSINT Group.  Bagley sells access and research. His clients are hedge funds, and he makes it his business to mine Congress and the rest of Washington for tips.

MICHAEL Bagley: The power center of finance has moved from Wall Street to Washington.

His firm is just one recent entry into Washington’s newest growth industry.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s called political intelligence.

Craig Holman is at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog.  Holman believes lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to sell tips to hedge funds and members of Congress shouldn’t trade on non-public information.  But right now it’s legal.

HOLMAN: It’s absolutely incredible, but the Securities and Exchange Act does not apply to members of Congress, congressional staff or even lobbyists.

That law bans corporate insiders, from executives to their bankers and lawyers, from trading on inside information.  But it doesn’t apply to political intelligence.  That makes this business lucrative.  Bagley says firms can charge hedge funds $25,000 a month just to follow a hot issue.

BAGLEY: So information is a commodity in Washington.

Inside information on dozens of issues, from bank capitol requirements to new student loan rules, can move markets.  Consumer advocate Craig Holman is backing a bill called the STOCK Act.  Introduced in the House, it would force political-intelligence firms to disclose their clients and it would ban lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists from profiting on non-public knowledge.

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

Take a look at the list below from opensecrets.org concerning the wealthiest members of Congress.  In light of the fact that these knaves are able to trade on “inside information” you now have the answer to the following question from the opensecrets website:

Congressional members’ personal wealth keeps expanding year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases.  The same cannot be said for most Americans.  Are your representatives getting rich in Congress and, if so, how?

Here is the Top Ten List of the Richest Members of Congress from opensecrets.org:

NAME               MINIMUM NET WORTH    AVERAGE   MAXIMUM NET WORTH

Darrell Issa (R-Calif) $156,050,022      $303,575,011    $451,100,000

Jane Harman (D-Calif)  $151,480,522    $293,454,761   $435,429,001

John Kerry (D-Mass)    $182,755,534     $238,812,296   $294,869,059

Mark Warner (D-Va)     $65,692,210       $174,385,102   $283,077,995

Jared Polis (D-Colo)     $36,694,140        $160,909,068   $285,123,996

Herb Kohl (D-Wis)        $89,358,027           $160,302,011   $231,245,995

Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla)$-69,434,661    $148,373,160  $366,180,982

Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $73,685,086  $137,611,043  $201,537,000

Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)  $61,446,018      $98,832,010   $136,218,002

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) $46,055,250    $77,082,134   $108,109,018

Jay Rockefeller’s position on the list is easy to understand, given the fact that he is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller.  How the first eight people on the list were able to become more wealthy than Jay Rockefeller should be matter of interest to the voting public.  In the case of  #10 — California Senator Dianne Feinstein  — we have an interesting situation.  As chair of the Senate Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, she helped her husband, Iraq war profiteer Richard C. Blum, benefit from decisions she made as chair of that subcommittee.  In an article for bohemian.com, Peter Byrne discussed how Senator Feinstein was routinely informed about specific federal projects coming before her in which one of her husband’s businesses had a stake.  As Byrne’s article explained, the inside information Feinstein received was intended to help the senator avoid conflicts of interest, although it had the effect of exacerbating such conflicts.

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest .   .   .


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Searching For A Port In A Storm Of Bad Behavior

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August 20, 2009

Since I began complaining about manipulation of the stock markets back on December 18, I’ve been comforted by the fact that a number of bloggers have voiced similar concerns.  At such websites as Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, The Market Ticker and others too numerous to mention —  a common theme keeps popping up:  some portion of the extraordinary amounts of money disseminated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is obviously being used to manipulate the equities markets.  One paper, released by Precision Capital Management, analyzed the correlation between those days when the Federal Reserve bought back Treasury securities from investment banks and “tape painting” during the final minutes of those trading days on the stock markets.

Eliot “Socks” Spitzer recently wrote a piece for Slate, warning the “small investor” about a “rigged” system, as well as the additional hazards encountered due to routine breaches of the fiduciary duties owed by investment firms to their clients:

Recent rebounds notwithstanding, most people now are asking whether the system is fundamentally rigged.  It’s not just that they have an understandable aversion to losing their life savings when the market crashes; it’s that each of the scandals and crises has a common pattern:  The small investor was taken advantage of by the piranhas that hide in the rapidly moving currents. And underlying this pattern is a simple theme: conflicts of interest that violated the duty the market players had to their supposed clients.

The natural reaction of the retail investor to these hazards and scandals often involves seeking refuge in professionally-managed mutual funds.  Nevertheless, as Spitzer pointed out, the mutual fund alternative has dangers of its own:

Mutual funds charge exorbitant fees that investors have to absorb — fees that dramatically reduce any possibility of outperforming the market and that are set by captive boards of captive management companies, not one of which has been replaced for inadequate performance, violating their duty to guard the interests of the fund investors for whom they supposedly work.

Worse yet, is the fact that mutual funds are now increasing their fees and, in effect, punishing their customers for the poor performance of those funds during the past year.  Financial planner Allan Roth, had this to say at CBS MoneyWatch.com:

After one of the most awful years in the history of the mutual fund industry, when the average U.S. stock fund and international fund fell by 39 percent and 46 percent respectively, you might expect fund companies would give investors a break and lower their fees. But just the opposite is true.

An exclusive analysis for MoneyWatch.com by investment research firm Morningstar shows that over the past year, fund fees have risen in nearly every category.  For stock funds, the fees shot up by roughly 5 percent.

*   *   *

Every penny you pay in fees, of course, lowers your return.  In fact, my research indicates that each additional 0.25 percent in annual fees pushes back your financial independence goal by a year.

What’s more, the only factor that is predictive of a fund’s relative performance against similar funds is fees.  A low-cost domestic stock fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund, just as a low-cost bond fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund.   . . .  As fund fees increase, performance decreases.  In fact, fees explained nearly 60 percent of the U.S. stock fund family performance ratings given by Morningstar.  Numerous studies done to predict mutual fund performance indicate that neither the Morningstar rating nor the track record of the fund manager were indicative of future performance.

Another questionable practice in the mutual fund industry — the hiring of “rookies” to manage the funds — was recently placed under the spotlight by Ken Kam for the MSN TopStocks blog:

In this market, it’s going to take skill to make back last year’s losses.  After a 40% loss, it takes a 67% gain just to get back to even. You would think that mutual funds would put their most experienced managers and analysts to work right now.  But according to Morningstar, the managers of 28 out of 48 unique healthcare funds, almost 60%, (see data) have less than five years with their fund.  I think you need to see at least a five-year track record before you can even begin to judge a manager’s worth.

I’m willing to pay for good management that will do something to protect me if the market crashes again.  But I want to see some evidence that I am getting a good manager before I trust them with my money.  I want to see at least a five-year track record.  If I paid for good management and I got a rookie manager with no track record instead, I would be more than a little upset.

Beyond that, John Authers of Morningstar recently wrote an article for the Financial Times, explaining that investors will obtain better results investing in a stock index fund, rather than an “actively managed” equity mutual fund, whether or not that manager is a rookie:

For decades, retail savers have invested in stocks via mutual funds that are actively managed to try to beat an index.  The funds hold about 100 stocks, and can raise or lower their cash holdings, but cannot bet on stocks to go down by selling them short.

This model has, it appears, been savaged by a flock of sheep.

Index investing, which cuts costs by replicating an index rather than trying to beat it, has been gaining in popularity.

Active managers argued that they could raise cash, or move to defensive stocks, in a downturn.  Passive funds would track their index over the edge of the cliff.

But active managers, in aggregate, failed to do better than their indices in 2008.

So …  if you have become too frustrated to continue investing in stocks, be mindful of the fact that equity-based mutual funds have problems of their own.

As for other alternatives:  Ian Wyatt recently wrote a favorable piece about the advantages of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for  SmallCapInvestor.com.  Nevertheless, if the stocks comprising those ETFs (and the ETFs themselves) are being traded in a “rigged” market, you’re back to square one.  Happy investing!

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