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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.


 

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.


 

Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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More Favorable Reviews For Huntsman

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In my last posting, I focused on how Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate to present responsible ideas for regulating the financial industry (Obama included).  Since that time, I have read a number of similarly favorable reactions from respected authorities and commentators who reviewed Huntsman’s proposals .

Simon Johnson is the former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF) from 2007-2008.  He is currently the Ronald A. Kurtz Professor of Entrepreneurship at the MIT Sloan School of Management.  At his Baseline Scenario blog, Professor Johnson posted the following comments in reaction to Jon Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform and Huntsman’s October 19 opinion piece for The Wall Street Journal:

More bailouts and the reinforcement of moral hazard – protecting bankers and other creditors against the downside of their mistakes – is the last thing that the world’s financial system needs.   Yet this is also the main idea of the Obama administration.  Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner told the Fiscal Times this week that European leaders “are going to have to move more quickly to put in place a strong firewall to help protect countries that are undertaking reforms,” meaning more bailouts.  And this week we learned more about the underhand and undemocratic ways in which the Federal Reserve saved big banks last time around.  (You should read Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men: Wall Street, Washington, and the Education of a President, to understand Mr. Geithner’s philosophy of unconditional bailouts; remember that he was president of the New York Fed before become treasury secretary.)

Is there really no alternative to pouring good money after bad?

In a policy statement released this week, Governor Jon Huntsman articulates a coherent alternative approach to the financial sector, which begins with a diagnosis of our current problem:  Too Big To Fail banks,

“To protect taxpayers from future bailouts and stabilize America’s economic foundation, Jon Huntsman will end too-big-to-fail. Today we can already begin to see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts. More than three years after the crisis and the accompanying bailouts, the six largest U.S. financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were before the crisis, having been encouraged by regulators to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices”

Mr. Geithner feared the collapse of big banks in 2008-09 – but his policies have made them bigger.  This makes no sense.  Every opportunity should be taken to make the megabanks smaller and there are plenty of tools available, including hard size caps and a punitive tax on excessive size and leverage (with any proceeds from this tax being used to reduce the tax burden on the nonfinancial sector, which will otherwise be crushed by the big banks’ continued dangerous behavior).

The goal is simple, as Mr. Huntsman said in his recent Wall Street Journal opinion piece: make the banks small enough and simple enough to fail, “Hedge funds and private equity funds go out of business all the time when they make big mistakes, to the notice of few, because they are not too big to fail.  There is no reason why banks cannot live with the same reality.”

The quoted passage from Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal essay went on to say this:

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product—at least $9.4 trillion, up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.  There is no evidence that institutions of this size add sufficient value to offset the systemic risk they pose.

The major banks’ too-big-to-fail status gives them a comparative advantage in borrowing over their competitors thanks to the federal bailout backstop.

Far be it from President Obama to make such an observation.

Huntsman’s policy page on financial reform included a discussion of repealing the Dodd-Frank law:

More specifically, real reform means repealing the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, which perpetuates too-big-to-fail and imposes costly and mostly useless regulations on innocent smaller banks without addressing the root causes of the crisis or anticipating future crises.  But the overregulation cannot be addressed without ending the bailout subsidies, so that is where reform must begin.

Beyond that, Huntsman’s Wall Street Journal piece gave us a chance to watch the candidate step in shit:

Once too-big-to-fail is fixed, we could then more easily repeal the law’s unguided regulatory missiles, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.  American banks provide advice and access to capital to the entrepreneurs and small business owners who have always been our economic center of gravity.  We need a banking sector that is able to serve that critical role again.

American banks also do a lot to screw their “personal banking” customers (the “little people”) and sleazy “payday loan”-type operations earn windfall profits exploiting those workers whose incomes aren’t enough for them to make it from paycheck-to-paycheck.  The American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  American consumers have always been “our economic center of gravity” and the CFPB was designed to protect them.  Huntsman would do well to jettison his anti-CFPB agenda if he wants to become President.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute, exhibited a similarly “hot and cold” reaction to Huntsman’s proposals for financial reform.  What follows is a passage from a recent posting at his Rortybomb blog, entitled “Huntsman Wants to Repeal Dodd-Frank so he can Pass Title VII of Dodd-Frank”:

So we need to get serious about derivatives regulation by bringing transparency to the over-the-counter derivatives market, with serious collateral requirements.  This was turned into law as the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of 2010, or Title VII of Dodd-Frank.

So we need to eliminate Dodd-Frank in order to pass Dodd-Frank’s resolution authority and derivative regulations – two of the biggest parts of the bill – but call it something else.

You can argue that Dodd-Frank’s derivative rules have too many loopholes with too much of the market exempted from the process and too much power staying with the largest banks.  But those are arguments that Dodd-Frank doesn’t go far enough, where Huntsman’s critique of Dodd-Frank is that it goes way too far.

Huntsman should be required to explain the issues here – is he against Dodd-Frank before being for it?  Is his Too Big To Fail policy and derivatives policy the same as Dodd-Frank, and if not how do they differ?  It isn’t clear from the materials he has provided so far how the policies would be different, and if it is a problem with the regulations in practice how he would get stronger ones through Congress.

I do applaud this from Huntsman:

RESTORING RULE OF LAW

President Huntsman’s administration will direct the Department of Justice to take the lead in investigating and brokering an agreement to resolve the widespread legal abuses such as the robo-signing scandal that unfolded in the aftermath of the housing bubble.  This is a basic question of rule of law; in this country no one is above the law. There are also serious issues involving potential violations of the securities laws, particularly with regard to fair and accurate disclosure of the underlying loan contracts and property titles in mortgage-backed securities that were sold.  If investors’ rights were abused, this needs to be addressed fully.  We need a comprehensive settlement that puts all these issues behind us, but any such settlement must include full redress of all legal violations.

*   *   *

And I will note that the dog-whistles hidden inside the proposal are towards strong reforms (things like derivatives reform “will also allow end-users to negotiate better terms with Wall Street and in turn lower trading costs” – implicitly arguing that the dealer banks have too much market power and it is the role of the government to create a fair playing field).  Someone knows what they are doing.  His part on bringing down the GSEs doesn’t mention the hobbyhorse of the Right that the CRA and the GSEs caused the crisis, which is refreshing to see.

If Republican voters are smart, they will vote for Jon Huntsman in their state primary elections.  As I said last time:  If Jon Huntsman wins the Republican nomination, there will be a serious possibility that the Democrats could lose control of the White House.


 

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Elizabeth Warren Should Run Against Obama

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Now that President Obama has thrown Elizabeth Warren under the bus by nominating Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), she is free to challenge Obama in the 2012 election.  It’s not a very likely scenario, although it’s one I’d love to see:  Warren as the populist, Independent candidate – challenging Obama, the Wall Street tool – who is already losing to a phantom, unspecified Republican.

A good number of people were disappointed when Obama failed to nominate Warren to chair the CFPB, which was her brainchild.  It was bad enough that Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t like her – but once the President realized he was getting some serious pushback about Warren from Senate Republicans – that was all it took.  Some Warren supporters have become enamored with the idea that she could challenge Scott Brown for his seat representing Massachusetts in the Senate.  However, many astute commentators consider that as a really stupid idea.  Here is the reaction from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism:

We argued yesterday that the Senate was not a good vehicle for advancing Elizabeth Warren’s aims of helping middle class families, since she would have no more, and arguably less power than she has now, and would be expected to defend Democrat/Obama policies, many of which are affirmatively destructive to middle class interests (just less so than what the Republicans would put in place).

A poll conducted in late June by Scott Brown and the Republican National Committee raises an even more basic question:  whether she even has a shot at winning.

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The poll shows a 25 point gap, which is a massive hurdle, and also indicates that Brown is seen by many voters as not being a Republican stalwart (as in he is perceived to vote for the state’s, not the party’s, interest).  A 25 point gap is a near insurmountable hurdle and shows that Warren’s reputation does not carry as far as the Democratic party hackocracy would like her fans to believe.  But there’s no reason not to get this pesky woman to take up what is likely to be a poisoned chalice.  If she wins, she’s unlikely to get on any important committees, given the Democratic party pay to play system, and will be boxed in by the practical requirements of having to make nice to the party and support Obama positions a meaningful portion of the time. And if she runs and loses, it would be taken as proof that her middle class agenda really doesn’t resonate with voters, which will give the corporocrats free rein (if you can’t sell a liberal agenda in a borderline Communist state like Massachusetts, it won’t play in Peoria either).

Obviously, a 2012 challenge to the Obama Presidency by Warren would be an uphill battle.  Nevertheless, it’s turning out to be an uphill battle for the incumbent, as well.  David Weidner of MarketWatch recently discussed how Obama’s failure to adequately address the economic crisis has placed the President under the same pressure faced by many Americans today:

He’s about to lose his job.

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Blame as much of the problem on his predecessor as you like, the fact is Obama hasn’t come up with a solution.  In fact, he’s made things worse by filling his top economic posts with banking-friendly interests, status-quo advisers and milquetoast regulators.

And if there’s one reason Obama loses in 2012, it’ll be because he failed to surround himself with people willing to take drastic action to get the economy moving again.

In effect, Obama’s team has rewarded the banking industry under the guise of “saving the economy” while abandoning citizens and consumers desperate for jobs, credit and spending power.

There was the New York Fed banker cozy with Wall Street: Timothy Geithner.

There was the former Clinton administration official who was the architect of policies that led to the financial crisis: Larry Summers.

There was a career bureaucrat named to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission:  Mary Schapiro.

To see just how unremarkable this group is, consider that the most progressive regulator in the Obama administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair, was a Republican appointed by Bush.

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The lack of action by Obama’s administration of mediocrities is the reason the recovery sputters.  In essence, the turnaround depends too much on a private sector that, having escaped failure, is too content to sit out what’s supposed to be a recovery.

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What began as a two-step approach:  1) saving the banks, and then 2) saving homeowners, was cut short after the first step.

Instead of extracting more lending commitments from the banks, forcing more haircuts on investors and more demands on business, Obama has let his team of mediocrities allow the debate to be turned on government.  The government caused the financial crisis.  The government ruined the housing market.

It wasn’t true at the start, but it’s becoming true now.

Despite his status as the incumbent and his $1 billion campaign war chest, President Obama could find himself voted out of office in 2012.  When you consider the fact that the Republican Party candidates who are currently generating the most excitement are women (Bachmann and the undeclared Palin) just imagine how many voters might gravitate to a populist female candidate with substantially more brains than Obama.

The disillusionment factor afflicting Obama is not something which can be easily overlooked.  The man I have referred to as the “Disappointer-In-Chief” since his third month in office has lost more than the enthusiasm of his “base” supporters – he has lost the false “progressive” image he had been able to portray.  Matt Stoller of the Roosevelt Institute explained how the real Obama had always been visible to those willing to look beyond the campaign slogans:

Many people are “disappointed” with Obama.  But, while it is certainly true that Obama has broken many many promises, he projected his goals in his book The Audacity of Hope.  In Audacity, he discussed how in 2002 he was going to give politics one more shot with a Senate campaign, and if that didn’t work, he was going into corporate law and getting wealthy like the rest of his peer group.  He wrote about how passionate activists were too simple-minded, that the system basically worked, and that compromise was a virtue in and of itself in a world of uncertainty. His book was a book about a fundamentally conservative political creature obsessed with process, not someone grounded in the problems of ordinary people.  He told us what his leadership style is, what his agenda was, and he’s executing it now.

I expressed skepticism towards Obama from 2005, onward.  Paul Krugman, Debra Cooper, and Tom Ferguson among others pegged Obama correctly from day one.  Obama broadcast who he was, through his conservative policy focus (which is how Krugman pegged him), his bank backers (which is how Ferguson pegged him), his political support of Lieberman (which is how I pegged him), and his cavalier treatment of women’s issues (which is how Debra Cooper pegged him).  He is doing so again, with his choice to effectively remove Elizabeth Warren from the administration.

I just wish Elizabeth Warren would fight back and challenge Obama for The White House.  If only   .   .   .


 

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Widespread Disappointment With Financial Reform

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Exactly one year 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 bill – 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 year since that posting, I felt a bit less misanthropic each time someone spoke out, wrote an article or made a presentation demonstrating that our government’s “financial reform” effort was nothing more than political theater.  Last July, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News reported that according to a Bloomberg National Poll, almost eighty percent of those surveyed expressed “just a little or no confidence” that the financial reform bill would make their financial assets more secure.  Forty-seven percent believed that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  The American public is not as dumb as most people claim!

This past week brought us three great perspectives on the worthlessness of our government’s financial reform facade.  I was surprised that the most impressive presentation came from a Fed-head!   Thomas M. Hoenig, President and CEO of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, gave a speech at New York University’s Stern School of Business, concerning the future of “systemically important financial institutions” or “SIFIs” and the Dodd-Frank Act.  (Bill Black prefers to call them “systemically dangerous institutions” or “SDIs”.)   After a great discussion of the threat these entities pose to our financial system and the moral hazard resulting from the taxpayer-financed “safety net”, which allows creditors of the SIFIs to avoid accountability for risks taken, Tom Hoenig focused on Dodd-Frank:

Following this financial crisis, Congress and the administration turned to the work of repair and reform.  Once again, the American public got the standard remedies – more and increasingly complex regulation and supervision.  The Dodd-Frank reforms have all been introduced before, but financial markets skirted them.  Supervisory authority existed, but it was used lightly because of political pressure and the misperceptions that free markets, with generous public support, could self-regulate.

Dodd-Frank adds new layers of these same tools, but it fails to employ one remedy used in the past to assure a more stable financial system – simplification of our financial structure through Glass-Steagall-type boundaries.  To this end, there are two principles that should guide our efforts to restore such boundaries.  First, institutions that have access to the safety net should be restricted to certain core activities that the safety net was intended to protect – making loans and taking deposits – and related activities consistent with the presence of the safety net.

Second, the shadow banking system should be reformed in its use of money market funds and short-term repurchase agreements – the repo market.  This step will better assure that the safety net is not ultimately called upon to bail them out in crisis.

Another engaging perspective on financial reform efforts came from Phil Angelides, who served as chairman of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, which conducted televised hearings concerning the causes of the financial crisis and issued its final report in January.  On June 27, Angelides wrote an article for The Washington Post wherein he discussed what caused the financial crisis, the current efforts to “revise the historical narrative” of what led to the economic catastrophe, as well as the efforts to undermine, subvert and repeal the meager reforms Dodd-Frank authorized.  Angelides didn’t pull any punches when he upbraided Congressional Republicans for conduct which the Democrats have been too timid (or complicit) to criticize:

If you are Rep. Paul Ryan, you ignore the fact that our federal budget deficit has ballooned more than $10 trillion annually since the financial collapse.  You disregard the reality that two-thirds of the deficit increase is directly attributable to the economic downturn and bipartisan fiscal measures adopted to bolster the economy.  Instead of focusing on the real cause of the deficit, you conflate today’s budgetary disaster with the long-term challenges of Medicare so you can shred the social safety net.

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If you are most congressional Republicans, you turn a blind eye to the sad history of widespread lending abuses that savaged communities across the country and pledge to block the appointment of anyone to head the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau unless its authority is weakened.  You ignore the evidence of pervasive excess that wrecked our financial markets and attempt to cut funding for the regulators charged with curbing it.  Across the board, you refuse to acknowledge what went wrong and then try to stop efforts to make it right.

David Sirota wrote a great essay for Salon entitled, “America’s unique hatred of finance reform”.  Sirota illustrated how bipartisan efforts to undermine financial reform are turning America into – what The Daily Show with Jon Stewart called – “Sweden’s Mexico”:

On one hand, Europe’s politics of finance seem to be gradually moving in the direction of Sweden — that is, in the direction of growth and stability.  As the Washington Post reports, that Scandinavian country — the very kind American Tea Party types write off with “socialist” epithets — has the kind of economy the U.S. can now “only dream of:  growing rapidly, creating jobs and gaining a competitive edge (as) the banks are lending, the housing market booming (and) the budget is balanced.”  It has accomplished this in part by seriously regulating its banking sector after it collapsed in the 1990s.

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After passing an embarrassingly weak financial “reform” bill that primarily cemented the status quo, the U.S. government is now delaying even the most minimal new rules that were included in the legislation.  At the same time, Senate Republicans are touting their plans to defund any new financial regulatory agencies; the chairman of the House Financial Services Committee has declared that “Washington and the regulators are there to serve the banks” — not the other way around; and the Obama administration is now trying to force potential economic partners to accept financial deregulation as a consequence of bilateral trade deals.

Meanwhile, the presidential campaign already looks like a contest between two factions of the same financial elite — a dynamic that threatens to make the 2012 extravaganza a contest to see which party can more aggressively suck up to the banks.

Any qualified, Independent political candidate, who is willing to step up for the American middle class and set out a plan of action to fight the financial industry as well as its lobbyists, would be well-positioned for a 2012 election victory.


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