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Davos X Factors

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On January 23-27 the World Economic Forum held its tres chic annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland.  Admission was by invitation only.  Nick Paumgarten of The New Yorker offered the following explanation of how different segments of society view the annual Davos event:

People like to project onto Davos their fears and fantasies about the way the world works. Right-wingers see insidious, delusional liberalism, in its stakeholder ethos and its pretense of world improvement.  They picture a bunch of Keynesians, Continentals, and self-dealing do-gooders participating in some kind of off-the-books top-down command-control charade.  Left-wingers conjure a plutocratic cabal, a Star Chamber of master puppeteers, the one per cent – or .01 per cent, really – deciding the world’s fate behind a curtain of heavy security and utopian doublespeak.  The uninvited, the refuseniks, and even many of the participants see a colossal discharge of hot air, a peacock strut.  They all deploy, with a sneer, the term Davos Man, coined by the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, who decried a post-national wealthy globe-trotting élite.  Davos Man can be either a capitalist oppressor or a Commie conspirator.  Either way, he is a windbag, a pedant, and a hypocrite. Businesspeople who have never been to Davos find many ways to be dismissive of it: “I can’t do business there.”  “It’s too political.”  “It’s not what it used to be.”  The translation may be that that person has not been invited.

The World Economic Forum’s website explained the role of its official communities:

A key part of the Forum’s activities is the creation of distinctive communities of Member and Partner companies as well as leaders from civil society for more informal opportunities for interaction.

I would assume that at this year’s meeting, one of the most popular topics must have been risk management – including risk aversion.  Ever since the financial crisis, the world has been on the verge of economic chaos.  The possibility that Silvio Berlusconi could return to power in Italy has heightened concerns that the European sovereign debt crisis could reverse course from its current recovery trajectory and head into oblivion.

One of the World Economic Forum’s communities is the Risk Response Network.  The RRN “was launched to provide private and public sector leaders with an independent, impartial platform to map, monitor and mitigate global risks.”  It is comprised of individual representatives of leading global corporations, research institutions, media outlets, governments and NGOs.  The Risk Response Network released a 78-page report for this year’s annual meeting entitled, Global Risks 2013 — Eighth Edition.  The report’s topics included:  Testing Economic and Environmental Resilience, Digital Wildfires in a Hyperconnected World, The Dangers of Hubris on Human Health and Building National Resilience to Global Risks.

I found Section 5 of Global Risks 2013 to be particularly interesting.  It begins on page 55 of the report and is entitled, “X Factors”.  The report described this section in the following terms:

In this section, developed in collaboration with Nature, a leading science journal, the Risk Response Network asks readers to look beyond our high-risk concerns of the moment to consider a set of five X factors and reflect on what countries or companies should be doing to anticipate them.

*   *   *

X factors are serious issues, grounded in the latest scientific findings, but somewhat remote from what are generally seen as more immediate concerns such as failed states, extreme weather events, famine, macroeconomic instability or armed conflict. They capture broad and vaguely understood issues that could be hatching grounds for potential future risks (or opportunities).

The five X Factors discussed in the report were these:

Runaway climate change:  Is it possible that we have already passed a point of no return and that Earth’s atmosphere is tipping rapidly into an inhospitable state?

Significant cognitive enhancement:  Ethical dilemmas akin to doping in sports could start to extend into daily working life; an arms race in the neural “enhancement” of combat troops could also ensue.

Rogue deployment of geoengineering:  Technology is now being developed to manipulate the climate; a state or private individual could use it unilaterally.

Costs of living longer:  Medical advances are prolonging life, but long-term palliative care is expensive.  Covering the costs associated with old age could be a struggle.

Discovery of alien life:  Proof of life’s existence elsewhere in the universe could have profound psychological implications for human belief systems.

My favorite was the last X Factor:  Discovery of alien life.  Although the report focused on the notion that astronomers involved in the study of exoplanets could find spectral information revealing chemical signs of life, the last paragraph of the section provided some insights on the fear which has been keeping this subject under wraps for years:

Through basic education and awareness campaigns the general public can achieve a higher science and space literacy and cognitive resilience that would prepare them and prevent undesired social consequences of such a profound discovery and paradigm shift concerning mankind’s position in the universe.

So The Powers That Be are worried about “undesired social consequences” and “paradigm shift”.  Why is that not a surprise?

Those in search of “the right stuff” on this subject might be interested in what the late astronaut, Gordon Cooper had to say about it.

A good “basic education and awareness campaign” should begin with that video clip.


 

Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Recession Watch

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A recession relapse is the last thing Team Obama wants to see during this election year.  The President’s State of the Union address featured plenty of “happy talk” about how the economy is improving.  Nevertheless, more than a few wise people have expressed their concerns that we might be headed back into another period of at least six months of economic contraction.

Last fall, the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) predicted that the United States would fall back into recession.  More recently, the ECRI’s weekly leading index has been showing small increments of improvement, although not enough to dispel the possibility of a relapse.  Take a look at the chart which accompanied the January 27 article by Mark Gongloff of The Wall Street Journal.  Here are some of Mr. Gongloff’s observations:

The index itself actually ticked down a bit, to 122.8 from 123.3 the week before, but that’s still among the highest readings since this summer.

*   *   *

That’s still not great, still in negative territory where it has been since the late summer.  But it is the best growth rate since September 2.

Whatever that means.  It’s hard to say this index is telling us whether a recession is coming or not, because the ECRI’s recession call is based on top-secret longer leading indexes.

Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds has been in full agreement with the ECRI’s recession call since it was first published.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman discussed the impact of an increasingly probable recession on deteriorating stock market conditions:

Once again, we now have a set of market conditions that is associated almost exclusively with steeply negative outcomes.  In this case, we’re observing an “exhaustion” syndrome that has typically been followed by market losses on the order of 25% over the following 6-7 month period (not a typo).  Worse, this is coupled with evidence from leading economic measures that continue to be associated with a very high risk of oncoming recession in the U.S. – despite a modest firming in various lagging and coincident economic indicators, at still-tepid levels.  Compound this with unresolved credit strains and an effectively insolvent banking system in Europe, and we face a likely outcome aptly described as a Goat Rodeo.

My concern is that an improbably large number of things will have to go right in order to avoid a major decline in stock market value in the months ahead.

Another fund manager expressing similar concern is bond guru Jeffrey Gundlach of DoubleLine Capital. Daniel Fisher of Forbes recently interviewed Gundlach, who explained that he is more afraid of recession than of higher interest rates.

Many commentators have discussed a new, global recession, sparked by a recession across Europe.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), recently emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  It is feared that the recession in Europe – where America exports most of its products – could cause another recession in the United States, as a result of decreased demand for the products we manufacture.  The January 24 World Economic Outlook Update issued by the IMF offered this insight:

The euro area economy is now expected to go into a mild recession in 2012 – consistent with what was presented as a downside scenario in the January 2011 WEO Update.

*   *   *

For the United States, the growth impact of such spillovers is broadly offset by stronger underlying domestic demand dynamics in 2012.  Nonetheless, activity slows from the pace reached during the second half of 2011, as higher risk aversion tightens financial conditions and fiscal policy turns more contractionary.

On January 28, Steve Odland of Forbes suggested that the Great Recession, which began in the fourth quarter of 2007, never really ended.  Odland emphasized that the continuing drag of the housing market, the lack of liquidity for small businesses to create jobs, despite trillions of dollars in cash on the sidelines, has resulted in an “invisible recovery”.

Jennifer Smith of The Wall Street Journal explained how this situation has played out at law firms:

Conditions at law firms have stabilized since 2009, when the legal industry shed 41,900 positions, according to the Labor Department.  Cuts were more moderate last year, with some 2,700 positions eliminated, and recruiters report more opportunities for experienced midlevel associates.

But many elite firms have shrunk their ranks of entry-level lawyers by as much as half from 2008, when market turmoil was at its peak.

Regardless of whether the economic recovery may have been “invisible”, economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) has consistently described the recovery as “U-shaped” rather than the usual “V-shaped” graph pattern we have seen depicting previous recessions.  Today Online reported on a discussion Dr. Roubini held concerning this matter at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos:

Slow growth in advanced economies will likely lead to “a U-shaped recovery rather than a typical V”, and could last up to 10 years if there is too much debt in the public and private sector, he said.

At a panel discussion yesterday, Dr Roubini also said Greece will probably leave Europe’s single currency within 12 months and could soon be followed by Portugal.

“The euro zone is a slow-motion train wreck,” he said.  “Not only Greece, other countries as well are insolvent.”

In a December 8 interview conducted by Tom Keene on Bloomberg Television’s “Surveillance Midday”, Lakshman Achuthan, chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, explained his position:

“The downturn we have now is very different than the downturn in 2010, which did not persist.  This one is persisting.”

*  *  *

“If there’s no recession in Q4 or in the first half I’d say of 2012, then we’re wrong.  …   You’re not going to know whether or not we’re wrong until a year from now.”

I’m afraid that we might know the answer before then.


 

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Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why don’t we have a President like that?


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It’s Time For Obama And Geithner To Blink

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February 16, 2009

On Tuesday, February 10, our newly-appointed Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, rolled out a vague description of his new “Financial Stability Plan”.  Most commentators were shocked at the lack of information Geithner provided about this proposal.

This was in stark contrast with President Obama’s description of what we would hear from Geithner, as the President explained during his February 9 press conference.  In response to a question by Jennifer Loven of the Associated Press, concerning his earlier statements about the worsening recession, Obama stated:

And so tomorrow my Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, will be announcing some very clear and specific plans for how we are going to start loosening up credit once again.

Later in the conference, Julianna Goldman of Bloomberg News asked the President how he could expect the remaining $350 billion in available in TARP funds to solve the problems with the financial system when individuals, such as economist Nouriel Roubini, have explained that the price tag for such a fix could exceed a trillion dollars.  Again, the President explained:

We also have to deal with the housing issue in a clear and consistent way.  I don’t want to preempt my Secretary of the Treasury; he’s going to be laying out these principles in great detail tomorrow.

Yet again, in response to a question from Helene Cooper of The New York Times as to whether financial institutions receiving federal bailout money would be required to resume lending again, the President responded:

Again, Helene — and I’m trying to avoid preempting my Secretary of the Treasury, I want all of you to show up at his press conference as well; he’s going to be terrific.

Despite this hype, the following day’s presentation by Tim Geithner offered neither “clear and specific plans” nor “great detail” about the principles involved.  Nearly all of the editorials dealing with this strange event voiced a negative appraisal of Geithner’s discourse, particularly due to the complete absence of any discussion of specific measures to be employed by the Department of the Treasury.  Did something change between Monday night and Tuesday’s event?  Recent developments suggest that disagreements over the details of this plan, particularly those related to the possible “nationalization” of insolvent banks, forced the entire project into a state of flux.

Prior to last Tuesday’s fiasco, Geithner admitted to David Brooks of The New York Times that he was averse to the idea of nationalizing insolvent banks, even on a temporary basis:

Therefore, Geithner argues, the government doesn’t need to go in and nationalize the banks.  “It’s very important that we don’t look like there’s any intent of taking over or managing banks.  Governments are terrible managers of bad assets.  There’s no good history of governments doing that well.”

Geithner’s throwaway argument was disputed by Joe Nocera in the February 13 New York Times:

But that’s a canard.  The government did a terrific job managing banks during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s.  It took over banks — “we called them bridge banks,” recalled William Seidman, the former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, with a chuckle — replaced their top managers and directors, stripped out bad assets that the government then managed brilliantly, and sold the newly healthy banks to private buyers.  It turned out not to be all that hard to find actual bankers who could run these S.& L.’s for the federal government.

Geithner’s resistance to nationalization of insolvent banks represents a stark departure from the recommendations of many economists.  While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month, Dr. Nouriel Roubini explained (during an interview on CNBC) that the cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.   So I think it’s a bad idea.   It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

Dr. Roubini’s solution is to face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.  On February 15, Dr. Roubini repeated this theme in a Washington Post article he co-wrote with fellow New York University economics professor, Matthew Richardson.

Even after Geithner’s disastrous press conference, President Obama voiced a negative reaction to the Swedish approach during an interview with Terry Moran of ABC News:

Sweden, on the other hand, had a problem like this.  They took over the banks, nationalized them, got rid of the bad assets, resold the banks and, a couple years later, they were going again.  So you’d think looking at it, Sweden looks like a good model.  Here’s the problem; Sweden had like five banks.  [LAUGHS] We’ve got thousands of banks.  You know, the scale of the U.S. economy and the capital markets are so vast and the problems in terms of managing and overseeing anything of that scale,  I think, would — our assessment was that it wouldn’t make sense.  And we also have different traditions in this country.

Obviously, Sweden has a different set of cultures in terms of how the government relates to markets and America’s different.  And we want to retain a strong sense of that private capital fulfilling the core — core investment needs of this country.

Obama’s strident resistance to the Swedish approach could force him into an embarrassing situation, in the event that he changes his view of that strategy.  This may happen once Geithner begins applying his “stress tests” this week, to measure the solvency of individual banks.  On the ABC News program “This Week”, Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina expressed his opinion that the option of nationalizing these unhealthy banks should remain open:

GRAHAM:  Yes, this idea of nationalizing banks is not comfortable, but I think we have gotten so many toxic assets spread throughout the banking and financial community throughout the world that we’re going to have to do something that no one ever envisioned a year ago, no one likes, but, to me, banking and housing are the root cause of this problem.  And I’m very much afraid that any program to salvage the bank is going to require the government…

STEPHANOPOULOS:  So what would you do now?

GRAHAM:  I — I would not take off the idea of nationalizing the banks.

President Obama and Turbo Tim need to keep similarly open minds about the nationalization option.  They wouldn’t want to be on the wrong side of the “moral hazard” argument, forcing taxpayers to eat the losses risked by investors — especially with a prominent Republican wagging his finger at them.  This situation calls for only one response by the new administration:  Blink.

The “Bad Bank” Debate

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January 29, 2009

The $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) doesn’t seem to have accomplished much in the way of relieving banks from the ownership of “troubled assets”.  In fact, nobody seems to know exactly what was done with the first $350 billion in TARP funds, and those who do know are not talking.  Meanwhile, the nation’s banks have continued to flounder.  As David Cho reported in The Washington Post on Wednesday, January 28:

The health of many banks is getting worse, not better, as the downturn makes it difficult for all kinds of consumers and businesses to pay back money they borrowed from these financial firms.  Conservative estimates put bank losses yet to be declared at $1 trillion.

The continuing need for banks to unload their toxic assets has brought attention to the idea of creating a “bad bank” to buy mortgage-backed securities and other toxic assets, thus freeing-up banks to get back into the lending business.  Bloomberg News and other sources reported on Wednesday that FDIC chair, Sheila Bair, is pushing for her agency to run such a “bad bank”.  Our new Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, has also discussed the idea of such a bank (often referred to as an “aggregator bank”) as reported on Wednesday by Reuters:

Geithner said last week the administration was reviewing the option of setting up a bad bank, but that it is “enormously complicated to get right.”

The idea of creating such a bank has drawn quite a bit of criticism.  Back on January 18, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) characterized this approach, without first “nationalizing” the banks on a temporary basis, as “Wall Street Voodoo”:

A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s:  it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders.  Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.

The current buzz suggests, however, that policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches.  Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward a compromise approach:  moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” that would resemble the Resolution Trust Corporation, but without seizing the banks first.

Krugman scrutinized Sheila Bair’s earlier explanation that the aggregator bank would buy the toxic assets at “fair value”, by questioning how we define what “fair value” really means.  He concluded that this entire endeavor (as it is currently being discussed) is a bad idea for all concerned:

Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high.  I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.

Krugman is not alone in his skepticism concerning this plan.  As Annelena Lobb and Rob Curran  reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, this idea is facing some criticism from those in the financial planning business:

“I don’t see how this increases liquidity,” says Paul Sutherland, chief investment officer at FIM Group in Traverse City, Mich.  “This idea that we should burn million-dollar bills from taxpayers to take bad assets isn’t the best path.”

Billionaire financier Geroge Soros told CNBC that he disagrees with the “bad bank” strategy, explaining that the proposal “will help relieve the situation, but it will not be sufficient to turn it around”.  He then took advantage of the opportunity to criticize the execution of the first stage of the TARP bailout:

As to Paulson’s handling of the first half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund known as TARP, Soros said the money was used “capriciously and haphazardly.”  He said half of it has now been wasted, and the rest will need to be used to plug holes.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, anticipates that a “big chunk” of the remaining TARP funds will be used to create this aggregator bank.  Accordingly, he has suggested application of the type of standards that were absent during the first TARP phase:

Until the taxpayer-financed Bad Bank has recouped the costs of these purchases through selling the toxic assets in the open market, private-sector banks that benefit from this form of taxpayer relief must (1) refrain from issuing dividends, purchasing other companies, or paying off creditors; (2) compensate their executives, traders, or directors no more than 10 percent of what they received in 2007; (3) be reimbursed by their executives, traders, and directors 50 percent of whatever amounts they were compensated in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 — compensation which was, after all, based on false premises and fraudulent assertions, and on balance sheets that hid the true extent of these banks’ risks and liabilities; and (4) commit at least 90 percent of their remaining capital to new bank loans.

However, Reich’s precondition:  “Until the taxpayer-financed Bad Bank has recouped the costs of these purchases through selling the toxic assets in the open market” is exactly what makes his approach unworkable.  The cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market.  This point was emphasized by none other than “Doctor Doom” himself (Dr. Nouriel Roubini) during an interview with CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Dr. Roubini pointed out:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.  So I think it’s a bad idea.  It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

What is Dr. Roubini’s solution?  Face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.

Nevertheless, you can’t always count on the federal government to do the right thing.  In this case, I doubt that they will.  As David Cho pointed out at the end of his Washington Post article:

The bailout program “is a public relations nightmare,” one government official said.  He added that Obama officials are sure to face criticism for whatever course they take.