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Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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Disappointer-In-Chief

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April 9, 2009

President Obama must feel relieved by the cartoonish attacks against him by the likes of Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Fox News character, Sean Hannity.  Bachmann’s accusations that Obama is planning “re-education camps” for young people surely brought some comic relief to the new President.  Hannity must have caused some thunderous laughter in the White House with his claim that during a speech the President gave in Strasbourg, France, we saw examples of how “Obama attacks America”.  These denigration attempts were likely received as a welcome break from criticism being voiced by commentators who are usually supportive of the Obama administration.  Take Keith Olbermann for example.  He has not been holding back on expressing outrage over the Obama administration’s claim that the Patriot Act provides sovereign immunity to the federal government in civil lawsuits brought by victims of illegal wiretapping conducted by the Bush administration.  Another example of a disillusioned Obama supporter is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who has been fretting over the President’s plan to up the stakes for success in Afghanistan by increasing our troop commitment there and settling in to fight the good fight for as long as it takes.

Nothing has broken the spirits of Obama supporters more than his administration’s latest bank bailout scheme —  a/k/a  the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or “pee-pip”).  Although Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner has been the guy selling this plan to Congress and the public, the “man behind the curtain” who likely hatched this scam is Larry Summers.  Summers is the economist whom Obama named director of the National Economic Council.  At the time of that appointment, many commentators expressed dismay, since Summers, as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, supported repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act.  It is widely accepted that the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act helped bring about the subprime mortgage crisis and our current economic meltdown.  On the November 25, 2008 broadcast of the program, Democracy Now, author Naomi Klein made the following remark about Obama’s appointment of Summers:  “I think this is really troubling.”  She was right.  It was recently reported by Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times that Summers earned more than $5 million last year from the hedge fund, D. E. Shaw and collected $2.7 million in speaking fees from Wall Street companies that received government bailout money.  Many economists are now voicing opinions that the Geithner-Summers Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) is “really troubling”, as well.  Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been vocal critics of this plan.  As James Quinn reported for London’s Telegraph:  Professor Stiglitz said that the plan is “very flawed” and “amounts to robbery of the American people.”

Obama supporter George Soros, the billionaire financier and hedge fund manager, had this to say to Saijel Kishan and Kathleen Hays of Bloomberg News about Obama’s performance so far:

“He’s done very well in every area, except in dealing with the recapitalization of the banks and the restructuring of the mortgage market,” said Soros, who has published an updated paperback version of his book “The New Paradigm for Financial Markets:  The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means” (Scribe Publications, 2009).  “Unfortunately, there’s just a little bit too much continuity with the previous administration.”

The usually Obama-friendly Huffington Post has run a number of critical pieces addressing the Geithner – Summers plan.  Sam Stein pointed out how the plan is “facing a new round of withering criticism from economists”:

These critiques have produced a Washington rarity:  the re-sparking of a debate that, in the wake of positive reviews from Wall Street, had largely subsided.  Just as Geithner seemed to be finding his political footing, the spotlight has been placed right back on his cornerstone proposal, with critics calling into question both his projections and past testimony on the matter.

Jeffrey Sachs, an Economics professor at Columbia University, wrote a follow-up article for The Huffington Post on April 8, affirming earlier criticisms leveled against the bailout proposal with the added realization that “the situation is even potentially more disastrous” than previously described:

Insiders can easily game the system created by Geithner and Summers to cost up to a trillion dollars or more to the taxpayers.

Zachary Goldfarb of The Washington Post took a closer look at Treasury Secretary Geithner’s testimony before Congress last month, to ascertain the viability of some of the proposals Geithner mentioned at that hearing:

The Obama administration’s plan for a sweeping expansion of financial regulations could have unintended consequences that increase the very hazards that these changes are meant to prevent.

Financial experts say the perception that the government will backstop certain losses will actually encourage some firms to take on even greater risks and grow perilously large.  While some financial instruments will come under tighter control, others will remain only loosely regulated, creating what some experts say are new loopholes.  Still others say the regulation could drive money into questionable investments, shadowy new markets and lightly regulated corners of the globe.

If President Obama does not change course and deviate from the Geithner-Summers plan before it’s too late, his legacy will be a ten-year recession rather than a two year recession without the PPIP.  Worse yet, the toughest criticism and the most pressure against his administration are coming from people he has considered his supporters.  At least he has the people at Fox News to provide some laughable “decoy” reports to keep his hard-core adversaries otherwise occupied.

Geithner Goes Rogue

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April 2, 2009

Forget what you’ve heard about “oversight” and “transparency”.  What is really going on with the bank bailouts is beginning to scare some pretty level-headed people.

On March 31, the Senate Finance Committee held a hearing on the oversight of TARP (the Troubled Asset Relief Program, a/k/a the $700 billion bank bailout initiated last fall by former Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson).  The hearing featured testimony by Elizabeth Warren, chairwoman of the Congressional Oversight Panel; Neil Barofsky, Speical Inspector General for TARP and Gene Dodaro of the General Accounting Office.  All three testified that the Treasury Department was not cooperating with their efforts to conduct oversight.  In other words:  They are being stonewalled.  Worse yet, Ms. Warren testified that she could not even get the Treasury Department to explain what the hell is its strategy for TARP.  As Chris Adams reported for the McClatchy Newspapers:

Noting that TARP passed Congress six months ago, Warren said that her group has repeatedly called on the Treasury Department to provide a clear strategy for the program – and that “the absence of such a vision hampers effective oversight.”

Although she has asked Treasury to explain its strategy, “Congress and the American public have no clear answer to that question.”

That article also included Warren’s testimony that she experienced similar difficulties in obtaining information about the TALF (Term Asset-Backed Securities Loan Facility):

TARP is one of several programs the government has launched in recent months to help ailing institutions and even bolster healthy banks.  Warren singled out one program, known as TALF, for involving “substantial downside risk and high costs for the American taxpayer” while offering big potential rewards for private interests.  She said the public information about that program was “contradictory, promoting substantial confusion.”

Matthew Jaffe of ABC News pointed out that Neil Barofsky, Speical Inspector General for TARP, voiced similar concerns during his testimony.  Not surprisingly, the prepared testimony of the GAO’s Gene Dodaro revealed that:

We continue to note the difficulty of measuring the effect of TARP’s activities.

*    *    *

. . .  Treasury has yet to develop a means of regularly and routinely communicating its activities to relevant Congressional committees, members, the public and other critical stakeholders.

The Treasury Department’s inability to account for what the banks have been doing with TARP funds is based on the simple fact that it hasn’t even bothered to ask the banks that question.  As Steve Aquino reported for Mother Jones:

Neil Barofsky, the Special Inspector General of TARP, testified that the Treasury has yet to require TARP recipients to deliver reports disclosing exactly how they are spending taxpayer money.  “[C]omplaints that it was impractical or impossible for banks to detail how they used TARP funds were unfounded,” Barofsky said.  “While some banks indicated that they had procedures for monitoring their use of TARP money, others did not but were still able to give information on their use of funds.”

Apparently, Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner has adopted a “Don’t Ask — Don’t Tell” policy on the subject of what banks and other financial institutions do with the TARP money they receive.  Steve Aquino’s article emphasized how Elizabeth Warren’s testimony raised suspicions about the relationship between the Treasury and AIG — along with its “counterparties” (such as Goldman Sachs):

Congressional Oversight Panel chair Elizabeth Warren — who made news last month when she reported the Treasury had received securities worth $78 billion less than it paid for through TARP — cast more doubt on the Treasury’s relationship with AIG, saying “the opaque nature of the relationship among AIG, its counterparties, the Treasury, and the Federal Reserve Banks, particuarly the Federal Reserve Bank of New York, has substantially hampered oversight of the TARP program by Congress.”

That quote is particularly damning of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, because Warren specifically mentions the New York Fed, which Geithner headed before coming to Washington, and who also organized the first bailout of AIG.

At this point, it is difficult to understand why anyone, especially President Obama, would trust Turbo Tim to solve the “toxic asset” problem, with the scam now known as the Public-Private Investment Program or PPIP (pee-pip).  John P. Hussman, PhD, President of Hussman Investment Trust, wrote a superb analysis demonstrating the futility of the PPIP.  Here’s his conclusion:

The misguided policy of defending bondholders against losses with public funds has increased uncertainty, crowded out private investment, harmed consumer confidence, and prompted defensive saving against possible adversity.  We observe this as a plunge in gross domestic investment that is much broader than just construction and real estate, and a corresponding but misleading “improvement” in the current account deficit as domestic investment plunges.

Aside from a few Nobel economists such as Joseph Stiglitz (who characterized the Treasury policy last week as “robbery of the American people”) and Paul Krugman (who called it “a plan to rearrange the deck chairs and hope that that keeps us from hitting the iceberg”), the recognition that this problem can be addressed without a massive waste of public funds (and that it is both dangerous and wrong to do so) is not even on the radar.

In short, attempting to avoid the need for debt restructuring by wasting trillions in public funds increases the likelihood that the current economic downturn will be prolonged, places a massive claim on our future production in order to transfer our nation’s wealth to the bondholders of mismanaged financial companies, and raises the likelihood that any nascent recovery will be cut short by inflation pressures.  We are nowhere near the completion of this deleveraging cycle.

Unfortunately, we are also nowhere near finding someone who has the will or the ability to pull the plug on Turbo Tim’s recipe for disaster.