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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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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.

*   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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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Clean-Up Time On Wall Street

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January 5, 2009

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the piece included these points:

.   .   .    H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.
*   *   *
There are other difficulties plaguing the agency.  A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.
*   *   *
Some experts said that appointees of the Bush administration had hollowed out the commission, much the way they did various corners of the Justice Department.  The result, they say, is hobbled enforcement and inspection programs.

On December 18, Barack Obama announced his intention to name Mary Schapiro as the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Many news outlets, including National Public Radio, presented an enthusiastic look toward the tenure of Ms. Schapiro in this office:

Speaking at the news conference on Thursday, Schapiro said there must be “consistent and robust enforcement” of regulations to protect investors, saying it will be her top priority as SEC chief.

On the other hand, in the December 18 Wall Street Journal, Randall Smith and Kara Scannell provided us with a more informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.
*  *  *
Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers  . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul. ” The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

It appears as though we might see Ms. Schapiro face some grilling about the Madoff appointment, when she faces her confirmation hearing.  Beyond that, the points raised by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell underscore the question of whether Mary Schapiro will really be an agent of change on Wall Street or just another “insider” overseeing “business as usual”.  To assuage such concern, many commentators have emphasized that Ms. Schapiro has never worked for a brokerage firm or investment bank.  Her Wall Street experience has been limited to regulatory activity.  Despite this, one must keep in mind a point made by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

Michael Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, a non-fiction book about his own Wall Street experience as a bond salesman.  With David Einhorn, he wrote a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3 New York Times.  The above-quoted passage was from the first part, entitled:  “The End of the Financial World as We Know It”.  The second part is entitled:  “How to Repair a Broken Financial World”.  The first section looked at the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, using it to underscore this often-ignored reality about the Securities and Exchange Commission and its inability to prevent or even cope with the current financial crisis:

Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

In the second section of their commentary, Lewis and Einhorn suggest six changes to the financial system “to prevent some version of what has happened from happening all over again”.  Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?

Jackass Of The Year Award

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January 1, 2009

At year’s end, we see retrospectives of the most important events, numerous top ten lists and recognitions of achievement in one area or another.  2008 brought a record level of cynicism to the American people because of the economic catastrophe, the Bernie Madoff scandal and the cartoon-like escapades from the Presidential campaign.  Accordingly, it seems only appropriate to pay homage to the biggest Jackass of the Year.  Since I advertise this website as a “Blago-free zone”, the current Governor of Illinois is automatically disqualified from the competition.  So, let’s take a look at some of the runners-up and finally, the winner of the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our first contestant is John Ensign.  He is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, representing the State of Nevada in the United States Senate.  On November 2, 2008 he appeared on the CBS television program, Face The Nation with Bob Schieffer.  Election day was two days away and Ensign found it necessary to blame the likely Republican losses on the economic downturn.  He described the Republicans’ fate in these terms:

“And we were starting to do very, very well, but when the financial crisis hit, that financial crisis really is — has been a — almost a body blow to Republicans.  And unfortunately, it was allowed to be portrayed that this was a result of deregulation, when in fact it was a result of overregulation.”

That’s right.  Ensign Douchebag thought he could convince the public that the economic crisis was the result of over-regulation of the financial system, rather than the deregulation described by everyone else in the world.  That noble statement certainly rates runner-up status for the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our next contestant is Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and embarrassment to Barack Obama.  Thank God Reverend Wright’s fifteen minutes of fame are finally over.  Although his infamous sermon with the less-than-patriotic remarks about America was given in 2003, by April of 2008, Rev. Wright made a point of resurrecting the controversy concerning his disappointing association with Barack Obama.   At that time Wright hit the road, appearing on Bill Moyers Journal, speaking before the NAACP and giving a grand performance before the National Press Club.  He made a fool of himself all three times and (perhaps to his disappointment) his bad karma never rubbed off on Barack.  The pastor has also been a disgrace to the name of the Right Reverend Carl Wright (comedic sidekick of Chicago blues maven, Pervis Spann).  Although Jeremiah Wright rated recognition, the competition for the Jackass Award was tough this year.

We cannot overlook the valiant efforts of Joe “The Tool” Lieberman to win this honor.  Although the people of Connecticut elected Joe to represent their state in the Senate, The Tool spent most of 2008 looking like a stray dog, following candidate John McCain around the campaign trial.  You can find my prior rants about Senator Lieberman here, here, here and here.

We must also give consideration to Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  John McCain was on to him.  It just wasn’t fair that poor, old Senator McCain took so much heat for pointing out that Cox had to go.  McCain made the mistake of stating that he, as President, would have authority to fire Cox.  Although he was wrong about that, he was right about the notion that Cox had been a problem for the SEC.  On December 16, Jessie Westerbrook of Bloomberg news reported that Cox was blaming his subordinates for the enforcement lapses that allowed the scam, perpetrated by Bernie Madoff, to continue for several years after the SEC should have stopped it.  Cox apparently believes in the doctrine that “the buck stops” several levels below himself on the SEC food chain.  The environment at the SEC, with Cox at the helm, was best summed up in a December 27 article from the Los Angeles Times by Amit Paley and David Hilzenrath.  Here’s what they had to say about the tenure of Chairman Cox and his performance during the economic crisis:

Though Cox speaks of staying calm in the face of financial turmoil, lawmakers across the political spectrum counter that this is actually another way of saying that his agency remained passive during the worst global financial crisis in decades.  And they claim that Cox’s stewardship before this year — focusing on deregulation as the agency’s staff shrank — laid the groundwork for the meltdown.

“The commission in recent years has handcuffed the inspection and enforcement division,” said Arthur Levitt, SEC chairman during the Clinton administration.  “The environment was not conducive to proactive enforcement activity.”

*    *    *

But former officials said enforcement suffered during his tenure.  A pilot program begun last year required enforcement staff to meet with the commissioners before beginning settlement talks in certain cases involving nonfinancial firms.  Some former officials said the change was just one example of new bureaucratic impediments that slowed enforcement work.  The commissioners also made clear that they thought staff members were being too aggressive in some cases, the officials said.

”I think there has been a sentiment communicated to rank-and-file staff, lawyers and accountants that you don’t go after the establishment,” said Ross Albert, a former special counsel in the enforcement division.
*    *    *
An analysis by law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius showed that the SEC’s actions against broker-dealers, who serve as intermediaries in financial trades, dropped about 33%, from about 89 cases in fiscal 2007 to 60 cases in fiscal 2008.

Heckuva’ job, Coxey!   Nevertheless, you have been overshadowed in this year’s competition.

The winner of the 2008 Jackass of the Year Award is a professor from Russia, named Igor Panarin.  He is a former member of the KGB, who is apparently so upset over the breakup of the Soviet Union, that for the past ten years, he has been predicting that the United States would also break up.  On December 29, Andrew Osborn reported in The Wall Street Journal that Panarin has been doing two interviews per day, discussing how “an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S.”  The article explained:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.  Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

Worse yet, the other five parts of the country will supposedly become republics that will be part of or under the influence of Canada, the European Union, Mexico, China or Japan.  Osborn’s article included a picture of Panarin’s map, showing how the various segments of the country would be apportioned.  Panarin’s ideas have brought him quite a bit of publicity  . . . and TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award for 2008!  Congratulations, Jackass!