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Christina Romer Was Right

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Now it’s official.  Christina Romer was right.  The signs that she was about to be proven correct had been turning up everywhere.  When Charles Kaldec of Forbes reminded us – yet again – of President Obama’s willful refusal to seriously consider the advice of the former Chair of his Council of Economic Advisers, it became apparent that something was about to happen  .  .  .

On Friday morning, the highly-anticipated non-farm payrolls report for April was released by the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).  Although economists had been anticipating an increase of 165,000 jobs during the past month, the report disclosed that only 115,000 jobs were added.  In other words, the headline number was 50,000 less than the anticipated figure, missing economists’ expectations by a whopping 31 percent.  The weak 115,000 total failed to match the 120,000 jobs added in March.  Worse yet, even if payrolls were expanding at twice that rate, it would take more than five years to significantly reduce the jobs backlog and create new jobs to replace the 5.3 million lost during the recession.

Because this is an election year, Republicans are highlighting the ongoing unemployment crisis as a failure of the Obama Presidency.  On Friday evening’s CNN program, Anderson Cooper 360, economist Paul Krugman insisted that this crisis has resulted from Republican intransigence.  Bohemian Grove delegate David Gergen rebutted Krugman’s claim by emphasizing that Obama’s 2009 economic stimulus program was inadequate to address the task of bringing unemployment back to pre-crisis levels.  What annoyed me about Gergen’s response was his dishonest implication that President Obama’s semi-stimulus was Christina Romer’s brainchild.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  The stimulus program proposed by Romer would have involved a more significant, $1.8 trillion investment.  Beyond that, the fact that unemployment continues for so many millions of people who lost their jobs during the recession is precisely because of Barack Obama’s decision to ignore Christina Romer.  I have been groaning about that decision for a long time, as I discussed here and here.

My February 13 discussion of Noam Scheiber’s book, The Escape Artists, demonstrated how abso-fucking-lutely wrong David Gergen was when he tried to align Christina Romer with Obama’s stimulus:

The book tells the tale of a President in a struggle to create a centrist persona, with no roadmap of his own.  In fact, it was Obama’s decision to follow the advice of Peter Orszag, to the exclusion of the opinions offered by Christina Romer and Larry Summers – which prolonged the unemployment crisis.

*   *   *

The Escape Artists takes us back to the pivotal year of 2009 – Obama’s first year in the White House.  Noam Scheiber provided us with a taste of his new book by way of an article published in The New Republic entitled, “Obama’s Worst Year”.  Scheiber gave the reader an insider’s look at Obama’s clueless indecision at the fork in the road between deficit hawkishness vs. economic stimulus.  Ultimately, Obama decided to maintain the illusion of centrism by following the austerity program suggested by Peter Orszag:

BACK IN THE SUMMER of 2009, David Axelrod, the president’s top political aide, was peppering White House economist Christina Romer with questions in preparation for a talk-show appearance.  With unemployment nearing 10 percent, many commentators on the left were second-guessing the size of the original stimulus, and so Axelrod asked if it had been big enough.  “Abso-fucking-lutely not,” Romer responded.  She said it half-jokingly, but the joke was that she would use the line on television.  She was dead serious about the sentiment.  Axelrod did not seem amused.

For Romer, the crusade was a lonely one.  While she believed the economy needed another boost in order to recover, many in the administration were insisting on cuts.  The chief proponent of this view was budget director Peter Orszag.  Worried that the deficit was undermining the confidence of businessmen, Orszag lobbied to pare down the budget in August, six months ahead of the usual budget schedule.      .   .   .

The debate was not only a question of policy.  It was also about governing style – and, in a sense, about the very nature of the Obama presidency.  Pitching a deficit-reduction plan would be a concession to critics on the right, who argued that the original stimulus and the health care bill amounted to liberal overreach.  It would be premised on the notion that bipartisan compromise on a major issue was still possible.  A play for more stimulus, on the other hand, would be a defiant action, and Obama clearly recognized this.  When Romer later urged him to double-down, he groused, “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”

That’s a fine example of great leadership – isn’t it?  “The American people don’t think it worked, so I can’t do it.”  In 2009, the fierce urgency of the unemployment and economic crises demanded a leader who would not feel intimidated by the sheeple’s erroneous belief that the Economic Recovery Act had not “worked”.

Ron Suskind’s book, Confidence Men is another source which contradicts David Gergen’s attempt to characterize Obama’s stimulus as Romer’s baby.  Last fall, Berkeley economics professor, Brad DeLong had been posting and discussing excerpts from the book at his own website, Grasping Reality With Both Hands.  On September 19, Professor DeLong posted a passage from Suskind’s book, which revealed Obama’s expressed belief (in November of 2009) that high unemployment was a result of productivity gains in the economy.  Both Larry Summers (Chair of the National Economic Council) and Christina Romer (Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers) were shocked and puzzled by Obama’s ignorance on this subject:

“What was driving unemployment was clearly deficient aggregate demand,” Romer said.  “We wondered where this could be coming from.  We both tried to convince him otherwise.  He wouldn’t budge.”

Obama’s willful refusal to heed the advice of Cristina Romer has facilitated the persistence of our nation’s unemployment problem.  As Ron Suskind remarked in the previously-quoted passage:

The implications were significant.  If Obama felt that 10 percent unemployment was the product of sound, productivity-driven decisions by American business, then short-term government measures to spur hiring were not only futile but unwise.

There you have it.  Despite the efforts of Obama’s apologists to blame Larry Summers or others on the President’s economic team for persistent unemployment, it wasn’t simply a matter of “the buck stopping” on the President’s desk.  Obama himself  has been the villain, hypocritically advocating a strategy of “trickle-down economics” – in breach of  his campaign promise to do the exact opposite.

As Election Day approaches, it becomes increasingly obvious that the unemployment situation will persist through autumn – and it could get worse.  This is not Christina Romer’s fault.  It is President Obama’s legacy.  Christina Romer was right and President Obama was wrong.


 

No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

*   *   *

Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

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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Instead Of Solving a Problem – Form a Committee

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It’s become a stale joke about the Obama administration.  Every time a demand is made for the White House to take decisive action on an important issue  .  .  .  the President’s solution is always the same:  Form a committee to study the matter.

In my last posting, I discussed the January 20 article written by Scot Paltrow for Reuters, which revealed that Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, had been partners in the Washington law firm, Covington & Burling.  As Scot Paltrow pointed out, during the years while Holder and Breuer were partners at Covington, the firm’s clients included the four largest U.S. banks – Bank of America, Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo & Co.

Less than a week after publication of Paltrow’s report, which raised “conflict of interest” questions concerning Holder’s reluctance to prosecute banks or mortgage servicers for fraudulent foreclosure practices, President Obama delivered his State of the Union address.  With Paltrow’s revelations still fresh in my mind, I was particularly surprised to hear President Obama make the following statement:

And tonight, I am asking my Attorney General to create a special unit of federal prosecutors and leading state attorneys general to expand our investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis.  This new unit will hold accountable those who broke the law, speed assistance to homeowners, and help turn the page on an era of recklessness that hurt so many Americans.

If it weren’t bad enough that critics had already been complaining about the Attorney General’s failure to prosecute mortgage fraud cases, Obama has most recently appointed Holder to supervise “investigations into the abusive lending and packaging of risky mortgages that led to the housing crisis”.  It’s hard to avoid the assumption that those “investigations” will lead to nowhere.  By Wednesday, I found that I was not alone in my cynicism concerning what is now called the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses.

Wednesday morning brought an essay by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, in which she expressed dread about the possibility that New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman may have been seduced by Team Obama to join the effort exerting pressure on each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  Ms. Smith compared that initiative with Obama’s most recent announcement about the Office of Mortgage Origination and Securitization Abuses:

So get this:  this is a committee that will “investigate.”    .   .   .  Neil Barofsky, former prosecutor and head of SIGTARP, doesn’t buy the logic of this committee either:

Neil Barofsky @neilbarofsky

If task force created either b/c DOJ hasn’t done an investigation, or b/c 3-yr investigation a failure, how does Holder keep his job?

A lot of soi-disant liberal groups have fallen in line with Obama messaging, which was the plan (I already have the predictable congratulatory Move On e-mail in my inbox). Let’s get real.  The wee problem is that this committee looks like yet another bit of theater for the Administration to pretend, yet again, that it is Doing Something, while scoring a twofer by getting Schneiderman, who has been a pretty effective opponent, hobbled.

If you wanted a real investigation, you get a real independent investigator, with a real budget and staffing, and turn him loose.  We had the FCIC which had a lot of hearings and produced a readable book that said everyone was responsible for the mortgage crisis, which was tantamount to saying no one was responsible.  We even had an eleven-regulator Foreclosure Task Force that looked at 2800 loan files (and a mere 100 foreclosures) and found nothing very much wrong.

Neil Barofsky’s question deserves repetition:  Why does Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless still have his job if – after three years – the Justice Department has taken no action against those responsible for originating and securitizing the risky mortgages which led to the housing crisis?

David Dayen of Firedoglake weighed-in with his own skeptical take on Obama’s purported crakdown on mortgage origination and securitization abuses:

First of all, this becomes part of a three year-old Financial Fraud Task Force which has done approximately nothing on Wall Street accountability outside of a few insider trading arrests.  So that’s the context of this investigative panel, part of the same entity that has spun its wheels.  Second, the panel would only look at origination, where there have been plenty of lawsuits and where the main offenders are all out of business, and securitization, which may aid investors (that includes pension funds, of course) but not necessarily homeowners.     .   .   .

Given the fact that this is an election year, President Obama knows that mere lip service toward a populist cause will not be enough to win back those disgruntled former supporters, who have now learned – the hard way – that talk is cheap.  Obama is now going the extra mile – he’s forming a committee!  Trouble is – those disgruntled former supporters have already learned that committee formation is simply the disingenuous “follow-through” on a false campaign promise.  Nice try, Mr. President!


 

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Captive Justice

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The Obama administration’s failure to prosecute any of the crimes which caused (or resulted from) the financial crisis has been a continuing source of outrage for voters across the country.

Last summer, Gretchen Morgenson of The New York Times earned a great deal of praise for her August 21 report, exposing the Obama administration’s vilification of New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman for his refusal to play along with Team Obama’s efforts to insulate the fraud-closure banks from the criminal prosecution they deserve.  The administration has been attempting to pressure each Attorney General from every state to consent to a settlement of any and all claims against the banksters arising from their fraudulent foreclosure practices.  Each state is being asked to release the banks from criminal and civil liability in return for a share of the $25 billion settlement package.  The $25 billion is to be used for loan modifications.

The administration’s effort to push this fraud-closure settlement is ongoing.  On January 21, David Dayen provided an update on this crusade at the Firedoglake website.

The American public is no longer content to sit back and do nothing while the Obama administration sits back and does nothing to prosecute those criminals whose fraudulent conduct devastated the American economy.  On December 22, I discussed the intensifying wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.  Since that time, Scot Paltrow wrote a great piece for Reuters, concerning the Justice Department’s failure to intervene against improper foreclosure procedures.  Paltrow’s widely-acclaimed essay inspired several commentators to express their disgust about government permissiveness toward such egregious conduct.  At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz shared his reaction to the Reuters article:

The fraud is rampant, self-evident, easy to prosecute.  The only reason it hasn’t been done so far is that this nation is led by corrupt cowards and suffers from a ruinous two-party system.

We were once a great nation that set a shining example for the rest of the world as to what the Rule of Law meant.  That is no more, as we have become a corrupt plutocracy.  Why our prosecutors cower in front of the almighty banking industry is beyond my limited ability to comprehend.

Without any sort of legal denouement, we should expect an angry electorate and an unhappy nation.

Scot Paltrow wrote another great article for Reuters on January 20, which is causing quite a stir.  The opening paragraphs provide us with some insight as to why our Attorney General deserves to be called Mr. Hold-harmless:

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and Lanny Breuer, head of the Justice Department’s criminal division, were partners for years at a Washington law firm that represented a Who’s Who of big banks and other companies at the center of alleged foreclosure fraud, a Reuters inquiry shows.

The firm, Covington & Burling, is one of Washington’s biggest white shoe law firms.  Law professors and other federal ethics experts said that federal conflict of interest rules required Holder and Breuer to recuse themselves from any Justice Department decisions relating to law firm clients they personally had done work for.

Both the Justice Department and Covington declined to say if either official had personally worked on matters for the big mortgage industry clients.

*   *   *

The evidence, including records from federal and state courts and local clerks’ offices around the country, shows widespread forgery, perjury, obstruction of justice, and illegal foreclosures on the homes of thousands of active-duty military personnel.

In recent weeks the Justice Department has come under renewed pressure from members of Congress, state and local officials and homeowners’ lawyers to open a wide-ranging criminal investigation of mortgage servicers, the biggest of which have been Covington clients.  So far Justice officials haven’t responded publicly to any of the requests.

The revelations in Scot Paltrow’s most recent report should create quite a scandal requiring significant damage control efforts by the Obama administration.  Given the fact that this is an election year, Republican politicians should be smelling red meat at this point.  After all, Obama’s Attorney General is being accused of conflict of interest.  Nevertheless, will any Republicans (or their Super PACs) seize upon this issue?  To do so could place them in a conflict-of-interest situation – as far as those banks are concerned.  Dare they risk biting the hands that feed them?  It could be quite a high-wire act to undertake.  Will any Republicans rise to this challenge?


 

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Too Cool To Fool

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It’s always reassuring to see that there are a good number of people among us who aren’t easily manipulated by “the powers that be”.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

Glen Ford is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.  On January 11, Mr. Ford discussed how – up until now – the Occupy Wall Street movement has managed to avoid being co-opted by the Democratic Party and MoveOn.org.  Unfortunately, the Obama regime may have succeeded in establishing a grip on OWS.  Glen Ford offered this explanation:

The Democratic Party may have entered the Occupy Wall Street movement through the “Black door,” in the form of Occupy The Dream, the Black ministers’ group led by former NAACP chief and Million Man March national director Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Baltimore mega-church pastor Rev. Jamal Bryant.  Both are fervent supporters of President Obama.

*   *   *

It appears that Occupy Wall Street’s new Black affiliate is also in “lock-step” with the corporate Democrat in the White House, whose administration has funneled trillions of dollars to Wall Street and greatly expanded U.S. theaters of war.

*   *   *

Black ministers in campaign mode routinely depict Obama’s political troubles as indistinguishable from threats to “The Dream,” whose embodiment is ensconced in the White House.  That’s simply common currency among Black preachers pushing for Obama.

*   *   *

It is highly unlikely – damn near inconceivable – that Occupy The Dream will do anything that might embarrass this president.  Its ministers can be expected to electioneer for Obama at every opportunity.  Their January 16 actions are directed at the Federal Reserve, which is technically independent from the executive branch of government – although, in practice, the Fed has been Obama’s principal mechanism for bailing out the banks.  Will the ministers pretend, next Monday, that the president is somehow removed from the Fed’s massive transfers of the people’s credit and cash to Wall Street over the past three years?

*   *   *

At this late stage, there is no antidote to the potential cooptation, except to rev up the movement’s confrontation with the oligarchic powers-that-be – including Wall Street’s guy in the White House.  Let’s see what happens if OWS demonstrators join with Occupy The Dream at Federal Reserve sites on January 16 carrying placards unequivocally implicating Obama in the Fed’s bailouts of the banksters, as Occupy demonstrators have done so often in the past.  Will the Dream’s leadership be in “lock-step” with that?  Maybe so – I’ve heard that miracles sometimes do happen.

Anyone who challenges the Obama administration’s symbiotic relationship with the Wall Street banksters invites accusations of advancing the Republican agenda for regaining control of the White House.  This problem will be solved once a populist third-party or Independent candidate rises to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent.  Beyond that, an African-American commentator who dares to expose Obama as a tool of Wall Street is likely to face harsh criticism.  Glen Ford has demonstrated more courage than most Americans by taking a stand against this venal administration.

Another exemplary individual, whose opinions were never compromised to justify or rationalize the current administration’s tactics, has been economist Joseph Stiglitz – the Nobel laureate who found himself ignored and shut out by the Obama administration ab initio.  Professor Stiglitz recently wrote a commentary entitled, “The Perils of 2012” in which he dared to predict an election year fraught with economic despair.  Such conditions make for an incumbent President’s worst nightmare.  As a result, non-Republican economists are expected to avoid such prognostication.  Nevertheless, Professor Stiglitz proceeded to paint an ugly picture of what we can expect in the near term, after first reminding us that there has been no sound policy advanced for mitigating the devastation experienced by the middle class as a result of the 2008 financial crisis:

The year 2011 will be remembered as the time when many ever-optimistic Americans began to give up hope.  President John F. Kennedy once said that a rising tide lifts all boats.  But now, in the receding tide, Americans are beginning to see not only that those with taller masts had been lifted far higher, but also that many of the smaller boats had been dashed to pieces in their wake.

In that brief moment when the rising tide was indeed rising, millions of people believed that they might have a fair chance of realizing the “American Dream.”  Now those dreams, too, are receding.  By 2011, the savings of those who had lost their jobs in 2008 or 2009 had been spent.  Unemployment checks had run out.  Headlines announcing new hiring – still not enough to keep pace with the number of those who would normally have entered the labor force – meant little to the 50 year olds with little hope of ever holding a job again.

Indeed, middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realized that they were, in fact, forcibly retired.  Young people who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all.  People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless.  Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss.  More than seven million American families have lost their homes.

*   *   *

The pragmatic commitment to growth that one sees in Asia and other emerging markets today stands in contrast to the West’s misguided policies, which, driven by a combination of ideology and vested interests, almost seem to reflect a commitment not to grow.

As a result, global economic rebalancing is likely to accelerate, almost inevitably giving rise to political tensions.  With all of the problems confronting the global economy, we will be lucky if these strains do not begin to manifest themselves within the next twelve months.

Another commentator who has been “too cool to fool” is equities market analyst, Barry Ritholtz.  One of his recent blog postings documented how Ritholtz never accepted the propagandistic pronouncements of the National Retailers Association about Christmas season retail sales.  Once the hype began on Black Friday, Ritholtz began his own campaign of debunking the questionable data, touted to boost unjustified confidence about the direction of our economy.  Ritholtz concluded the piece with this statement:

Those of you who may have downplayed the potential for a recession to start over the next 12-18 months way want to revisit your views on this.  It is far from the low possibility many economists have it pegged at.

Fortunately, not everyone has been as imperceptive as those on the Obama administration’s economic team who admitted that as late as 2009, they underestimated the extent of economic contraction resulting from the 2008 crisis.  It’s time for the voting public to dis-employ the political hacks who have allowed this condition to fester.  One effective path toward this goal involves voting against incumbents in primary elections.  Keep in mind that America’s Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to protect incumbents.  As a result, any plan to defeat those officeholders in a general election could be an exercise in futility.  Voting against current members of Congress during the primary process can open the door for more capable candidates during the general election.  Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 primary season.


 

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Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

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Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

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

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

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