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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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Those First Steps Have Destroyed Mid-term Democrat Campaigns

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September 6, 2010

The steps taken by the Obama administration during its first few months have released massive, long-lasting fallout, destroying the re-election hopes of Democrats in the Senate and House.  Let’s take a look back at Obama’s missteps during that crucial period.

During the first two weeks of February, 2009 — while the debate was raging as to what should be done about the financial stimulus proposal — the new administration was also faced with making a decision on what should be done about the “zombie” Wall Street banks.  Treasury Secretary Geithner had just rolled out his now-defunct “financial stability plan” in a disastrous press conference.  Most level-headed people, including Joe Nocera of The New York Times, had been arguing in favor of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership – or temporary nationalization – until they could be restored to healthy, functional status.  Nevertheless, at this critical time, Obama, Geithner and Fed chair Ben Bernanke had decided to circle their wagons around the Wall Street banks.  Here’s how I discussed the situation on February 16, 2009:

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

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

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

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

Nearly a month later, on March 12, 2009 —  I discussed how the administration was still pushing back against common sense on this subject, while attempting to move forward with its grandiose, “big bang” agenda.  The administration’s unwillingness to force those zombie banks to face the consequences of their recklessness was still being discussed —  yet another month later by Bill Black and Robert Reich.  Three months into his Presidency, Obama had established himself as a guardian of the Wall Street status quo.

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  Before Obama took office, Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, pointed out for Bloomberg Television back on January 8, 2009, that the President-elect’s proposed stimulus would be inadequate to heal the ailing economy:

“It will boost it,” Stiglitz said.  “The real question is — is it large enough and is it designed to address all the problems.  The answer is almost surely it is not enough, particularly as he’s had to compromise with the Republicans.”

On January 19, 2009, financier George Soros contended that even an $850 billion stimulus would not be enough:

“The economies of the world are falling off a cliff.  This is a situation that is comparable to the1930s.  And once you recognize it, you have to recognize the size of the problem is much bigger,” he said.

On February 26, 2009, Economics Professor James Galbarith pointed out in an interview that the stimulus plan was inadequate.  Two months earlier, Paul Krugman had pointed out on Face the Nation, that the proposed stimulus package of $775 billion would fall short.

More recently, on September 5, 2010, a CNN poll revealed that only 40 percent of those surveyed voiced approval of the way President Obama has handled the economy.  Meanwhile, economist Richard Duncan is making the case for another stimulus package “to back forward-looking technologies that will help the U.S. compete and to shift away from the nation’s dependency on industries vulnerable to being outsourced to low-wage centers abroad”.  Chris Oliver of MarketWatch provided us with this glimpse into Duncan’s thinking:

The U.S. is already on track to run up trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits through the next decade, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

“If the government doesn’t spend this money, we are going to collapse into a depression,” Duncan says.  “They are probably going to spend it.   . . . It would be much wiser to realize the opportunities that exist to spend the money in a concerted way to advance the goals of our civilization.”

Making the case for more stimulus, Paul Krugman took a look back at the debate concerning Obama’s first stimulus package, to address the inevitable objections against any further stimulus plans:

Those who said the stimulus was too big predicted sharply rising (interest) rates.  When rates rose in early 2009, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “The Bond Vigilantes:  The disciplinarians of U.S. policy makers return.”   The editorial declared that it was all about fear of deficits, and concluded, “When in doubt, bet on the markets.”

But those who said the stimulus was too small argued that temporary deficits weren’t a problem as long as the economy remained depressed; we were awash in savings with nowhere to go.  Interest rates, we said, would fluctuate with optimism or pessimism about future growth, not with government borrowing.

When in doubt, bet on the markets.  The 10-year bond rate was over 3.7 percent when The Journal published that editorial;  it’s under 2.7 percent now.

What about inflation?  Amid the inflation hysteria of early 2009, the inadequate-stimulus critics pointed out that inflation always falls during sustained periods of high unemployment, and that this time should be no different.  Sure enough, key measures of inflation have fallen from more than 2 percent before the economic crisis to 1 percent or less now, and Japanese-style deflation is looking like a real possibility.

Meanwhile, the timing of recent economic growth strongly supports the notion that stimulus does, indeed, boost the economy:  growth accelerated last year, as the stimulus reached its predicted peak impact, but has fallen off  — just as some of us feared — as the stimulus has faded.

I believe that Professor Krugman would agree with my contention that if President Obama had done the stimulus right the first time – not only would any further such proposals be unnecessary – but we would likely be enjoying a healthy economy with significant job growth.  Nevertheless, the important thing to remember is that President Obama didn’t do the stimulus adequately in early 2009.  As a result, his fellow Democrats will be paying the price in November.




The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Jobless Recovery Myth Is Dead

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August 12, 2010

On July 29, I discussed the fact that for over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  Recent economic reports have exposed how the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting by mass layoffs (to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports) has finally taken its toll.  Although this tactic has helped to inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery, we are finding out that the opposite is true.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the fact the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.  Timothy Homan and Alex Tanzi of Bloomberg News gave us the ugly truth on Wednesday:

A lack of jobs will shackle consumer spending and restrain the U.S. recovery more than previously estimated, according to economists polled by Bloomberg News.

*   *   *

“Simply put, job growth in the private sector hasn’t improved as we would’ve expected,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.  “The consumer continues to contribute to growth but at a subpar pace.”

*   *   *

Purchases, which rose 3 percent on average over the past three decades, dropped 1.2 percent last year, the biggest decrease since 1942.

*   *   *

Joblessness will be slow to fall, signaling it will take years for the economy to recover the more than 8 million jobs lost during the recession that began in December 2007.  Unemployment will average 9.6 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent next year, according to the survey.

*   *   *

“We need a stronger economy, job creation and better consumer confidence,” Richard Dugas, chief executive officer of Pulte Group Inc., said in an Aug. 4 conference call.  “Our industry continues to face incredibly low demand.”

The August 10 press release from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) began this way:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months.  Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit.  Business spending on equipment and software is rising; however, investment in nonresidential structures continues to be weak and employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls.  Housing starts remain at a depressed level.  Bank lending has continued to contract.

Steve Goldstein of MarketWatch recently wrote a piece entitled, “The jobless recovery won’t go further without jobs”.   Mr. Goldstein explains that the corporations relying on layoffs to juice their earnings reports are running out of people to sacrifice for their bottom line:

Earnings per share grew 43% for the 450 members of the S&P 500 that have reported second-quarter results, according to FactSet Research data.

So what these productivity figures may be showing is that, as the Great Recession blew into town, companies stretched their employees to the limit.

The data suggest companies won’t be able to job-cut their way to continued profit growth — and, at some point, if companies want to expand, they will need to start offering jobs to the pool of 14.6 million out of work in July.

Business consultant Matthew C. Keegan wrote an essay for the SayEducate website entitled, “Jobless Recovery & Other Illusions”.  He began the piece with this thought:

The economic numbers continue to pour in with very few people believing that they offer a promise of a sustained recovery.  That’s bad news for America, because high unemployment (9.5 percent in July 2010) means that every sector of the economy will remain depressed longer than some imagined it would.

Steve Goldstein’s MarketWatch article raised the possibility that this cloud may have a silver lining:

The productivity report isn’t great news, but at least it shows that the jobless recovery won’t be able to recover much further without employment making a significant contribution.

Another myth bites the dust.





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Getting Rolled By Wall Street

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August 5, 2010

For the past few years, investors have been flocking to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as an alternative to mutual funds, which often penalize investors for bailing out less than 90 days after buying in.  The ETFs are traded on exchanges in the same manner as individual stocks.  Investors can buy however many shares of an ETF as they desire, rather than being faced with a minimum investment as required by many mutual funds.  Other investors see ETFs as a less-risky alternative than buying individual stocks, since some funds consist of an assortment of stocks from a given sector.

The most recent essay by one of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, is focused on the ETFs that are based on commodities, rather than stocks.  As it turns out, the commodity ETFs have turned out to be yet another one of Wall Street’s weapons of mass financial destruction.  Paul Farrell brings the reader’s attention to a number of articles written on this subject – all of which bear a theme similar to the title of Mr. Farrell’s piece:  “Commodity ETFs: Toxic, deadly, evil”.

Mr. Farrell discussed a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, exposing the hazards inherent in commodity ETFs.  That article began by discussing the experience of a man who invested $10,000 in an ETF called the U.S. Oil Fund (ticker symbol: USO), designed to track the price of light, sweet crude oil.  The investor’s experience became a familiar theme for many who had bought into commodity ETFs:

What happened next didn’t make sense.  Wolf watched oil go up as predicted, yet USO kept going down.  In February 2009, for example, crude rose 7.4 percent while USO fell by 7.4 percent.  What was going on?

What was going on was something called “contango”.  The BusinessWeek article explained it this way:

Contango is a word traders use to describe a specific market condition, when contracts for future delivery of a commodity are more expensive than near-term contracts for the same stuff.  It is common in commodity markets, though as Wolf and other investors learned, it can spell doom for commodity ETFs. When the futures contracts that commodity funds own are about to expire, fund managers have to sell them and buy new ones; otherwise they would have to take delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of raw materials.  When they buy the more expensive contracts — more expensive thanks to contango — they lose money for their investors.  Contango eats a fund’s seed corn, chewing away its value.

*   *   *

Contango isn’t the only reason commodity ETFs make lousy buy-and-hold investments.  Professional futures traders exploit the ETFs’ monthly rolls to make easy profits at the little guy’s expense.  Unlike ETF managers, the professionals don’t trade at set times.  They can buy the next month ahead of the big programmed rolls to drive up the price, or sell before the ETF, pushing down the price investors get paid for expiring futures.  The strategy is called “pre-rolling.”

“I make a living off the dumb money,” says Emil van Essen, founder of an eponymous commodity trading company in Chicago.  Van Essen developed software that predicts and profits from pre-rolling.  “These index funds get eaten alive by people like me,” he says.

A look at 10 well-known funds based on commodity futures found that, since inception, all 10 have trailed the performance of their underlying raw materials, according to Bloomberg data.

*   *   *

Just as they did with subprime mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street banks are transferring wealth from their clients to their trading desks.  “You walk into a casino, you expect to lose money,” says Greg Forero, former director of commodities trading at UBS (UBS).  “It’s the same with these products.  You’re playing a game with a very high rake, a very high house advantage, and you’re not the house.”

Another problem caused by commodity ETFs is the havoc they create by raising prices of consumer goods – not because of a supply and demand effect – but purely by financial speculation:

Wheat prices jumped 52 percent in early 2008, setting records before plunging again, and sugar more than doubled last year even as the economy slowed, forcing Reinwald’s Bakery in Huntington, N.Y., to fire five of its 32 employees.  “You try and budget to make money, but that’s becoming impossible to predict,” says owner Richard Reinwald, chairman of the Retail Bakers of America.

Paul Farrell also brought our attention to an article entitled “ETFs Gone Wild” to highlight the hazards these products create for the entire financial system:

In Bloomberg Markets’ “ETFs Gone Wild,” investors are warned that many ETFs are “stuffed with exotic derivatives,” at risk of becoming “the next financial time bomb.”  In short, thanks to ETFs, Wall Street is already creating a dangerous new kind of global weapon of mass destruction — a bomb primed to detonate like the 2000 dot-coms, the 2008 subprimes — and detonation is dead ahead.

Mr. Farrell’s essay included a discussion of a Rolling Stone article by McKenzie Funk, describing the exploits of Phil Heilberg, a former AIG commodity trader.  The Rolling Stone piece demonstrated how commodity ETFs are just the latest weapon used to advance “Chaos Capitalism”:

And yet, as Funk puts it:  “Heilberg’s bet on chaos is beginning to play out on the streets.”  The toxic trail of commodity ETFs is already proving to be deadly, starving thousands worldwide, while the new Capitalists of Chaos only see incredible profit opportunities, as they make huge bets that they’ll get even richer in the next round of catastrophes, disasters, poverty, starvation and wars.

Bottom line: Commodity ETF/WMDs are mutating into a toxic pandemic fueled (and protected by) the insatiable greed of banks, traders and politicians whose brains are incapable of giving up their profit machine, won’t until it implodes and self-destructs.  The Wall Street Banksters have no sense of morals, no ethics, no soul, no goal in life other than getting very rich, very fast.  They care nothing of democracy, civilization or the planet.

Don’t count on the faux financial “reform” bill to remedy any of the problems created by commodity ETFs.  As the BusinessWeek article pointed out, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is going to have its hands full:

How much the new law will help remains to be seen, says Jill E. Sommers, one of the agency’s five commissioners, because Congress still needs to appropriate funds and write guidelines for implementation and enforcement.

Let’s not overlook the fact that those “guidelines” are going to be written by industry lobbyists.  The more things change — the more they remain the same.



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Rare Glimpses Of Honesty And Sanity

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July 1, 2010

Too many of the commentaries we see these days are either motivated by or calculated to promote hysteria.  When someone expresses a rational point of view or an honest look at the skullduggery going on in Washington, it’s as refreshing as a cold beer on a hot, summer day.

With so much panic over sovereign debt and budget deficits afflicting the consensual mood,  it’s always great to read a piece by someone willing to analyze the situation from a perspective based on facts instead of fear.  Brett Arends wrote a great piece for MarketWatch, dissecting the debt panic and looking at the data to be considered by those implementing public policy on this issue.  His essay focused on “the three biggest lies about the economy”:  that unemployment is below ten percent, that the markets are panicking about the deficit and that the United States is sliding into socialism.  Here is some of what he had to say:

Most people have no idea what’s really going on in the economy.   They’re living on spin, myths and downright lies.  And if we don’t know the facts, how can we make intelligent decisions?

High unemployment exerts a huge deflationary force on the economy.  Beyond that, the income taxes those unemployed citizens used to pay are no longer helping to pick up the tab for our bloated budget.   Mr. Arends emphasized the importance of looking at the real unemployment rate – what is referred to as U6 – which includes those people deliberately disregarded when counting the “unemployed”:

For example it counts discouraged job seekers, and those forced to work part-time because they can’t get a full-time job.

That rate right now is 16.6%, just below its recent high and twice the level it was a few years ago.

*   *   *

Consider, for example, the situation among men of prime working age.  An analysis of data at the U.S. Labor Department shows that there are 79 million men in America between the ages of 25 and 65.  And nearly 18 million of them, or 22%, are out of work completely.  (The rate in the 1950s was less than 10%.)  And that doesn’t even count those who are working part-time because they can’t get full-time work.  Add those to the mix and about one in four men of prime working age lacks a full-time job.

In exploding the myth about claimed market panic concerning the debt, Arends dug back into his arsenal of common sense, explaining what would happen if the markets were panicked:

. . .  the interest rate on government bonds would be skyrocketing.  That’s what happens with risky debt:  Lenders demand higher and higher interest payments to compensate them for the dangers.

But the rates on U.S. bonds have been plummeting recently.  The yield on the 30-year Treasury bond is down to just 4%.  By historic standards that’s chickenfeed.  Panicked?  The bond markets are practically snoring.

The specious claims about domestic socialism don’t really deserve a response, but here is how Arends dealt with that narrative:

Meanwhile, federal spending, about 25% of the economy this year, is expected to fall to about 23% by 2013.  In 1983, under Ronald Reagan, it hit 23.5%.  In the early 1990s it was around 22%.  Some socialism.

Another prevalent false narrative being circulated lately (particularly by President Obama and his administration) concerns the hoax known as the “financial reform” bill.  Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold gave us a rare, disgusted insider’s look at how Wall Street was able to get what it wanted from its lackeys on Capitol Hill:

Since the Senate bill passed, I have had a number of conversations with key members of the administration, Senate leadership and the conference committee that drafted the final bill.  Unfortunately, not once has anyone suggested in those conversations the possibility of strengthening the bill to address my concerns and win my support.  People want my vote, but they want it for a bill that, while including some positive provisions, has Wall Street’s fingerprints all over it.

In fact, reports indicate that the administration and conference leaders have gone to significant lengths to avoid making the bill stronger.

Lest we forget that the financial crisis of 2008 was caused by the antics of cretins such as “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, Senator Feingold’s essay mentioned that sleazy chapter in Senate history to put this latest disgrace in the proper perspective:

Many of the critical actors who shaped this bill were present at the creation of the financial crisis.  They supported the enactment of Gramm-Leach-Bliley, deregulating derivatives, even the massive Interstate Banking bill that helped grease the “too big to fail” skids.  It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that the final version of the bill looks the way it does, or that I won’t fall in line with their version of  “reform.”

As I discussed in “Your Sleazy Government at Work”, the voters will not forget about the Democrats (including President Obama) who undermined financial reform legislation, while pretending to advance it.  The Democratic Party has until early 2012 to face up to the fact that their organization would be better off supporting a Presidential candidate with the integrity of Russ Feingold or Maria Cantwell if they expect to maintain control over the Executive branch of our government.





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Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

*   *   *

In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “Lev Is The Drug”:

Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a  23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  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.





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Demolition Derby

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June 24, 2010

They’re at the starting line, getting ready to trash the economy and turn our “great recession” into a full-on Great Depression II (to steal an expression from Paul Farrell).  Barry Ritholtz calls them the “deficit chicken hawks”.  The Reformed Broker recently wrote a clever piece which incorporated a moniker coined by Mark Thoma, the “Austerians”,  in reference to that same (deficit chicken hawk) group.   The Reformed Broker described them this way:

.  .  .  this gang has found a sudden (upcoming election-related) pang of concern over deficits and our ability to finance them.  Critics say the Austerians’ premature tightness will send the economy off a cliff, a la the 1930’s.

Count me among those who believe that the Austerians are about to send the economy off a cliff – or as I see it:  into a Demolition Derby.  The first smash-up in this derby was to sabotage any potential recovery in the job market.  Economist Scott Brown made this observation at the Seeking Alpha website:

One issue in deficit spending is deciding how much is enough to carry us through.  Removing fiscal stimulus too soon risks derailing the recovery.  Anti-deficit sentiment has already hampered a push for further stimulus to support job growth.  Across the Atlantic, austerity moves threaten to dampen European economic growth in 2011.  Long term, deficit reduction is important, but short term, it’s just foolish.

The second event in the Demolition Derby is to deny the extension of unemployment benefits.  Because the unemployed don’t have any money to bribe legislators, they make a great target.  David Herszenhorn of The New York Times discussed the despair expressed by Senator Patty Murray of Washington after the Senate’s failure to pass legislation extending unemployment compensation:

“This is a critical piece of legislation for thousands of families in our country, who want to know whether their United States Senate and Congress is on their side or is going to turn their back on them, right at a critical time when our economy is just starting to get around the corner,” Mrs. Murray said.

The deficit chicken hawk group isn’t just from the Republican side of the aisle.  You can count Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe “The Tool” Lieberman among their ranks.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times lamented Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s preference for maintaining “the markets’ confidence in Washington” at the expense of the unemployed:

Look around at the American economy today.  Unemployment is 9.7 percent.  Inflation in recent months has been zero.  States are cutting their budgets.  Congress is balking at spending the money to prevent state layoffs.  The Fed is standing pat, too.  Bond investors, fickle as they may be, show no signs of panicking.

Which seems to be the greater risk:  too much action or too little?

The Demolition Derby is not limited to exacerbating the unemployment crisis.  It involves sabotaging the economic recovery as well.  In my last posting, I discussed a recent report by Comstock Partners, highlighting ten reasons why the so-called economic rebound from the financial crisis has been quite weak.  The report’s conclusion emphasized the necessity of additional fiscal stimulus:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

In a recent essay, John Mauldin provided a detailed explanation of how premature deficit reduction efforts  can impair economic recovery:

In the US, we must start to get our fiscal house in order.  But if we cut the deficit by 2% of GDP a year, that is going to be a drag on growth in what I think is going to be a slow growth environment to begin with.  If you raise taxes by 1% combined with 1% cuts (of GDP) that will have a minimum effect of reducing GDP by around 2% initially.  And when you combine those cuts at the national level with tax increases and spending cuts of more than 1% of GDP at state and local levels you have even further drags on growth.

Those who accept Robert Prechter’s Elliott Wave Theory for analyzing stock market charts to make predictions of long-term financial trends, already see it coming:  a cataclysmic crash.   As Peter Brimelow recently discussed at MarketWatch, Prechter expects to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop below 1,000:

The clearest statement comes from the Elliott Wave Theorist, discussing a numerological technical theory with which it supplements the Wave Theory’s complex patterns:  “The only way for the developing configuration to satisfy a perfect set of Fibonacci time relationships is for the stock market to fall over the next six years and bottom in 2016.”

*   *   *

There will be a short-term rally at some point, thinks Prechter, but it will be a trap:  “The 7.25-year and 20-year cycles are both scheduled to top in 2012, suggesting that 2012 will mark the last vestiges of self-destructive hope.  Then the final years of decline will usher in capitulation and finally despair.”

So it is written.  The Demolition Derby shall end in disaster.





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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

*   *   *

That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

*   *   *

Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.




Your Sleazy Government At Work

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May 31, 2010

Although the cartoon above appeared in my local paper, it came to my attention only because Barry Ritholtz posted it on his website, The Big Picture.  Congratulations to Jim Morin of The Miami Herald for creating one of those pictures that’s worth well over a thousand words.

Forget about all that oil floating in the Gulf of Mexico.  President Obama, Harry Reid and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd are too busy indulging in an orgy of self-congratulation over the Senate’s passage of a so-called “financial reform” bill (S. 3217) to be bothered with “the fishermen’s buzzkill”.  Meanwhile, many commentators are expressing their disappointment and disgust at the fact that the banking lobby has succeeded in making sure that the taxpayers will continue to pick up the tab when the banks go broke trading unregulated derivatives.

Matt Taibbi has written a fantastic essay for Rolling Stone, documenting the creepy battle over financial reform in the Senate.  The folks at Rolling Stone are sure getting their money’s worth out of Taibbi, after his landmark smackdown of Goldman Sachs and his revealing article exposing the way banks such as JP Morgan Chase fleeced Jefferson County, Alabama.  In his latest “must read” essay, Taibbi provides his readers with an understandable discussion of what is wrong with derivatives trading and Wall Street’s efforts to preserve the status quo:

Imagine a world where there’s no New York Stock Exchange, no NASDAQ or Nikkei:  no open exchanges at all, and all stocks traded in the dark.  Nobody has a clue how much a share of  IBM costs or how many of them are being traded.  In that world, the giant broker-dealer who trades thousands of IBM shares a day, and who knows which of its big clients are selling what and when, will have a hell of a lot more information than the day-trader schmuck sitting at home in his underwear, guessing at the prices of stocks via the Internet.

That world exists.  It’s called the over-the-counter derivatives market. Five of the country’s biggest banks, the Goldmans and JP Morgans and Morgan Stanleys, account for more than 90 percent of the market, where swaps of all shapes and sizes are traded more or less completely in the dark.  If you want to know how Greece finds itself bankrupted by swaps, or some town in Alabama overpaid by $93 million for deals to fund a sewer system, this is the explanation:  Nobody outside a handful of big swap dealers really has a clue about how much any of this shit costs, which means they can rip off their customers at will.

This insane outgrowth of  jungle capitalism has spun completely out of control since 2000, when Congress deregulated the derivatives market.  That market is now roughly 100 times bigger than the federal budget and 20 times larger than both the stock market and the GDP.  Unregulated derivative deals sank AIG, Lehman Brothers and Greece, and helped blow up the global economy in 2008.  Reining in derivatives is the key battle in the War for Finance Reform.  Without regulation of this critical market, Wall Street could explode another mushroom cloud of nuclear leverage and risk over the planet at any time.

At The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson de-mystified how both the Senate’s “financial reform” bill and the bill passed by the House require standardized derivatives to be traded on an exchange or a “swap execution facility”.  Although these proposals create the illusion of reform – it’s important to keep in mind that old maxim about gambling:  “The house always wins.”  In this case, the ability to “front-run” the chumps gives the house the power to keep winning:

But the devil is always in the details — hence, two 1,500-page bills — and problems arise in how the proposals define what constitutes a swap execution facility, and who can own one.

Big banks want to create and own the venues where swaps are traded, because such control has many benefits.  First, it gives the dealers extremely valuable pretrade information from customers wishing to buy or sell these instruments.  Second, depending on how these facilities are designed, they may let dealers limit information about pricing when transactions take place — and if an array of prices is not readily available, customers can’t comparison-shop and the banks get to keep prices much higher than they might be on an exchange.

*   *   *

Finally, lawmakers who are charged with consolidating the two bills are talking about eliminating language that would bar derivatives facilities from receiving taxpayer bailouts if they get into trouble.  That means a federal rescue of an imperiled derivatives trading facility could occur.  (Again, think A.I.G.)

Surely, we beleaguered taxpayers do not need to backstop any more institutions than we do now.  According to Jeffrey M. Lacker, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, Va., only 18 percent of the nation’s financial sector was covered by implied federal guarantees in 1999.  By the end of 2008, his bank’s research shows, the federal safety net covered 59 percent of the financial sector.

In a speech last week, Mr. Lacker said that he feared we were going to perpetuate the cycle of financial crises followed by taxpayer bailouts, in spite of Congressional reform efforts.

“Arguably, we will not break the cycle of regulation, bypass, crisis and rescue,”  Mr. Lacker said, “until we are willing to clarify the limits to government support, and incur the short-term costs of confirming those limits, in the interest of building a stronger and durable foundation for our financial system.  Measured against this gauge, my early assessment is that progress thus far has been negligible.”

Negligible progress, 3,000 pages notwithstanding.

When one considers what this legislation was intended to address, the dangers posed by failing to extinguish those systemic threats to the economy and what the Senate bill is being claimed to remedy  —  it’s actually just a huge, sleazy disgrace.  Matt Taibbi’s concluding words on the subject underscore the fact that not only do we still need real financial reform, we also need campaign finance reform:

Whatever the final outcome, the War for Finance Reform serves as a sweeping demonstration of how power in the Senate can be easily concentrated in the hands of just a few people.  Senators in the majority party – Brown, Kaufman, Merkley, even a committee chairman like Lincoln – took a back seat to Reid and Dodd, who tinkered with amendments on all four fronts of  the war just enough to keep many of them from having real teeth.  “They’re working to come up with a bill that Wall Street can live with, which by definition makes it a bad bill,” one Democratic aid eexplained in the final, frantic days of negotiation.

On the plus side, the bill will rein in some forms of predatory lending, and contains a historic decision to audit the Fed.  But the larger, more important stuff – breaking up banks that grow Too Big to Fail, requiring financial giants to pay upfront for their own bailouts, forcing the derivatives market into the light of day – probably won’t happen in any meaningful way.  The Senate is designed to function as a kind of ongoing negotiation between public sentiment and large financial interests, an endless tug of war in which senators maneuver to strike a delicate mathematical balance between votes and access to campaign cash.  The problem is that sometimes, when things get really broken, the very concept of a middle ground between real people and corrupt special interests becomes a grotesque fallacy.  In times like this, we need our politicians not to bridge a gap but to choose sides and fight.  In this historic battle over finance reform, when we had a once-in-a-generation chance to halt the worst abuses on Wall Street, many senators made the right choice.  In the end, however, the ones who mattered most picked wrong – and a war that once looked winnable will continue to drag on for years, creating more havoc and destroying more lives before it is over.

The sleazy antics by the Democrats who undermined financial reform (while pretending to advance it) will not be forgotten by the voters.  The real question is whether any independent candidates can step up to oppose the tools of Wall Street, relying on the nickels and dimes from “the little people” to wage a battle against the kleptocracy.






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