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Bumsen Sie die Erbsenzähler!

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The perspective on the Greek crisis, fed to most Americans by way of the megabank-controlled, mainstream news media, has been based on criticism of a “leftist” or “socialist” Greek government.  The magic words, leftist and socialist are intended to portray the Greeks as the bad guys in the picture, whereas those characterized as the “good guys” – die Erbsenzähler (led by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble) are portrayed as patiently leading the petulant Greeks toward the path of financial responsibility.

schaeuble-dijsselbloem

Nothing could be further from the truth.  For starters, Alexis Tsipras of the Syriza party was not elected Prime Minister of Greece until January 26, 2015.  His predecessor, Antonis Samaras was a member of the New Democracy party.

Many bloggers and financial writers have been criticizing the European Central Bank’s handling of the Greek financial crisis since 2010.  Edward Harrison has written extensively on the subject at his Credit Writedowns blog.  On June 29, Mr. Harrison provided a history on the crisis:

First, let’s remember that back in 2010, most of the creditors to Greece were in the private sector, many of them banks in other Eurozone countries. At that time, the fragility of the European and global economy, and of the European banking system was much greater than it is now. And this caused Europe to panic. What’s more is the EU was able to corral the IMF into joining the EU in bailing Greece out, even though doing so broke its own rules and disregarded the analysis of its own economists. This was the original mistake and the whole chain of events since then has been a futile attempt to justify that original decision.

*   *   *

The most obvious answer is the weak banks. The now deceased former German Central Bank Head Karl Otto Pöhl said at the time that it was all about rescuing weak German and French banks – and rich Greeks too. This is most definitely true. For example, back in 2012, the FT’s James Mackintosh quoted JPMorgan which reckons only 15 billion euros of 410 billion in ‘bailout’ funds actually went to the Greek economy. The rest went to creditors of the Greek government.

The ongoing intransigence of the troubled nation’s troika of creditors (European Central Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union) has drawn harsh criticism from a wide assortment of astute individuals.  From here in the States, Mike Shedlock (a/k/a “Mish”) has been a frequent – yet well-reasoned and balanced – critic of the Eurogroup’s stance.  Here is what Mish had to say on July 10:

German chancellor Angela Merkel has stated many times recently that Greeks got generous terms on its alleged bailout.

Merkel is either a blatant liar or dumb as a rock. I believe the former. It is the bailed out banks in Germany and France that got generous terms.

To save French and German banks of €60 billion or so in losses on Greek bonds they never should have purchased in the first place, eurozone taxpayers are now on the hook for at least €326 billion.

Draghi’s famous “whatever it takes” speech should have been suffixed with “to save the banks”.

Greek and eurozone taxpayers got the shaft and remain at risk.

On July 12, Mish shared his reaction to “THE Final Offer Before Grexit”, as presented by the Eurogroup:

The wording of this document makes it clear Germany wants to push Greece out of the eurozone.

Please review the final sentence of the proposal. Here it is again: “In case no agreement could be reached, Greece should be offered swift negotiations on a time-out from the euro area, with possible debt restructuring.”

If Greece turns down the offer, it gets “swift” negotiations on a “temporary time out“, including the possibility of restructuring.

In contrast Greece has no chance of restructuring if it accepts all of the above demands.

Tsipras would be a fool to accept this proposal.

As I have said all along, Greece’s best chance is to default, not pay back a cent, and initiate the reforms it needs to grow over the long haul.

Greece does not need the euro. No country does.

Economist Steve Keen did a wonderful job debunking all of the falsehoods, which have been relied upon to justify the imposition of an absurd austerity regimen on Greece.  Dr. Keen also pointed out why the troika – rather than the Greek government – would be at fault in the event of a Grexit.  Here is his July 6 BBC interview.

The Eurocrats are pressing their luck too far.  If this stupidity persists, we should expect some awful consequences.



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EU-phoria Fades

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The most recent “light at the end of the tunnel” for the European sovereign debt crisis was seen on Friday June 29.  At a summit in Brussels, leaders of the European Union member nations agreed upon yet another “plan for a plan” to recapitalize failing banks – particularly in Spain.  The Summit Statement, which briefly summarized the terms of the plan, explained that an agreement was reached to establish a supervisory entity which would oversee the European banking system and to allow recapitalization of troubled banks without adding to sovereign debt.  By owning shares in the ailing banks, the European Stability Mechanism would no longer have a senior creditor status, in order to prevent investors from being scared away from buying sovereign bonds.

The bond markets were relieved to know that once again, taxpayers would be paying for the losses sustained by bondholders.  The reaction was immediate.  Spanish and Italian bond yields dropped faster than William Shatner’s pants when he passed through airport securitySpain’s ten-year bond yield dropped to 6.51 percent on June 29 from the previous day’s closing level of 6.87 percent.  Italy’s ten-year bond yield sank to 5.79 percent from the previous closing level of 6.24 percent.

Global stock indices went parabolic after the news from Brussels on June 29.  Nevertheless, many commentators expressed their skepticism about the latest plan.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the shortcomings of the proposal in his Weekly Market Comment:

The upshot here is that Spain’s banks are undercapitalized and insolvent, but rather than take them over and appropriately restructure them in a way that requires bondholders to take losses instead of the public, Spain hopes to tap European bailout funds so that it can provide capital directly to its banks through the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), and put all of Europe’s citizens on the hook for the losses.Spainhas been trying to get bailout funds without actually having the government borrow the money, because adding new debt to its books would drive the country further toward sovereign default.  Moreover, institutions like the ESM, the ECB, and the IMF generally enjoy senior status on their loans, so that citizens and taxpayers are protected.  Spain’s existing bondholders have objected to this, since a bailout for the banks would make their Spanish debt subordinate to the ESM.

As a side note, the statement suggests that Ireland, which already bailed its banks out the old-fashioned way, will demand whatever deal Spain gets.

So the hope is that Europe will agree to establish a single bank supervisor for all of Europe’s banks.  After that, the ESM – Europe’s bailout fund – would have the “possibility” to provide capital directly to banks.  Of course, since we’re talking about capital – the first buffer against losses – the bailout funds could not simply be lent to the banks, since debt is not capital.  Instead, it would have to be provided by directly purchasing stock (though one can imagine the Orwellian possibility of the ESM lending to bank A to buy shares of bank B, and lending to bank B to buy shares of bank A).  On the question of whether this is a good idea, as opposed to the alternative of properly restructuring banks, ask Spain how the purchase of Bankia stock has been working out for Spanish citizens (Bankia’s bondholders should at least send a thank-you note).  In any event, if this plan for a plan actually goes through, the bailout funds – provided largely by German citizens – would not only lose senior status to Spain’s government debt; the funds would be subordinate even to the unsecured debt held by the bondholders of Spanish banks, since equity is the first thing you wipe out when a bank is insolvent.

It will be interesting to see how long it takes for the German people to figure this out.

The criticism expressed by Charles Hugh Smith is particularly relevant because it addresses the latest move by the European Central Bank to lower its benchmark interest rate by 25 basis points (0.25%) to a record low of 0.75 percent.  Smith’s essay, entitled “Sorry Bucko Europe Is Still in a Death Spiral” consisted of sixteen phases of the death spiral dynamic.  Here are the final seven:

10. Transferring bad debt to central banks does not mean interest will not accrue: interest on the debt still must be paid out of future income, impairing that income.

11. Lowering interest rates does not create collateral where none exists.

12. Lowering interest rates only stretches out the death spiral, it does not halt or reverse it.

13. Centralizing banking and oversight does not create collateral where none exists.

14. Europe will remain in a financial death spiral until the bad debt is renounced/written off and assets are liquidated on the open market.

15. Anything other than this is theater.  Pushing the endgame out a few months is not a solution, nor will it magically create collateral or generate sustainable “growth.”

16. The Martian Central Bank could sell bonds to replace bad debt in Europe, but as long as the MCB collects interest on the debt, then nothing has changed.

The Martians would be extremely bent when they discovered there is no real collateral for their 10 trillion-quatloo loan portfolio in Europe.

Of course, Mr. Smith is forgetting that the Martians could call upon those generous taxpayers from planet Zobion for a bailout   .   .   .


 

Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


 

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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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Plutocracy Is Crushing Democracy

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It’s been happening here in the United States since onset of the 2008 financial crisis.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  One year ago, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.

As it turns out, a few of those same banks are flexing their muscles overseas as the European debt crisis poses a new threat to Goldman Sachs and several of its ridiculously-overleveraged European counterparts.  Time recently published an essay by Stephan Faris, which raised the question of whether the regime changes in Greece and Italy amounted to a “bankers’ coup”:

As in Athens, the plan in Rome is to replace the outgoing prime minister with somebody from outside the political class.  Mario Monti, a neo-liberal economist and former EU commissioner who seems designed with the idea of calming the markets in mind, is expected to take over from Berlusconi after he resigns Saturday.

*   *   *

Yet, until the moment he’s sworn in, Monti’s ascension is far from a done deal, and it didn’t take long after the markets had closed for the weekend for it to start to come under fire.  Though Monti, a former advisor to Goldman Sachs, is heavily championed by the country’s respected president, many in parliament have spent the week whispering that Berlusconi’s ouster amounts to a “banker’s coup.”  “Yesterday, in the chamber of deputies we were bitterly joking that we were going to get a Goldman Sachs government,” says a parliamentarian from Berlusconi’s government, who asked to remain anonymous citing political sensitivity.

At The New York Times, Ross Douthat reflected on the drastic policy of bypassing democracy to install governments led by “technocrats”:

After the current crisis has passed, some voices have suggested, there will be time to reverse the ongoing centralization of power and reconsider the E.U.’s increasingly undemocratic character. Today the Continent needs a unified fiscal policy and a central bank that’s willing to behave like the Federal Reserve, Bloomberg View’s Clive Crook has suggested.  But as soon as the euro is stabilized, Europe’s leaders should start “giving popular sovereignty some voice in other aspects of the E.U. project.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  Major political consolidations are rarely undone swiftly, and they just as often build upon themselves.  The technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have revealed the power that the E.U.’s leadership can exercise over the internal politics of member states.  If Germany has to effectively backstop the Continent’s debt in order to save the European project, it’s hard to see why the Frankfurt Group (its German members, especially) would ever consent to dilute that power.

Reacting to Ross Douthat’s column, economist Brad DeLong was quick to criticize the use of the term “technocrats”.  That same label appeared in the previously-quoted Time article, as well:

Those who are calling the shots in Europe right now are in no wise “technocrats”:  technocrats would raise the target inflation rate in the eurozone and buy up huge amounts of Greek and Italian (and other) debt conditional on the enactment of special euro-wide long-run Fiscal Stabilization Repayment Fund taxes. These aren’t technocrats:  they are ideologues – and rather blinders-wearing ideologues at that.

Forget about euphemisms such as:  “technocrats”, “the European Union” or “the European Central Bank”.  Stephen Foley of The Independent pulled back the curtain and revealed the real culprit  .  .  .  Goldman Sachs:

This is the most remarkable thing of all:  a giant leap forward for, or perhaps even the successful culmination of, the Goldman Sachs Project.

It is not just Mr Monti.  The European Central Bank, another crucial player in the sovereign debt drama, is under ex-Goldman management, and the investment bank’s alumni hold sway in the corridors of power in almost every European nation, as they have done in the US throughout the financial crisis.  Until Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund’s European division was also run by a Goldman man, Antonio Borges, who just resigned for personal reasons.

Even before the upheaval in Italy, there was no sign of Goldman Sachs living down its nickname as “the Vampire Squid”, and now that its tentacles reach to the top of the eurozone, sceptical voices are raising questions over its influence.

*   *   *

This is The Goldman Sachs Project.  Put simply, it is to hug governments close.  Every business wants to advance its interests with the regulators that can stymie them and the politicians who can give them a tax break, but this is no mere lobbying effort.  Goldman is there to provide advice for governments and to provide financing, to send its people into public service and to dangle lucrative jobs in front of people coming out of government.  The Project is to create such a deep exchange of people and ideas and money that it is impossible to tell the difference between the public interest and the Goldman Sachs interest.

*   *   *

The grave danger is that, if Italy stops paying its debts, creditor banks could be made insolvent.  Goldman Sachs, which has written over $2trn of insurance, including an undisclosed amount on eurozone countries’ debt, would not escape unharmed, especially if some of the $2trn of insurance it has purchased on that insurance turns out to be with a bank that has gone under.  No bank – and especially not the Vampire Squid – can easily untangle its tentacles from the tentacles of its peers. This is the rationale for the bailouts and the austerity, the reason we are getting more Goldman, not less.  The alternative is a second financial crisis, a second economic collapse.

The previous paragraph explains precisely what the term “too-big-to-fail” is all about:  If a bank of that size fails – it can bring down the entire economy.  Beyond that, the Goldman situation illustrates what Simon Johnson meant when he explained that the United States – acting alone – cannot prevent the megabanks from becoming too big to fail.  Any attempt to regulate the size of those institutions requires an international effort:

But no international body — not the Group of -20, the Group of Eight or anyone else — shows any indication of taking this on, mostly because governments don’t wish to tie their own hands. In a severe crisis, the interests of the state are usually paramount. No meaningful cross-border resolution framework is even in the cards.  (Disclosure:  I’m on the FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee; I’m telling you what I tell them at every opportunity.)

What we are left with is a situation wherein the taxpayers are the insurers of the privileged elite, who invest in banks managed by greedy, reckless megalomaniacs.  When those plutocrats are faced with the risk of losing money – then democracy be damned!  Contempt for democracy is apparently a component of the mindset afflicting the “supply side economics” crowd.  Creepy Stephen Moore, of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has expounded on his belief that capitalism is more important than Democracy.  We are now witnessing how widespread that warped value system is.


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Another Great Idea From Ron Paul

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Congressman Ron Paul is one of the few original thinkers on Capitol Hill.  Sometimes he has great ideas, although at other times he might sound a little daft.  He recently grabbed some headlines by expressing the view that the United States “should declare bankruptcy”.  A June 28 CNN report focused on Paul’s agreement with the contention that if bankruptcy is the cure for Greece, it is also the cure for the United States.  However, as most economists will point out, the situation in Greece is not at all relevant to our situation because the United States issues its own currency and Greece is stuck with the euro, under the regime of the European Central Bank.  Anyone who can’t grasp that concept should read this posting by Cullen Roche at the Seeking Alpha website.

Nevertheless, economist Dean Baker picked up on one of Congressman Paul’s points, which – if followed through to its logical conclusion – could actually solve the debt ceiling impasse.  The remark by Ron Paul which inspired Dean Baker was a gripe about the $1.6 trillion in Treasury securities that the Federal Reserve now holds as a result of two quantitative easing programs:

“We owe, like, $1.6 trillion because the Federal Reserve bought that debt, so we have to work hard to pay the interest to the Federal Reserve,” Paul said. “We don’t, I mean, they’re nobody; why do we have to pay them off?”

In an article for The New Republic, Dr. Baker commended Dr. Paul for his creativity and agreed that having the Federal Reserve Board destroy the $1.6 trillion in government bonds it now holds as a result of quantitative easing “is actually a very reasonable way to deal with the crisis”.  Baker provided this explanation:

Last year the Fed refunded almost $80 billion to the Treasury.  In this sense, the bonds held by the Fed are literally money that the government owes to itself.

Unlike the debt held by Social Security, the debt held by the Fed is not tied to any specific obligations.  The bonds held by the Fed are assets of the Fed.  It has no obligations that it must use these assets to meet.  There is no one who loses their retirement income if the Fed doesn’t have its bonds.  In fact, there is no direct loss of income to anyone associated with the Fed’s destruction of its bonds.  This means that if Congress told the Fed to burn the bonds, it would in effect just be destroying a liability that the government had to itself, but it would still reduce the debt subject to the debt ceiling by $1.6 trillion. This would buy the country considerable breathing room before the debt ceiling had to be raised again.  President Obama and the Republican congressional leadership could have close to two years to talk about potential spending cuts or tax increases.  Maybe they could even talk a little about jobs.

Unfortunately, the next passage of Dr. Baker’s essay exposed the reason why this simple, logical solution would never become implemented:

As it stands now, the Fed plans to sell off its bond holdings over the next few years.  This means that the interest paid on these bonds would go to banks, corporations, pension funds, and individual investors who purchase them from the Fed.

And therein lies the rub:  The infamous “too-big-to-fail” banks could buy those bonds with money borrowed from the Fed at a fractional interest rate, and then collect the yield on those bonds – entirely at the expense of American taxpayers!  Not only would the American people lose money by loaning the bond purchase money to the banks almost free of charge – we would lose even more money by paying those banks interest on the money we just loaned to those same banks – nearly free of charge.  (This is nothing new.  It’s been ongoing since the inception of “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP on December 16, 2008.)  President Obama would never allow his patrons on Wall Street to have such an opportunity “stolen” from them by the American taxpayers.  Banking industry lobbyists would start swarming all over Capitol Hill carrying briefcases filled with money if any serious effort to undertake such a plan reached the discussion stage.  At this point, you might suspect that the grifters on the Hill could have a scheme underway:  Make a few noises about following Baker’s suggestion and wait for the lobbyists to start sharing the love.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be left to suffer the consequences of our government’s failure to raise the debt ceiling.


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The Pushback From Europe

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March 16, 2009

There was plenty of action and plenty of inaction in Europe last week, toward addressing the world financial crisis.  Our new Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, has been in Horsham, (West Sussex County) U.K., chatting it up with G-20 finance ministers in a run-up meeting to the big London Summit on April 2.  (Meanwhile . . . Who was conducting the “stress tests” on the nineteen “stressed” banks while Turbo Tim was across the pond, eating the awful, British food?  Worse yet:  Treasury still has a few positions to fill.)

We got a taste of the European response to the financial crisis during Sunday’s broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press.  Near the end of the program, David Gregory asked the BBC’s Katty Kay about the “back story” to the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in England:

MR. GREGORY:  You’re just back from Europe, Katty, and one of the big debates this week with the administration and Europe is that Europe does not want to do larger stimulus.  And we know that some of the problems in Europe and around the globe with this recession are quite acute.

MS. KAY:  You know, it’s really interesting traveling through Europe this week, and two things really struck me.  One is that there is less public concern about the nature of this crisis, and part of that is that Europeans have a broader social safety net.  I was speaking to a journalist in Sweden who said to me, “You know, if I lose my job, I lose some of my income.  But I still have very good health care and my children have very good state education.”  So people aren’t as panicked by this recession as they are here.  That means that there is less political pressure on European leaders to spend their way out of this and to act some kind of stimulus package, a global stimulus package, what the administration’s been calling for.  There is also a feeling in Europe that they don’t want to have to submit to an American made solution to what is seen by many, by many Europeans as an American made problem.  There is a real resistance here …

Europe’s portrayal of the world financial crisis as “an American problem” became painfully apparent during the recent G-20 finance ministers’ meeting.  As Damien Paletta and Stephen Fidler reported for The Wall Street Journal, the G-20 members exploited the opportunity to pressure Secretary Geithner on solving the problems in America’s banking sector before asking the G-20 to make any efforts toward increased economic stimulus spending.  The G-20 members are well-aware of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to place insolvent banks under government receivership, particularly since this is widely perceived in the United States as being too “un-American”, or worse yet  —  European.  As The Wall Street Journal article pointed out:

The turnaround suggests the limits of U.S. power in the world emerging out of the rubble of the financial crisis.  Many countries, including U.S. allies, are increasingly putting pressure on America to clean up a mess they believe it created.

Mr. Geithner’s actions during the next two weeks will be scrutinized by both Wall Street and world financial markets, which have remained unconvinced that the Obama administration can pull the world out of the downturn.

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Participants said they were pleasantly surprised by the meeting’s unity of purpose, given comments beforehand from the Germans and the French rebuffing U.S. calls to make further commitments to fiscal expansion.  But it was also clear U.S. officials had a long way to go before they could satisfy concerns about the banking sector, which emerged as a surprising point of contention during the negotiations.

“I and some others were expecting much quicker movement on the part of the administration” related to the treatment of banks, said one central banker.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, there can only be one culprit responsible for this attitude about our government’s failure to address the unresolved problem of “troubled assets” (i.e. mortgage-backed securities and the multitude of  ill-begotten “derivatives”) responsible for the questionable health of so many American banks.  This culprit is Nobel Prize-winning Economist, Paul Krugman.  Professor Krugman has written again and again about the urgent need for the Obama administration to face the ugly reality that the “zombie banks” must be placed under government receivership (which is not really “nationalization”).

Fortunately, Professor Krugman stepped up and pointed out (in The New York Times) that if the EU really believes that it doesn’t have any skin in this game, it is in for an unpleasant surprise:

The clear and present danger to Europe right now comes from a different direction — the continent’s failure to respond effectively to the financial crisis.

Europe has fallen short in terms of both fiscal and monetary policy: it’s facing at least as severe a slump as the United States, yet it’s doing far less to combat the downturn.

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Why is Europe falling short? Poor leadership is part of the story.  European banking officials, who completely missed the depth of the crisis, still seem weirdly complacent.

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You might expect monetary policy to be more forceful. After all, while there isn’t a European government, there is a European Central Bank.  But the E.C.B. isn’t like the Fed, which can afford to be adventurous because it’s backed by a unitary national government — a government that has already moved to share the risks of the Fed’s boldness, and will surely cover the Fed’s losses if its efforts to unfreeze financial markets go bad.  The E.C.B., which must answer to 16 often-quarreling governments, can’t count on the same level of support.

Europe, in other words, is turning out to be structurally weak in a time of crisis.

What transpired in this trans-continental dialogue was a lot like a volleyball game between politicians and commentators from the European Union against politicians and commentators from the United States.  After the EU team “spiked” the ball over the net —  it hit Tim Geithner on the head.  The ball then bounced away.  Just as the ball passed above Paul Krugman  —  “Boom Goes the Dynamite!”  Nice play, Paul!