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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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


 

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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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Formula For Failure

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The Democratic Party is suffering from a case of terminal smugness. Democrats ignored the warning back in 2006, when the South Park television series ran the episode, “Smug Alert”.

I recently came across a dangerous manifestation of  “The Smug” in a recent article written by Ed Kilgore for The New Republic, in which Mr. Kilgore complacently explained “why Obama won’t face a primary challenge”.  We are supposed to forget about the “shellacking” taken by Democrats in the mid-term elections.  We are to ignore the fact that “mischief-making pundits have seized on a couple of polls to burnish their narrative”.  In an act exemplifying what my late father described as “tempting fate”, Mr. Kilgore proceeded to belittle the most serious criticisms of the President, while daring lightening to strike:

Above all, primary challenges to incumbent presidents require a galvanizing issue.  It’s very doubtful that the grab-bag of complaints floated by the Democratic electorate — Obama’s legislative strategy during the health care fight; his relative friendliness to Wall Street; gay rights; human rights; his refusal to prosecute Bush administration figures for war crimes or privacy violations — would be enough to spur a serious challenge.  And while Afghanistan is an increasing source of Democratic discontent, it’s hardly Vietnam, and Obama has promised to reduce troop levels sharply by 2012.

The timing of Kilgore’s supercilious disregard of a challenge to Obama’s presence atop the 2012 ticket could not have been worse.  Thanks to the efforts of the late Mark Pittman, a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed by Bloomberg News has forced the Federal Reserve to disclose the details of its bailouts to those business entities benefiting from the Fed’s eleven emergency lending programs initiated as a result of the 2008 financial crisis. The Fed’s massive document dump on December 1 (occurring right on the heels of the WikiLeaks publication of indiscretions by Obama’s Secretary of State — Hillary Clinton) has refocused criticism of what Kilgore described as the President’s “relative friendliness to Wall Street”.  Although Mr. Obama had not yet assumed office in the fall of 2008, after moving into the White House, the new President re-empowered the same cast of characters responsible for the financial crisis and the worst of the bailouts.  The architect of Maiden Lane III (which included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs) “Turbo” Tim Geithner, was elevated from president of the New York Fed to Treasury Secretary.  Ben Bernanke was re-nominated by Obama (over strenuous bipartisan objection) to serve another term as Federal Reserve Chairman.

In the 2008 Democratic Primary elections, voters chose “change” rather than another Clinton administration.  Nevertheless, what the voters got was another Clinton administration.  After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.  Obama’s creation of a bipartisan deficit commission has been widely criticized as an inept fallback to the obsolete Bill Clinton playbook.  Robert Reich, Labor Secretary for the original Clinton administration recently upbraided President Obama for this wrongheaded approach:

Bill Clinton had a rapidly expanding economy to fall back on, so his appeasement of Republicans didn’t legitimize the Republican world view.  Obama doesn’t have that luxury.  The American public is still hurting and they want to know why.

The Pragmatic Capitalist criticized President Obama’s habitual reliance on members of the Clinton administration as futile attempts to bring about the same results obtained fifteen years ago.  Obama’s appointment of Erskine Bowles (Clinton’s former Chief of Staff) as co-chair of the deficit commission was denounced as a recent example.  Bowles’ platitudinous insistence that it’s time for an “adult conversation about the dangers of this debt” drew this blistering retort:

Yes.  America has a debt problem. We have a very serious household, municipality and state debt crisis that is in many ways similar to what is going on in Europe.   What we absolutely don’t have is a federal government debt problem.  After all, a nation with monopoly supply of currency in a floating exchange rate system never really has “debt” unless that debt is denominated in a foreign currency.  He says this conversation is the:

“exact same conversation every family, every single business, every single state and every single municipality has been having these last few years.”

There is only one problem with this remark.  The federal government is NOTHING like a household, state or municipality.   These entities are all revenue constrained.  The Federal government has no such constraint. We don’t need China to lend us money.  We don’t need to raise taxes to spend money.  When the US government wants to spend money it sends men and women into a room where they mark up accounts in a computer system.   They don’t call China first or check their tax revenues.   They just spend the money.

*   *   *
Mr. Bowles finished his press conference by saying that the American people get it:

“There is one thing I am absolutely sure of.  If nothing else, I know deep down the American people get it.   They know this is the moment of truth”

The American people most certainly don’t get it.  And how can you blame them?  When a supposed financial expert like Mr. Bowles can’t grasp these concepts how could we ever expect the average American to understand it?  It’s time for an adult conversation to begin before this misguided conversation regarding the future bankruptcy of America sends us towards our own “moment of truth” – a 1937 moment.

I hope it doesn’t take “a 1937 moment” for the Democrats to appreciate the very serious risk that the Palin family could be living in the White House in 2013.


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