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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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European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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Harsh Reality

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Several years ago, at one of the seven Laurie Anderson performances I have attended, Ms. Anderson (now Mrs. Lou Reed – although I seriously doubt whether she uses that moniker) described her first meeting with Philip Glass.  Immediately after meeting Glass, she anxiously asked him:  “Are things getting better or are things getting worse?”

These days, that same question is on everyone’s mind.  It appears as though the mainstream news media are hell-bent on convincing us that everything is just fine.  Nevertheless, many of us remember hearing the same thing from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson during the summer of 2008.  As a result, we ponder the onslaught of rosy prognostications about the future of our economy with a good degree of skepticism.  Regardless of whether there might be some sort of conspiracy to convince the public to go out and spend money because everything is all right  . . . consider these remarks by Steve Randy Waldman from a discussion about market monetarist theory:

Self-fulfilling expectations lie at the heart of the market monetarist theory.  A depression occurs when people come to believe that income will be scarce relative to prior expectations and debts.  They nervously scale back expenditures and hoard cash, fulfilling their expectations of income scarcity.  However, if everybody could suddenly be made to believe that income would be plentiful, everyone would spend freely and fulfill the expectations of plenty.  The world is a much more pleasant place under the second set of expectations than the first.  And to switch between the two scenarios, all that is required is persuasion.  The market-monetarist central bank is nothing more than a great persuader:  when “shocks happen”, it persuades us all to maintain our optimism about the path of nominal income.  As long as we all keep the faith, our faith will be rewarded.  This is not a religion, but a Nash equilibrium.

The persuasion described by Steve Waldman has been drowning out objective analysis lately.  Obviously, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has created quite a bit of anxiety in the United States.  The mainstream media focus is apparently targeting that consensual anxiety with heavy doses of “feel good” material.  One must search around a bit before finding any commentary which runs against that current.  I found some and I would like to share it with you.  The first item appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on November 22:

Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Chief Executive Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian said U.S. economic conditions are “terrifying” as the nation struggles to recover from recession.

The odds of the U.S. returning to recession are as much as 50 percent, El-Erian said during an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” with Betty Liu.  U.S. economic growth was worse than expected and congressional policy makers are gridlocked over what to do about the economy and the deficit, which risk exacerbating an already weak recovery, he said.

“We have less economic momentum than we thought we had and we have no policy momentum,” said El-Erian, who also serves as co-chief investment officer with Pimco founder Bill Gross at the world’s largest manager of bond funds.

“What’s most terrifying,” he said, “we are having this discussion about the risk of recession at a time when unemployment is already too high, at a time when a quarter of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, at a time then the fiscal deficit is at 9 percent and at a time when interest rates are at zero.”

Let’s not forget that all of this is happening at a time when we are plagued by the most dysfunctional, stupid and corrupt Congress in our nation’s history.  President Obama is currently preoccupied with his re-election campaign.  His own leadership failures are conveniently re-packaged as products of that feckless Congress.  As a result, Americans have plenty of justification for being worried about the future.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently shared some information with us, which he acquired by attending an InvestmentNews Round Table, as well as from reading Gary Shilling’s expensive newsletter:

Get it? Main Street America, you should “expect very slow growth” in 2012.  That was the response when asked what “scenarios are you painting for your clients?”  The panelist at a recent InvestmentNews Round Table then added:  “It’s going to be ugly and violent.”  Why?  Because the politicians “are driving things” and they are “capricious, which leads to volatility.”  And clients are “not really happy,” but “they lived through ‘08 and ’09,” so 2012 will be “just a little bump in the road.”

*   *   *

So don’t kid yourself folks, recent economic and market “ugliness and violence” not only won’t end soon, it’ll get meaner and meaner for years after 2012 elections … no matter who wins.  Only a fool would believe that a new bull market will take off in 2013.  Ain’t going to happen.  That’s a Wall Street fantasy.  Fall for that, and you’re delusional.

In fact, you better plan on a very long secular bear the next decade through 2020.  With the European banks, credit and currency on the edge of a global financial meltdown, there’s a high probability that a black swan virus, a contagion will sweep the world, making all investing “uglier” and more “violent” for Americans in 2013, indeed for the rest of the decade.

*   *   *

Shilling sees “a secular bear market really started in 2000 and may persist for a decade as a result of slower GDP growth,” yes, persist till 2020 “with 2% to 3% deflation.”  He warns:  “Nominal GDP might not gain at all,” like recent flat-lining.  Which coincides with the expectations of America’s professional financial advisers.

Are you still feeling optimistic?  Consider the closing thoughts from a piece by Karl Denninger entitled, “The Game Is About Done”:

30+ years of lawless behavior has now devolved down to blatant, in-your-face theft.  They don’t even bother trying to hide it any more, and Eric “Place” Holder is too busy supervising the running of guns into Mexico so the drug cartels can shoot both Mexican and American citizens.

What am I, or anyone else, supposed to do in this sort of “market” environment?  Invest in…. what?  Land titles are worthless as they’ve been corrupted by robosigning, margin deposits have been stolen, Madoff’s clients had confirmations of trades that never happend and proved to worthless pieces of paper instead of valuable securities and while Madoff went to prison nobody else has and the money is still gone!

Without enforcement of the law — swift and certain — there is no deterrent against this behavior.

There has been no enforcement and there is no indication that this will change.

It will take just one — or maybe two — more events like MF Global and Greek CDS “determinations” before the entire market — all of it — goes “no bid” as participants simply stuff their hands in their pockets and say “screw this.”

It’s coming folks, and I guarantee you this:  Whatever your “nightmare” scenario is for such an event, it’s not bearish enough.

Keep all of this in mind as you plan for the future.  I would not expect that you might hear any of this on CNBC.


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Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

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The European sovereign debt crisis has generated an enormous amount of nonsensical coverage by the news media.  Most of this coverage appears targeted at American investors, who are regularly assured that a Grand Solution to all of Europe’s financial problems is “just around the corner” thanks to the heroic work of European finance ministers.

Fortunately, a number of commentators have raised some significant objections about all of the misleading “spin” on this subject.  Some pointed criticism has come from Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) who recently posted this complaint:

I am tired of nonsensical headlines that have a zero percent chance of happening.

In a subsequent piece, Mish targeted a report from Bloomberg News which bore what he described as a misleading headline:  “EU Sees Progress on Banks”.  Not surprisingly, clicking on the Bloomberg link will reveal that the story now has a different headline.

For those in search of an easy-to-read explanation of the European financial situation, I recommend an essay by Robert Kuttner, appearing at the Huffington Post.  Here are a few highlights:

The deepening European financial crisis is the direct result of the failure of Western leaders to fix the banking system during the first crisis that began in 2007.  Barring a miracle of statesmanship, we are in for Financial Crisis II, and it will look more like a depression than a recession.

*   *   *

Beginning in 2008, the collapse of Bear Stearns revealed the extent of pyramid schemes and interlocking risks that had come to characterize the global banking system.  But Western leaders have stuck to the same pro-Wall-Street strategy:  throw money at the problem, disguise the true extent of the vulnerability, provide flimsy reassurances to money markets, and don’t require any fundamental changes in the business models of the world’s banks to bring greater simplicity, transparency or insulation from contagion.

As a consequence, we face a repeat of 2008.  Precisely the same kinds of off-balance sheet pyramids of debts and interlocking risks that caused Bear Stearns, then AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch to blow up are still in place.

Following Tim Geithner’s playbook, the European authorities conducted “stress tests” and reported in June that the shortfall in the capital of Europe’s banks was only about $100 billion.  But nobody believes that rosy scenario.

*   *   *

But to solely blame Europe and its institutions is to excuse the source of the storms.  That is the political power of the banks to block fundamental reform.

The financial system has mutated into a doomsday machine where banks make their money by originating securities and sticking someone else with the risk.  None of the reforms, beginning with Dodd-Frank and its European counterparts, has changed that fundamental business model.

As usual, the best analysis of the European financial situation comes from economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Dr. Hussman’s essay explores several dimensions of the European crisis in addition to noting some of the ongoing “shenanigans” employed by American financial institutions.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from Hussman’s latest Weekly Market Comment:

Incomprehensibly large bailout figures now get tossed around unexamined in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis (blessed, of course, by Wall Street), while funding toward NIH, NSF and other essential purposes has been increasingly squeezed.  At the urging of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Europe has been encouraged to follow the “big bazooka” approach to the banking system.  That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we’ve become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner’s triumph and humanity’s collective loss.

*   *   *

A clean solution to the European debt problem does not exist. The road ahead will likely be tortuous.

The way that Europe can be expected to deal with this is as follows.  First, European banks will not have their losses limited to the optimistic but unrealistic 21% haircut that they were hoping to sustain.  In order to avoid the European Financial Stability Fund from being swallowed whole by a Greek default, leaving next-to-nothing to prevent broader contagion, the probable Greek default will be around 50%-60%.  Note that Greek obligations of all maturities, including 1-year notes, are trading at prices about 40 or below, so a 50% haircut would actually be an upgrade.  Given the likely time needed to sustainably narrow Greek deficits, a default of that size is also the only way that another later crisis would be prevented (at least for a decade, and hopefully much longer).

*   *   *

Of course, Europe wouldn’t need to blow all of these public resources or impose depression on Greek citizens if bank stockholders and bondholders were required to absorb the losses that result from the mind-boggling leverage taken by European banks.  It’s that leverage (born of inadequate capital requirements and regulation), not simply bad investments or even Greek default per se, that is at the core of the crisis.

Given the fact that the European crisis appears to be reaching an important crossroads, the Occupy Wall Street protest seems well-timed.  The need for significant financial reform is frequently highlighted in most commentaries concerning the European situation.  Whether our venal politicians will seriously address this situation remains to be seen.  I’m not holding my breath.


 

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Dubious Reassurances

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There appears to be an increasing number of commentaries presented in the mainstream media lately, assuring us that “everything is just fine” or – beyond that – “things are getting better” because the Great Recession is “over”.  Anyone who feels inclined to believe those comforting commentaries should take a look at the Financial Armageddon blog and peruse some truly grim reports about how bad things really are.

On a daily basis, we are being told not to worry about Europe’s sovereign debt crisis because of the heroic efforts to keep it under control.  On the other hand, I was more impressed by the newest Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Be sure to read the entire essay.  Here are some of Dr. Hussman’s key points:

From my perspective, Wall Street’s “relief” about the economy, and its willingness to set aside recession concerns, is a mistake born of confusion between leading indicators and lagging ones.  Leading evidence is not only clear, but on a statistical basis is essentially certain that the U.S. economy, and indeed, the global economy, faces an oncoming recession.  As Lakshman Achuthan notes on the basis of ECRI’s own (and historically reliable) set of indicators, “We’ve entered a vicious cycle, and it’s too late: a recession can’t be averted.”  Likewise, lagging evidence is largely clear that the economy was not yet in a recession as of, say, August or September. The error that investors are inviting here is to treat lagging indicators as if they are leading ones.

The simple fact is that the measures that we use to identify recession risk tend to operate with a lead of a few months.  Those few months are often critical, in the sense that the markets can often suffer deep and abrupt losses before coincident and lagging evidence demonstrates actual economic weakness.  As a result, there is sometimes a “denial” phase between the point where the leading evidence locks onto a recession track, and the point where the coincident evidence confirms it. We saw exactly that sort of pattern prior to the last recession. While the recession evidence was in by November 2007 (see Expecting A Recession ), the economy enjoyed two additional months of payroll job growth, and new claims for unemployment trended higher in a choppy and indecisive way until well into 2008. Even after Bear Stearns failed in March 2008, the market briefly staged a rally that put it within about 10% of its bull market high.

At present, the S&P 500 is again just 10% below the high it set before the recent market downturn began. In my view, the likelihood is very thin that the economy will avoid a recession, that Greece will avoid default, or that Europe will deal seamlessly with the financial strains of a banking system that is more than twice as leveraged as the U.S. banking system was before the 2008-2009 crisis.

*   *   *

A few weeks ago, I noted that Greece was likely to be promised a small amount of relief funding, essentially to buy Europe more time to prepare its banking system for a Greek default, and observed “While it’s possible that the equity markets will mount a relief rally in the event of new funding to Greece, it will be important to recognize that handing out a bit more relief would be preparatory to a default, and that would probably be reflected in a failure of Greek yields to retreat significantly on that news.”

As of Friday, the yield on 1-year Greek debt has soared to 169%. Greece will default. Europe is buying time to reduce the fallout.

As of this writing, the yield on 1-year Greek debt is now 189.82%.  How could it be possible to pay almost 200% interest on a one-year loan?

Despite all of the “good news” about America’s zombie megabanks, which were bailed out during the financial crisis (and for a while afterward) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has been keeping an ongoing “Bank of America Deathwatch”.  The story has gone from grim to downright creepy:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it.  I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC.  About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

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This move reflects either criminal incompetence or abject corruption by the Fed.  Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail.  Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions:  derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs.  So this move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral.  It’s well nigh impossible to have an orderly wind down in this scenario.  You have a derivatives counterparty land grab and an abrupt insolvency.  Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.

But it’s even worse than that.  During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle.  It had to get more funding from Congress.  This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors.  No Congressman would dare vote against that.  This move is Machiavellian, and just plain evil.

It is the aggregate outrage caused by the rampant malefaction throughout American finance, which has motivated the protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those demonstrators have found it difficult to articulate their demands because any comprehensive list of grievances they could assemble would be unwieldy.  Most important among their complaints is the notion that the failure to enforce prohibitions against financial wrongdoing will prevent restoration of a healthy economy.  The best example of this is the fact that our government continues to allow financial institutions to remain “too big to fail” – since their potential failure would be remedied by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Hedge fund manager Barry Ritholtz articulated those objections quite well, in a recent piece supporting the State Attorneys General who are resisting the efforts by the Justice Department to coerce settlement of the States’ “fraudclosure” cases against Bank of America and others – on very generous terms:

The Rule of Law is yet another bedrock foundation of this nation.  It seems to get ignored when the criminals involved received billions in bipartisan bailout monies.

The line of bullshit being used on State AGs is that we risk an economic crisis if we prosecute these folks.

The people who claim that fail to realize that the opposite is true – the protest at Occupy Wall Street, the negative sentiment, the general economic angst – traces itself to the belief that there is no justice, that senior bankers have gotten away with economic murder, and that we have a two-tiered criminal system, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Today’s NYT notes the gloom that has descended over consumers, and they suggest it may be home prices. I think they are wrong – in my experience, the sort of generalized rage and frustration comes about when people realize the institutions they have trusted have betrayed them.  Humans deal with financial losses in a very specific way – and it’s not fury.  This is about a fundamental breakdown of the role of government, courts, and leadership in the nation.  And it all traces back to the bailouts of reckless bankers, and the refusal to hold them in any way accountable.

There will not be a fundamental economic recovery until that is recognized.

In the mean time, the quality of life for the American middle class continues to deteriorate.  We need to do more than simply hope that the misery will “trickle” upward.


 

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Unwinding The Spin

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We are caught in a steady “spin cycle” of contradictory reports about our most fundamental concerns:  the environment and the economy.  Will China financially intervene to resolve the sovereign debt crisis in Europe and save us all from the economic consequences that loom ahead?  Will the “China syndrome” finally become a reality at Fukushima?  When confronted with a propaganda assault from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd, I become very skeptical.

Widespread concern that Greece would default on its debt inflamed lingering fear about debt contagion throughout the Eurozone.  Economist John Hussman, one of the few pundits who has been keeping a sober eye on the situation, made this remark:

Simply put, the Greek debt market is screaming “Certain default. Amésos.”

Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that China Investment Corporation has been involved in discussions with the government of Italy concerning Italian bond purchases as well as business investments.  Bloomberg BusinessWeek quoted Zhang Xiaoqiang, vice chairman of China’s top economic planning agency, who affirmed that nation’s willingness to buy euro bonds from countries involved in the sovereign debt crisis “within its capacity”.

Stefan Schultz of Der Speigel explained that China expects something in return for its rescue efforts:

The supposed “yellow peril” has positioned itself as a “white knight” which promises not to leave its trading partners in Europe and America in the lurch.

In return, however, Beijing is demanding a high price — the Chinese government wants more political prestige and more political power  .  .  .

Specifically, China wants:  more access to American markets, abolition of restrictions on the export of high-technology products to China as well as world-wide recognition of China’s economy as a market economy.

Even if such a deal could be made with China, would that nation’s bailout efforts really save the world economy from another recession?

As usual, those notorious cheerleaders for stock market bullishness at CNBC are emphasizing that now is the time to buy.  At MSN Money, Anthony Mirhaydari wrote a piece entitled, “The bulls are taking charge”.

Last week, Robert Powell of MarketWatch directed our attention to an analysis just published by Sam Stovall, the chief investment strategist of Standard & Poor’s Equity Research.  Powell provided us with this summary:

Consider, at a place and time such as this, with the economy teetering on the verge of another recession, none of the 1,485 stocks that make up the S&P 1,500 has a consensus “Sell” rating. And just five, or 0.3%, are ranked as being a “Weak Hold.”

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From his vantage point, Stovall says it “appears as if most analysts are not expecting the U.S. to fall back into recession, and that now is the time to scoop up undervalued cyclical issues at bargain-basement prices.”

However, in S&P’s opinion, it might be high time to “buck the trend and embrace the traditionally defensive sectors (including utilities), as the risk of recession — and downward earnings per share revisions – appear to us to be on the rise.”

On September 14, investing guru Mark Hulbert picked up from where Robert Powell left off by reminding us that – ten years ago – stock analysts continued to rate Enron stock as a “hold” during the weeks leading up to its bankruptcy, despite the fact that the company was obviously in deep trouble.  Hulbert’s theme was best summed-up with this statement:

If you want objectivity from an analyst, you might want to start by demanding that he issue as many “sell” recommendations as “buys.”

It sounds to me as though Wall Street is looking for suckers to be holding all of those high-beta, Russell 2000 stocks when the next crash comes along.  I’m more inclined to follow Jeremy Grantham’s assessment that “fair value” for the S&P 500 is 950, rather than its current near-1,200 level.

While the “rose colored glasses” crowd is dreaming about China’s rescue of the world economy, the “China syndrome” is becoming a reality at Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power facility.  Immediately after the tragic earthquake and tsunami, I expressed my suspicion that the true extent of the nuclear disaster was the subject of a massive cover-up.  Since that time, Washington’s Blog has been providing regular updates on the status of the ongoing, uncontrolled nuclear disaster at Fukushima.  The September 14 posting at Washington’s Blog included an interview with a candid scientist:

And nuclear expert Paul Gunter says that we face a “China Syndrome”, where the fuel from the reactor cores at Fukushima have melted through the container vessels, into the ground, and are hitting groundwater and creating highly-radioactive steam . . .

On the other hand, this article from New Scientist reeks of nuclear industry spin:

ALARMIST predictions that the long-term health effects of the Fukushima nuclear accident will be worse than those following Chernobyl in 1986 are likely to aggravate harmful psychological effects of the incident.

As long as experts such as Paul Gunter and Arnie Gundersen continue to provide reliable data contradicting the “move along – nothing to see here” meme being sold to us by the usual suspects, I will continue to follow the updates on Washington’s Blog.


 

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