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Magic Show Returns to Wall Street

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Quantitative easing is back.  For those of you who still aren’t familiar with what quantitative easing is, I have provided a link to this short, funny cartoon, which explains everything.

The first two phases of quantitative easing brought enormous gains to the stock market.  In fact, that was probably all they accomplished.  Nevertheless, if there had been no QE or QE 2, most people’s 401(k) plans would be worth only a fraction of what they are worth today.  The idea was that the “wealth effect” provided by an inflated stock market would both enable and encourage people to buy houses, new cars and other “big ticket” items – thus bringing demand back to the economy.  Since the American economy is 70 percent consumer-drivendemand is the engine that creates new jobs.

It took a while for most of us to understand quantitative easing’s impact on the stock market.  After the Fed began its program to buy $600 billion in mortgage-backed securities in November of 2008, some suspicious trading patterns began to emerge.  I voiced my own “conspiracy theory” back on December 18, 2008:

I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock.  This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.

Felix Salmon eventually provided this critique of the obsession with closing levels and – beyond that – the performance of a stock on one particular day:

Or, most invidiously, the idea that the most interesting and important time period when looking at the stock market is one day.  The single most reported statistic with regard to the stock market is where it closed, today, compared to where it closed yesterday.  It’s an utterly random and pointless number, but because the media treats it with such reverence, the public inevitably gets the impression that it matters.

In March of 2009, those suspicious “late day rallies” returned and by August of that year, the process was explained as the “POMO effect” in a paper by Precision Capital Management entitled, “A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation”.

By the time QE 2 actually started on November 12, 2010 – most investors were familiar with how the game would be played:  The New York Fed would conduct POMO auctions, wherein it would purchase Treasury securities – worth billions of dollars – on an almost-daily basis.  After the auctions, the Primary Dealers would take the sales proceeds to their proprietary trading desks, where the funds would be leveraged and used to purchase stocks.  Thanks to QE 2, the stock market enjoyed another nice run.

This time around, QE 3 will involve the purchase of mortgage-backed securities, as did QE 1.  Unfortunately, the New York Fed’s  new POMO schedule is not nearly as informative as it was during QE1 and QE 2, when we were provided with a list of the dates and times when the POMO auctions would take place.  Back then, the FRBNY made it relatively easy to anticipate when you might see some of those good-old, late-day rallies.  The new POMO schedule simply informs us that  ”(t)he Desk plans to purchase $23 billion in additional agency MBS through the end of September.”  We are also advised that with respect to the September 14 – October 11 time frame,  ”(t)he Desk plans to purchase approximately $37 billion in its reinvestment purchase operations over the noted monthly period.”

It is pretty obvious that the New York Fed does not want the “little people” partaking in the windfalls enjoyed by the prop traders for the Primary Dealers as was the case during QE 1 and QE 2.  This probably explains the choice of language used at the top of the website’s POMO schedule page:

In order to ensure the transparency of its agency mortgage-backed securities (MBS) transactions, the Open Market Trading Desk (the Desk) at the New York Fed will publish historical operational results, including information on the transaction prices in individual operations, at the end of each monthly period shown in the table below.

In other words, the New York Fed’s idea of transparency does not involve disclosure of the scheduling of its agency MBS transactions before they occur.  That information is none of your damned business!

Too Important To Ignore

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On March 21, the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas released a fantastic document:  its 2011 Annual Report, featuring an essay entitled, “Choosing the Road to Prosperity – Why We Must End Too Big to Fail – Now”.  The essay was written by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.

While reading Harvey Rosenblum’s essay, I was constantly reminded of the creepy “JOBS Act” which is on its way to President Obama’s desk.  Simon Johnson (former chief economist for the International Monetary Fund) recently explained why the JOBS Act poses the same threat as the deregulatory measures which helped cause the financial crisis:

With the so-called JOBS bill, on which the Senate is due to vote Tuesday, Congress is about to make the same kind of mistake again – this time abandoning much of the 1930s-era securities legislation that both served investors well and helped make the US one of the best places in the world to raise capital.  We find ourselves again on a bipartisan route to disaster.

*   *   *

The idea behind the JOBS bill is that our existing securities laws – requiring a great deal of disclosure – are significantly holding back the economy.

The bill, HR3606, received bipartisan support in the House (only 23  Democrats voted against).  The bill’s title is JumpStart Our Business Startup Act, a clever slogan – but also a complete misrepresentation.

The bill’s proponents point out that Initial Public Offerings (IPOs) of stock are way down.  That is true – but that is also exactly what you should expect when the economy teeters on the brink of an economic depression and then struggles to recover because households’ still have a great deal of debt.

*   *   *

Professor John Coates hit the nail on the head:

“While the various proposals being considered have been characterized as promoting jobs and economic growth by reducing regulatory burdens and costs, it is better to understand them as changing, in similar ways, the balance that existing securities laws and regulations have struck between the transaction costs of raising capital, on the one hand, and the combined costs of fraud risk and asymmetric and unverifiable information, on the other hand.” (See p.3 of this December 2011 testimony.)

In other words, you will be ripped off more.  Knowing this, any smart investor will want to be better compensated for investing in a particular firm – this raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  The effect on job creation is likely to be negative, not positive.

Simon Johnson’s last paragraph reminded me of a passage from Harvey Rosenblum’s Dallas Fed essay, wherein he was discussing why the economic recovery from the financial crisis has been so sluggish:

Similarly, the contributions to recovery from securities markets and asset prices and wealth have been weaker than expected.  A prime reason is that burned investors demand higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects. They remain uncertain about whether the financial system has been fixed and whether an economic recovery is sustainable.

To repeat what Simon Johnson said, combined with the above-quoted paragraph:  the demand by “burned investors” for “higher-than-normal compensation for investing in private-sector projects” raises, not lowers, the cost of capital.  How quickly we forget the lessons of the financial crisis!

The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report began with an introductory letter from its president, Richard W. Fisher.  Fisher noted that while “memory fades with the passage of time” it is important to recall the position in which the “too-big-to fail” banks placed our economy, thus leading Congress to pass into law the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act (Dodd–Frank).  Although Harvey Rosenblum’s essay was primarily focused on the Dodd-Frank Act’s efforts to address the systemic risk posed by the existence of those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks, other measures from Dodd-Frank were mentioned.  More important is the fact that the TBTFs have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why this has happened:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

The ability of the financial sector “to resist the pressures of federal regulation” also happens to be the primary reason for the perverse effort toward de-regulation, known as the JOBS Act.  At the Seeking Alpha website, Felix Salmon reflected on the venality which is driving this bill through the legislative process:

There’s no good reason at all for this:  it’s basically a way for unpopular incumbent lawmakers who voted for Dodd-Frank to try to weasel their way back into the big banks’ good graces and thereby open a campaign-finance spigot they desperately need.

I don’t fully understand the political dynamics here.  A bill which was essentially drafted by a small group of bankers and financiers has managed to get itself widespread bipartisan support, even as it rolls back decades of investor protections.  That wouldn’t have been possible a couple of years ago, and I’m unclear (about) what has changed.  But one thing is coming through loud and clear:  anybody looking to Congress to be helpful in the fight to have effective regulation of financial institutions, is going to be very disappointed.  Much more likely is that Congress will be actively unhelpful, and will do whatever the financial industry wants in terms of hobbling regulators and deregulating as much activity as it possibly can.  Dodd-Frank, it seems, was a brief aberration.  Now, we’re back to business as usual, and a captured Congress.

The next financial crisis can’t be too far down the road   .   .   .


Occupy Movement Gets Some Respect

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Much has changed since the inception of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  The participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.  Obviously, some of this prattle continues to emanate from unimaginative bloviators.  Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for respectable news sources to give serious consideration to the OWS effort.

One month after the occupation of Zuccotti Park began, The Economist explained why the movement had so much appeal to a broad spectrum of the population:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

Reports eventually began to surface, revealing that many “Wall Street insiders” actually supported the occupiers.  Writing for the DealBook blog at The New York Times, Jesse Eisinger provided us with the laments of a few Wall Street insiders, whose attitudes have been aligned with those of the OWS movement.

By late December, it became obvious that the counter-insurgency effort had expanded.   At The eXiled blog, Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement.  In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out against the OWS protesters by parroting what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis.  It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

The counterpunch to Mayor Bloomberg’s remark was swift and effective.  Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled “What caused the financial crisis?  The Big Lie goes viral”.  After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Once the new year began, the Occupy Oakland situation quickly deteriorated.  Chris Hedges of Truthdig took a hard look at the faction responsible for the “feral” behavior, raising the question of whether provocateurs could have been inciting the ugly antics:

The presence of Black Bloc anarchists – so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property – is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Chris Hedges gave further consideration to the involvement of provocateurs in the Black Bloc faction on February 13:

Occupy’s most powerful asset is that it articulates this truth.  And this truth is understood by the mainstream, the 99 percent.  If the movement is severed from the mainstream, which I expect is the primary goal of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, it will be crippled and easily contained.  Other, more militant groups may rise and even flourish, but if the Occupy movement is to retain the majority it will have to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.

Despite the negative publicity generated by the puerile pranks of the Black Bloc, the Occupy movement turned a corner on February 13, when Occupy the SEC released its 325-page comment letter concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s draft “Volcker Rule”.  (The Volcker Rule contains the provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act which restrict the ability of banks to make risky bets with their own money).  Occupy the SEC took advantage of the “open comment period” which is notoriously exploited by lobbyists and industry groups whenever an administrative agency introduces a new rule.  The K Street payola artists usually see this as their last chance to “un-write” regulations.

The most enthusiastic response to Occupy the SEC’s comment letter came from Felix Salmon of Reuters:

Occupy the SEC is the wonky finreg arm of Occupy Wall Street, and its main authors are worth naming and celebrating:  Akshat Tewary, Alexis Goldstein, Corley Miller, George Bailey, Caitlin Kline, Elizabeth Friedrich, and Eric Taylor.  If you can’t read the whole thing, at least read the introductory comments, on pages 3-6, both for their substance and for the panache of their delivery.  A taster:

During the legislative process, the Volcker Rule was woefully enfeebled by the addition of numerous loopholes and exceptions.  The banking lobby exerted inordinate influence on Congress and succeeded in diluting the statute, despite the catastrophic failures that bank policies have produced and continue to produce…

The Proposed Rule also evinces a remarkable solicitude for the interests of banking corporations over those of investors, consumers, taxpayers and other human beings. 

*   *   *

There’s lots more where that comes from, including the indelible vision of how “the Volcker Rule simply removes the government’s all-too-visible hand from underneath the pampered haunches of banking conglomerates”.  But the real substance is in the following hundreds of pages, where the authors go through the Volcker Rule line by line, explaining where it’s useless and where it can and should be improved.

John Knefel of Salon emphasized how this comment letter exploded the myth that the Occupy movement is simply a group of cynical hippies:

The working group’s detailed policy position gives lie to the common claim that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “well intentioned but misinformed.”  It shows there’s room in the movement both for policy wonks and those chanting “anti-capitalista.”

Even Mayor Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek spoke highly of Occupy the SEC’s efforts.  Karen Weise interviewed Occupy’s Alexis Goldstein, who had previously worked at such Wall Street institutions as Deutsche Bank, where she built IT systems for traders:

Like Goldstein, several members have experience in finance.  Kline says she used to be a derivatives trader.  Tewary is a lawyer who worked on securitization cases at the firm Kaye Scholer, according to his bio on the website of his current firm, Kamlesh Tewary.  Mother Jones, which reported on the group in December, says O’Neil is a former Wall Street quant.

There are parts of the rule that Occupy the SEC would like to see toughened.  For example, Goldstein sees a “big loophole” in the proposed rule that allows banks to make proprietary trades using so-called repurchase agreements, by which one party sells securities to another with the promise to buy back the securities later.  The group wants to make sure other parts aren’t eroded.

Chris Sturr of Dollars & Sense provided this reaction:

From the perspective of someone who’s spent a lot of time in working groups of Occupy Boston, what I love about this story is that it’s early evidence of what Occupy can and will do, beyond “changing the discourse,” which is the best that sympathetic people who haven’t been involved seem to be able to say about Occupy, or just going away and dying off, which is what non-sympathizers think has happened to Occupy.  Many of us have been quietly working away over the winter, and the results will start to be seen in the coming months.

If Chris Sturr’s expectation ultimately proves correct, it will be nice to watch the pro-Wall Street, teevee pundits get challenged by some worthy opponents.


 

Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.



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Avoiding The Stock Market

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May 18, 2010

In the wake of the stock market’s “flash crash” on May 6, there have been an increasing number of reports that retail investors (“Ma and Pa”) are pulling their money out of stocks.  Beyond that, some commentators have stepped forward to speak out and advise retail investors to steer clear of the stock market, due to the volatility caused by “high-frequency trading” or HFT.  One recent example of this was Felix Salmon’s video message, which appeared at The Huffington Post.

HFT involves a practice wherein firms are paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves when the firms buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying firms to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) is to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  Many firms involved in high-frequency trading (Goldman Sachs, RGM Advisors, Tradebot Systems and others) have their computer servers “co-located” in the same building as the exchange, in order to get each of their orders processed a few nanoseconds faster than orders coming from further distances (albeit at the speed of light).  The Zero Hedge website has been critical of HFT for quite a while.  They recently published this informative piece on the subject, pointing out how HFT firms caused the catastrophe on May 6:

. . .  when the selling in size commences they all just shut down.  So much for providing liquidity when it is needed.

At The Market Ticker website, Karl Denninger explained how HFT platforms often use “predatory algorithms” to drive a stock’s price up to the full extent of a customer’s limit order (a practice called “frontrunning”):

Let’s say that there is a buyer willing to buy 100,000 shares of BRCM with a limit price of $26.40.  That is, the buyer will accept any price up to $26.40.

But the market at this particular moment in time is at $26.10, or thirty cents lower.

So the computers, having detected via their “flash orders” (which ought to be illegal) that there is a desire for Broadcom shares, start to issue tiny (typically 100 share lots) “immediate or cancel” orders – IOCs – to sell at $26.20.  If that order is “eaten” the computer then issues an order at $26.25, then $26.30, then $26.35, then $26.40.  When it tries $26.45 it gets no bite and the order is immediately canceled.

Now the flush of supply comes at, big coincidence, $26.39, and the claim is made that the market has become “more efficient.”

Nonsense; there was no “real seller” at any of these prices!  This pattern of offering was intended to do one and only one thing – manipulate the market by discovering what is supposed to be a hidden piece of information – the other side’s limit price!

The extent to which frontrunning takes place was the subject of a recent conversation between Larry Tabb of Tabb Group and Erin Burnett on CNBC.  The Zero Hedge website provided this analysis of the video clip:

The funniest bit of the exchange occurs at 3:35 into the clip, when Tabb publicly discloses that front-running is not only legal but occurs all the time on open exchanges. When Erin Burnett, who unfortunately still thinks that the Deutsche Mark is used in Germany, asks who is doing the front running, Tabb says “It could be anyone.”

A recent piece by Josh Lipton at the Minyanville website focused on the activity of retail investors since the recent “flash crash”:

Specifically, during the past week through May 12, your friends and neighbors pulled $2.8 billion out of US stock funds, according to the latest data from the professional number crunchers at Lipper FMI.

To put that stat in context, we called up Robert Adler, the head of Lipper FMI Americas, for a chat this morning.  He tells us that’s the most investors have pulled out, in fact, since March 11, 2009.

At the same time, says Adler, investors plowed $16.6 billion into money-market funds.  “That’s the first inflows money market funds have seen in the last 16 weeks,” he says.

*   *   *

“There was an about-face this past week by investors,” Adler says, noting that such outflows from both equity and bond funds, and a sharp reversal in money market funds, demonstrate a clear and dramatic shift in sentiment.

The analyst is quick to emphasize, however, that one week doesn’t make a trend.  “We have to wait another week to see whether this was simply event driven or if this is the beginning of a new trend,” he says.

The current risk-aversion experienced by retail investors is compounded by the ugly truth that stocks are currently overvalued.  Shawn Tully of Fortune made this very clear in a May 17 commentary, wherein he provided us with a sage bit of prognostication:

Here’s how I see the odds.  The chances are about one in three that we suffer a huge, wrenching correction in the next year or two similar to the one in 1987.  That possibility is so high because stocks are so startlingly expensive.  Another high probability event is that markets go on a long sideways grind, with smaller drops along the way.  What’s extremely unlikely is that the market rises substantially from current levels and stays there for any extended period.

Whatever happens in the next couple of years, the odds are overwhelming that investors who buy stocks today will reap puny returns for 10 years.  For example, if you’d purchased shares at today’s PE of 22 in early 2003, you would have gotten a return of around 3% a year, barely enough to compensate for inflation, let alone buy the blood pressure medication you’d need to survive the scary ride of stock ownership.

Now let’s look out a decade or two.  The evidence is extremely strong that price matters, and matters a lot:  except in rare cases, buying stocks when they are pricey — when the Shiller PE exceeds 20 — leads to puny returns ten years later.

Not that you’d ever know that from the happy talk from Wall Street.  So screen the noise out, and follow the numbers.  They’ll eventually get better for investors.  But to get back there, we may revisit October of 1987.

Considering the unlimited number of awful news events unfolding in America and around the world right now, we could be headed for a market crash much worse that that of October, 1987.  Cheers!



Damage Control

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December 17, 2009

Matt Taibbi hit another grand slam with his recent Rolling Stone article: “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  It was another classic work in his unique style.  The ugly truth it drove home was that Barack Obama used a “bait and switch” tactic in his Presidential campaign:  promising to reform Wall Street — until the day after he got elected — at which time he immediately jumped into bed with the culprits of the financial crisis.  The reaction of the Obama apologists to the Rolling Stone piece involved the usual tactic of attacking the messenger (in this case:  Taibbi himself).  It didn’t work.  The best way to see how this played out should begin with a reading of  Taibbi’s retort to a critique appearing in The American Prospect — a feeble attempt to demonstrate that Taibbi got his facts wrong.  A neutral judge, Felix Salmon of Reuters, then stepped in and ruled in favor of Taibbi.  The online responses to Felix Salmon’s essay are a great read.  At the Open Left website, David Sirota upbraided Taibbi’s critics, who spanned the political spectrum — many of whom expressed condescension at the “naïve” decision of an outside-the-beltway reporter to expose the breach of a campaign promise:

It’s certainly true that a lot of politicians’ words mean nothing – but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke – a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like “charisma” and “charm” and “toughness” and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy.  In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises.  If we now must assume their promises aren’t true, and attack people for being “naïve” for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we’ve made a joke of our whole political system.

Matt Taibbi’s article immediately forced the White House into a damage control mode.  Another softball interview was immediately set up with Steve Croft of 60 Minutes, wherein Obama attempted to redeem his false image as an adversary of the Wall Street investment banks.  The President took advantage of that opportunity to present himself as an antagonist of those he described as “fat cats”.  On the following day, Obama held a meeting in the White House cabinet room with some banking representatives who found the event important enough to attend.  Immediately afterward, Charlie Gasparino revealed the backstory behind Obama’s meeting with the bankers.  After informing us that the administration provided the bankers with Obama’s “talking points” in advance of the meeting, Gasparino disclosed this:

.  .  . people with first-hand knowledge of the sitdown said, it was a heavily scripted affair — with none of the fireworks Obama displays in public.

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Said one CEO who attended:  “I expected to be taken to the woodshed, but the tone was quite the opposite.”

Said another senior exec with knowledge of the meeting: “The whole thing was so telegraphed that not much was accomplished, other than giving Obama a PR stunt.   . . .  He might have sounded mean on ‘60 Minutes,’ but during the meeting he was a hell of a lot nicer.”

Many commentators were quick to point out that by the time Obama started talking tough about “fat cats”, he had already given them all they wanted by allowing them to pay back their TARP loans on an expedited basis.  As Henry Blodget explained for The Business Insider:

And in case you missed what is really going on here, the banks that repaid TARP are now getting all the benefits of government help with none of the drawbacks.  They just ditched the bad stuff — namely, pay caps — and kept the good stuff (implicit bond guarantees, subsidized super-low interest rates, no obligation to do anything for anyone).  Obama can jawbone all he wants about “fat cats,” but that’s all he can do.

At The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein bemoaned the fact that the TARP beneficiaries had been “let off their leash”.  Pearlstein expressed concern that this move created the potential for more problems in the future:

By rushing to cash in their chips, however, the administration not only gave up political leverage and additional profit, but took the risk that one or more of the banks may find that it can’t make it on its own.  While the financial system has rebounded faster than anyone could have imagined, potential threats still loom — a further collapse of commercial real estate, for example, or a string of sovereign debt defaults.  And bank profits, while having rebounded, remain significantly dependent on the availability of cheap funding from the Federal Reserve and other central banks that cannot be expected to last indefinitely.

The administration’s damage control effort turned out to be worthless.  With his centerpiece healthcare reform effort floundering in the Senate, Obama the President is appearing to be significantly less effective than Obama the candidate.  The President’s critics have been quick to pounce.  George Will noted that Obama has “seen his job approval vary inversely with his ubiquity”.  The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin alleged that Obama “doesn’t look like he cares that big chunks of the country, left, right and center, are giving up on him.”  However, the best analysis of the confidence crisis afflicting the Obama Presidency came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com.  Gerstein observed that the new Preisdent’s leadership style was to blame — something Gerstein described as “the Reverse Roosevelt:  Talk boldly and carry a toothpick.”  While debunking the administration’s claim that it had lost the leverage it had over Wall Street with the TARP paybacks, Gerstein argued that such an excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test” because the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the country.  The task Obama faces is to cultivate a leadership style that will be useful in confronting the challenges he undertook when he assumed office:

For those center dwellers, the issue is not that Obama is too liberal or too pragmatic (the chief complaints of the noisemakers on the left and right), but that he is not effective enough.  They question whether he has what it takes to get results:  to find the right balance on health care, to admit and fix the inadequacies of the stimulus, to begin taming the deficit without impeding growth.  It is a crisis of confidence that at its heart is, as Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser Bill Galston points out, a crisis of competence.

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But regardless of the reasons, Obama signed up for these missions, and his ability to succeed in them will largely hinge on whether he can grow as a leader.  Can he overcome his inhibitions, whatever their cause, and learn from the legacies of our most effective presidents about how to wield the full power of his office?  He clearly knows how to don the velvet glove (often with substantial impact) — will he come to understand when to unleash the iron fist?

Obama’s pattern so far is far from encouraging.  But I would not give up hope for growth.

It appears as though we are back to the themes of “hope” and “change”.  This time we’re hoping that Obama will change.