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Tsunami Of Disgust

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You can count me among those who believe that the non-stop Republican Presidential debates are working to President Obama’s advantage.  How many times have you heard some television news commentator remark that “the big winner of last night’s Republican debate was Barack Obama”?  As Julianna Goldman reported for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, two recent polls have revealed that Obama is no longer looking quite as bad as he did a few months ago:

Forty-nine percent of Americans approve of how Obama is handling his job, according to an ABC News/Washington Post poll and another conducted for CNN.  The rate was the highest in both surveys since a short-lived bump the president got following the killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May.

Nevertheless, there is an unstoppable wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.   In my last posting, I discussed Bill Black’s rebuttal to President Obama’s most recent attempt to claim that no laws were broken by the banksters who caused the 2008 financial crisis.

The wave of disgust at Obama’s exoneration of the financial fraudsters has gained quite a bit of momentum since that outrageous remark appeared on the December 11 broadcast of 60 Minutes.  Matt Taibbi of Rolling Stone focused on the consequences of this level of dishonesty:

What makes Obama’s statements so dangerous is that they suggest an ongoing strategy of covering up the Wall Street crimewave. There is ample evidence out there that the Obama administration has eased up on prosecutions of Wall Street as part of a conscious strategy to prevent a collapse of confidence in our financial system, with the expected 50-state foreclosure settlement being the landmark effort in the cover-up, intended mainly to bury a generation of fraud.

*   *   *

In other words, Geithner and Obama are behaving like Lehman executives before the crash of Lehman, not disclosing the full extent of the internal problem in order to keep investors from fleeing and creditors from calling in their chits.  It’s worth noting that this kind of behavior – knowingly hiding the derogatory truth from the outside world in order to prevent a run on the bank – is, itself, fraud!

*   *   *

The problem with companies like Lehman and Enron is that their executives always think they can paper over illegalities by committing more crimes, when in fact all they’re usually doing is snowballing the problem so completely out of control that there’s no longer any chance of fixing things, thereby killing the only chance for survival they ever had.

This is exactly what Obama and Geithner are doing now.  By continually lying about the extent of the country’s corruption problems, they’re adding fraud to fraud and raising such a great bonfire of lies that they probably won’t ever be able to fix the underlying mess.

John R. MacArthur, president and publisher of Harper’s Magazine, caused quite a stir on December 14, when an essay he wrote – entitled, “President Obama Richly Deserves to Be Dumped” – was published by the The Providence Journal (Rhode Island).  For some reason, this article does not appear at the newspaper’s website.  However, you can read it in its entirety here.  MacArthur began the piece by highlighting criticism of Obama by his fellow Democrats:

Most prominent among these critics is veteran journalist Bill Moyers, whose October address to a Public Citizen gathering puts the lie to our barely Democratic president’s populist pantomime, acted out last week in a Kansas speech decrying the plight of “innocent, hardworking Americans.”  In his talk, Moyers quoted an authentic Kansas populist, Mary Eizabeth Lease, who in 1890 declared, “Wall Street owns the country.. . .Money rules.. . .The [political] parties lie to us and the political speakers mislead us.”

A former aide to Lyndon Johnson who knows politics from the inside, Moyers then delivered the coup de grace:  “[Lease] should see us now.  John Boehner calls on the bankers, holds out his cup, and offers them total obeisance from the House majority if only they fill it.  Barack Obama criticizes bankers as fat cats, then invites them to dine at a pricey New York restaurant where the tasting menu runs to $195 a person.”

*   *   *

What’s truly breathtaking is the president’s gall, his stunning contempt for political history and contemporary reality.  Besides neglecting to mention Democratic complicity in the debacle of 2008, he failed to point out that derivatives trading remains largely unregulated while the Securities and Exchange Commission awaits “public comment on a detailed implementation plan” for future regulation.  In other words, until the banking and brokerage lobbies have had their say with John Boehner, Max Baucus, and Secretary of the Treasury Tim Geithner.  Meanwhile, the administration steadfastly opposes a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act, the New Deal law that reduced outlandish speculation by separating commercial and investment banks.  In 1999, it was Summers and Geithner, led by Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin (much admired by Obama), who persuaded Congress to repeal this crucial impediment to Wall Street recklessness.

I have frequently discussed the criticism directed at Obama from the political Center as well as the Left (see this and this).  I have also expressed my desire to see Democratic challengers to Obama for the 2012 nomination (see this and this).  In the December 20 edition of The Chicago Tribune, William Pfaff commented on John R. MacArthur’s above-quoted article, while focusing on the realistic consequences of a Democratic Primary challenge to Obama’s nomination:

John MacArthur’s and Bill Moyers’ call for the replacement of Barack Obama as the Democratic presidential candidate next year is very likely to fail, and any Democratic replacement candidate is likely to lose the presidency.  As a veteran Democratic Party activist recently commented, this is the sure way to elect “one of those idiots” running for the Republican nomination.  Very likely he is right.

However, the two may have started something with interesting consequences.  Nobody thought Sen. McCarthy’s challenge was anything more than a futile gesture.  Nobody foresaw the assassinations and military defeat to come, or the ruin of Richard Nixon.  Nobody knows today what disasters may lie ahead in American-supervised Iraq, or in the dual war the Pentagon is waging in Afghanistan and Pakistan.  The present foreign policy of the Obama government is fraught with risk.

As for the president himself, the objection to him is that his Democratic Party has become a representative of the same interests as the Republican Party.  The nation cannot bear two parties representing plutocratic power.

The current battle over the payroll tax cut extension reminded me of a piece I wrote last August, in which I included Nate Silver’s observation that it was President Obama’s decision to leave the issue of a payroll tax cut extension “on the table” during the negotiations on the debt ceiling bill.  My thoughts at that time were similar to William Pfaff’s above-quoted lament about the nation’s “two political parties representing plutocratic power”:

As many observers have noted, the plutocracy has been able to accomplish much more with Obama in the White House, than what would have been achievable with a Republican President.  This latest example of a bipartisan effort to trample “the little people” has reinforced my belief that the fake “two-party system” is a sideshow – designed to obfuscate the insidious activities of the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party.

It’s nice to see that the tsunami of disgust continues to flow across the country.


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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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Fighting The Old War

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September 30, 2010

The New York Times recently ran a story about Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s efforts to support the campaigns of centrist Republicans out of concern that the election of “Tea Party” –  backed candidates was pushing the Republican Party to the extreme right.  The article by Michael Barbaro began this way:

In an election year when anger and mistrust have upended races across the country, toppling moderates and elevating white-hot partisans, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg is trying to pull politics back to the middle, injecting himself into marquee contests and helping candidates fend off the Tea Party.

Although it’s nice to see Mayor Bloomberg take a stand in support of centrism, I believe he is going about it the wrong way.  There are almost as many different motives driving people to the Tea Party movement as there are attendees at any given Tea Party event.  Although the movement is usually described as a far-right-wing fringe phenomenon, reporters who have attended the rallies and talked to the people found a more diverse group.  Consider the observations made by True Slant’s David Masciotra, who attended a Tea Party rally in Valparaiso, Indiana back on April 14:

The populist anger of the Northwest Indiana tea partiers could be moved to a left-wing protest rally without much discernible difference.

As much as the NWI Patriots seemed to hate Obama and health care reform, they also hate large corporations and the favorable treatment they are given by Washington.

*   *   *

They have largely legitimate concerns and grievances about the quality of their lives and future of their children’s lives that are not being addressed in Washington by either party.  Their wages have stagnated, while the cost of raising a family has crushingly increased.

My pet theory is that the rise of the Tea Party movement is just the first signal indicating the demise of the so-called “two-party system”.  I expect this to happen as voters begin to face up to the fact that the differences between Democratic and Republican policies are subtle when compared to the parties’ united front with lobbyists and corporations in trampling the interests of individual citizens.  On July 26, I wrote a piece entitled, “The War On YOU”, discussing the battle waged by “our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party”.   On August 30, I made note of a recent essay at the Zero Hedge website, written by Michael Krieger of KAM LP.  One of Krieger’s points, which resonated with me, was the idea that whether you have a Democratic administration or a Republican administration, both parties are beholden to the financial elites, so there’s not much room for any “change you can believe in”:

.   .  .   the election of Obama has proven to everyone watching with an unbiased eye that no matter who the President is they continue to prop up an elite at the top that has been running things into the ground for years.  The appointment of Larry Summers and Tiny Turbo-Tax Timmy Geithner provided the most obvious sign that something was seriously not kosher.  Then there was the reappointment of Ben Bernanke.  While the Republicans like to simplify him as merely a socialist he represents something far worse.

Barry Ritholtz, publisher of The Big Picture website, recently wrote a piece focused on how the old Left vs. Right paradigm has become obsolete.  He explained that the current power struggle taking place in Washington (and everywhere else) is the battle of corporations against individuals:

We now live in an era defined by increasing Corporate influence and authority over the individual.  These two “interest groups” – I can barely suppress snorting derisively over that phrase – have been on a headlong collision course for decades, which came to a head with the financial collapse and bailouts.  Where there are massive concentrations of wealth and influence, there will be abuse of power.  The Individual has been supplanted in the political process nearly entirely by corporate money, legislative influence, campaign contributions, even free speech rights.

*   *   *

For those of you who are stuck in the old Left/Right debate, you are missing the bigger picture.  Consider this about the Bailouts:  It was a right-winger who bailed out all of the big banks, Fannie Mae, and AIG in the first place; then his left winger successor continued to pour more money into the fire pit.

What difference did the Left/Right dynamic make?   Almost none whatsoever.

*   *   *

There is some pushback already taking place against the concentration of corporate power:  Mainstream corporate media has been increasingly replaced with user created content – YouTube and Blogs are increasingly important to news consumers (especially younger users).  Independent voters are an increasingly larger share of the US electorate. And I suspect that much of the pushback against the Elizabeth Warren’s concept of a Financial Consumer Protection Agency plays directly into this Corporate vs. Individual fight.

But the battle lines between the two groups have barely been drawn.  I expect this fight will define American politics over the next decade.

Keynes vs Hayek?  Friedman vs Krugman?  Those are the wrong intellectual debates.  It’s you vs. Tony Hayward, BP CEO,  You vs. Lloyd Blankfein, Goldman Sachs CEO.   And you are losing    . . .

Barry Ritholtz concluded with the statement:

If you see the world in terms of Left & Right, you really aren’t seeing the world at all  . . .

I couldn’t agree more.  Beyond that, I believe that politicians who continue to champion the old Left vs. Right war will find themselves in the dust as those leaders representing the interests of human citizens  rather than corporate interests win the support and enthusiasm of the electorate.   Similarly, those news and commentary outlets failing to adapt to this changing milieu will no longer have a significant following.  It will be interesting to see who adjusts. 




Head For The Hills

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March 12, 2010

When a stranger in a tinfoil hat tells me that the sky is falling, I don’t pay attention to him.  On the other hand, when credible sources warn of an upcoming economic collapse as a result of our government’s financial ignorance — I listen.

Simon Johnson is a professor of Entrepreneurship at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  From 2007-2008, he was chief economist at the International Monetary Fund.  He recently co-authored an article for CenterPiece with Peter Boone entitled, “The Doomsday Cycle”.  Their essay began with this observation:

Each time the system runs into problems, the Federal Reserve quickly lowers interest rates to revive it.  These crises appear to be getting worse and worse — and their impact is increasingly global.  Not only are interest rates near zero around the world, but many countries are on fiscal trajectories that require major changes to avoid eventual financial collapse.

What will happen when the next shock hits?  We believe we may be nearing the stage where the answer will be — just as it was in the Great Depression — a calamitous global collapse.  The root problem is that we have let a “doomsday cycle” infiltrate our economic system  . . .

The essay contains a number of proposals for correcting this problem.  One of them involves tripling the requirement for core capital at major banks to 15-20% of assets.  They concluded with this warning:

Last year, we came remarkably close to collapse.  Next time, it may be worse.  The threat of the doomsday cycle remains strong and growing.

Of course, the fact that scares me is that our government doesn’t give a damn.  We aren’t likely to see any changes in capital requirements or anything else that was suggested in that article.

Niall Ferguson is a professor of economic history at Harvard.  He recently wrote an article entitled, “Complexity and Collapse — Empires on the Edge of Chaos”.  It was published in the March/April 2010 issue of Foreign Affairs magazine.  The piece began with this summary:

Imperial collapse may come much more suddenly than many historians imagine.  A combination of fiscal deficits and military overstretch suggests that the United States may be the next empire on the precipice.

Niall Ferguson’s essay inspired Paul Farrell of MarketWatch to write a commentary on Ferguson’s piece, summarizing the highlights, while driving home this message:

Dismiss his warning at your peril.  Everything you learned, everything you believe and everything driving our political leaders is based on a misleading, outdated theory of history.  The American Empire is at the edge of a dangerous precipice, at risk of a sudden, rapid collapse.

*   *   *

His message negates all the happy talk you’re hearing in today’s news — about economic recovery and new bull markets, about “hope,” about a return to “American greatness” — from Washington politicians and Wall Street bankers.

*   *   *

“The Consummation of Empire” focuses us on Ferguson’s core message:  At the very peak of their power, affluence and glory, leaders arise, run amok with imperial visions and sabotage themselves, their people and their nation.  They have it all.

Fortunately, Mr. Farrell included some advice for those of us who are wondering about how to survive an economic collapse:  Head for the hills.  Here’s what he had to say:

At this point, investors are asking themselves:  How can I prepare for the destruction and collapse of the American Empire?  There is no solution in the Cole-Ferguson scenario, only an acceptance of fate, of destiny, of history’s inevitable cycles.

But there is one in “Wealth, War and Wisdom” by hedge fund manager Barton Biggs, Morgan Stanley’s former chief global strategist who warns us of the “possibility of a breakdown of the civilized infrastructure,” advising us to buy a farm in the mountains.

“Your safe haven must be self-sufficient and capable of growing some kind of food … well-stocked with seed, fertilizer, canned food, wine, medicine, clothes, etc.  Think Swiss Family Robinson.”  And when they come looting, fire “a few rounds over the approaching brigands’ heads.”

A reading of Paul Farrell’s article about Barton Biggs from July of 2009, reveals a more comfortable assessment of a crisis which may be 40 or 50 years in the future.  Professor Ferguson’s essay has apparently given Mr. Farrell a greater sense of urgency about the disaster ahead.  Here’s the assessment Mr. Farrell gave last summer:

But how to invest for the “End of Civilization” coming around 2050?  The next 40 years will be confusing: Accelerating struggles between aging populations and disenchanted youth, soaring commodity prices, global warming, peak oil, food shortages, famine, blackouts, rationing, civil disorder, increasing crime, worldwide jihads, riots, anarchy and other dark scenarios of a tomorrow with “warfare defining human life.”

Compare and contrast that view with the concluding remark from Mr. Farrell’s recent piece:

You are forewarned:  If the peak of America’s glory was the leadership handoff from Clinton to Bush, then we have already triggered the countdown to collapse, the decade from 2010 until 2020 … tick … tick … tick …

You have just read the views of some intelligent men who are warning us that a huge disaster may lie just around the corner.  Yikes!



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