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Don’t Fear the Taper

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You can’t avoid reading about it.  The stock market is sinking  . . .  Treasury bond yields are spiking   .  .  .  The TAPER is coming!

The panic began in the wake of Jon Hilsenrath’s May 10 Wall Street Journal  report (after the markets closed on that Friday afternoon) concerning a new strategy by the Federal Reserve to “wind down” its quantitative easing program.  The disclosure was carefully timed to give investors an opportunity to process the information and get used to the idea before the next opening bell of the stock market.

By the time the stock market reopened on Monday, May 13 – the first trading day after Jon Hilsenrath’s article – there was a surprising report on April Retail Sales from the Commerce Department’s Census Bureau.  The report disclosed that retail sales had unexpectedly increased by 0.1 percent in April, despite economists’ expectations of a 0.3 percent decline.  As a result, the Taper report had no significant impact on stock prices – at least on that day.

The Wall Street Journal report carried plenty of weight because of Jon Hilsenrath’s role as de facto “press secretary” for Ben Bernanke, as I discussed in my last posting.  Since the WSJ article’s publication, there has been a steady stream of commentary about the threats posed by the Taper.  Nevertheless, the word “taper” was never used in Hilsenrath’s article.  In fact, the article included an explanation by Philly FedHead (and FOMC member) Charles Plosser, that the Fed has “a dial that can move either way”.  The dial could be set to a particular level with either an increase or a decrease.

Regardless of whatever the Fed may have planned, the flow of commentary has focused on the notion that the Fed is about to taper back on its bond buying.  The current incarnation of quantitative easing (QE 4) involves the Fed’s purchase of $45 billion in bonds and $40 billion in mortgage-backed securities every month.  We are supposed to believe that the Fed will gradually ease back on the bond purchases – whether it might begin with a reduction to $40 billion or $35 billion in monthly purchases  . . .  the Fed will gradually taper the amount down to zero.

Despite what you may have read or heard about the taper, it’s not going to work that way.  Beyond that, taper is not really an appropriate way to describe the Fed’s plan.  In other words:

Don’t fear the taper.

Josh Brown interviewed Jon Hilsenrath for CNBC on May 22.  Here is what Josh Brown had to say about the interview:

There was one thing Jon Hilsenrath did say in my interview with him on TV last night that I think is very important and clears up a big misconception. He explained that Bernanke himself will not be using the term “taper” that everyone else is bandying about. The reason why is that the Fed does not want to create the impression that one policy move will necessarily be attached to three or four others. In other words, suppose the Fed were to drop its rate of monthly asset purchases from $85 billion to some less number in one of the next meetings. This could be a one-off action with nothing else behind it, designed to temper the market’s expectations and gauge the effects.

I’d remind you that what Bernanke, as a self-styled “student of the Depression” fears the most, is a premature tightening a la FDR in 1937-1938, just as the nation was finally on the mend. If you think that this central bank, which has just spent the last six years patiently reflating the economy, is about to yank the rug out from under it at the last moment, then you haven’t been paying attention.

The wave of panic which followed Jon Hilsenrath’s May 10 article about the Fed’s plans for its quantitative easing program has yet to be calmed by Hilsenrath’s clarification about how the Fed’s new strategy is likely to proceed.  As Napoleon once said:

“Men are Moved by two levers only: fear and self interest.”


 

Bernanke Taper Caper

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On May 11, Bruce Krasting expressed outrage about Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s use of The Wall Street Journal’s Jon Hilsenrath as his “point man” for leaking out the latest news from the Fed.  Hilsenrath’s Friday afternoon report (after the markets closed) that the Federal Reserve is working on a strategy to taper back its quantitative easing program was carefully orchestrated to avoid roiling the stock market.

We recently saw a demonstration of how important the quantitative easing program has been to investors.  On Thursday, May 9, both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 fell from intraday record highs during the last 90 minutes of the session.  Philadelphia Federal Reserve president Charles Plosser announced that he would join forces with Kansas City FedHead Esther George to advocate attenuation of the quantitative easing program at the June 18 FOMC meeting.  The news definitely spooked the stock market.

Friday’s report from Hilsenrath/Bernanke gave investors a chance to process what was being disclosed and to get comfortable with the idea that quantitative easing will not go on forever.  The leak was obviously timed to provide a decent interval before the stock market opened again.  There is no definite plan in place to end the quantitative easing program by any particular date, nor is there a planned date for the inception of the wind-down being discussed.  Here is a bit of how Hilsenrath explained what is taking place:

Officials are focusing on clarifying the strategy so markets don’t overreact about their next moves.  For example, officials want to avoid creating expectations that their retreat will be a steady, uniform process like their approach from 2003 to 2006, when they raised short-term interest rates in a series of quarter-percentage-point increments over 17 straight policy meetings.

Hilsenrath’s quote of Dallas FedHead Richard Fisher’s explanation of the plan was beautiful:  “I don’t want to go from wild turkey to cold turkey“.

Bruce Krasting was the first to begin spreading panic and misinformation about Hilsenrath’s report.  Here’s an example:

The Fed’s new plan is to taper off QE over the balance of the year.

Of course, the foregoing statement is completely untrue.  Hilsenrath never said that.  Does Bruce Krasting have his own source on the Federal Reserve Board, who is leaking secret information to him? 

Perhaps we might see some of Bernanke’s foes initiate a Congressional inquiry into the “Tapergate scandal”.  What did Jon Hilsenrath know and when did he know it?

For a long time, Hilsenrath’s role as Ben Bernanke’s de facto press secretary has been a subject of cynical commentary.  Many have joked that Hilsenrath will replace Bernanke when he retires.  At Bernanke’s press conferences which follow the FOMC meetings, I keep expecting to hear the moderator announce that the next question will come from Jon Hilsenrath of The Wall Street Journal  .   .   .   Hilsenrath would then take the microphone and say:

You know, Ben – that last question just reminded me of another matter which would be really important to these people   .  .  .

Meanwhile, back in the real world, stock market investors are being confronted with the challenge of taking baby steps toward the idea of life without quantitative easing.  At the same time – as Jon Hilsenrath explained – the Fed is attempting to reach a decision on when to begin such a tapering effort.


 

Trouble Ahead

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Forget about what you’ve been told by the “rose-colored glasses” crowd.  We are headed for more economic trouble.  On September 17, economist Lakshman Achuthan gave his prognosis for the economy to Guy Raz, of NPR’s All Things Considered:

Achuthan, co-founder and chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, says all of his economic indicators point to more sputtering ahead.

“The risk of a new recession is quite high,” he says.

In Toronto, Michael Babad of The Globe And Mail saw fit to focus on the latest forecast from “Dr. Doom”:

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who forecast the financial crisis, went further today, warning that “we are entering a recession.”   The question isn’t whether there will be a double-dip, he said on Twitter, but rather how deep it will be.

And the answer, added the chairman and co-founder of Roubini Global Economics, depends on the response of policy makers and developments in the euro zone’s ongoing crisis.

As Gretchen Morgenson reported for The New York Times, the European sovereign debt crisis is already beginning to “wash up on American shores”.  The steep exposure of European banks to the sovereign debt of eurozone countries has become a problem for the United States:

Some of these banks are growing desperate for dollars.  Fearing the worst, investors are pulling back, refusing to roll over the banks’ commercial paper, those short-term i.o.u.’s that are the lifeblood of commerce.  Others are refusing to renew certificates of deposit. European banks need this money, in dollars, to extend loans to American companies and to pay their own debts.

Worries over the banks’ exposure to shaky European government debt have unsettled markets over there – shares of big French banks have taken a beating – but it is unclear how much this mess will hurt the economy back here.  American stock markets, at least, seem a bit blasé about it all:  the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 5.3 percent last week.

Last Thursday, I expressed my suspicion that the recent stock market exuberance was based on widespread expectation of another round of quantitative easing.  This next round is being referred to as “QE3”.   QE3 is good news for Wall Street because of those POMO auctions, wherein the New York Fed purchases Treasury securities – worth billions of dollars – on a daily basis.  After the auctions, the Primary Dealers take the sales proceeds to their proprietary trading desks, where the funds are leveraged and used to purchase high-beta, Russell 2000 stocks.  You saw the results during QE2:  A booming stock market – despite a stalled economy.

I believe that the European debt situation will become the controlling factor, which will turn the tide in favor of QE3 at the September 20-21 Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

Most pundits have expressed doubts that the Fed would undertake another round of quantitative easing.  Bill McBride of Calculated Risk put it this way:

QE3 is unlikely at the September meeting, but not impossible – however most observers think the FOMC will announce a program to change the composition of their balance sheet (extend maturities).  It is also possible that the FOMC will announce a reduction in the interest rate paid on excess reserves (currently 0.25%).

Tim Duy expressed a more skeptical outlook at his Fed Watch website:

Even more unlikely is another round of quantitative easing.  I don’t think there is much appetite at the Fed for additional asset purchases given the inflation numbers and the stability of longer-term inflation expectations relative to the events that prompted last fall’s QE2.

On the other hand, hedge fund manager Bill Fleckenstein presents a more persuasive case that the Fed can be expected to react to the “massive red ink in world equity markets” (due to floundering European bank stocks) by resorting to its favorite panacea – money printing:

So, to sum up my expectations, I believe that not only will we get a bold new round of QE from the Fed this week, but other central banks will join the party.  (The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are already printing money in an attempt to weaken their currencies.)  If that happens, I believe that assets (stocks, bonds and commodities) will rally rather dramatically, at least for a while, with the length and size of the rally depending on the individual idea/asset.

If no QE is announced, and we basically see nothing done, it will probably be safe to short stocks for investors who can handle that strategy.  Markets would be pummeled until the central planners (i.e., these bankers) are forced to react to the carnage. Such is the nature of the paper-money-central-bank-moral-hazard standard that is currently in place.

The Fed will announce its decision at 2:15 on Wednesday, September 21.  Even if the FOMC proceeds with QE3, its beneficial effects will (again) be limited to the stock market.  The real American economy will continue to stagnate through its “lost decade”, which began in 2007.


 

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Voices Of Reason For An Audience Of Psychotics

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A “double-dip” recession?  Maybe not.  In his August 30 article for the Financial Times, economist Martin Wolf said the 2008 recession never ended:

Many ask whether high-income countries are at risk of a “double dip” recession.  My answer is:  no, because the first one did not end.  The question is, rather, how much deeper and longer this recession or “contraction” might become.  The point is that, by the second quarter of 2011, none of the six largest high-income economies had surpassed output levels reached before the crisis hit, in 2008 (see chart).  The US and Germany are close to their starting points, with France a little way behind.  The UK, Italy and Japan are languishing far behind.

If that sounds scary – it should.  The fact that nothing was done by our government to address the problems which caused the financial crisis is just part of the problem.  The failure to make an adequate attempt to restore the economy (i.e.  facilitate growth in GDP as well as a reduction in unemployment) poses a more immediate risk.  Here’s more from Martin Wolf:

Now consider, against this background of continuing fragility, how people view the political scene.  In neither the US nor the eurozone, does the politician supposedly in charge – Barack Obama, the US president, and Angela Merkel, Germany’s chancellor – appear to be much more than a bystander of unfolding events, as my colleague, Philip Stephens, recently noted.  Both are – and, to a degree, operate as – outsiders.  Mr Obama wishes to be president of a country that does not exist.  In his fantasy US, politicians bury differences in bipartisan harmony.  In fact, he faces an opposition that would prefer their country to fail than their president to succeed.  Ms Merkel, similarly, seeks a non-existent middle way between the German desire for its partners to abide by its disciplines and their inability to do any such thing.  The realisation that neither the US nor the eurozone can create conditions for a speedy restoration of growth – indeed the paralysing disagreements over what those conditions might be – is scary.

Centrism continues to get a bad name because two of the world’s most powerful leaders have used that term to “re-brand” passivity.

Martin Wolf is not the only pundit expressing apprehension about the future of the global economy.  Margaret Brennan of Bloomberg Television interviewed economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a “Dr. Doom”) on August 31.  Roubini noted that there is no reason to believe that Republicans will consent to any measures toward restoring the economy during this election year because “if things get worse – it’s only to their political benefit”.  He estimated a “60% probability of recession next year”.  Beyond that, Roubini focused on the forbidden topic of stimulus.  He pointed out that the limited 2009 stimulus program prevented a recession from becoming another Great Depression “but it was not significant enough”.  Nevertheless, a real economic stimulus is still necessary – but don’t count on it:

With millions of unemployed construction workers, we need a trillion-dollar, five-year program just for infrastructure – but that’s not politically feasible, and that’s why there will be a fiscal drag and we will have a recession.

Nick Baker of Bloomberg BusinessWeek observed that Dr. Roubini’s remarks negatively impacted the stock market on Wednesday, “offsetting reports showing faster-than-estimated growth in American business activity and factory orders.”

If you aren’t worried yet, the most recent Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds might get you there.  Pay close attention to Hussman’s distinction between opinion and evidence:

It is now urgent for investors to recognize that the set of economic evidence we observe reflects a unique signature of recessions comprising deterioration in financial and economic measures that is always and only observed during or immediately prior to U.S. recessions.  These include a widening of credit spreads on corporate debt versus 6 months prior, the S&P 500 below its level of 6 months prior, the Treasury yield curve flatter than 2.5% (10-year minus 3-month), year-over-year GDP growth below 2%, ISM Purchasing Managers Index below 54, year-over-year growth in total nonfarm payrolls below 1%, as well as important corroborating indicators such as plunging consumer confidence.  There are certainly a great number of opinions about the prospect of recession, but the evidence we observe at present has 100% sensitivity (these conditions have always been observed during or just prior to each U.S. recession) and 100% specificity (the only time we observe the full set of these conditions is during or just prior to U.S. recessions). This doesn’t mean that the U.S. economy cannot possibly avoid a recession, but to expect that outcome relies on the hope that “this time is different.”

While the reduced set of options for monetary policy action may seem unfortunate, it is important to observe that each time the Fed has attempted to “backstop” the financial markets by distorting the set of investment opportunities that are available, the Fed has bought a temporary reprieve only at the cost of amplifying the later fallout.

Be sure to read Hussman’s entire essay.  It provides an excellent account of the Fed’s role in helping to cause the financial crisis, as well as its reinforcement of a “low level equilibrium” in the economy.  In response to those hoping for another round of quantitative easing, Hussman provided some common sense:

The upshot is that it remains unclear whether the Fed will revert to reckless policy in September, or whether the growing disagreement within the FOMC will result in a more enlightened approach – abandoning the “activist Fed” role, and passing the baton to public policies that encourage objectives such as productive investment, R&D, broad-benefit infrastructure, and mortgage restructuring – rather than continuing reckless monetary interventions that defend and encourage the continued misallocation of resources and the repeated emergence of speculative bubbles.

President Obama should look to John Hussman if he wants to learn the difference between centrism and passivity.


 

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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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It seems as though everyone is bashing the Federal Reserve these days.  In my last posting, I criticized the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).  Since that time, I’ve seen an onslaught of outrage directed against the Fed from across the political spectrum.  Bethany McLean of Slate made a similar observation on November 9.  As the subtitle to her piece suggested, people who criticized the Fed were usually considered “oddballs”.  Ms. McLean observed that the recent Quarterly Letter by Jeremy Grantham (which I discussed here) is just another example of anti-Fed sentiment from a highly-respected authority.  Ms. McLean stratified the degrees of anti-Fed-ism this way:

If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters.  The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time.  The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

From the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican-oriented Investor’s Business Daily provided an editorial on November 9 entitled, “Fighting The Fed”.  More famously, in prepared remarks to be delivered during a trade association meeting in Phoenix, Sarah Palin ordered Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to “cease and desist” his plan to proceed with QE2.  As a result of the criticism of her statement by Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, it may be a while before we hear Ms. Palin chirping about this subject again.

The disparagement directed against the Fed from the political right has been receiving widespread publicity.  I was particularly impressed by the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009.  Here is the most-frequently quoted portion of Bunning’s diatribe:

.   .   .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

Michael Grunwald, author of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2009” cover story on Ben Bernanke, saw fit to write a sycophantic “puff piece” in support of Bernanke’s re-confirmation as Fed chairman.  In that essay, Grunwald attempted to marginalize Bernanke’s critics with this statement:

The mostly right-leaning (deficit) hawks rail about Helicopter Ben, Zimbabwe Ben and the Villain of the Year,   . . .

The “Helicopter Ben” piece was written by Larry Kudlow.  The “Zimbabwe Ben” and “Villain of the Year” essays were both written by Adrienne Gonzalez of the Jr. Deputy Accountant website, who saw her fanbase grow exponentially as a result of Grunwald’s remark.  The most amusing aspect of Grunwald’s essay in support of Bernanke’s confirmation was the argument that the chairman could be trusted to restrain his moneyprinting when confronted with demands for more monetary stimulus:

Still, doves want to know why he isn’t providing even more gas. Part of the answer is that he doesn’t seem to think that pouring more cash into the banking system would generate many jobs, because liquidity is not the current problem.  Banks already have reserves; they just aren’t using them to make loans and spur economic activity.  Bernanke thinks injecting even more money would be like pushing on a string.
*   *   *

To Bernanke, the benefits of additional monetary stimulus would be modest at best, while the costs could be disastrous. Reasonable economists can and do disagree.

Compare and contrast that Bernanke with the Bernanke who explained his rationale for more monetary stimulus in the November 4, 2010 edition of The Washington Post:

The FOMC decided this week that, with unemployment high and inflation very low, further support to the economy is needed.

*   *   *

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability. Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.

Bernanke should have said:  “Pushing on a string should help us fulfill that obligation.”

Meanwhile, the Fed is getting thoroughly bashed from the political left, as well.  The AlterNet website ran the text of this roundtable discussion from the team at Democracy Now (Michael Hudson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez – with a cameo appearance by Joseph Stiglitz) focused on the question of whether QE2 will launch an “economic war on the rest of the world”.  I enjoyed this opening remark by Michael Hudson:

The head of the Fed is known as “Helicopter Ben” because he talks about dropping money into the economy.  But if you see helicopters, they’re probably not your friends.  Don’t go out and wait for them to drop the money, because the money is all going electronically into the banks.

At the progressive-leaning TruthDig website, author Nomi Prins discussed the latest achievement by that unholy alliance of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve:

The Republicans may have stormed the House, but it was Wall Street and the Fed that won the election.

*   *   *

That $600 billion figure was about twice what the proverbial “analysts” on Wall Street had predicted.  This means that, adding to the current stash, the Fed will have shifted onto its books about $1 trillion of the debt that the Treasury Department has manufactured.  That’s in addition to $1.25 trillion more in various assets backed by mortgages that the Fed is keeping in its till (not including AIG and other backing) from the 2008 crisis days.  This ongoing bailout of the financial system received not a mention in pre- or postelection talk.

*   *   *

No winning Republican mentioned repealing the financial reform bill, since it doesn’t really actually reform finance, bring back Glass-Steagall, make the big banks smaller or keep them from creating complex assets for big fees.  Score one for Wall Street.  No winning Democrat thought out loud that maybe since the Republican tea partyers were so anti-bailouts they should suggest a strategy that dials back ongoing support for the banking sector as it continues to foreclose on homes, deny consumer and small business lending restructuring despite their federal windfall, and rake in trading profits.  The Democrats couldn’t suggest that, because they were complicit.  Score two for Wall Street.

In other words, nothing will change.  And that, more than the disillusionment of his supporters who had thought he would actually stand by his campaign rhetoric, is why Obama will lose the White House in 2012.

The only thing I found objectionable in Ms. Prins’ essay was her reference to “the pro-bank center”.  Since when is the political center “pro-bank”?  Don’t blame us!

As taxpayer hostility against the Fed continues to build, expect to see this book climb up the bestseller lists:  The Creature from Jekyll Island.   It’s considered the “Fedbashers’ bible”.


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Well-Deserved Scrutiny For The Fed

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In the wake of the 2010 elections, it’s difficult to find a pundit who doesn’t mention the Tea Party at least once while discussing the results.  This got me thinking about whether the man referred to as “The Godfather” of the Tea Party movement, Congressman Ron Paul (father of Tea Party candidate, Senator-elect Rand Paul) will become more influential in the next Congress.  More important is the question of whether Ron Paul’s book, End The Fed will be taken more seriously – particularly in the aftermath of the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).

The announcement by the Federal Open Market Committee to proceed with QE2 drew immediate criticism.  The best rebuke against QE 2 came from economist John Hussman, whose Weekly Market Comment – entitled, “Bubble, Crash, Bubble, Crash, Bubble …” was based on this theme:

We will continue this cycle until we catch on.  The problem isn’t only that the Fed is treating the symptoms instead of the disease.  Rather, by irresponsibly promoting reckless speculation, misallocation of capital, moral hazard (careless lending without repercussions), and illusory “wealth effects,” the Fed has become the disease.

One issue raised by Mr. Hussman – which should resonate well with supporters of the Tea Party – concerns the fact that the Fed is undertaking an unconstitutional exercise of fiscal policy (rather than monetary policy) most notably by its purchase of mortgage-backed securities:

In this example, the central bank is not engaging in monetary policy, but fiscal policy.  Creating government liabilities to acquire goods and assets, unless those assets are other government liabilities, is fiscal policy, pure and simple.

Hussman’s analysis of how the “the economic impact of QE2 is likely to be weak or even counterproductive” was best expressed in this passage:

We are betting on the wrong horse.  When the Fed acts outside of the role of liquidity provision, it does more harm than good. Worse, we have somehow accepted a situation where the Fed’s actions are increasingly independent of our democratically elected government.  Bernanke’s unsound leadership has placed the nation’s economic stability on two pillars:  inflated asset prices, and actions that – in Bernanke’s own words – should be “correctly viewed as an end run around the authority of the legislature” (see below).

The right horse is ourselves, and the ability of our elected representatives to create an economic environment that encourages productive investment, research, development, infrastructure, and education, while avoiding policies that promote speculation, discourage work, or defend reckless lenders from experiencing losses on bad investments.

On November 6, another brilliant critique of the Fed came from Ashvin Pandurangi (a/k/a “Ash”) of the Simple Planet website.  His essay began with a reminder of what the Fed really is:

The most powerful, influential economic policy-making institution in the country, the Federal Reserve (“Fed”), is an unelected body that is completely unaccountable to the people.

*   *   *

The Fed, by its own admission, is an independent entity within the government “having both public purposes, and private aspects”.  By “private aspects”, they mean the entire operation is wholly-owned by private member banks, who are paid dividends of 6% each year on their stock.  Furthermore, the Fed’s decisions “do not have to be ratified by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branch of government” and the Fed “does not receive funding appropriated by Congress”.  In 1982, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed this view when it held that “federal reserve banks are not federal instrumentalities … but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations”.

As we all know:  “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  At the end of his essay, Ash connected the dots for those either unable to do so or unwilling to face an ugly reality:

In the last two years, the almighty Fed has printed trillions of dollars in our name to buy worthless mortgage assets from “too big to fail” banks.  It has lent these banks our hard-earned money at about 0% interest, so they could lend our own money back to us at 3%+.  These banks also used our free money to ramp equity and commodity markets, which mostly benefited the top 1% of our population who owns 43% of financial wealth [2], and conveniently, also owns the Fed.  The latter has kept interest rates at next to nothing to punish savers and encourage speculation, making everything less affordable for average Americans who have seen their wages stay the same, decrease or disappear.  What’s left standing is the perniciously powerful, highly secretive and entirely unaccountable Fed, who now epitomizes the state of American democracy.

At least we still have freedom of speech!  As part of the Fed’s roll-out of QE2, Chairman Ben Bernanke found it necessary to write a public relations piece for The Washington Post – perhaps as an apology.  Stock market commentator Bill Fleckenstein had no trouble ripping Bernanke’s article to shreds:

Bernanke goes on to say:  “Although low inflation is generally good, inflation that is too low can pose risks to the economy — especially when the economy is struggling.  In the most extreme case, very low inflation can morph into deflation.”

Oh, yeah?  Says who?  I have not seen any instance where a “too low” inflation rate led to deflation.  When deflation is caused by new inventions or increased productivity (or in the old days, bumper crops), which we might term “good” deflation, it was not a consequence of too little inflation; it was due to progress.  Similarly, the “bad” deflation isn’t created via inflation that is too low; it tends to come from burst bubbles.  In other words, misguided policies, not low inflation, are the cause of deflation.

Because the timing of the Fed’s controversial move to proceed with QE2 dovetails so well with the “energizing” of the Tea Party movement, it will be interesting to observe whether life will become more uncomfortable for Chairman Bernanke.  A recent article by Joshua Zumbrun of Bloomberg News gave us this hint:

Six out of 10 self-identified Tea Party supporters who said they were likely to vote supported overhauling or abolishing the Fed, according to a Bloomberg News national poll conducted Oct. 7-10.

The article made note of the fact that Ron Paul’s ill-fated effort to Audit the Fed (HR 1207) received bipartisan support:

“You had a really strange alliance last year that supported the audit of the Fed and that may come back into play,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Here’s to bipartisanship!


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Maria Cantwell For President

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I was going to hold off on this and give President Obama the benefit of a doubt – at least for a few months.  Nevertheless, after reading the magnificent piece by Barry Ritholtz, entitled:  “The Tragedy of the Obama Administration”, I decided that it was time to start discussing leadership alternatives for the next Presidential term.

On October 30, the Associated Press published the results of a poll it conducted with Knowledge Networks.  Forty-seven percent of the Democrats surveyed expressed the opinion that Obama should be challenged for the 2012 Democratic Presidential nomination.  In the wake of the mid-term election massacre, I expect that more Democrats will be anxious to find a new standard-bearer for their party in 2012.  The AP article concerning the AP-KN poll, mentioned the theory that the public’s opinion of Obama could change if the economy improves.  Unfortunately, most American consumers will not observe any significant improvement in the economy during the next two years.  There is a greater likelihood that the Chicago Cubs will win next year’s World Series.

We currently find ourselves bombarded with a wide spectrum of opinions, which purport to explain what the results of the 2010 elections really mean.  The most obvious conclusion to be drawn from this event is that the voters resent being taken for chumps.  Obama’s supporters were promised change they could believe in by a President and a party that sold its soul to the Wall Street megabanks at the cost of America’s future economic health.  When he had the opportunity to do so in early 2009, Obama refused to put those too-big-to-fail, zombie banks through temporary receivership.  As a result, we are now approaching a situation which – according to financial risk management expert Chris Whalen – will necessitate another round of bank bailouts.  When President Obama had the opportunity and the public support (not to mention Democratic control over both houses of Congress) to enact an adequate stimulus program to save the economy from a decade(s) – long, Japanese-style recession, he refused to so.  If an extra $600 billion had been added to the $787 billion in 2009 (as part of a better-thought-out, infrastructure-based stimulus program) we would be experiencing significant economic growth and a recovering job market right now.  Australia keeps reminding us of this.  (Oops!  Australia just did it again!)  Instead, America finds itself in a situation wherein the Fed is now appropriating that $600 billion toward another round of quantitative easing, which will serve no other purpose than to push investors into the stock market.  According to economist Andy Xie, those stock investors will have an unpleasant experience when Chairman Bernanke’s latest asset bubble pops in 2012.

While many Senate Democrats (along with operatives from the Treasury Department) were busy removing all of the teeth from the financial reform bill, Maria Cantwell was fighting those efforts as one of the few advocates for the American taxpayers.  Back on May 19, Arthur Delaney and Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post described how Senator Cantwell stood up to the efforts of Harry Reid to use cloture to push the financial reform bill to a vote before any further amendments could have been added to strengthen the bill.  Notice how “the usual suspects” – Reid, Chuck Schumer and “Countrywide Chris” Dodd tried to close in on Cantwell and force her capitulation to the will of the kleptocracy:

There were some unusually Johnsonian moments of wrangling on the floor during the nearly hour-long vote.  Reid pressed his case hard on Snowe, the lone holdout vote present, with Bob Corker and Mitch McConnell at her side.  After finding Brown, he put his arm around him and shook his head, then found Cantwell seated alone at the opposite end of the floor.  He and New York’s Chuck Schumer encircled her, Reid leaning over her with his right arm on the back of her chair and Schumer leaning in with his left hand on her desk.  Cantwell stared straight ahead, not looking at the men even as she spoke.  Schumer called in Chris Dodd, who was unable to sway her.  Feingold hadn’t stuck around.  Cantwell, according to a spokesman, wanted a guarantee on an amendment that would fix a gaping hole in the derivatives section of the bill, which requires the trades to be cleared, but applies no penalty to trades that aren’t, making Blanche Lincoln’s reform package little better than a list of suggestions.

*   *   *

“I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut off good consumer amendments because of cloture,” said Cantwell on Tuesday night.

Senator Cantwell has proven herself worthy of our trust.  Her nomination as the 2012 Democratic Presidential candidate will revive the excitement and voter enthusiasm witnessed during the 2008 campaign.  On the other hand, if President Obama decides to seek a second term and wins the nomination, we will likely find a greater enthusiasm gap than the example of November 2.  As a result, by January of 2013 we could have a new administration in the White House, espousing what economist Nouriel Roubini describes as “the economic equivalent of creationism”.

Here’s to a bright future!


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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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Jobless Recovery Myth Is Dead

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August 12, 2010

On July 29, I discussed the fact that for over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  Recent economic reports have exposed how the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting by mass layoffs (to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports) has finally taken its toll.  Although this tactic has helped to inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery, we are finding out that the opposite is true.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the fact the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.  Timothy Homan and Alex Tanzi of Bloomberg News gave us the ugly truth on Wednesday:

A lack of jobs will shackle consumer spending and restrain the U.S. recovery more than previously estimated, according to economists polled by Bloomberg News.

*   *   *

“Simply put, job growth in the private sector hasn’t improved as we would’ve expected,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.  “The consumer continues to contribute to growth but at a subpar pace.”

*   *   *

Purchases, which rose 3 percent on average over the past three decades, dropped 1.2 percent last year, the biggest decrease since 1942.

*   *   *

Joblessness will be slow to fall, signaling it will take years for the economy to recover the more than 8 million jobs lost during the recession that began in December 2007.  Unemployment will average 9.6 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent next year, according to the survey.

*   *   *

“We need a stronger economy, job creation and better consumer confidence,” Richard Dugas, chief executive officer of Pulte Group Inc., said in an Aug. 4 conference call.  “Our industry continues to face incredibly low demand.”

The August 10 press release from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) began this way:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months.  Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit.  Business spending on equipment and software is rising; however, investment in nonresidential structures continues to be weak and employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls.  Housing starts remain at a depressed level.  Bank lending has continued to contract.

Steve Goldstein of MarketWatch recently wrote a piece entitled, “The jobless recovery won’t go further without jobs”.   Mr. Goldstein explains that the corporations relying on layoffs to juice their earnings reports are running out of people to sacrifice for their bottom line:

Earnings per share grew 43% for the 450 members of the S&P 500 that have reported second-quarter results, according to FactSet Research data.

So what these productivity figures may be showing is that, as the Great Recession blew into town, companies stretched their employees to the limit.

The data suggest companies won’t be able to job-cut their way to continued profit growth — and, at some point, if companies want to expand, they will need to start offering jobs to the pool of 14.6 million out of work in July.

Business consultant Matthew C. Keegan wrote an essay for the SayEducate website entitled, “Jobless Recovery & Other Illusions”.  He began the piece with this thought:

The economic numbers continue to pour in with very few people believing that they offer a promise of a sustained recovery.  That’s bad news for America, because high unemployment (9.5 percent in July 2010) means that every sector of the economy will remain depressed longer than some imagined it would.

Steve Goldstein’s MarketWatch article raised the possibility that this cloud may have a silver lining:

The productivity report isn’t great news, but at least it shows that the jobless recovery won’t be able to recover much further without employment making a significant contribution.

Another myth bites the dust.





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The Best Argument For Financial Reform

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March 26, 2010

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, spoke out in favor of financial reform on Wednesday in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The shocking aspect of Hoenig’s speech is that it comes from the mouth of a member of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) which sets economic policy.  Beyond that, Hoenig brutally criticized what has been done so far to tilt the playing field in favor of the megabanks, at the expense of smaller banks.  Here are some choice bits from what should be mandatory reading for everyone in Congress:

As a nation, we have violated the central tenants of any successful system.  We have seen the formation of a powerful group of financial firms.  We have inadvertently granted them implied guarantees and favors, and we have suffered the consequences.  We must correct these violations.  We must reinvigorate fair competition within our system in a culture of business ethics that operates under the rule of law.  When we do this, we will not eliminate the small businesses’ need for capital, but we will make access to capital once again earned, as it should be.

*   *   *

The fact is that Main Street will not prosper without a healthy financial system.  We will not have a healthy financial system now or in the future without making fundamental changes that reverse the wrong-headed incentives, change behavior and reinforce the structure of our financial system.  These changes must be made so that the largest firms no longer have the incentive to take too much risk and gain a competitive funding advantage over smaller ones.  Credit must be allocated efficiently and equitably based on prospective economic value.  Without these changes, this crisis will be remembered only in textbooks and then we will go through it all again.

Hoenig’s speech comes at a time when the Senate is considering a watered-down version of financial reform that has been widely criticized.  Economist Simon Johnson pointed out how any approach based on U.S. authority alone to “resolve” or break up systemically dangerous banks would be doomed because “there is no cross-border agreement on resolution process and procedure — and no prospect of the same in sight”.

Blogger Mike Konczal expressed his disappointment with what has become of the Financial Reform Bill as it has been dragged through the legislative process:

It’s funny, I know what a good financial reform bill becoming a bad financial reform bill looks like through this process.  I’ve seen bribes and more bribes and last-minute giveaway changes.

The notion that bribery has been an obstacle to financial reform became a central theme of Karl Denninger’s enthusiastic reaction to Hoenig’s speech:

All in all it’s nice to see Thomas Hoenig wake up.  Now let’s see if we can get CONgress to stop opening the bribe envelopes, er, ignore the campaign contributions for a sufficient period of time to actually fix this mess, forcing those “big banks” to get that leverage ratio down to where it belongs, along with marking their assets to the market.

Thomas Hoenig provided exactly the type of leadership needed and at exactly the right time to give a boost to serious financial reform.  We can only hope that there will be enough responsible, ethical people in the Senate to incorporate Hoenig’s suggestions into the Financial Reform Bill.  If only  . . .



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