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© 2008 – 2018 John T. Burke, Jr.

Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

Geithner Redeems Himself – For Now

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I’ve never been a fan of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner.  Nevertheless, I have to give the guy credit for delivering a great speech at the Economic Club of Chicago on April 4.  The event took place in a building which was formerly home to an off-track betting parlor, with an “upscale” section called The Derby Club (where Gene Siskel spent lots of time and money)  – in an era before discretionary income became an obsolete concept.

At a time when the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is suffering from “buyer’s remorse” after bankrolling the election of ideologues opposed to infrastructure spending, Geithner spoke out in favor of common sense.  We have come a long, painful way from the days when the Chamber of Commerce aligned itself against the interests of the “little people”.  As Keith Laing reported for The Hill, the Chamber no longer considers “stimulus” to be such a dirty word.  Laing discussed the joint efforts by the Chamber of Commerce and AFL-CIO executive Edward Wytkind to advance the transportation bill through a Congressional roadblock:

“We’re going to be pounding away during the recess to get House members to know they’ve got to check their party at the door,” Wytkind said of Republicans in the House who opposed accepting the Senate’s transportation bill.

Other transportation supporters were similarly pessimistic.  U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive director of transportation and infrastructure Janet Kavinoky said the 90-day extension could lead to a longer agreement, but only if lawmakers get right back to work after the two-week recess.

“No length of time is going to be good for construction or business, but at least 90 days provides a length of time Congress could get a long-term bill done,” Kavinoky said.  “But the House in particular is going to have their nose to the grindstone, or whatever metaphor you want to use, to get a bill off the House floor and into a conference.”

The timing could not have been better for someone in a position of national leadership to deliver a warning that premature austerity policies (implemented before economic recovery gains traction) can have the same destructive consequences as we are witnessing in Europe.  To his credit, Tim Geithner stepped up to the plate and hit a home run.  Here are his most important remarks, delivered in Chicago on Wednesday:

Much of the political debate and the critiques of business lobbyists misread the underlying dynamics of the economy today.  Many have claimed that the basic foundations of American business are in crisis, critically undermined by taxes and regulation.

And yet, business profits are higher than before the crisis and have recovered much more quickly than overall growth and employment.  Business investment in equipment and software is up by 33 percent over the past 2 ½ years.  Exports have grown 24 percent in real terms over the same period.  And manufacturing is coming back, with factory payrolls up by more than 400,000 since the start of 2010.

The business environment in the United States is in numerous ways better than that of many of our major competitors, as measured by international comparisons of regulatory burden, the tax burden on workers, the quality of legal protections of property rights, the ease of starting a business, the availability of capital, and the broader flexibility of the economy.

The challenges facing the American economy today are not primarily about the vibrancy or efficiency of the business community.  They are about the barriers to economic opportunity and economic security for many Americans and the political constraints that now stand in the way of better economic outcomes.

These challenges can only be addressed by government action to help speed the recovery and repair the remaining damage from the crisis and reforms and investments to lay the foundation for stronger future growth.

This means taking action to support growth in the short-term – such as helping Americans refinance their mortgages and investing in infrastructure projects – so that we don’t jeopardize the gains our economy has made over the last three years.

And it means making the investments and reforms necessary for a stronger economy in the future. Investments in things like education, to help Americans compete in the global economy.  Investments in innovation, so that our economy can offer the best jobs possible.  Investments in infrastructure, to reduce costs and increase productivity.  Policies to expand exports. And reforms to improve incentives for investing in the United States – including reform of our business tax system.

A growth strategy for the American economy requires more than promises to cut taxes and spending.

We have to be willing to do things, not just cut things.

To expand exports, we have to support programs like the Export-Import Bank, which provides financing at no cost to the government for American businesses trying to compete in foreign markets.

To make us more competitive, we have to be willing to make larger long-term investments in infrastructure, not just limp forward with temporary extensions.

Any credible growth agenda has to recognize that there are parts of the economy, like the financial system, that need reform and regulation.  Businesses need to be able to rely on a more stable source of capital, with a financial system that allocates resources to their most productive uses, not misallocating them to an unsustainable real estate boom.

Cutting government investments in education and infrastructure and basic science is not a growth strategy.  Cutting deeply into the safety net for low-income Americans is not financially necessary and cannot plausibly help strengthen economic growth. Repealing Wall Street Reform will not make the economy grow faster – it would just make us more vulnerable to another crisis.

This strategy is a recipe to make us a declining power – a less exceptional nation.  It is a dark and pessimistic vision of America.

Is this simply another example of the Obama administration’s habit of  “doing the talk” without “doing the walk”?  Time will tell.


 

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Scary Economic News

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The information which I’m passing along to you today might come as a shock to those listening to the usual stock market cheerleaders, who predict good times ahead.  Let’s start with economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  For quite a while, Dr. Hussman has been warning us to avoid drinking the Kool-Aid served by the perma-bulls.  In his latest Weekly Market Comment, Hussman offers yet more sound advice to those under the spell of brokerage propagandists:

I want to emphasize again that I am neither a cheerleader for recession, nor a table-pounder for recession.  It’s just that given the data that we presently observe, an oncoming recession remains the most probable outcome.  When unseen states of the world have to be inferred from imperfect and noisy observable data, there are a few choices when the evidence isn’t 100%.  You can either choose a side and pound the table, or you can become comfortable dwelling in uncertainty, and take a position in proportion to the evidence, and the extent to which each possible outcome would affect you.

With most analysts dismissing the likelihood of recession, I have been vocal about ongoing recession concerns not because I want to align myself with one side, but because the investment implications are very asymmetric.  A slow but steady stream of modestly good economic news is largely priced in by investors, but a recession and the accompanying earnings disappointments would destroy some critical pillars of hope that investors are relying on to support already rich valuations.

Yale Professor Robert Shiller is the guy who invented the term “irrational exuberance”, which was title of his bestselling book – published in May of 1996.  Although the widely-despised, former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan is often credited with creating the term, Greenspan didn’t use it until December of that year, in a speech before the American Enterprise Institute.  Shiller is most famous for his role as co-creator of the Case-Shiller Home Price Indices, which he developed with his fellow economists Karl Case and Allan Weiss.  While many commentators decried the idiotic economic austerity programs which have been inflicted across Europe, Professor Shiller investigated whether austerity is at all effective in spurring economic growth, seeking a better understanding of austerity’s consequences.  In a recent essay on the subject, Dr. Shiller cited the work by Jaime Guajardo, Daniel Leigh, and Andrea Pescatori of the International Monetary Fund, who recently studied austerity plans implemented by governments in 17 countries in the last 30 years.  The conclusion reached by Professor Shiller should sober-up the “rose-colored glasses” crowd, as well as those aspiring to implement similar measures in the United States:

The austerity plans being adopted by governments in much of Europe and elsewhere around the world, and the curtailment of consumption expenditure by individuals as well, threaten to produce a global recession.

*   *   *

There is no abstract theory that can predict how people will react to an austerity program.  We have no alternative but to look at the historical evidence.  And the evidence of Guajardo and his co-authors does show that deliberate government decisions to adopt austerity programs have tended to be followed by hard times.

Policymakers cannot afford to wait decades for economists to figure out a definitive answer, which may never be found at all.  But, judging by the evidence that we have, austerity programs in Europe and elsewhere appear likely to yield disappointing results.

The really scary news concerning the state of the global economy came in the form of a report published by the World Bank, entitled Global Economic Prospects (Uncertainties and vulnerabilities).  The 157-page treatise was written by Andrew Burns and Theo Janse van Rensburg.  It contains more than enough information to induce a serious case of insomnia.  Here are some examples:

The world economy has entered a very difficult phase characterized by significant downside risks and fragility.

*   *   *

The downturn in Europe and weaker growth in developing countries raises the risk that the two developments reinforce one another, resulting in an even weaker outcome.  At the same time, the slow growth in Europe complicates efforts to restore market confidence in the sustainability of the region’s finances, and could exacerbate tensions.

*   *   *

While contained for the moment, the risk of a much broader freezing up of capital markets and a global crisis similar in magnitude to the Lehman crisis remains.  In particular, the willingness of markets to finance the deficits and maturing debt of high-income countries cannot be assured.  Should more countries find themselves denied such financing, a much wider financial crisis that could engulf private banks and other financial institutions on both sides of the Atlantic cannot be ruled out.  The world could be thrown into a recession as large or even larger than that of 2008/09.

*   *   *

In the event of a major crisis, activity is unlikely to bounce back as quickly as it did in 2008/09, in part because high-income countries will not have the fiscal resources to launch as strong a countercyclical policy response as in 2008/09 or to offer the same level of support to troubled financial institutions.

*   *   *

Developing countries need to prepare for the worst

In this highly uncertain environment, developing countries should evaluate their vulnerabilities and prepare contingencies to deal with both the immediate and longer-term effects of a downturn.

If global financial markets freeze up, governments and firms may not be able to finance growing deficits.

*   *   *

One major uncertainty concerns the interaction of the policy-driven slowing of growth in middle-income countries, and the financial turmoil driven slowing in Europe.  While desirable from a domestic policy point of view, this slower growth could interact with the slowing in Europe resulting in a downward overshooting of activity and a more serious global slowdown than otherwise would have been the case.

In other words, Europe’s economic austerity programs could turn another round of economic contraction into a global catastrophe (as if we needed another).

This is what happens when economic policymaking is left to the plutocrats and their tools.  “Those who fail to learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.”  It appears as though we are well on our way to a second financial crisis – with more severe consequences than those experienced as a result of the 2008 episode.


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Too Cool To Fool

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It’s always reassuring to see that there are a good number of people among us who aren’t easily manipulated by “the powers that be”.  Let’s take a look at some examples:

Glen Ford is the executive editor of the Black Agenda Report.  On January 11, Mr. Ford discussed how – up until now – the Occupy Wall Street movement has managed to avoid being co-opted by the Democratic Party and MoveOn.org.  Unfortunately, the Obama regime may have succeeded in establishing a grip on OWS.  Glen Ford offered this explanation:

The Democratic Party may have entered the Occupy Wall Street movement through the “Black door,” in the form of Occupy The Dream, the Black ministers’ group led by former NAACP chief and Million Man March national director Dr. Benjamin Chavis and Baltimore mega-church pastor Rev. Jamal Bryant.  Both are fervent supporters of President Obama.

*   *   *

It appears that Occupy Wall Street’s new Black affiliate is also in “lock-step” with the corporate Democrat in the White House, whose administration has funneled trillions of dollars to Wall Street and greatly expanded U.S. theaters of war.

*   *   *

Black ministers in campaign mode routinely depict Obama’s political troubles as indistinguishable from threats to “The Dream,” whose embodiment is ensconced in the White House.  That’s simply common currency among Black preachers pushing for Obama.

*   *   *

It is highly unlikely – damn near inconceivable – that Occupy The Dream will do anything that might embarrass this president.  Its ministers can be expected to electioneer for Obama at every opportunity.  Their January 16 actions are directed at the Federal Reserve, which is technically independent from the executive branch of government – although, in practice, the Fed has been Obama’s principal mechanism for bailing out the banks.  Will the ministers pretend, next Monday, that the president is somehow removed from the Fed’s massive transfers of the people’s credit and cash to Wall Street over the past three years?

*   *   *

At this late stage, there is no antidote to the potential cooptation, except to rev up the movement’s confrontation with the oligarchic powers-that-be – including Wall Street’s guy in the White House.  Let’s see what happens if OWS demonstrators join with Occupy The Dream at Federal Reserve sites on January 16 carrying placards unequivocally implicating Obama in the Fed’s bailouts of the banksters, as Occupy demonstrators have done so often in the past.  Will the Dream’s leadership be in “lock-step” with that?  Maybe so – I’ve heard that miracles sometimes do happen.

Anyone who challenges the Obama administration’s symbiotic relationship with the Wall Street banksters invites accusations of advancing the Republican agenda for regaining control of the White House.  This problem will be solved once a populist third-party or Independent candidate rises to pose a serious challenge to the incumbent.  Beyond that, an African-American commentator who dares to expose Obama as a tool of Wall Street is likely to face harsh criticism.  Glen Ford has demonstrated more courage than most Americans by taking a stand against this venal administration.

Another exemplary individual, whose opinions were never compromised to justify or rationalize the current administration’s tactics, has been economist Joseph Stiglitz – the Nobel laureate who found himself ignored and shut out by the Obama administration ab initio.  Professor Stiglitz recently wrote a commentary entitled, “The Perils of 2012” in which he dared to predict an election year fraught with economic despair.  Such conditions make for an incumbent President’s worst nightmare.  As a result, non-Republican economists are expected to avoid such prognostication.  Nevertheless, Professor Stiglitz proceeded to paint an ugly picture of what we can expect in the near term, after first reminding us that there has been no sound policy advanced for mitigating the devastation experienced by the middle class as a result of the 2008 financial crisis:

The year 2011 will be remembered as the time when many ever-optimistic Americans began to give up hope.  President John F. Kennedy once said that a rising tide lifts all boats.  But now, in the receding tide, Americans are beginning to see not only that those with taller masts had been lifted far higher, but also that many of the smaller boats had been dashed to pieces in their wake.

In that brief moment when the rising tide was indeed rising, millions of people believed that they might have a fair chance of realizing the “American Dream.”  Now those dreams, too, are receding.  By 2011, the savings of those who had lost their jobs in 2008 or 2009 had been spent.  Unemployment checks had run out.  Headlines announcing new hiring – still not enough to keep pace with the number of those who would normally have entered the labor force – meant little to the 50 year olds with little hope of ever holding a job again.

Indeed, middle-aged people who thought that they would be unemployed for a few months have now realized that they were, in fact, forcibly retired.  Young people who graduated from college with tens of thousands of dollars of education debt cannot find any jobs at all.  People who moved in with friends and relatives have become homeless.  Houses bought during the property boom are still on the market or have been sold at a loss.  More than seven million American families have lost their homes.

*   *   *

The pragmatic commitment to growth that one sees in Asia and other emerging markets today stands in contrast to the West’s misguided policies, which, driven by a combination of ideology and vested interests, almost seem to reflect a commitment not to grow.

As a result, global economic rebalancing is likely to accelerate, almost inevitably giving rise to political tensions.  With all of the problems confronting the global economy, we will be lucky if these strains do not begin to manifest themselves within the next twelve months.

Another commentator who has been “too cool to fool” is equities market analyst, Barry Ritholtz.  One of his recent blog postings documented how Ritholtz never accepted the propagandistic pronouncements of the National Retailers Association about Christmas season retail sales.  Once the hype began on Black Friday, Ritholtz began his own campaign of debunking the questionable data, touted to boost unjustified confidence about the direction of our economy.  Ritholtz concluded the piece with this statement:

Those of you who may have downplayed the potential for a recession to start over the next 12-18 months way want to revisit your views on this.  It is far from the low possibility many economists have it pegged at.

Fortunately, not everyone has been as imperceptive as those on the Obama administration’s economic team who admitted that as late as 2009, they underestimated the extent of economic contraction resulting from the 2008 crisis.  It’s time for the voting public to dis-employ the political hacks who have allowed this condition to fester.  One effective path toward this goal involves voting against incumbents in primary elections.  Keep in mind that America’s Congressional districts have been gerrymandered to protect incumbents.  As a result, any plan to defeat those officeholders in a general election could be an exercise in futility.  Voting against current members of Congress during the primary process can open the door for more capable candidates during the general election.  Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 primary season.


 

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European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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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.

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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.

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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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Where The Money Is

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June 1, 2009

For the past few months we have been hearing TV “experts” tell us that “it’s almost over” when discussing the Great Recession.  Beyond that, many of the TV news-readers insist that the “bear market” is over and that we are now in a “bull market”.  In his new column for The Atlantic (named after his book A Failure of Capitalism) Judge Richard A. Posner is using the term “depression” rather than “recession” to describe the current state of the economy.  In other words, he’s being a little more blunt about the situation than most commentators would care to be.  Meanwhile, the “happy talk” people, who want everyone to throw what is left of their life savings back into the stock market, are saying that the recession is over.  If you look beyond the “good news” coming from the TV and pay attention to who the “financial experts” quoted in those stories are … you will find that they are salaried employees of such companies as Barclay’s Capital and Charles Schwab  … in other words:  the brokerages and asset managers who want your money.   A more sober report on the subject, prepared by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) revealed that 74 percent of the economists it surveyed were of the opinion that the recession would end in the third quarter of this year.  Nineteen percent of the economists surveyed by the NABE predicted that the recession would end during the fourth quarter of 2009 and the remaining 7 percent opined that the recession would end during the first quarter of 2010.

Some investors, who would rather not wait for our recession to end before jumping back into the stock market, are rapidly flocking to what are called “emerging markets”.  To get a better understanding of what emerging markets are all about, read Chuan Li’s (mercifully short) paper on the subject for the University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development.  The rising popularity of investing in emerging markets was evident in Fareed Zakaria’s article from the June 8 issue of Newsweek:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the story of the global economy is a tale of two worlds.  In one, there is only gloom and doom, and in the other there is light and hope.  In the traditional bastions of wealth and power — America, Europe and Japan — it is difficult to find much good news.  But there is a new world out there — China, India, Indonesia, Brazil — in which economic growth continues to power ahead, in which governments are not buried under a mountain of debt and in which citizens remain remarkably optimistic about their future.  This divergence, between the once rich and the once poor, might mark a turn in history.

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Compare the two worlds.  On the one side is the West (plus Japan), with banks that are overleveraged and thus dysfunctional, governments groaning under debt, and consumers who are rebuilding their broken balance sheets. America is having trouble selling its IOUs at attractive prices (the last three Treasury auctions have gone badly); its largest state, California, is veering toward total fiscal collapse; and its budget deficit is going to surpass 13 percent of GDP —  a level last seen during World War II.  With all these burdens, even if there is a recovery, the United States might not return to fast-paced growth for a while.  And it’s probably more dynamic than Europe or Japan.

Meanwhile, emerging-market banks are largely healthy and profitable.  (Every Indian bank, government-owned and private, posted profits in the last quarter of 2008!)  The governments are in good fiscal shape.  China’s strengths are well known — $2 trillion in reserves, a budget deficit that is less than 3 percent of GDP — but consider Brazil, which is now posting a current account surplus.

On May 31, The Economic Times reported similarly good news for emerging markets:

Growth potential and a long-term outlook for emerging markets remain structurally intact despite cyclically declining exports and capital outflows, a research report released on Sunday said.

According to Credit Suisse Research’s latest edition of Global Investor, looking forward to an eventual recovery from the current crisis, growth led by domestic factors in emerging markets is set to succeed debt-fuelled US private consumption as the most important driver of global economic growth over coming years.

The Seeking Alpha website featured an article by David Hunkar, following a similar theme:

Emerging markets have easily outperformed the developed world markets since stocks rebounded from March this year. Emerging countries such as Brazil, India, China, etc. continue to attract capital and show strength relative to developed markets.

On May 29, The Wall Street Journal‘s Smart Money magazine ran a piece by Elizabeth O’Brien, featuring investment bargains in “re-emerging” markets:

As the U.S. struggles to reverse the economic slide, some emerging markets are ahead of the game.  The International Monetary Fund projects that while the world’s advanced economies will contract this year, emerging economies will expand by as much as 2.5 percent, and some countries will grow a lot faster.  Even better news:  Some pros are finding they don’t have to pay a lot to own profitable “foreign” stocks.  The valuations on foreign stocks have become “very, very attractive,” says Uri Landesman, chief equity strategist for asset manager ING Investment Management Americas.

As for The Wall Street Journal itself, the paper ran a June 1 article entitled: “New Driver for Stocks”, explaining that China and other emerging markets are responsible the rebound in the demand for oil:

International stock markets have long taken their cues from the U.S., but as it became clear that emerging-market economies would hold up best and rebound first from the downturn, the U.S. has in some ways moved over to the passenger seat.

Jim Lowell of MarketWatch wrote a June 1 commentary discussing some emerging market exchange-traded funds (ETFs), wherein he made note of his concern about the “socio-politico volatility” in some emerging market regions:

Daring to drink the water of the above funds could prove to be little more than a way to tap into Montezuma’s revenge.  But history tells us that investors who discount the rewards are as prone to disappointment as those who dismiss the risks.

On May 29, ETF Guide discussed some of the exchange-traded funds focused on emerging markets:

Don’t look now, but emerging markets have re-discovered their mojo.  After declining more than 50 percent last year and leading global stocks into a freefall, emerging markets stocks now find themselves with a 35 percent year-to-date gain on average.

A website focused solely on this area of investments is Emerging Index.

So if you have become too risk-averse to allow yourself to get hosed when this “bear market rally” ends, you may want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of investing in emerging markets.  Nevertheless, “emerging market” investments might seem problematic as a way of dodging whatever bullets come by, when American stock market indices sink.  The fact that the ETFs discussed in the above articles are traded on American exchanges raises a question in my mind as to whether they could be vulnerable to broad-market declines as they happen in this country.  That situation could be compounded by the fact that many of the underlying stocks for such funds are, themselves, traded on American exchanges, even though the stocks are for foreign corporations.  By way of disclosure, as of the time of writing this entry, I have no such investments myself, although by the time you read this  . . .   I just might.

Update: I subsequently “stuck my foot in the water” by investing in the iShares MSCI Brazil Index ETF (ticker symbol: EWZ).  Any guesses as to how long I stick with it?

June 3 Update: Today the S&P 500 dropped 1.37 percent and EWZ dropped 5.37 percent — similar to the losses posted by many American companies.   Suffice it to say:  I am not a happy camper!  I plan on unloading it.

DISCLAIMER:  NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.