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Goldman Sachs Remains in the Spotlight

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Goldman Sachs has become a magnet for bad publicity.  Last week, I wrote a piece entitled, “Why Bad Publicity Never Hurts Goldman Sachs”.  On March 14, Greg Smith (a Goldman Sachs executive director and head of the firm’s United States equity derivatives business in Europe, the Middle East and Africa) summed-up his disgust with the firm’s devolution by writing “Why I Am Leaving Goldman Sachs” for The New York Times.  Among the most-frequently quoted reasons for Smith’s departure was this statement:

It makes me ill how callously people talk about ripping their clients off.  Over the last 12 months I have seen five different managing directors refer to their own clients as “muppets,” sometimes over internal e-mail.

In the wake of Greg Smith’s very public resignation from Goldman Sachs, many commentators have begun to speculate that Goldman’s bad behavior may have passed a tipping point.  The potential consequences have become a popular subject for speculation.  The end of Lloyd Blankfein’s reign as CEO has been the most frequently-expressed prediction.  Peter Cohan of Forbes raised the possibility that Goldman’s clients might just decide to take their business elsewhere:

Until a wave of talented people leave Goldman and go work for some other bank, many clients will stick with Goldman and hope for the best.  That’s why the biggest threat to Goldman’s survival is that Smith’s departure – and the reasons he publicized so nicely in his Times op-ed – leads to a wider talent exodus.

After all, that loss of talent could erode Goldman’s ability to hold onto clients. And that could give Goldman clients a better alternative.  So when Goldman’s board replaces Blankfein, it should appoint a leader who will restore the luster to Goldman’s traditional values.

Goldman’s errant fiduciary behavior became a popular topic in July of 2009, when the Zero Hedge website focused on Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading, which raised suspicions that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  Zero Hedge brought our attention to Goldman’s “GS360” portal.  GS360 included a disclaimer which could have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.  One week later, Matt Taibbi wrote his groundbreaking, tour de force for Rolling Stone about Goldman’s involvement in the events which led to the financial crisis.  From that point onward, the “vampire squid” and its predatory business model became popular subjects for advocates of financial reform.

Despite all of the hand-wringing about Goldman’s controversial antics – especially after the April 2010 Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations hearing, wherein Goldman’s “Fab Four” testified about selling their customers the Abacus CDO and that “shitty” Timberwolf deal, no effective remedial actions for cleaning-up Wall Street were on the horizon.  The Dodd-Frank financial “reform” legislation had become a worthless farce.

Exactly two years ago, publication of the report by bankruptcy examiner Anton Valukas, pinpointing causes of the Lehman Brothers collapse, created shockwaves which were limited to the blogosphere.  Unfortunately, the mainstream media were not giving that story very much traction.  On March 15 of 2010, the Columbia Journalism Review published an essay by Ryan Chittum, decrying the lack of mainstream media attention given to the Lehman scandal.  This shining example of Wall Street malefaction should have been an influential factor toward making the financial reform bill significantly more effective than the worthless sham it became.

Greg Smith’s resignation from Goldman Sachs could become the game-changing event, motivating Wall Street’s investment banks to finally change their ways.  Matt Taibbi seems to think so:

This always had to be the endgame for reforming Wall Street.  It was never going to happen by having the government sweep through and impose a wave of draconian new regulations, although a more vigorous enforcement of existing laws might have helped.  Nor could the Occupy protests or even a monster wave of civil lawsuits hope to really change the screw-your-clients, screw-everybody, grab-what-you-can culture of the modern financial services industry.

Real change was always going to have to come from within Wall Street itself, and the surest way for that to happen is for the managers of pension funds and union retirement funds and other institutional investors to see that the Goldmans of the world aren’t just arrogant sleazebags, they’re also not terribly good at managing your money.

*   *   *

These guys have lost the fear of going out of business, because they can’t go out of business.  After all, our government won’t let them.  Beyond the bailouts, they’re all subsisting daily on massive loads of free cash from the Fed.  No one can touch them, and sadly, most of the biggest institutional clients see getting clipped for a few points by Goldman or Chase as the cost of doing business.

The only way to break this cycle, since our government doesn’t seem to want to end its habit of financially supporting fraud-committing, repeat-offending, client-fleecing banks, is for these big “muppet” clients to start taking their business elsewhere.

In the mean time, the rest of us will be keeping our fingers crossed.


 

Government Should Listen To These Wealth Managers

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A good deal of Mitt Romney’s appeal as a Presidential candidate is based on his experience as a private equity fund manager – despite the “vulture capitalist” moniker, favored by some of his critics.  Many voters believe that America needs someone with more “business sense” in the White House.  Listening to Mitt Romney would lead one to believe that America’s economic and unemployment problems will not be solved until “government gets out of the way”, allowing those sanctified “job creators” to bring salvation to the unemployed masses.  Those who complained about how the system has been rigged against the American middle class during the past few decades have found themselves accused of waging “class warfare”.  We are supposed to believe that Romney speaks on behalf of “business” when he lashes out against “troublesome” government regulations which hurt the corporate bottom line and therefore – all of America.

Nevertheless, the real world happens to be the home of many wealth managers – entrusted with enormous amounts of money by a good number of rich people and institutional investors – who envision quite a different role of government than the mere nuisance described by Romney and like-minded individuals.  If only our elected officials – and more of the voting public – would pay close attention to the sage advice offered by these wealth managers, we might be able to solve our nation’s economic and unemployment problems.

Last summer, bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO  lamented the Obama administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

In my last posting, I discussed a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian emphasized that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

On October 31, I focused on the propaganda war waged against the Occupy Wall Street movement, concluding the piece with my expectation that Jeremy Grantham’s upcoming third quarter newsletter would provide some sorely-needed, astute commentary on the situation.  Jeremy Grantham, rated by Bloomberg BusinessWeek as one of the Fifty Most Influential Money Managers, released an abbreviated edition of that newsletter one month later than usual, due to a busy schedule.  In addition to expressing some supportive comments about the OWS movement, Grantham noted that he would provide a special supplement, based specifically on that subject.  Finally, on February 5, Mr. Grantham made good on his promise with an opinion piece in the Financial Times entitled, “People now see it as a system for the rich only”:

For the time being, in the US our corporate and governmental system backed surprisingly by the Supreme Court has become a plutocracy, designed to prolong, protect and intensify the wealth and influence of those who already have the wealth and influence.  What the Occupy movement indicates is that a growing number of people have begun to recognise this in spite of the efficiency of capital’s propaganda machines.  Forty years of no pay increase in the US after inflation for the average hour worked should, after all, have that effect.  The propaganda is good but not that good.

*   *   *

In 50 years economic mobility in the US has gone from the best to one of the worst.  The benefits of the past 40 years of quite normal productivity have been abnormally divided between the very rich (and corporations) and the workers.

Indeed “divide” is not the right word, for, remarkably, the workers received no benefit at all, while the top 0.1 per cent has increased its share nearly fourfold in 35 years to a record equal to 1929 and the gilded age.

But the best propaganda of all is that the richest 400 people now have assets equal to the poorest 140m.  If that doesn’t disturb you, you have a wallet for a heart.  The Occupiers’ theme should be simple:  “More sensible assistance for the working poor, more taxes for the rich.”

I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  Back in November of 2010, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.  It’s hard to imagine that Mitt Romney would take a tougher stance against those zombie banks than what we have seen from the Obama administration.

Our government officials – from across the political spectrum – would be wise to follow the advice offered by these fund managers.  A political hack whose livelihood is based entirely on passive income has little to offer in the way of “business sense” when compared to a handful of fund managers, entrusted to use their business and financial acumen to preserve so many billions of dollars.  Who speaks for business?  It should be those business leaders who demonstrate concern for the welfare of all human beings in America.


Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

Plutocracy Is Crushing Democracy

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It’s been happening here in the United States since onset of the 2008 financial crisis.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  One year ago, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.

As it turns out, a few of those same banks are flexing their muscles overseas as the European debt crisis poses a new threat to Goldman Sachs and several of its ridiculously-overleveraged European counterparts.  Time recently published an essay by Stephan Faris, which raised the question of whether the regime changes in Greece and Italy amounted to a “bankers’ coup”:

As in Athens, the plan in Rome is to replace the outgoing prime minister with somebody from outside the political class.  Mario Monti, a neo-liberal economist and former EU commissioner who seems designed with the idea of calming the markets in mind, is expected to take over from Berlusconi after he resigns Saturday.

*   *   *

Yet, until the moment he’s sworn in, Monti’s ascension is far from a done deal, and it didn’t take long after the markets had closed for the weekend for it to start to come under fire.  Though Monti, a former advisor to Goldman Sachs, is heavily championed by the country’s respected president, many in parliament have spent the week whispering that Berlusconi’s ouster amounts to a “banker’s coup.”  “Yesterday, in the chamber of deputies we were bitterly joking that we were going to get a Goldman Sachs government,” says a parliamentarian from Berlusconi’s government, who asked to remain anonymous citing political sensitivity.

At The New York Times, Ross Douthat reflected on the drastic policy of bypassing democracy to install governments led by “technocrats”:

After the current crisis has passed, some voices have suggested, there will be time to reverse the ongoing centralization of power and reconsider the E.U.’s increasingly undemocratic character. Today the Continent needs a unified fiscal policy and a central bank that’s willing to behave like the Federal Reserve, Bloomberg View’s Clive Crook has suggested.  But as soon as the euro is stabilized, Europe’s leaders should start “giving popular sovereignty some voice in other aspects of the E.U. project.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  Major political consolidations are rarely undone swiftly, and they just as often build upon themselves.  The technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have revealed the power that the E.U.’s leadership can exercise over the internal politics of member states.  If Germany has to effectively backstop the Continent’s debt in order to save the European project, it’s hard to see why the Frankfurt Group (its German members, especially) would ever consent to dilute that power.

Reacting to Ross Douthat’s column, economist Brad DeLong was quick to criticize the use of the term “technocrats”.  That same label appeared in the previously-quoted Time article, as well:

Those who are calling the shots in Europe right now are in no wise “technocrats”:  technocrats would raise the target inflation rate in the eurozone and buy up huge amounts of Greek and Italian (and other) debt conditional on the enactment of special euro-wide long-run Fiscal Stabilization Repayment Fund taxes. These aren’t technocrats:  they are ideologues – and rather blinders-wearing ideologues at that.

Forget about euphemisms such as:  “technocrats”, “the European Union” or “the European Central Bank”.  Stephen Foley of The Independent pulled back the curtain and revealed the real culprit  .  .  .  Goldman Sachs:

This is the most remarkable thing of all:  a giant leap forward for, or perhaps even the successful culmination of, the Goldman Sachs Project.

It is not just Mr Monti.  The European Central Bank, another crucial player in the sovereign debt drama, is under ex-Goldman management, and the investment bank’s alumni hold sway in the corridors of power in almost every European nation, as they have done in the US throughout the financial crisis.  Until Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund’s European division was also run by a Goldman man, Antonio Borges, who just resigned for personal reasons.

Even before the upheaval in Italy, there was no sign of Goldman Sachs living down its nickname as “the Vampire Squid”, and now that its tentacles reach to the top of the eurozone, sceptical voices are raising questions over its influence.

*   *   *

This is The Goldman Sachs Project.  Put simply, it is to hug governments close.  Every business wants to advance its interests with the regulators that can stymie them and the politicians who can give them a tax break, but this is no mere lobbying effort.  Goldman is there to provide advice for governments and to provide financing, to send its people into public service and to dangle lucrative jobs in front of people coming out of government.  The Project is to create such a deep exchange of people and ideas and money that it is impossible to tell the difference between the public interest and the Goldman Sachs interest.

*   *   *

The grave danger is that, if Italy stops paying its debts, creditor banks could be made insolvent.  Goldman Sachs, which has written over $2trn of insurance, including an undisclosed amount on eurozone countries’ debt, would not escape unharmed, especially if some of the $2trn of insurance it has purchased on that insurance turns out to be with a bank that has gone under.  No bank – and especially not the Vampire Squid – can easily untangle its tentacles from the tentacles of its peers. This is the rationale for the bailouts and the austerity, the reason we are getting more Goldman, not less.  The alternative is a second financial crisis, a second economic collapse.

The previous paragraph explains precisely what the term “too-big-to-fail” is all about:  If a bank of that size fails – it can bring down the entire economy.  Beyond that, the Goldman situation illustrates what Simon Johnson meant when he explained that the United States – acting alone – cannot prevent the megabanks from becoming too big to fail.  Any attempt to regulate the size of those institutions requires an international effort:

But no international body — not the Group of -20, the Group of Eight or anyone else — shows any indication of taking this on, mostly because governments don’t wish to tie their own hands. In a severe crisis, the interests of the state are usually paramount. No meaningful cross-border resolution framework is even in the cards.  (Disclosure:  I’m on the FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee; I’m telling you what I tell them at every opportunity.)

What we are left with is a situation wherein the taxpayers are the insurers of the privileged elite, who invest in banks managed by greedy, reckless megalomaniacs.  When those plutocrats are faced with the risk of losing money – then democracy be damned!  Contempt for democracy is apparently a component of the mindset afflicting the “supply side economics” crowd.  Creepy Stephen Moore, of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has expounded on his belief that capitalism is more important than Democracy.  We are now witnessing how widespread that warped value system is.


Obama Backpedals To Save His Presidency

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President Obama’s demotion of his Chief of Staff, Bill Daley, has drawn quite a bit of attention – despite efforts by the White House to downplay the significance of that event.  The demotion of Daley is significant because it indicates that Obama is now trying to back away from his original strategy of helping Wall Street at the expense of Main Street.  This move appears to be an attempt by Obama to re-cast himself as a populist, in response to the widespread success of the Occupy Wall Street movement.

In September of 2010, I wrote a piece entitled, “Where Obama Went Wrong”.  Despite the subsequent spin by right-wing pundits, to the effect that voters had been enamored with the Tea Party’s emphasis on smaller government, the true reasons for the mid-term disaster for the Democrats had become obvious:

During the past week, we’ve been bombarded with explanations from across the political spectrum, concerning how President Obama has gone from wildly-popular cult hero to radioactive force on the 2010 campaign trail.  For many Democrats facing re-election bids in November, the presence of Obama at one of their campaign rallies could be reminiscent of the appearance of William Macy’s character from the movie, The Cooler.  Wikipedia’s discussion of the film provided this definition:

In gambling parlance, a “cooler” is an unlucky individual whose presence at the tables results in a streak of bad luck for the other players.

*   *   *

The American people are hurting because their President sold them out immediately after he was elected.  When faced with the choice of bailing out the zombie banks or putting those banks through temporary receivership (the “Swedish approach” – wherein the bank shareholders and bondholders would take financial “haircuts”) Obama chose to bail out the banks at taxpayer expense.  So here we are  . . .  in a Japanese-style “lost decade”.  In case you don’t remember the debate from early 2009 – peruse this February 10, 2009 posting from the Calculated Risk website.  After reading that, try not to cry after looking at this recent piece by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture entitled, “We Should Have Gone Swedish  . . .”

Back in December of 2009, Bill Daley – a minion of The Dimon Dog at JPMorgan Chase – wrote an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, which resonated with Wall Street’s tool in the White House.  Daley claimed that Obama and other Democrats were elected to office in 2008 because voters had embraced some pseudo-centrist ideas, which Daley referenced in these terms:

These independents and Republicans supported Democrats based on a message indicating that the party would be a true Big Tent — that we would welcome a diversity of views even on tough issues such as abortion, gun rights and the role of government in the economy.

*   *   *

All that is required for the Democratic Party to recover its political footing is to acknowledge that the agenda of the party’s most liberal supporters has not won the support of a majority of Americans — and, based on that recognition, to steer a more moderate course on the key issues of the day, from health care to the economy to the environment to Afghanistan.

Unfortunately, Obama was pre-disposed to accept this rationale, keeping his policy decisions on a trajectory which has proven as damaging to his own political future as it has been to the future of the American middle class.

On November 8, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for New York magazine’s Daily Intel blog, wherein he explained that the demotion of Bill Daley revealed a “course correction” by Obama, in order to a pursue a strategy “in line with the realities of public opinion”.  Jonathan Chait explained how the ideas espoused by Daley in his 2009 Washington Post editorial, had been a blueprint for failure:

Daley, pursuing his theory, heavily courted business leaders.  He made long-term deficit reduction a top priority, and spent hours with Republican leaders, meeting them three-quarters of the way in hopes of securing a deal that would demonstrate his centrism and bipartisanship.  The effort failed completely.

The effort failed because Daley’s analysis – which is also the analysis of David Brooks and Michael Bloomberg – was fatally incorrect.  Americans were not itching for Obama to make peace with corporate America.  Americans are in an angry, populist mood – distrustful of government, but even more distrustful of business.  In the most recent NBC/The Wall Street Journal poll, 60 percent of Americans strongly agreed with the following statement:

The current economic structure of the country is out of balance and favors a very small proportion of the rich over the rest of the country.  America needs to reduce the power of major banks and corporations and demand greater accountability and transparency.  The government should not provide financial aid to corporations and should not provide tax breaks to the rich.

At the website of economist Brad DeLong, a number of comments were posted in response to Jonathan Chait’s essay.  One can only hope that our President has the same, clear understanding of this situation as do the individuals who posted these comments:

Full Employment Hawk said:

.   .   .   The defeat of the Democrats was due to the fact that the Obama administration did too little, not because it did too much.

Daley’s view that it was because the moderately progressive policies of the Obama administration were too far left for the center was totally wrong.  And listening to Daley’s advice to further shift from job creation to deficit reduction was a major blunder that reinforced the blunder of the first two years of dropping the ball on making the economy grow fast enough for the unemployment rate to be coming down significantly by the time of the Fall election.

In reply to the comment posted by Full Employment Hawk, a reader, identified as “urban legend” said this:

Obama should have been making the point over and over and over and over that getting more money into the hands of more Americans — principally right now by creating jobs — is the most pro-business stance you can take.  Continuing to let the 1% dictate everything in their favor is the most anti-business thing you can do.  We are the ones who want demand to rise for the goods and services of American business.  Right-wingers don’t care much about that.  What they do care about is maintaining their theology against all the evidence of its massive failure.

At Politico, Jonathan Chait’s essay provoked the following comment from Ben Smith:

It is entirely possible that no staff shift, and no ideological shift, can save Obama from a bad economy.  You don’t get to run controlled experiments in politics.

But it does seem worth noting that this argument pre-dates Daley: It’s the substance of the 2008 debate between Hillary Clinton and Obama, with Clinton portraying Obama as naive in his dream of bipartisan unity, and the Republicans as an implacable foe.  It’s the Clinton view, the ’90s view, that has prevailed here.

Indeed, it would be nice for all of us if Obama could get a “Mulligan” for his mishandling of the economic crisis.  Unfortunately, this ain’t golf.


Elizabeth Warren Should Run Against Obama

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Now that President Obama has thrown Elizabeth Warren under the bus by nominating Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB), she is free to challenge Obama in the 2012 election.  It’s not a very likely scenario, although it’s one I’d love to see:  Warren as the populist, Independent candidate – challenging Obama, the Wall Street tool – who is already losing to a phantom, unspecified Republican.

A good number of people were disappointed when Obama failed to nominate Warren to chair the CFPB, which was her brainchild.  It was bad enough that Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t like her – but once the President realized he was getting some serious pushback about Warren from Senate Republicans – that was all it took.  Some Warren supporters have become enamored with the idea that she could challenge Scott Brown for his seat representing Massachusetts in the Senate.  However, many astute commentators consider that as a really stupid idea.  Here is the reaction from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism:

We argued yesterday that the Senate was not a good vehicle for advancing Elizabeth Warren’s aims of helping middle class families, since she would have no more, and arguably less power than she has now, and would be expected to defend Democrat/Obama policies, many of which are affirmatively destructive to middle class interests (just less so than what the Republicans would put in place).

A poll conducted in late June by Scott Brown and the Republican National Committee raises an even more basic question:  whether she even has a shot at winning.

*   *   *

The poll shows a 25 point gap, which is a massive hurdle, and also indicates that Brown is seen by many voters as not being a Republican stalwart (as in he is perceived to vote for the state’s, not the party’s, interest).  A 25 point gap is a near insurmountable hurdle and shows that Warren’s reputation does not carry as far as the Democratic party hackocracy would like her fans to believe.  But there’s no reason not to get this pesky woman to take up what is likely to be a poisoned chalice.  If she wins, she’s unlikely to get on any important committees, given the Democratic party pay to play system, and will be boxed in by the practical requirements of having to make nice to the party and support Obama positions a meaningful portion of the time. And if she runs and loses, it would be taken as proof that her middle class agenda really doesn’t resonate with voters, which will give the corporocrats free rein (if you can’t sell a liberal agenda in a borderline Communist state like Massachusetts, it won’t play in Peoria either).

Obviously, a 2012 challenge to the Obama Presidency by Warren would be an uphill battle.  Nevertheless, it’s turning out to be an uphill battle for the incumbent, as well.  David Weidner of MarketWatch recently discussed how Obama’s failure to adequately address the economic crisis has placed the President under the same pressure faced by many Americans today:

He’s about to lose his job.

*   *   *

Blame as much of the problem on his predecessor as you like, the fact is Obama hasn’t come up with a solution.  In fact, he’s made things worse by filling his top economic posts with banking-friendly interests, status-quo advisers and milquetoast regulators.

And if there’s one reason Obama loses in 2012, it’ll be because he failed to surround himself with people willing to take drastic action to get the economy moving again.

In effect, Obama’s team has rewarded the banking industry under the guise of “saving the economy” while abandoning citizens and consumers desperate for jobs, credit and spending power.

There was the New York Fed banker cozy with Wall Street: Timothy Geithner.

There was the former Clinton administration official who was the architect of policies that led to the financial crisis: Larry Summers.

There was a career bureaucrat named to lead the Securities and Exchange Commission:  Mary Schapiro.

To see just how unremarkable this group is, consider that the most progressive regulator in the Obama administration, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Sheila Bair, was a Republican appointed by Bush.

*   *   *

The lack of action by Obama’s administration of mediocrities is the reason the recovery sputters.  In essence, the turnaround depends too much on a private sector that, having escaped failure, is too content to sit out what’s supposed to be a recovery.

*   *   *

What began as a two-step approach:  1) saving the banks, and then 2) saving homeowners, was cut short after the first step.

Instead of extracting more lending commitments from the banks, forcing more haircuts on investors and more demands on business, Obama has let his team of mediocrities allow the debate to be turned on government.  The government caused the financial crisis.  The government ruined the housing market.

It wasn’t true at the start, but it’s becoming true now.

Despite his status as the incumbent and his $1 billion campaign war chest, President Obama could find himself voted out of office in 2012.  When you consider the fact that the Republican Party candidates who are currently generating the most excitement are women (Bachmann and the undeclared Palin) just imagine how many voters might gravitate to a populist female candidate with substantially more brains than Obama.

The disillusionment factor afflicting Obama is not something which can be easily overlooked.  The man I have referred to as the “Disappointer-In-Chief” since his third month in office has lost more than the enthusiasm of his “base” supporters – he has lost the false “progressive” image he had been able to portray.  Matt Stoller of the Roosevelt Institute explained how the real Obama had always been visible to those willing to look beyond the campaign slogans:

Many people are “disappointed” with Obama.  But, while it is certainly true that Obama has broken many many promises, he projected his goals in his book The Audacity of Hope.  In Audacity, he discussed how in 2002 he was going to give politics one more shot with a Senate campaign, and if that didn’t work, he was going into corporate law and getting wealthy like the rest of his peer group.  He wrote about how passionate activists were too simple-minded, that the system basically worked, and that compromise was a virtue in and of itself in a world of uncertainty. His book was a book about a fundamentally conservative political creature obsessed with process, not someone grounded in the problems of ordinary people.  He told us what his leadership style is, what his agenda was, and he’s executing it now.

I expressed skepticism towards Obama from 2005, onward.  Paul Krugman, Debra Cooper, and Tom Ferguson among others pegged Obama correctly from day one.  Obama broadcast who he was, through his conservative policy focus (which is how Krugman pegged him), his bank backers (which is how Ferguson pegged him), his political support of Lieberman (which is how I pegged him), and his cavalier treatment of women’s issues (which is how Debra Cooper pegged him).  He is doing so again, with his choice to effectively remove Elizabeth Warren from the administration.

I just wish Elizabeth Warren would fight back and challenge Obama for The White House.  If only   .   .   .


 

Our Sham Two-Party System

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It’s becoming more obvious to people that our so-called, “two-party system” is really a just a one-party system.  Last summer, I discussed how the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party is determined to steal the money American workers have paid into the Social Security program.  While we’re on the subject, let’s take a look at an inconvenient law which the Beltway Vultures choose to ignore:

EXCLUSION OF SOCIAL SECURITY FROM ALL BUDGETS Pub. L. 101-508, title XIII, Sec. 13301(a), Nov. 5, 1990, 104 Stat. 1388-623, provided that:  Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the receipts and disbursements of the Federal Old-Age and Survivors Insurance Trust Fund and the Federal Disability Insurance Trust Fund shall not be counted as new budget authority, outlays, receipts, or deficit or surplus for purposes of – (1) the budget of the United States Government as submitted by the President, (2) the congressional budget, or (3) the Balanced Budget and Emergency Deficit Control Act of 1985.

In a recent interview conducted by Anastasia Churkina of Russia Today, investigative reporter and author, Matt Taibbi described the American political system as a “reality show sponsored by Wall Street”.  Taibbi pointed out that “… the problem is Wall Street heavily sponsors both the Republican and the Democratic Parties” so that whoever gets elected President “is going to be a creature of Wall Street”.  After noting that Goldman Sachs was Obama’s number one source of private campaign contributions during the 2008 election cycle, Taibbi faced a question about the possibility that a third party could become a significant factor in American politics.  His response was:  “Seriously, I don’t see it.”  Taibbi went on to express his belief that the “average American” is:

… seduced and mesmerized by this phony, media-created, division between blue and red – and left and right, Democrats and Republicans, and people are conditioned to believe that there are enormous, profound differences between these two parties.  Whereas, the reality is:  their differences are mostly superficial and on the important questions of how the economy is run and how to regulate the economy – they’re exactly the same – but I don’t think ordinary people know that.

At this point, the question is whether there can be any hope that “ordinary people” will ever realize that our “two-party system” is actually a farce.

The type of disappointment expressed by Matt Taibbi in his discussion of Barack Obama during the Russia Today interview, has become a familiar subject.  I was motivated to characterize the new President as “Disappointer-In-Chief” during his third month in office.  An increasing number of commentators have begun to admit that Hillary Clinton’s campaign-theme question, “Who is Barack Obama?” was never really answered until after the man took office.  One person who got an answer “the hard way” was Professor Cornel West of Princeton University.

In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges discussed how Professor West made 65 appearances for Candidate Obama on the campaign trail.  Nevertheless, Professor West never received an invitation to Obama’s Inaugural.  Although he traveled to Washington for that historic occasion, Professor West ended up watching the event on a hotel room television with his family.  As an adversary of Obama’s financial mentor, Larry Summers, Professor West quickly found himself thrown under the bus.

The following passage from Chris Hedges’ article presents an interesting narrative by Professor West about what I have previously described as Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment” (when the President “punted” on the economic stimulus bill).  Professor West also lamented the failure of the Democrats to provide any alternative to the bipartisan tradition of crony corporatism:

“Can you imagine if Barack Obama had taken office and deliberately educated and taught the American people about the nature of the financial catastrophe and what greed was really taking place?” West asks.  “If he had told us what kind of mechanisms of accountability needed to be in place, if he had focused on homeowners rather than investment banks for bailouts and engaged in massive job creation he could have nipped in the bud the right-wing populism of the tea party folk. The tea party folk are right when they say the government is corrupt.  It is corrupt.  Big business and banks have taken over government and corrupted it in deep ways.

“We have got to attempt to tell the truth, and that truth is painful,” he says.  “It is a truth that is against the thick lies of the mainstream.  In telling that truth we become so maladjusted to the prevailing injustice that the Democratic Party, more and more, is not just milquetoast and spineless, as it was before, but thoroughly complicitous with some of the worst things in the American empire.  I don’t think in good conscience I could tell anybody to vote for Obama.  If it turns out in the end that we have a crypto-fascist movement and the only thing standing between us and fascism is Barack Obama, then we have to put our foot on the brake.  But we’ve got to think seriously of third-party candidates, third formations, third parties.

When one considers the vast number of disillusioned Obama supporters along with the number of people expressing their disappointment with the Republican field of Presidential hopefuls, the idea that 2012 could be the year when a third-party candidate makes it to the White House doesn’t seem so far-fetched.



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Magic Numbers

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As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.




Some Good News For Once

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Since the Great Recession began three years ago, Americans have been receiving a daily dose of the most miserable news imaginable.  Our prevalent nightmare concerns the possibility that gasoline prices could find their way up to $10 per gallon as Muammar Gawdawful takes Libya into a full-scale civil war.

Some people tried to find a thread of hope in the latest non-farm payrolls report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  The report was spun in several opposing directions by various commentators.  The single statement from the BLS report which seemed most important to me was the remark in the first sentence that    “. . .  the unemployment rate was little changed at 8.9 percent . . .”.  Nevertheless, David Leonhardt of The New York Times noted his suspicion that “the government is understating actual job growth” while providing his own upbeat read of the report.  On the other hand, at the Zero Hedge website, Tyler Durden made this observation:

Wonder why the unemployment rate is at an artificially low 8.9%?  Three simple words:  Labor Force Participation.  At 64.2%, it was unchanged from last month, and continues to be at a 25 year low.  Should the LFP return to its 25 trendline average of 66.1%, the unemployment rate would be 11.6%.

Indeed, the ugly truth is that as you spend more time pondering the current unemployment situation, you find an increasingly dismal picture.  Economist Mark Thoma came up with a “back of the envelope calculation” of the benchmarks he foresees as the unemployment situation abates:

7% unemployment in July of 2012

6% unemployment in March of 2013

5% unemployment in December of 2013

4% unemployment in September of 2014

If anything, relative to the last two recoveries, this forecast is optimistic.  Even so, it will still take two years to get to 6% unemployment (and if the natural rate is closer to 5.5% at that time, as I expect it will be, it will take another five months to fully close the gap). Things may be looking up, but we have a long way to go and it’s too soon to turn our backs on the unemployed.

Only three more years until we return to pre-crisis levels!  Whoopie!

For those in search of genuinely good news, I went on a quest to come up with some for this piece.  Here’s what I found:

For the truly desperate, the Salon website has introduced a new weekly feature entitled, “The Week In Uppers”.  It is a collection of stories, often including video clips, which will (hopefully) make you smile.  The items are heavy on good deeds – sometimes by celebrities.

I was quite surprised by this next “good news” item:  A report by Rex Nutting of MarketWatch, revealing this welcome fact:

.   .   .  the United States remains the biggest manufacturing economy in the world, producing about 20% of the value of global output in 2010  . . .  (Although fast-growing China will pass the United States soon enough.)

Even though we may soon drop to second place, at least our unemployment rate should be in decline by that point.  Here are some more encouraging factoids from Rex Nutting’s essay:

In 2010, U.S. factories shipped $5.03 trillion worth of goods out the door, up 9% from 2009’s horribly depressed output, according to the Census Bureau.

*   *   *

In 2010 alone, productivity in the manufacturing sector surged 6.7%. Fortunately for workers, it looks as if companies have squeezed as much extra output out of labor as they can right now.  For the first time since 1997, factories actually added jobs during the calendar year in 2010, as they hired 112,000 additional workers.

There will be further job gains as factories ramp up their production to meet rising demand, economists say.

According to the Institute for Supply Management’s monthly survey of corporate purchasing managers, business is booming.  The ISM index rose for a seventh straight month in February to 61.4%, matching the highest reading since 1983.

*   *   *

What is the ISM telling us?  “The manufacturing sector is on fire,” says Stephen Stanley, chief economist for Pierpont Securities.  The new orders index rose to 68%, the highest since 2004, and the employment index rose to 64.5%, the highest since 1973.

Factories are hiring because orders are stacking up faster than they can produce goods.

What’s behind the boom?  In part, it’s domestic demand for capital goods and consumer goods.  Businesses are finally beginning to believe in the recovery, so they’re starting to expand, which means new equipment must be purchased.

Be sure to read the full report if you want to re-ignite those long, lost feelings of optimism.

It’s nice to know that if you look hard enough you can still find some good news (at least for now).



Screw The People And Save The Banks

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The economic crisis in Ireland (and the rest of Europe) has resulted in a morass of published commentaries, some of which make sense and most of which don’t.  Sometimes it appears as though the writer hasn’t really formed an opinion on the issue, even though the tone of the article seems to be expressing one.  The problem experienced in Ireland is the same as it is everywhere else:  During tough economic times, governments always choose to bail out the banks regardless of the expense and suffering to be endured by the citizens.  The Pragmatic Capitalist recently upbraided the writer of one of the more poorly-thought-out essays dealing with the Irish predicament:

Sheila Bair, the head of the FDIC, has remained one of the more levelheaded and helpful leaders during the financial crisis.  But in an op-ed in the Washington Post this morning she took a decisive turn for the worse when she waded into waters that were certain to drown her.  Bair is now echoing the cries that have been heard across Ireland for the last 2 years – cries of fiscal austerity.  Of course, the USA is nothing like Ireland and has an entirely different monetary system, but Bair ignores all of this (in fact proves she is entirely ignorant of this).  What’s sad is that Bair clearly understands that this crisis is still largely hurting Main Street America   .   .   .

To the extent that the Irish situation bears any resemblance to what we are experiencing (or may soon experience) in the United States, economist John Hussman has written the best essay on this issue.  Hussman began with this point, made by another economist:

“If you have bad banks then you very urgently want to clean up your banks because bad banks go only one way:  they get worse. In the end every bank is a fiscal problem.  When you have bad banks, it is in a political environment where it is totally understood that the government is going to bail them out in the end.  And that’s why they are so bad, and that’s why they get worse.  So cleaning up the banks is an essential counterpart of any attempt to have a well functioning economy.  It is a counterpart of any attempt to have a dull, uninteresting macroeconomy.  And there is no excuse to do it slowly because it is very expensive to postpone the cleanup.  There is no technical issue in doing the cleanup.  It’s mostly to decide to start to grow up and stop the mess.”

MIT Economist Rudiger Dornbusch, November 1998

The TARP bailout was not the only time when our government chose a temporary fix (as in cure or heroin injection) at great taxpayer expense.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  John Hussman discussed the consequences:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The present situation

Europe will clearly be in the spotlight early this week, as a run on Irish banks coupled with large fiscal deficits has created a solvency crisis for the Irish government itself and has been (temporarily) concluded with a bailout agreement.  Ireland’s difficulties are the result of a post-Lehman guarantee that the Irish government gave to its banking system in 2008.  The resulting strains will now result in a bailout, in return for Ireland’s agreement to slash welfare payments and other forms of spending to recipients that are evidently less valuable to society than bankers.

*   *   *

Over the short run, Ireland will promise “austerity” measures like Greece did – large cuts in government spending aimed at reducing the deficit.  Unfortunately, imposing austerity on a weak economy typically results in further economic weakness and a shortfall on the revenue side, meaning that Ireland will most probably face additional problems shortly anyway.

The “austerity” approach is more frequently being used as a dividing line to distinguish “liberal” economists from “conservative” economists.  The irony here is that many so-called liberal politicians are as deeply in the pocket of the banking lobby as their conservative counterparts.  Economist Dean Baker recently wrote an article for The Guardian, urging Ireland to follow the example of Argentina and simply default on its debt:

The failure of the ECB or IMF to take steps to rein in the bubble before the crisis has not made these international financial institutions shy about using a heavy hand in imposing conditions now.  The plan is to impose stiff austerity, requiring much of Ireland’s workforce to suffer unemployment for years to come as a result of the failure of their bankers and the ECB.

While it is often claimed that these institutions are not political, only the braindead could still believe this.  The decision to make Ireland’s workers, along with workers in Spain, Portugal, Latvia and elsewhere, pay for the recklessness of their country’s bankers is entirely a political one.  There is no economic imperative that says that workers must pay; this is a political decision being imposed by the ECB and IMF.

Bloomberg News columnist, Matthew Lynn wrote a great article for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, setting out five reasons why Ireland should refuse a bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund to opt for default as the logical approach.

Pay close attention to how your favorite politicians weigh-in on the Irish situation.  It should give you a fairly good tip as to what actions those pols can be expected to take when the Wall Street bankers dash back to Capitol Hill for TARP 2 The Sequel.