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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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Harsh Reality

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Several years ago, at one of the seven Laurie Anderson performances I have attended, Ms. Anderson (now Mrs. Lou Reed – although I seriously doubt whether she uses that moniker) described her first meeting with Philip Glass.  Immediately after meeting Glass, she anxiously asked him:  “Are things getting better or are things getting worse?”

These days, that same question is on everyone’s mind.  It appears as though the mainstream news media are hell-bent on convincing us that everything is just fine.  Nevertheless, many of us remember hearing the same thing from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson during the summer of 2008.  As a result, we ponder the onslaught of rosy prognostications about the future of our economy with a good degree of skepticism.  Regardless of whether there might be some sort of conspiracy to convince the public to go out and spend money because everything is all right  . . . consider these remarks by Steve Randy Waldman from a discussion about market monetarist theory:

Self-fulfilling expectations lie at the heart of the market monetarist theory.  A depression occurs when people come to believe that income will be scarce relative to prior expectations and debts.  They nervously scale back expenditures and hoard cash, fulfilling their expectations of income scarcity.  However, if everybody could suddenly be made to believe that income would be plentiful, everyone would spend freely and fulfill the expectations of plenty.  The world is a much more pleasant place under the second set of expectations than the first.  And to switch between the two scenarios, all that is required is persuasion.  The market-monetarist central bank is nothing more than a great persuader:  when “shocks happen”, it persuades us all to maintain our optimism about the path of nominal income.  As long as we all keep the faith, our faith will be rewarded.  This is not a religion, but a Nash equilibrium.

The persuasion described by Steve Waldman has been drowning out objective analysis lately.  Obviously, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has created quite a bit of anxiety in the United States.  The mainstream media focus is apparently targeting that consensual anxiety with heavy doses of “feel good” material.  One must search around a bit before finding any commentary which runs against that current.  I found some and I would like to share it with you.  The first item appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on November 22:

Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Chief Executive Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian said U.S. economic conditions are “terrifying” as the nation struggles to recover from recession.

The odds of the U.S. returning to recession are as much as 50 percent, El-Erian said during an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” with Betty Liu.  U.S. economic growth was worse than expected and congressional policy makers are gridlocked over what to do about the economy and the deficit, which risk exacerbating an already weak recovery, he said.

“We have less economic momentum than we thought we had and we have no policy momentum,” said El-Erian, who also serves as co-chief investment officer with Pimco founder Bill Gross at the world’s largest manager of bond funds.

“What’s most terrifying,” he said, “we are having this discussion about the risk of recession at a time when unemployment is already too high, at a time when a quarter of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, at a time then the fiscal deficit is at 9 percent and at a time when interest rates are at zero.”

Let’s not forget that all of this is happening at a time when we are plagued by the most dysfunctional, stupid and corrupt Congress in our nation’s history.  President Obama is currently preoccupied with his re-election campaign.  His own leadership failures are conveniently re-packaged as products of that feckless Congress.  As a result, Americans have plenty of justification for being worried about the future.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently shared some information with us, which he acquired by attending an InvestmentNews Round Table, as well as from reading Gary Shilling’s expensive newsletter:

Get it? Main Street America, you should “expect very slow growth” in 2012.  That was the response when asked what “scenarios are you painting for your clients?”  The panelist at a recent InvestmentNews Round Table then added:  “It’s going to be ugly and violent.”  Why?  Because the politicians “are driving things” and they are “capricious, which leads to volatility.”  And clients are “not really happy,” but “they lived through ‘08 and ’09,” so 2012 will be “just a little bump in the road.”

*   *   *

So don’t kid yourself folks, recent economic and market “ugliness and violence” not only won’t end soon, it’ll get meaner and meaner for years after 2012 elections … no matter who wins.  Only a fool would believe that a new bull market will take off in 2013.  Ain’t going to happen.  That’s a Wall Street fantasy.  Fall for that, and you’re delusional.

In fact, you better plan on a very long secular bear the next decade through 2020.  With the European banks, credit and currency on the edge of a global financial meltdown, there’s a high probability that a black swan virus, a contagion will sweep the world, making all investing “uglier” and more “violent” for Americans in 2013, indeed for the rest of the decade.

*   *   *

Shilling sees “a secular bear market really started in 2000 and may persist for a decade as a result of slower GDP growth,” yes, persist till 2020 “with 2% to 3% deflation.”  He warns:  “Nominal GDP might not gain at all,” like recent flat-lining.  Which coincides with the expectations of America’s professional financial advisers.

Are you still feeling optimistic?  Consider the closing thoughts from a piece by Karl Denninger entitled, “The Game Is About Done”:

30+ years of lawless behavior has now devolved down to blatant, in-your-face theft.  They don’t even bother trying to hide it any more, and Eric “Place” Holder is too busy supervising the running of guns into Mexico so the drug cartels can shoot both Mexican and American citizens.

What am I, or anyone else, supposed to do in this sort of “market” environment?  Invest in…. what?  Land titles are worthless as they’ve been corrupted by robosigning, margin deposits have been stolen, Madoff’s clients had confirmations of trades that never happend and proved to worthless pieces of paper instead of valuable securities and while Madoff went to prison nobody else has and the money is still gone!

Without enforcement of the law — swift and certain — there is no deterrent against this behavior.

There has been no enforcement and there is no indication that this will change.

It will take just one — or maybe two — more events like MF Global and Greek CDS “determinations” before the entire market — all of it — goes “no bid” as participants simply stuff their hands in their pockets and say “screw this.”

It’s coming folks, and I guarantee you this:  Whatever your “nightmare” scenario is for such an event, it’s not bearish enough.

Keep all of this in mind as you plan for the future.  I would not expect that you might hear any of this on CNBC.


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Discipline Problem

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At the conclusion of a single, five-year term as Chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) Sheila Bair is calling it quits.  One can hardly blame her.  It must have been one hell of an experience:  Warning about the hazards of the subprime mortgage market, being ignored and watching the consequences unfold . . .  followed by a painful, weekly ritual, which gave birth to a website called Bank Fail Friday.

Bair’s tenure at the helm of the FDIC has been – and will continue to be – the subject of some great reading.  On her final day at the FDIC (July 8) The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Ms. Bair in which she warned that short-term, goal-directed thinking could bring about another financial crisis.  She also had something to brag about.  Despite the efforts of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless and the Obama administration to ignore the malefaction which brought about the financial crisis and allowed the Wall Street villains to profiteer from that catastrophe, Bair’s FDIC actually stepped up to the plate:

This past week, the FDIC adopted a rule that allows the agency to claw back two years’ worth of compensation from senior executives and managers responsible for the collapse of a systemic, non-bank financial firm.

To date, the FDIC has authorized suits against 248 directors and officers of failed banks for shirking their fiduciary duties, seeking at least $6.8 billion in damages.  The rationales the executives come up with to try to escape accountability for their actions never cease to amaze me.  They blame the failure of their institutions on market forces, on “dead-beat borrowers,” on regulators, on space aliens.  They will reach for any excuse to avoid responsibility.

Mortgage brokers and the issuers of mortgage-based securities were typically paid based on volume, and they responded to these incentives by making millions of risky loans, then moving on to new jobs long before defaults and foreclosures reached record levels.

The difference between Sheila Bair’s approach to the financial/economic crisis and that of the Obama Administration (whose point man has been Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner) was analyzed in a great article by Joe Nocera of The New York Times entitled, “Sheila Bair’s Bank Shot”.  The piece was based on Nocera’s “exit interview” with the departing FDIC Chair.  Throughout that essay, Nocera underscored Bair’s emphasis on “market discipline” – which he contrasted with Geithner’s fanatic embrace of the exact opposite:  “moral hazard” (which Geithner first exhibited at the onset of the crisis while serving as President of the Federal Reserve of New York).  Nocera made this point early in the piece:

On financial matters, she seemed to have better political instincts than Obama’s Treasury Department, which of course is now headed by Geithner.  She favored “market discipline” – meaning shareholders and debt holders would take losses ahead of depositors and taxpayers – over bailouts, which she abhorred.  She didn’t spend a lot of time fretting over bank profitability; if banks had to become less profitable, postcrisis, in order to reduce the threat they posed to the system, so be it.  (“Our job is to protect bank customers, not banks,” she told me.)

Bair’s discussion of those early, panic-filled days during September 2008 is consistent with reports we have read about Geithner elsewhere.  This passage from Nocera’s article is one such example:

For instance, during the peak of the crisis, with credit markets largely frozen, banks found themselves unable to roll over their short-term debt.  This made it virtually impossible for them to function.  Geithner wanted the F.D.I.C. to guarantee literally all debt issued by the big bank-holding companies – an eye-popping request.

Bair said no.  Besides the risk it would have entailed, it would have also meant a windfall for bondholders, because much of the existing debt was trading at a steep discount.  “It was unnecessary,” she said.  Instead, Bair and Paulson worked out a deal in which the F.D.I.C. guaranteed only new debt issued by the bank-holding companies.  It was still a huge risk for the F.D.I.C. to take; Paulson says today that it was one of the most important, if underrated, actions taken by the federal government during the crisis.  “It was an extraordinary thing for us to do,” Bair acknowledged.

Back in April of 2009, the newly-appointed Treasury Secretary met with similar criticism in this great article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson at The New York Times:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’ ” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

Geithner’s utter contempt for market discipline again became a subject of the Nocera-Bair interview when the conversation turned to the infamous Maiden Lane III bailouts.

“I’ve always wondered why none of A.I.G.’s counterparties didn’t have to take any haircuts.  There’s no reason in the world why those swap counterparties couldn’t have taken a 10 percent haircut.  There could have at least been a little pain for them.”  (All of A.I.G.’s counterparties received 100 cents on the dollar after the government pumped billions into A.I.G.  There was a huge outcry when it was revealed that Goldman Sachs received more than $12 billion as a counterparty to A.I.G. swaps.)

Bair continued:  “They didn’t even engage in conversation about that.  You know, Wall Street barely missed a beat with their bonuses.”

“Isn’t that ridiculous?” she said.

This article by Gretchen Morgenson provides more detail about Geithner’s determination that AIG’s counterparties receive 100 cents on the dollar.  For Goldman Sachs – it amounted to $12.9 billion which was never repaid to the taxpayers.  They can brag all they want about paying back TARP – but Maiden Lane III was a gift.

I was surprised that Sheila Bair – as a Republican – would exhibit the same sort of “true believer-ism” about Barack Obama as voiced by many Democrats who blamed Rahm Emanuel for the early disappointments of the Obama administration.  Near the end of Nocera’s interview, Bair appeared taken-in by Obama’s “plausible deniability” defense:

“I think the president’s heart is in the right place,” Bair told me.  “I absolutely do.  But the dichotomy between who he selected to run his economic team and what he personally would like them to be doing – I think those are two very different things.”  What particularly galls her is that Treasury under both Paulson and Geithner has been willing to take all sorts of criticism to help the banks.  But it has been utterly unwilling to take any political heat to help homeowners.

The second key issue for Bair has been dealing with the too-big-to-fail banks. Her distaste for the idea that the systemically important banks can never be allowed to fail is visceral.  “I don’t think regulators can adequately regulate these big banks,” she told me.  “We need market discipline.  And if we don’t have that, they’re going to get us in trouble again.”

If Sheila Bair’s concern is valid, the Obama administration’s track record for market discipline has us on a certain trajectory for another financial crisis.



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Obama And The TARP

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I always enjoy it when a commentator appearing on a talk show reminds us that President Obama has become a “tool” for the Wall Street bankers.  This theme is usually rebutted with the claim that the TARP bailout happened before Obama took office and that he can’t be blamed for rewarding the miscreants who destroyed our economy.  Nevertheless, this claim is not entirely true.  President Bush withheld distribution of one-half of the $700 billion in TARP bailout funds, deferring to his successor’s assessment of the extent to which the government should intervene in the banking crisis.  As it turned out, during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department declared that there was no longer an “urgent need” for the TARP bailouts to continue.  Despite that development, Obama made it clear that anyone on Capitol Hill intending to get between the banksters and that $350 billion was going to have a fight on their hands.  Let’s jump into the time machine and take a look at my posting from January 19, 2009 – the day before Obama assumed office:

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Of course, we all know how that worked out  .   .   .  another Obama promise bit the dust.

The new President’s efforts to enrich the Wall Street banks at taxpayer expense didn’t end with TARP.  By mid-April of 2009, the administration’s “special treatment” of those “too big to fail” banks was getting plenty of criticism.  As I wrote on April 16 of that year:

Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).

*   *   *

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

*   *   *

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

Although President Obama’s hunt for Osama bin Laden was a success, his decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – became Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment”, at which point he allowed economic recovery to continue on its elusive path away from us.  Economist Steve Keen recently posted this video, explaining how Obama’s failure to promote an effective stimulus program has guaranteed us something worse than a “double-dip” recession:  a quadruple-dip recession.

Many commentators are currently discussing efforts by Republicans to make sure that the economy is in dismal shape for the 2012 elections so that voters will blame Obama and elect the GOP alternative.  If Professor Keen is correct about where our economy is headed, I can only hope there is a decent Independent candidate in the race.  Otherwise, our own “lost decade” could last much longer than ten years.


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Leadership Void

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In my last posting, I re-ran a passage from what I wrote on December 2, which was supported by Robert Reich’s observation that, unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is not at the helm of a country with an expanding economy.  As I said on December 2:

After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.

After I posted my April 7 piece, I felt a bit remorseful about repeating a stale theme.  Nevertheless, a few days later, Ezra Klein’s widely-acclaimed Washington Post critique of President Obama’s misadventure in “negotiating” the 2011 budget was entitled, “2011 is not 1995”.  Ezra Klein validated the point I was trying to make:

Clinton’s success was a function of a roaring economy.  The late ‘90s were a boom time like few others — and not just in America.  The unemployment rate was less than 6 percent in 1995, and fell to under 5 percent in 1996. Cutting deficits was the right thing to do at that time.  Deficits should be low to nonexistent when the economy is strong, and larger when it is weak.  The Obama administration’s economists know that full well.  They are, after all, the very people who worked to balance the budget in the 1990s, and who fought to expand the deficit in response to the recession.

Right now, the economy is weak.  Giving into austerity will weaken it further, or at least delay recovery for longer.  And if Obama does not get a recovery, then he will not be a successful president, no matter how hard he works to claim Boehner’s successes as his own.

President Obama’s attempt at spin control with a claim of “bragging rights” for ending the budget stalemate brought similar criticism from economist Brad DeLong:

To reduce federal government spending by $38 billion in the second and third quarters of 2011 when the unemployment rate is 8.9% and the U.S. Treasury can borrow on terms that make pulling spending forward from the future into the present essentially free is not an accomplishment.

It will knock between 0.5% and 1.0% off the growth rate of real GDP in the second half of 2011, and leave us at the start of 2012 with an unemployment rate a couple of tenths of a percent higher than it would have been otherwise.

Robert Reich expressed his disappointment with the President’s handling of the 2011 budget deal by highlighting Mr. Obama’s failure to put the interests of the middle class ahead of the goals of the plutocracy:

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth:  That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

That we got into the Great Recession because Wall Street went bonkers and government failed to do its job at regulating financial markets.  And that much of the current deficit comes from the necessary response to that financial crisis.

That the only ways to deal with the long-term budget problem is to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, and to slow down soaring health-care costs.

And that, at a deeper level, the increasingly lopsided distribution of income and wealth has robbed the vast working middle class of the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going at full capacity.

“We preserved the investments we need to win the future,” he said last night.  That’s not true.

The idea that a huge portion of our current deficit comes from the response to the financial crisis created by Wall Street banks was explored in more detail by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The approach of saving the banks, under the misguided notion that relief would “trickle down” to Main Street didn’t work.  The second round of quantitative easing (QE 2) has proven to be nothing more than an imprudent decision to follow Japan’s ineffective playbook:

And in 2008 our government was convinced by Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke that if we just saved the banks we would fix the economy.  So we embarked on the “recovery” plan that has led us to one of the weakest recoveries in US economic history.  Because of the keen focus on the banking system there is a clear two tier recovery.  Wall Street is thriving again and Main Street is still struggling.

Thus far, we have run budget deficits that have been large enough to offset much of the deleveraging of the private sector.  And though the spending was poorly targeted it has been persistent enough that we are not repeating the mistakes of Japan – YET.  By my estimates the balance sheet recession is likely to persist well into 2013.

*   *   *

QE2 has truly been a “monetary non-event”.  As many of us predicted at its onset, this program has shown absolutely no impact on the US money supply (much to the dismay of the hyperinflationists).  And now its damaging psychological impact (via rampant speculation) has altered the options available to combat the continuing balance sheet recession.  While more stimulus is almost certainly off the table given the Fed’s misguided QE2 policy, it would be equally misguided to begin cutting the current budget deficit.  Sizable cuts before the end of the balance sheet recession will almost guarantee that the US economy suffers a Japan-like relapse.  It’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of Japan.

So where is the leader who is going to save us from a Japanese-style “lost decade” recession?  It was over two years ago when I posed this question:

Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” – by avoiding bank nationalization – send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

Two years down – eight years to go.


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License To Steal

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People are finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions.  Voters have seen so many politicians breach their campaign promises while providing new meaning to the expression “follow the money”, that there now seems to be a resigned acceptance that political payoffs are an uncomfortable fact of life.  Worse yet, most people aren’t aware of another loophole in the law allowing Congress-cretins to make real money.

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. 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.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

Here is a summary of the most important provisions of the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act”:

Amends the Securities Exchange Act of 1934 and the Commodities Exchange Act to direct both the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) to prohibit purchase or sale of either securities or commodities for future delivery by a person in possession of material nonpublic information regarding pending or prospective legislative action if the information was obtained:  (1) knowingly from a Member or employee of Congress; (2) by reason of being a Member or employee of Congress; and (3) other federal employees.

Amends the Code of Official Conduct of the Rules of the House of Representatives to prohibit designated House personnel from disclosing material nonpublic information relating to any pending or prospective legislative action relating to either securities of a publicly-traded company or a commodity if such personnel has reason to believe that the information will be used to buy or sell the securities or commodity based on such information.

Back in September of 2009, a report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn discussed the investment transactions made by some Senators in September of 2008, after having been informed by former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke, that our financial system was on the verge of a meltdown.  After quoting then GOP House Minority Leader John Boehner’s public acknowledgement that:

We clearly have an unprecedented crisis in our financial system.    .   .   .

On behalf of the American people our job is to put our partisan differences aside and to work together to help solve this crisis.

Mr. Henn proceeded to explain how swift Senatorial action resulted in a bipartisan exercise of greed:

The next day, according to personal financial disclosures, Boehner cashed out of a fund designed to profit from inflation.  Since he sold, it’s lost more than half its value.

Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, who was also at that meeting sold more than $40,000 in mutual funds and reinvested it all with Warren Buffett.

Durbin said like millions of others he was worried about his retirement.  Boehner says his stock broker acted alone without even talking to him.  Both lawmakers say they didn’t benefit from any special tips.

But over time members of Congress do much better than the rest of us when playing the stock market.

*   *   *

The value of information that flows from the inner workings of Washington isn’t lost on Wall Street professionals.

Michael Bagley is a former congressional staffer who now runs the OSINT Group.  Bagley sells access and research. His clients are hedge funds, and he makes it his business to mine Congress and the rest of Washington for tips.

MICHAEL Bagley: The power center of finance has moved from Wall Street to Washington.

His firm is just one recent entry into Washington’s newest growth industry.

CRAIG HOLMAN: It’s called political intelligence.

Craig Holman is at Public Citizen, a consumer watchdog.  Holman believes lobbyists shouldn’t be allowed to sell tips to hedge funds and members of Congress shouldn’t trade on non-public information.  But right now it’s legal.

HOLMAN: It’s absolutely incredible, but the Securities and Exchange Act does not apply to members of Congress, congressional staff or even lobbyists.

That law bans corporate insiders, from executives to their bankers and lawyers, from trading on inside information.  But it doesn’t apply to political intelligence.  That makes this business lucrative.  Bagley says firms can charge hedge funds $25,000 a month just to follow a hot issue.

BAGLEY: So information is a commodity in Washington.

Inside information on dozens of issues, from bank capitol requirements to new student loan rules, can move markets.  Consumer advocate Craig Holman is backing a bill called the STOCK Act.  Introduced in the House, it would force political-intelligence firms to disclose their clients and it would ban lawmakers, staffers, and lobbyists from profiting on non-public knowledge.

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.

Take a look at the list below from opensecrets.org concerning the wealthiest members of Congress.  In light of the fact that these knaves are able to trade on “inside information” you now have the answer to the following question from the opensecrets website:

Congressional members’ personal wealth keeps expanding year after year, typically at rates well beyond inflation and any tax increases.  The same cannot be said for most Americans.  Are your representatives getting rich in Congress and, if so, how?

Here is the Top Ten List of the Richest Members of Congress from opensecrets.org:

NAME               MINIMUM NET WORTH    AVERAGE   MAXIMUM NET WORTH

Darrell Issa (R-Calif) $156,050,022      $303,575,011    $451,100,000

Jane Harman (D-Calif)  $151,480,522    $293,454,761   $435,429,001

John Kerry (D-Mass)    $182,755,534     $238,812,296   $294,869,059

Mark Warner (D-Va)     $65,692,210       $174,385,102   $283,077,995

Jared Polis (D-Colo)     $36,694,140        $160,909,068   $285,123,996

Herb Kohl (D-Wis)        $89,358,027           $160,302,011   $231,245,995

Vernon Buchanan (R-Fla)$-69,434,661    $148,373,160  $366,180,982

Michael McCaul (R-Texas) $73,685,086  $137,611,043  $201,537,000

Jay Rockefeller (D-WVa)  $61,446,018      $98,832,010   $136,218,002

Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif) $46,055,250    $77,082,134   $108,109,018

Jay Rockefeller’s position on the list is easy to understand, given the fact that he is the great-grandson of John D. Rockefeller.  How the first eight people on the list were able to become more wealthy than Jay Rockefeller should be matter of interest to the voting public.  In the case of  #10 — California Senator Dianne Feinstein  — we have an interesting situation.  As chair of the Senate Military Construction Appropriations subcommittee, she helped her husband, Iraq war profiteer Richard C. Blum, benefit from decisions she made as chair of that subcommittee.  In an article for bohemian.com, Peter Byrne discussed how Senator Feinstein was routinely informed about specific federal projects coming before her in which one of her husband’s businesses had a stake.  As Byrne’s article explained, the inside information Feinstein received was intended to help the senator avoid conflicts of interest, although it had the effect of exacerbating such conflicts.

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest .   .   .


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There WILL Be Another Financial Crisis

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The latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP – the Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (Neil Barofsky) – was released on January 26, 2011.  The report brought a mix of good and bad news.  Among the good news was this tidbit:

Where fraud has managed to slip in, SIGTARP’s Investigations Division has already produced outstanding results in bringing to justice those who have sought to profit criminally from TARP, with 45 individuals charged civilly or criminally with fraud, of whom 13 have been criminally convicted. SIGTARP’s investigative efforts have helped prevent $555.2 million in taxpayer funds from being lost to fraud.  And with 142 ongoing investigations (including 64 into executives at financial institutions that applied for and/or received TARP funding through TARP’s Capital Purchase Program [“CPP”]), much more remains to be done.

Much of the bad news from SIGTARP stems from the never-ending problem of “moral hazard” resulting from the perpetually-increasing growth of those financial institutions, which have been “too big to fail” for too long:

In short, the continued existence of institutions that are “too big to fail” — an undeniable byproduct of former Secretary Paulson and Secretary Geithner’s use of TARP to assure the markets that during a time of crisis that they would not let such institutions fail — is a recipe for disaster.  These institutions and their leaders are incentivized to engage in precisely the sort of behavior that could trigger the next financial crisis, thus perpetuating a doomsday cycle of booms, busts, and bailouts.

Worse yet, as Mr. Barofsky pointed out in a January 25 interview with the Center for Public Integrity, the system has been rigged to provide additional advantages to the TBTF banks, making it impossible for smaller institutions to compete with them:

Noting that the major financial institutions are 20 percent larger than they were before the financial crisis, Barofsky said that the financial markets simply don’t believe that the government will allow one of these biggest banks to collapse, regardless of what they say will happen.  Those big banks enjoy access to cheaper credit than smaller institutions, based on that implicit government guarantee, he said.

As evidence, he cited the ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, which recently announced its intention to add the prospect of government support into its calculation when determining a bank’s credit rating.

At 1:35 into the video clip of the Center for Public Integrity’s interview with Mr. Barofsky, he explained:

There’s going to be another financial crisis.  Of course, there is.

He went on to point out that once the next crisis begins, we will have the option of implementing the mechanisms established by the Dodd-Frank bill for breaking up insolvent banks.  The question then becomes:  Will be break up those banks or bail them out?  Barofsky suspects that the market is anticipating another round of bailouts.  He noted that “there’s a question of whether there will be the political will as well as the regulatory will to do that”.  As he pointed out on page 11 of the latest SIGTARP Quarterly Report:

As long as the relevant actors (executives, ratings agencies, creditors and counterparties) believe there will be a bailout, the problems of “too big to fail” will almost certainly persist.

Let’s not forget that most dangerous among those problems is the encouraged and facilitated “risky behavior” by those institutions, which will bring about the next financial crisis.  This is the “Doomsday Cycle” problem discussed by Mr. Barofsky.  “The Doomsday Cycle” was the subject of a paper, written last year by economists Simon Johnson and Peter Boone.

The SIGTARP Report then focused on what has been discussed as TARP’s biggest failure:

As SIGTARP discussed in its October 2010 Quarterly Report, after two years, TARP’s Main Street goals of “increas[ing] lending,” and “promot[ing] jobs and economic growth” had been largely unmet, but it is TARP’s failure to realize its most specific Main Street goal, “preserving homeownership,” that has had perhaps the most devastating consequences.  Treasury’s central foreclosure prevention effort designed to address that goal — the Home Affordable Modification Program (“HAMP”) — has been beset by problems from the outset and, despite frequent retooling, continues to fall dramatically short of any meaningful standard of success.  Indeed, even the “good news” of falling estimates for TARP’s cost is driven in part by the ineffectiveness of HAMP and related programs, which provide for TARP-funded grants and incentives.

As we begin fighting over the Final Report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) — which investigated the causes of the financial crisis — it is important to be mindful of Neil Barofsky’s admonition that there will be another financial crisis.  If our government fails to prosecute the malfeasance that caused the crisis itself, that neglect — combined with the enhanced size of those “too big to fail” banks — could create a disaster we would have to characterize as “TBFAB” – Too Big For A Bailout.  What will happen at that point?


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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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Inviting Blowback

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March 11, 2010

Is it just a coincidence that “Turbo” Tim Geithner was the subject of back-to-back feature stories in The New Yorker and The Atlantic ?  A number of commentators don’t think so.

The March 10 issue of The New Yorker ran an article by John Cassidy entitled, “No Credit”.  The title is meant to imply that Getithner’s efforts to save America’s financial system are working but he’s not getting any credit for this achievement.  From the very outset, this piece was obviously an attempt to reconstruct Geithner’s controversial public image – because he has been widely criticized as a tool of Wall Street.

The article by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in the April 26, 2009 issue of The New York Times helped clarify the record on Geithner’s loyalty to the big banks at the public’s expense, during his tenure as president of the Federal Reserve of New York.  That piece began with a brainstorming session convened by Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson in June of 2008, at which point Paulson asked for suggestions as to what emergency powers the government should have at its disposal to confront the burgeoning financial crisis:

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.

The recent article in The New Yorker defends Geithner’s bank bailouts, with a bit of historical revisionism that conveniently avoids a small matter referred to as Maiden Lane III:

During the past ten months, U.S. banks have raised more than a hundred and forty billion dollars from investors and increased the reserves they hold to cover unforeseen losses.  While many small banks are still in peril, their larger brethren, such as Bank of America, Wells Fargo, and Goldman Sachs, are more strongly capitalized than many of their international competitors, and they have repaid virtually all the money they received from taxpayers.  Looking ahead, the Treasury Department estimates the ultimate cost of the financial-rescue package at just a hundred and seventeen billion dollars — and much of that related to propping up General Motors and Chrysler.

Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns dismissed the NewYorker article as “an out and out puff piece” that Geithner himself could have written:

Don’t be fooled; this is a clear plant to help bolster public opinion for a bailout and transfer of wealth, which was both unnecessary and politically damaging.

The article on Geithner, appearing in the April issue of The Atlantic, was described by Mr. Harrison as “fairly even-handed” although worthy of extensive criticism.  Nevertheless, after reading the following passage from the first page of the essay, I found it difficult to avoid using the terms “fawning and sycophantic” to describe it:

In the course of many interviews about Geithner, two qualities came up again and again.  The first was his extraordinary quickness of mind and talent for elucidating whatever issue was the preoccupying concern of the moment.  Second was his athleticism.  Unprompted by me, friends and colleagues extolled his skill and grace at windsurfing, tennis, basketball, running, snowboarding, and softball (specifying his prowess at shortstop and in center field, as well as at the plate).  He inspires an adolescent awe in male colleagues.

Gawd!  Yeech!

The reaction to the New Yorker and Atlantic articles, articulated by Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, is an absolutely fantastic “must read” piece.  Ms. Smith goes beyond the subject of Geithner.  Her essay is a tour de force, describing how President Obama sold out the American public in the service of his patrons on Wall Street.  The final two paragraphs portray the administration’s antics with a long-overdue measure of pugilism:

But the Obama administration miscalculated badly.  First, it bought the financiers’ false promise that massive subsidies to them would kick start the economy.  But economists are now estimating that it is likely to take five years to return to pre-crisis levels of unemployment.  Obama took his eye off the ball.  A Democratic President’s most important responsibility is job creation.  It is simply unacceptable to most Americans for Wall Street to be reaping record profits and bonuses while the rest of the country is suffering.  Second, it assumed finance was too complicated to hold the attention of most citizens, and so the (non) initiatives under way now would attract comparatively little scrutiny.  But as public ire remains high, the press coverage has become almost schizophrenic.  Obvious public relations plants, like Ben Bernanke’s designation as Time Magazine’s Man of the Year (precisely when his confirmation is running into unexpected opposition) and stories in the New York Times that incorrectly reported some Goldman executive bonus cosmetics as meaningful concessions have co-existed with reports on the abject failure of Geithner’s mortgage modification program.  While mainstream press coverage is still largely flattering, the desperation of the recent PR moves versus the continued public ire and recognition of where the Administration’s priorities truly lie means the fissures are becoming a gaping chasm.

So with Obama’s popularity falling sharply, it should be no surprise that the Administration is resorting to more concerted propaganda efforts.  It may have no choice.  Having ceded so much ground to the financiers, it has lost control of the battlefield.  The banking lobbyists have perfected their tactics for blocking reform over the last two decades.  Team Obama naively cast its lot with an industry that is vastly more skilled in the dark art of the manufacture of consent than it is.

Congratulations to Yves Smith for writing a fantastic critique of the Obama administration’s combination of nonfeasance and misfeasance in responding to both the financial and economic crises.



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Lev Is The Drug

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January 14, 2010

The first day of hearings conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was as entertaining as I expected.  The stars of the show:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs, John Mack of Morgan Stanley, “The Dimon Dog” of JP Morgan Chase and Brian Moynihan from Bank of America presented themselves as likeable guys.  However, in the case of Blankfein, whenever he wasn’t talking he would sit there with that squinting, perplexed look on his face that seemed to mime the question:  “WTF?”  A large segment of the viewing public has already been primed to view these gentlemen as “The Four Horsemen of The Financial Apocalypse”.  Nevertheless, there were four more Horsemen absent from the “stage” on Wednesday:  Messrs. Greenspan, Bernanke, Paulson and Geithner.  Beyond that, Brian Moynihan didn’t really belong there, since he was not such a significant “player” as the other panel members, in events of 2008.  In fact, history may yet view his predecessor, Ken Lewis, as more of a victim in this drama, due to the fact that he was apparently coerced by Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke into buying Merrill Lynch with instructions to remain silent about Merrill’s shabby financial status.  I would have preferred to see Vikram Pandit of Citigroup in that seat.

As I watched the show, I tried to imagine what actors would be cast to play which characters on the panel in a movie about the financial crisis.  Mike Myers would be the obvious choice to portray Lloyd Blankfein.  Myers could simply don his Dr. Evil regalia and it would be an easy gig.  The Dimon Dog should be played by George Clooney because he came off as a “regular guy”, lacking the highly-polished, slick presentation one might expect from someone in that position.  Brian Moynihan could be portrayed by Robin Williams, in one of his rare, serious roles.  John Mack should be portrayed by Nicholas Cage, if only because Cage needs the money.

Although many reports have described their demeanor as “contrite”, the four members of the first panel gave largely self-serving presentations, characterizing their firms in the most favorable light.  Blankfein emphasized that Goldman Sachs still believes in marking its assets to market.  As expected, his theme of  “if we knew then what we knew now  . . .” got heavier rotation than a Donna Summer record at a party for Richard Simmons.  John Mack, who was more candid and perhaps the most contrite panel member, made a point of mentioning that some assets cannot be “marked to market” because there really is no market for them.  Excuse me   . . .  but isn’t that the definition of the term, “worthless”?

Throughout the session, the panel discussed the myriad causes that contributed to the onset of the financial crisis.  Despite that, nobody seemed interested in implicating the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy as a factor.  “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” was the order of the day.  All four panelists described the primary cause of the crisis as excessive leverage.  They acted as a chorus, singing “Lev Is The Drug”.  Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a 23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.  Dimon went on to make the specious claim that overleveraging by consumers was a contributing element in causing the crisis.  Although many commentators whom I respect have made the same point, I just don’t buy it.  Why blame people who were led to believe that their homes would continue to print money for them until they died?  Dimon himself admitted at the hearing that no consideration was ever given to the possibility that home values would slump.  Worse yet, for a producer or purveyor of the so-called “financial weapons of mass-destruction” to implicate overleveraged consumers as sharing a role in precipitating this mess is simply absurd.

The second panel from Wednesday’s hearing was equally, if not more entertaining.  Michael Mayo of Calyon Securities seemed awfully proud of himself.  After all, he did a great job on his opening statement and he knew it.  Later on, he refocused his pride with an homage to his brother, who is currently serving in Iraq.  Nevertheless, the star witness from the second panel was Kyle Bass of Hayman Advisors, who gave the most impressive performance of the day.  Bass made a point of emphasizing (in so many words) that Lloyd Blankfein’s 23-to-1 leverage ratio was nearly 100 percent higher than what prudence should allow.  If you choose to watch the testimony of just one witness from Wednesday’s hearing, make sure it’s Kyle Bass.

I didn’t bother to watch the third panel for much longer than a few minutes.  The first two acts were tough to follow.  Shortly into the opening statement by Mark Zandy of Moody’s, I decided that I had seen enough for the day.  Besides, Thursday’s show would hold the promise of some excitement with the testimony of Sheila Bair of the FDIC.  I wondered whether someone might ask her:  “Any hints as to what banks are going to fail tomorrow?”  On the other hand, I had been expecting the testimony of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to help cure me of the insomnia caused by too much Cuban coffee.

The Commissioners themselves have done great work with all of the witnesses.  Phil Angelides has a great style, combining a pleasant affect with incisive questioning and good witness control.  Doug Holtz-Eakin and Brooksley Born have been batting 1000.  Heather Murren is more than a little easy on the eyes, bringing another element of “star quality” to the show.

Who knows?  This commission could really end up making a difference in effectuating financial reform.  They’re certainly headed in that direction.



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