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Reality Check

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July 13, 2009

Have you become sick of hearing about the “green shoots”?   Back on March 15, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke appeared on 60 Minutes and made the self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy.  I guess we’re supposed to thank him for all the extra money printing he had mandated, to facilitate this claimed result.  While we normal people continued to cope with ongoing job losses, an almost nonexistent job market, unavailable mortgages, a constipated real estate market and fear about the future   . . .   Chairman Bernanke was trying to sell us on some good news.  Since that time, the expression “green shoots” has been the mantra for those pundits who, for whatever reason, want the naive public to believe in the emperor’s new clothes.  The usual motive for chatting up the “green shoots” is to encourage a widespread popular return to investing in the stock market and by so doing, make life more rewarding for those at brokerage firms.

This week brings us a “reality check” that will come in the form of earnings reports from the second quarter of 2009, required for disclosure by publicly-held corporations, traded on our nation’s stock exchanges.  Recent news reports have focused on the fact that despite the “bear market rally” that began in May, last week’s drop in stock prices revealed widespread investor concern that the truth will not support all the hype they have been reading since the spring.  Here’s what E.S. Browning had to say in the July 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal:

Expectations for the current earnings season are very low, and investors are worried companies will give weak outlooks for the second half of the year.

“We kind of think the market got ahead of itself.  It ran too fast, too hard, and we are soon going to be staring at second-quarter earnings reports that are not going to be pretty,” said Janna Sampson, who helps oversee $1.3 billion as co-chief investment officer of OakBrook Investments in Lisle, Ill.

After the market bottomed March 9, investors increasingly embraced risky assets, bidding up stocks, especially those of smaller companies with little or no profit.

Those unfortunate investors were hit by two “sucker punches”.  The first was the often-repeated claim that “stocks are now a bargain  . . .  we’ve hit the bottom so now is the time to BUY!”  The second sucker punch involved the use of high-speed trading programs (such as the one recently stolen from Goldman Sachs) to run up the prices on stocks and exploit “retail investors” such as you and me.  An astute explanation of this process was recently published by Sal Arnuk and Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading.  You can read that report here.  What’s even more interesting about the computer program used by (and stolen from) Goldman Sachs, is the statement made by Assistant U.S.Attorney Joseph Facciponti, as quoted in the July 6 article by David Glovin and Christine Harper for Bloomberg News:

“The bank has raised the possibility that there is a danger that somebody who knew how to use this program could use it to manipulate markets in unfair ways,” Facciponti said, according to a recording of the hearing made public today.

So Goldman Sachs has a computer program that allows the user to “manipulate the markets in unfair ways”?  That’s quite a revelation!  If that weren’t bad enough  . . .  according to a recent report by Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge, Goldman Sachs is not the only kid on the block with a high-frequency trading program.

Alexendra Twin of CNN (in addition to providing us with a schedule of earnings reports and other important economic data to be released over this week and next) pointed out another important reason for last spring’s stock market rally, which is not likely to be a factor this month:

Last quarter, analysts and corporations alike ratcheted down forecasts, setting up a period in which a greater percentage of companies than usual beat forecasts.  But this quarter could be different.  Fewer companies have been cutting forecasts and analysts haven’t budged as much either, giving corporations less of an opportunity to defy expectations.

“The question is whether we’ll see a similar surprise factor this time,” said John Butters, senior research analyst at Thomson Reuters. “If companies haven’t cut and analysts haven’t cut, can results beat forecasts?”

My take on this process is a bit more cynical:  the system is being “gamed” by companies’ providing artificially low estimates for future earnings, in order to win at what commentator Bill Fleckenstein calls “beat the number”.

Once we have read about all these reports  —  will we finally stop hearing about “green shoots”?  I have my money on bad economic news, as I continue to maintain my position in the SRS exchange-traded fund.  Nevertheless, I’m keeping one hand on the ripcord, ready to bail out at any minute.

The Scary Stuff

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July 6, 2009

During the past week, a good number of Americans had been soothing themselves in Michael Jackson nostalgia  . . .  others watched tennis, many were intrigued by the military coup in Honduras and everyone tried to figure out what was going on in Sarah Palin’s mind.  Meanwhile  . . .  there was some really scary stuff in the news.  With Fourth of July behind us, it’s time to start looking forward to Halloween.  We need not look very far to get a good scare.  Those of us who still have jobs are afraid they may lose them.  Those who have lost their jobs wonder how long they can stay afloat before chaos finally takes over.  Many wise people, despite their comfortable positions in life (for now) have been discussing these types of problems lately.  Their opinions and outlooks are getting more and more ink (or electrons) as the economic crisis continues to unfold.

As we look at the current situation,  let’s check in with the guy who has the biggest mouth.  During an interview on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Vice-President Joe Biden admitted that “we and everyone else misread the economy”:

Biden acknowledged administration officials were too optimistic earlier this year when they predicted the unemployment rate would peak at 8 percent as part of their effort to sell the stimulus package.  The national unemployment rate has ballooned to 9.5 percent in June  —  the worst in 26 years.

This was basically a concession, validating the long-standing criticism by economists such as Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a “Dr.Doom”) who refuted the administration’s view of this crisis.  Many economists (including Roubini) have emphasized the administration’s unrealistic perception of the unemployment problem as a primary flaw in the “bank stress tests” as established by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  Now we’re finding out how ugly this picture really is.  Here are some points raised by Dr. Roubini on July 2:

The June employment report suggests that the alleged “green shoots” are mostly yellow weeds that may eventually turn into brown manure.  The employment report shows that conditions in the labor market continue to be extremely weak, with job losses in June of over 460,000.

*   *   *

The other important aspect of the labor market is that if the unemployment rate is going to peak around 11 percent next year, the expected losses for banks on their loans and securities are going to be much higher than the ones estimated in the recent stress tests.  You plug an unemployment rate of 11 percent in any model of loan losses and recovery rates and you get very ugly losses for subprime, near-prime, prime, home equity loan lines, credit cards, auto loans, student loans, leverage loans, and commercial loans — much bigger numbers than what the stress tests projected.

In the stress tests, the average unemployment rate next year was assumed to be 10.3 percent in the most adverse scenario. We’ll be already at 10.3 percent by the fall or the winter of this year, and certainly well above that and close to 11% at some point next year.

*   *   *

The job market report is essentially the tip of the iceberg.  It’s a significant signal of the weaknesses in the economy.  It affects consumer confidence.  It affects labor income.  It affects consumption.  It affects the willingness of firms to start increasing production.  It has significant consequences of the housing market.  And it has significant consequences, of course, on the banking system.

*   *   *

But eventually, large budget deficits and their monetization are going to lead — towards the end of next year and in 2011 — to an increase in expected inflation that may lead to a further increase in ten-year treasuries and other long-term government bond yields, and thus mortgage and private-market rates.  Together with higher oil prices driven up in part by this wall of liquidity rather than fundamentals alone, this could be a double whammy that could push the economy into a double-dip or W-shaped recession by late 2010 or 2011.   So the outlook for the US and global economy remains extremely weak ahead.  The recent rally in global equities, commodities and credit may soon fizzle out as an onslaught of worse-than-expected macro, earnings and financial news take a toll on this rally,which has gotten way ahead of improvement in actual macro data.

All right  .  .  .   So you may be thinking that this is exactly the type of pessimism we can expect from someone with the nickname “Dr. Doom”.  However, if you take a look at the July 2 article by Tom Lindmark on the Seeking Alpha website, you will find some important concurrence.  Mr. Lindmark discussed his own observation about the unemployment crisis:

All of these people do have to find jobs again sometime and I suspect, as do many others, that the numbers understate the extent of the problem.  There are a lot of people working for ten or twelve bucks an hour that used to make multiples of those numbers.  That’s what you do to survive.   So as we all probably know intuitively, the truth is worse than the picture the numbers paint.

Lindmark included the reactions of several economists to the latest unemployment data, as quoted from The Wall Street Journal Real Time Economics Blog.  It’s more of the same — not happy stuff.  Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s self-serving, self-congratulatory claim that “green shoots” could be found in the economy was made during a discussion on 60 Minutes back on March 15.  That’s what you call:   “premature shoots”.

Just in case you aren’t getting scared yet, take a look at what Ambrose Evans-Pritchard had to say in the Telegraph UK.  He draws our reluctant attention to the possibility that there might just be a violent reaction from the masses, once the ugliness of our situation finally sets in:

One dog has yet to bark in this long winding crisis.  Beyond riots in Athens and a Baltic bust-up, we have not seen evidence of bitter political protest as the slump eats away at the legitimacy of governing elites in North America, Europe, and Japan.  It may just be a matter of time.

One of my odd experiences covering the US in the early 1990s was visiting militia groups that sprang up in Texas, Idaho, and Ohio in the aftermath of recession.  These were mostly blue-collar workers, —  early victims of global “labour arbitrage” — angry enough with Washington to spend weekends in fatigues with M16 rifles.  Most backed protest candidate Ross Perot, who won 19pc of the presidential vote in 1992 with talk of shutting trade with Mexico.

The inchoate protest dissipated once recovery fed through to jobs, although one fringe group blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995.  Unfortunately, there will be no such jobs this time.  Capacity use has fallen to record-low levels (68pc in the US,71 in the eurozone).  A deep purge of labour is yet to come.

*   *   *

The Centre for Labour Market Studies (CLMS) in Boston says US unemployment is now 18.2pc, counting the old-fashioned way.  The reason why this does not “feel” like the 1930s is that we tend to compress the chronology of the Depression.  It takes time for people to deplete their savings and sink into destitution.  Perhaps our greater cushion of wealth today will prevent another Grapes of Wrath, but 20m US homeowners are already in negative equity (zillow.com data).  Evictions are running at a terrifying pace.

Some 342,000 homes were foreclosed in April, pushing a small army of children into a network of charity shelters.  This compares to 273,000 homes lost in the entire year of 1932. Sheriffs in Michigan and Illinois are quietly refusing to toss families on to the streets, like the non-compliance of Catholic police in the Slump.

*   *   *

The message has not reached Wall Street or the City.  If bankers know what is good for them, they will take a teacher’s salary for a few years until the storm passes.  If they proceed with the bonuses now on the table, even as taxpayers pay for the errors of their caste, they must expect a ferocious backlash.

Do you think those bankers are saying “EEEEEK!” yet?  They probably aren’t.  Many other similarly-situated individuals are likely turning the page to have a look at the action in “emerging markets”.  Nevertheless, Mr. Evans-Pritchard, in another piece, exposed the hopelessness of those expectations:

Russia is sinking into a swamp of bad loans.

The scale of credit rot in the Russian banking system exposed by Fitch Ratings this week is truly staggering.  The report is yet another cold douche to those betting that the BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) can pull us out of our mess.

So there you have it.  You wanted to see Thriller again?  Now you have it in real life.  This time, neither Boris Karloff nor Michael Jackson will be around to keep it “lite”.  This is our reality in July of 2009.  Hang on.

Painting The Tape

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July 2, 2009

Would you be willing to wager your life savings on pro-wrestling matches?  That is basically what you are doing when you invest in the stock market these days.  The game is being rigged.  If you are just a “retail investor” or “little guy”, you run the risk of having your investment in this “bear market rally” significantly diminish in the blink of an eye.  Regular readers of this blog (all four of them) know that this is one of my favorite subjects.  In my posting on May 21, I recalled feeling a little paranoid last December when I wrote this:

Do you care to hazard a guess as to what the next Wall Street scandal might be?  I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock. This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.  I don’t believe that SEC Chairman Christopher Cox would likely uncover such a scam, given his track record.

After my last posting about this subject on May 21, I have continued to read quite a number of opinions by authoritative sources, echoing my belief that the stock market is being manipulated.  Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge has been quite diligent about exposing incidents of “tape painting”.  Some examples appear here and here.  In case you don’t know what is meant by “painting the tape”, here is a definition:

An illegal action by a group of market manipulators buying and/or selling a security among themselves to create artificial trading activity, which, when reported on the ticker tape, lures in unsuspecting investors as they perceive an unusual volume.

After causing a movement in the security, the manipulators hope to sell at a profit.

As one might expect, this activity is more easily accomplished on days when trading volume is low.  On June 11, Craig Brown had this to say about the subject on the Seeking Alpha website:

I have read some posts about some suspicions on perhaps some entities painting the tape. Volume has been light so it is something that could happen. We will see if these conspiracy theories play out.

Regular readers of Zero Hedge (it’s on my blogroll, at the right) had the opportunity to see some televised interviews during the past few days, when professionals have complained about “tape painting” in the equities markets.  On Monday, June 29, we saw on (of all places) CNBC, a discussion with Larry Levin, a futures trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  I would consider CNBC the last place to criticize “pumping” of stock prices, since their commentary often seems designed to do just that.  Nevertheless, watch and listen to what Larry Levin had to say at 2:22 into this video clip.  He explains that “this market continues to be propped up by government intervention and manipulation” and he unequivocally accuses the Obama administration of acting to “prop this market up on a daily basis”.  Again, on Wednesday, July 1, visitors to the Zero Hedge website had the opportunity to see this June 30 clip from Bloomberg TV, wherein Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading noted that “you’ve got government forecasts that are intentionally misleading us, constantly”.    He went on to emphasize that the trading volume we see every day is “fictitious — it’s not real”.  He explained the potential hazards to retail investors caused by trading programs that “artificially inflate the prices” of stocks, although a “news event” could cause that program trading to abruptly reverse, erasing a valuable portion of the retail investors’ assets.

On June 24, Bret Rosenthal posted an article on the HedgeCo.net website, entitled:  “Coping With Government-Sponsored Market Manipulation”.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

We must not allow the government manipulations to cloud our judgement and sucker us into investments that have no hope of success over time.  Example:  the government-sponsored rally in the financials over the last 3+ months was clearly created to help the banking sector raise capital.  Again, if you wish to argue this point I suggest you go down to the water’s edge and scream at the tide.  Massive amounts of capital were raised through the secondary markets for financial companies in the last 30 days.  This is a simple fact. Now that this manipulation is complete and private capital has been sucked in where will the equity markets go?

The best advice for the retail investor, attempting to navigate through the current “bear market rally” was provided by Graham Summers, Senior Market Strategist at OmniSans Investment Research, in this July 1 posting at the Seeking Alpha website:

This rally has sucker punched the shorts countless times now, particularly when it comes to late-day market manipulation.  In a nutshell, every time stocks begin showing signs of breaking down, someone steps in, usually during the final 30 minutes of trading, to push the market back into positive territory.  So while economic fundamentals indicate we’ve come much too far too fast, it’s hard to make money trading based on this information.

*   *   *

To rephrase the above thoughts, stocks are currently trading where they should be a full year from now assuming that the economy turns around this fall.  This hardly makes a strong case for greater gains or more upward momentum.  But it’s hard to go short with the historic rig that is currently taking place in the market.

So my advice to anyone right now is to stay put.  This week is a wash anyhow due to it being short and due to performance gaming:  portfolio managers and institutional investors pushing stocks higher so they can close out the quarter with gains on their positions.  Indeed, yesterday’s market volume on the NYSE was the lowest we’ve seen since January 5, 2009.

So don’t open any new positions for now.  This week will be exceedingly choppy.  And with volume drying up to a trickle, there is potential for some violent swings as the big boys play around with their end of the quarter shenanigans.  You don’t want to be on the wrong side of one of those swings.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching my investment in the SRS exchange-traded fund (which inversely tracks the IYR real estate index, at twice the magnitude) unwind during the past few days, erasing the nice profit I made just after getting into it.  Will I bail?  Nawww!  I’m waiting for that “news event” to turn things around.

Matt Taibbi Deserves An Award

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June 25, 2009

Like many people, I found out about Matt Taibbi as a result of his frequent appearances on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  Last spring, Matt appeared on Real Time to discuss his research into the global economic crisis and the resulting scheme of numerous bailouts engineered in response to each sub-crisis of this economic catastrophe.  My March 26 piece: “Understanding The Creepy Bailouts“, quoted from Matt’s fantastic article for Rolling Stone magazine, entitled: “The Big Takeover”.  (At that time, the “Big Takeover” link led to the complete article.  Rolling Stone now provides only abbreviated versions of its published articles on line.)  One important theme of Matt’s commentary was evident in this passage:

The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class.  But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.

Matt has a unique way of discussing the extremely complicated, technical issues involved in the financial crisis, by breaking them down into understandable, plain-language points.  Unfortunately, most mainstream journalists lack either the understanding or the courage (or both) to discuss our financial predicament in such a frank, informative manner.  Take for example:  Fareed Zakaria’s discussion of the economic catastrophe as it appeared in Newsweek under the title “The Capitalist Manifesto”.  Nobody could to a better job of ripping that thing to shreds than Matt Taibbi himself.  With his June 24 blog entry, he did just that:

Zakaria works hard to tell the crisis story minus these outrageous details.  Then he goes on to argue that, basically, nothing should be done.  We mostly just need a “gut check”; we, all of us, need to rediscover that little voice in all of us that says, “if it doesn’t feel right, we shouldn’t be doing it.”  I mean, that is actually what he wrote.  No one needs to go to jail, we don’t need to worry about who’s to blame, we just need, you know, do a better job using our trusty moral compasses to navigate the seas of life.  It’s classic Zakaria in the sense that he attacks ugly political phenomena with tired cliches and hack pablum until you’re almost too bored to keep your eyes open, then in the end reduces it all to a dumbed-down t-shirt that carries us forward to another cycle of political inaction: Laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t rip off people, people rip off people!

Matt’s previous blog entry on June 18, focused on one of my favorite subjects:  the hideous monster we have come to know as Goldman Sachs.  I had written a piece about that entity on May 21, discussing how Paul Farrell of MarketWatch and John Crudele of the New York Post had been voicing the same suspicions I had been harboring about Goldman.  After reading Matt Taibbi’s June 18 article, I enthusiastically sent the link to my friends.  This stuff was just too good!  Matt was laying it on the line in a way few others had the courage or the skill to do.  I doubt whether many in the mainstream media will follow his lead.  Here is one of the highlights from that piece:

Any way you slice it, Goldman was responsible for putting tens of billions of toxic mortgages on the market, resulting in mass foreclosures, mass depletion of retirement funds, and a monstrously over-leveraged financial system that we will now all be bailing out for the next half-century or so.  All of this so that Goldman could make a few billion bucks acting as the middleman in all of these deadly transactions.

If that weren’t enough, Matt pointed out that the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone would feature another of his reports  —  this one focused exclusively on Goldman Sachs.  That issue (#1082-83, with the Jonas Brothers on the cover) is now on the newsstands.  Matt’s article:  “The Wall Street Bubble Machine” is best explained in the subtitle:

From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression  — And they’re about to do it again.

In case you are wondering how they’re going to do it again  . . .  Matt reports that it will be by way of the “Cap and Trade” program.  Goldman has already positioned itself to serve as one of our government’s premier carbon credit pimps.  Matt offered this explanation:

Goldman is ahead of the headlines again, just waiting for someone to make it rain in the right spot.  Will this market be bigger than the energy-futures market?

“Oh, it’ll dwarf it,” says a former staffer on the House energy committee.

Matt’s “bottom line” paragraph at the conclusion of the essay underscores what I believe are America’s biggest problems:  “lobbying” and “campaign contributions” (our tradition of legalized graft).  Our government is not just one of laws . . . it is one of loopholes, exemptions and waivers.  Those things cost money.  The people who have the money to “invest” in such machinations, usually find themselves rewarded handsomely  . . .  at the expense of the taxpayers.  Here’s how Matt wrapped it up:

But this is it.  This is the world we live in now.  And in this world, some of us have to play by the rules, while others get a note from the principal, excusing them from homework until the end of time, plus 10 billion free dollars in a paper bag to buy lunch.  It’s a gangster state, running on gangster economics, and even prices can’t be trusted anymore; there are hidden taxes in every buck you pay.  And maybe we can’t stop it, but we should at least know where it’s all going.

Amen.

Defending Reagan

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June 4, 2009

In case you’ve wondered whether Nobel laureates ever emit brain farts, Paul Krugman answered that question in the May 31 edition of The New York Times.  His column of that date targeted former President Ronald Reagan for causing our current economic crisis:

There’s plenty of blame to go around these days.  But the prime villains behind the mess we’re in were Reagan and his circle of advisers — men who forgot the lessons of America’s last great financial crisis, and condemned the rest of us to repeat it.

I was never a big fan of Ronald Reagan.  My reaction to his nomination as the Republican Presidential candidate in 1980, conjured up James Coburn’s sarcastic line from the movie In Like Flint:  “An actor for President!”  Reagan’s legacy was exaggerated — which is why the book, Tear Down This Myth by Will Bunch, is available on this site, under the “Featured Books” section on the left side of this page.  I never believed that Reagan deserved all the credit he was given for the collapse of the former Soviet Union.  In my opinion, that distinction belongs to Lech Walesa, leader of Solidarity (the former Soviet bloc’s first independent trade union) and his old buddy, Karol Wojtyla, who later became Pope John Paul II.  In fact, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the demise of the Iron Curtain would have been impossible without John Paul II.

Another literary deflation of that aspect of the Reagan legend can be found in The Rebellion of Ronald Reagan:  A History of the End of the Cold War by James Mann.  In his review of that book for The Washington Post, Ronald Steel noted how James Mann addressed the claim that Reagan broke up the Soviet Union:

And in 1991 the Soviet Communist Party disintegrated and with it ultimately the Soviet Union itself.  Did Reagan make it happen?  This would be too strong, Mann insists.  The Cold War ended largely because Gorbachev “had abandoned the field.”

Despite my own feelings about the Reagan legacy, upon reading Paul Krugman’s attempt to blame Ronald Reagan for the economic meltdown, I immediately rejected that idea.  What became interesting was that in the aftermath of that article, commentators from “left-leaning” news sources voiced objections to the piece.  For example, William Greider is the national affairs correspondent for The Nation.  On his own blog, Greider wrote an essay entitled:  “Krugman Gets His History Wrong”.  While upbraiding Krugman, Mr. Greider took care to note the complicity of the Democrats in causing the current economic crisis:

What Krugman leaves out is that financial deregulation actually started two years earlier — before the Gipper got to Washington.  A Democratic Congress and Democratic president (Jimmy Carter) enacted the Monetary Control Act of 1980 which removed all remaining controls on interest rates and repealed the federal law prohibiting usury (note that sky-high interest rates and ruinous predatory lending have been with us ever since).  It was the 1980 legislation that took the lid off banking and doomed the savings and loan industry, the mainstay that used to provide housing loans and home mortgages.  The thrifts were able to raise capital because they were allowed to pay a half percent more in interest to depositors.  Bankers wanted them out of the way.  The Democratic party obliged.

Robert Scheer is the editor of Truthdig.  The columns he writes for Truthdig regularly appear in The Nation.  (He is famous for getting Jimmy Carter to admit for Playboy magazine, that Carter often “lusts in his heart for other women”.)  Mr. Scheer’s reaction to Krugman’s vilification of Reagan as the saboteur of the economy includes such words as “disingenuous” and “perverse”.  Beyond that, Sheer lays blame for this crisis where it properly belongs:

Reagan didn’t do it, but Clinton-era Treasury Secretaries Robert Rubin and Lawrence Summers, now a top economic adviser in the Obama White House, did.  They, along with then-Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan and Republican congressional leaders James Leach and Phil Gramm, blocked any effective regulation of the over-the-counter derivatives that turned into the toxic assets now being paid for with tax dollars.

*    *    *

How can Krugman ignore the wreckage wrought during the Clinton years by the gang of five?  Rubin, who convinced President Clinton to end the New Deal restrictions on the merger of financial entities, went on to help run the too-big-to-fail Citigroup into the ground.  Gramm became a top officer at the nefarious UBS bank.  Greenspan’s epitaph should be his statement to Congress in July 1998 that “regulation of derivatives transactions that are privately negotiated by professionals is unnecessary.”  That same week Summers assured banking lobbyists that the Clinton administration was committed to preventing government regulation of swaps and other derivatives trading.

Thank goodness Eliot “Socks” Spitzer is still around, writing for Slate.  His most recent article about the economy not only provides an accurate assessment of the cause of the problem  —  it also suggests some solutions:

We have had a fundamentally misguided industrial policy over the past decade.  Yes, industrial policy is a dirty phrase to many, some of whom would argue that we haven’t had one, and indeed shouldn’t.  But the truth is we did have one:  to leverage up and guarantee the bets of a financial services sector that has now collapsed and left nothing of value in its wake.

What would be a better approach?  A policy to support those sectors that actually create goods and value.  Investment in transformational technology and infrastructure are core national needs.  So why not start with a government order for 500,000 electric cars, subject to an RFP two years from now, by which time a true electric car prototype will have been developed?  It should be open to any manufacturer, as long as 75 percent of the value of the car is domestically produced.  I don’t care if the name on the plate is GM or Toyota, as long as the value added is here.  (I prefer a “Toyota” produced in Tennessee to a “GM” produced in China.  Why struggle to save the shell of a company –GM– that intends to ship jobs overseas anyway?)  Guaranteeing an order of 500,000 will give manufacturers the needed scale to generate profits and reassure private customers that service and support will be around for the long haul.  And the federal government could also issue an RFP for recharging stations, to be built by private companies, along the interstate highway system, wherever there is a traditional filling station, so that recharging will be possible.

(By the way:  An “RFP” is a Request for Proposals, or bids, on a government project — just in case you were thinking it might mean “request for prostitutes”.)

I have always been a fan of Socks Spitzer.  His personal story underscores the simple truth that all of us, regardless of our accomplishments, are only human and we all make mistakes  —  even Nobel Prize winners such as Paul Krugman.

Sign This Petition

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May 25, 2009

For some reason, the Boston College School of Law invited Federal Reserve Chairman, B.S. Bernanke, to deliver the commencement address to the class of 2009 on May 22.  While reading the text of that oration, I found the candor of this remark at the beginning of his speech, to be quite refreshing:

Along those lines, last spring I was nearby in Cambridge, speaking at Harvard University’s Class Day.  The speaker at the main event, the Harvard graduation the next day, was J. K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter books.  Before my remarks, the student who introduced me took note of the fact that the senior class had chosen as their speakers Ben Bernanke and J. K. Rowling, or, as he put it, “two of the great masters of children’s fantasy fiction.”  I will say that I am perfectly happy to be associated, even in such a tenuous way, with Ms. Rowling, who has done more for children’s literacy than any government program I know of.

Meanwhile, that great master of children’s fantasy fiction (and money printing) is now faced with the possibility that someday, someone might actually start looking over his shoulder in attempt to get some vague idea of just what the hell is going on over at the Federal Reserve.

The Federal Reserve’s resistance to transparency has been a favorite topic of many commentators.  For example, once Ben Bernanke took over the Fed Chairmanship from Alan Greenspan in 2006, Ralph Nader expressed his high hopes that Bernanke might adopt Nader’s suggested “seven policies of openness”.  Dream on, Ralph!

Speaking of children’s fantasy fiction, one expert on that subject is Congressman Alan Grayson.  As the Representative of Florida’s Eighth Congressional District, his territory includes Disney World.  Thus, it should come as no surprise that back in January of 2009, as a new member of the House Financial Services Committee, he immediately set about cross-examining Federal Reserve Vice-Chairman Donald Kohn about what had been done with the 1.2 trillion dollars in bank bailout money squandered by the Fed after September 1, 2008.  Glenn Greenwald of Salon.com provided a five-minute video clip of that testimony along with an audio recording of his 20-minute interview with Congressman Grayson, focusing on the complete lack of transparency at the Federal Reserve.

Better yet was Congressman Grayson’s questioning of Federal Reserve Board Inspector General Elizabeth Coleman on May 7.  In one of the classic “WTF Moments” of all time, Ms. Coleman admitted that she had no clue about the “off balance sheet transactions” by the Federal Reserve, reported by Bloomberg News as amounting to over nine trillion dollars in the previous eight months.  If you haven’t seen this yet, you can watch it here.  After reviewing this video clip, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism was of the opinion that Coleman was not stonewalling, but instead was “clearly completely clueless”.  Ms. Smith pointed out how opacity at the Federal Reserve may be by design, with the apparent motive being obfuscation:

But there is a possibly more important issue at stake.  The interview is with the Inspector General of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors.  The programs are actually at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  For reasons I cannot fathom, the Board of Governors is subject to Freedom of Information Act requests, while the Fed of New York has been able to rebuff them.

So I take Coleman’s inability to answer key questions to be a feature, not a bug.  The Fed of New York probably can answer Congressional questions, is taking care to limit what it conveys to the Board so as to keep the information from Congress and the public.  Note in the questioning the emphasis on “high level reviews”.

In order to shine a bright light on the Federal Reserve, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas has introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act, (H.R. 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office the authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components, and require a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  On May 21, Congressman Alan Grayson wrote to his Democratic colleagues in the House, asking them to co-sponsor the bill.  Among the many interesting points made in his letter were the following:

Furthermore, the Federal Reserve has refused multiple inquiries from both the House and the Senate to disclose who is receiving trillions of dollars from the central banking system.  The Federal Reserve has redacted the central terms of the no-bid contracts it has issued to Wall Street firms like Blackrock and PIMCO, without disclosure required of the Treasury, and is participating in new and exotic programs like the trillion-dollar TALF to leverage the Treasury’s balance sheet.  With discussions of allocating even more power to the Federal Reserve as the “systemic risk regulator” of the credit markets, more oversight over the central bank’s operations is clearly necessary.

The net effect of recent actions has been to isolate financial policy-making entirely from democratic input, and allow the Treasury Department to leverage the Federal Reserve’s balance sheet to spend money it cannot get appropriated from Congress.  The public does not know where trillions of its dollars are going, and so has no meaningful control over the currency or this unappropriated “budget”.  The extraordinary size of these lending facilities combined, the extreme secrecy, and the private influence is a dangerous seizure of Congress’s constitutional prerogative to appropriate public monies and control the currency.

You can do your part for this cause by signing the on-line petition.  Let Congress know that we will no longer tolerate “children’s fantasy fiction” from the Federal Reserve.  Demand an audit of the Federal Reserve as well as a report to the public of what that audit reveals.

A Consensus On Conspiracy

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May 21, 2009

I guess I can throw away my tinfoil hat.  I’m not so paranoid, after all.

Back on December 18, after discussing the bank bailout boondoggle, I made this observation about what had been taking place in the equities markets during that time:

Do you care to hazard a guess as to what the next Wall Street scandal might be?  I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day, before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock.  This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.  I don’t believe that SEC Chairman Christopher Cox would likely uncover such a scam, given his track record.

Some people agreed with me, although others considered such a “conspiracy” too far-flung to be workable.

Thanks to Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge, my earlier suspicions of market manipulation were confirmed.  On Tuesday, May 19, Mr. Durden posted a video clip from an interview with (among others) Dan Schaeffer, president of Schaeffer Asset Management, previously broadcast on the Fox Business Channel on May 14.  While discussing the latest “bear market rally”, Dan Schaeffer made this observation:

“Something strange happened during the last 7 or 8 weeks. Doreen, you probably can concur on this — there was a power underneath the market that kept holding it up and trading the futures.  I watch the futures every day and every tick, and a tremendous amount of volume came in at several points during the last few weeks, when the market was just about ready to break and shot right up again.  Usually toward the end of the day — it happened a week ago Friday, at 7 minutes to 4 o’clock, almost 100,000 S&P futures contracts were traded, and then in the last 5 minutes, up to 4 o’clock, another 100,000 contracts were traded, and lifted the Dow from being down 18 to up over 44 or 50 points in 7 minutes.  That is 10 to 20 billion dollars to be able to move the market in such a way. Who has that kind of money to move this market?

“On top of that, the market has rallied up during the stress test uncertainty and moved the bank stocks up, and the bank stocks issues secondary — they issue stock — they raised capital into this rally.  It was a perfect text book setup of controlling the markets — now that the stock has been issued …”

Mr. Schaeffer was then interrupted by panel member, Richard Suttmeier of ValuEngine.com.

My fellow foilhats likely had no trouble recognizing this market manipulation as the handiwork of the Plunge Protection Team (also known as the PPT).  Many commentators have considered the PPT as nothing more than a myth, with some believing that this “myth” stems from the actual existence of something called The President’s Working Group on Financial Markets.  For a good read on the history of the PPT, I recommend the article by Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph.  Bear in mind that Evans-Pritchard’s article was written in October of 2006, two years before the global economic meltdown:

Hank Paulson, the market-wise Treasury Secretary who built a $700m fortune at Goldman Sachs, is re-activating the ‘plunge protection team’ (PPT), a shadowy body with powers to support stock index, currency, and credit futures in a crash.

Otherwise known as the working group on financial markets, it was created by Ronald Reagan to prevent a repeat of the Wall Street meltdown in October 1987.

Mr Paulson says the group had been allowed to languish over the boom years.  Henceforth, it will have a command centre at the US Treasury that will track global markets and serve as an operations base in the next crisis.

*    *    *

The PPT was once the stuff of dark legends, its existence long denied.  But ex-White House strategist George Stephanopoulos admits openly that it was used to support the markets in the Russia/LTCM crisis under Bill Clinton, and almost certainly again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They have an informal agreement among major banks to come in and start to buy stock if there appears to be a problem,” he said.

“In 1998, there was the Long Term Capital crisis, a global currency crisis.  At the guidance of the Fed, all of the banks got together and propped up the currency markets. And they have plans in place to consider that if the stock markets start to fall,” he said.

The only question is whether it uses taxpayer money to bail out investors directly, or merely co-ordinates action by Wall Street banks as in 1929.  The level of moral hazard is subtly different.

John Crudele of the New York Post frequently discusses the PPT, although he is presently of the opinion that it either no longer exists or has gone underground.  He has recently considered the possibility that the PPT may have “outsourced” its mission to Goldman Sachs:

Let’s remember something.

First, Goldman Sachs accepted $10 billion in government money under the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP), so it is gambling with taxpayer money.

But the bigger thing to remember is this:  The firm may be living up to its nickname – Government Sachs – and might be doing the government’s bidding.

The stock market rally these past seven weeks has certainly made it easier for the Obama administration to do its job.  That, plus a little fancy accounting during the first quarter, has calmed peoples’ nerves quite a bit.

Rallies on Wall Street, of course, are good things – unless it turns out that some people know the government is rigging the stock market and you don’t.

That brings me to something called The President’s Working Group on Financial Markets, which is commonly referred to as the Plunge Protection Team.

As I wrote in last Thursday’s column, the Team has disappeared.

Try finding The President’s Working Group at the US Treasury and you won’t.

The guys and girls that Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson relied on so heavily last year when he was forcing Bank of America to buy Merrill Lynch and when he was waterboarding other firms into coming to Wall Street’s rescue has gone underground.

Anybody who has read this column for long enough knows what I think, that the President’s Working Group Plunge Protectors have, in the past, tinkered with the financial markets.

We’ll let interrogators in some future Congressional investigation decide whether or not they did so legally.

But right now, I smell a whiff of Goldman in this market. Breath in deeply, it’s intoxicating – and troubling.

Could Goldman Sachs be involved in a conspiracy to manipulate the stock markets?  Paul Farrell of MarketWatch has been writing about the “Goldman Conspiracy” for over a month.  You can read about it here and here.  In his May 4 article, he set out the plot line for a suggested, thirteen-episode television series called:  The Goldman Conspiracy.  I am particularly looking forward to the fourth episode in the proposed series:

Episode 4. ‘Goldman Conspiracy’ is manipulating stock market

“Something smells fishy in the market. And the aroma seems to be coming from Goldman Sachs,” says John Crudele in the New York Post.  Stocks prices soaring.  “So, who’s moving the market?”  Not the little guy.  “Professional traders, with Goldman Sachs leading the way.”   NYSE numbers show “Goldman did twice the number of so-called big program trades during the week of April 13,” over a billion shares, creating “a historic rally despite the fact that the economy continues to be in serious trouble.”   Then he tells us why: Because the “Goldman Conspiracy” is using TARP and Fed money, churning the markets.  They are “gambling with taxpayer money.”

It’s nice to know that other commentators share my suspicions … and better yet:   Some day I could be watching a television series, based on what I once considered my own, sensational conjecture.

Somebody Really Loves Goldman Sachs

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May 17, 2009

The recent article about Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, appearing in the April 26 edition of The New York Times, seems to have helped fan the flames of the current outrage concerning the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  Turbo Tim was president of the New York Fed during the five years prior to his appointment as Treasury Secretary.  Becker and Morgenson pointed out many of the ways in which “conflict of interest” seems to be one of the cornerstones of that institution:

The New York Fed is, by custom and design, clubby and opaque.  It is charged with curbing banks’ risky impulses, yet its president is selected by and reports to a board dominated by the chief executives of some of those same banks. Traditionally, the New York Fed president’s intelligence-gathering role has involved routine consultation with financiers, though Mr. Geithner’s recent predecessors generally did not meet with them unless senior aides were also present, according to the bank’s former general counsel.

By those standards, Mr. Geithner’s reliance on bankers, hedge fund managers and others to assess the market’s health — and provide guidance once it faltered — stood out.

The New York Fed is probably the most important of the nation’s twelve Federal Reserve Banks, since its jurisdiction includes the heart of America’s financial industry.  As the Times piece pointed out, this resulted in the same type of “revolving door” opportunities as those enjoyed by members of Congress who became lobbyists and vice versa:

A revolving door has long connected Wall Street and the New York Fed.  Mr. Geithner’s predecessors, E. Gerald Corrigan and William J. McDonough, wound up as investment-bank executives.  The current president,William C. Dudley, came from Goldman Sachs.

The New York Fed’s current chairman, Stephen Friedman, has become a subject of controversy these days, because of his position as director and shareholder of Goldman Sachs.   Goldman sought and received expedited approval to become a “bank holding company” last September, thus coming under the jurisdiction of the Federal Reserve and becoming eligible for the ten billion dollars in TARP bailout money it eventually received.  After Goldman became subject to the New York Fed’s oversight (with Friedman as the New York Fed chairman) the Fed made decisions that impacted Goldman’s financial state.  Although this controversy was discussed here and here by The Wall Street Journal, that publication’s new owner, Rupert Murdoch, now requires a $104 annual on-line subscription fee to read his publication over the Internet. Sorry Rupert:  Homey don’t play that.  Although Slate provided us with an interesting essay on the Friedman controversy by Eliot “Socks” Spitzer, the best read was the commentary by Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig.  Here are some important points from Scheer’s article, “Cashing In on ‘Government Sachs’ “:

When N.Y. Fed Chairman Stephen Friedman bought stock in the company that he once headed, and where he still serves as a director, he was already in violation of Federal Reserve policy and was hoping for a waiver to permit him to hold his existing multi-million-dollar stock stash and to remain on the Goldman board.  The waiver was requested last October by Timothy Geithner, then the president of the N.Y. Fed and now Treasury secretary.  Yet,without having received that waiver, Friedman went ahead in December and purchased 37,300 additional shares.  With shares he added in January, after the waiver was granted, he ended up with 98,600 shares in Goldman Sachs, worth a total of $13,330,720 at the close of trading on Tuesday.

*    *    *

As Jerry Jordan, former president of the Fed Bank in Cleveland, told the Journal in reference to Friedman’s obvious conflict of interest, “He should have resigned.”

Unfortunately, this was not the view during the reign of Geithner, who argued that Friedman needed to remain chairman of the N.Y. Fed board to find a suitable replacement for Geithner as he moved on to be secretary of the Treasury.  Friedman chose a fellow former Goldman Sachs exec for the job.

*    *    *

Geithner is a protege of former Goldman Sachs chairman Rubin.  And it was therefore not surprising when he picked Mark Patterson, a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, to be his chief of staff at the Treasury Department.  That appointment was made on the same day that Geithner announced new rules for limiting the influence of registered lobbyists.  Need more be said?

Yes, there are a couple more things:  Goldman Sachs was the second largest contributor to Barack Obama’s Presidential election campaign, with a total of $980,945 according to OpenSecrets.org.  President Obama nominated Gary Gensler of Goldman Sachs to become Chairman of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  As Ken Silverstein reported for Harpers, this nomination has stalled, since a “hold” was placed on the nomination by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders.  Mr. Silverstein quoted from the statement released by the office of Senator Sanders concerning the rationale for the hold:

Mr. Gensler worked with Sen. Phil Gramm and Alan Greenspan to exempt credit default swaps from regulation, which led to the collapse of A.I.G. and has resulted in the largest taxpayer bailout in U.S.history.   He supported Gramm-Leach-Bliley, which allowed banks like Citigroup to become “too big to fail.”  He worked to deregulate electronic energy trading, which led to the downfall of Enron and the spike in energy prices.  At this moment in our history, we need an independent leader who will help create a new culture in the financial marketplace and move us away from the greed, recklessness and illegal behavior which has caused so much harm to our economy.

“Change you can believe in”, huh?

Geithner In The Headlights

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April 30, 2009

Regular readers of this blog know that one of my favorite targets for criticism is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  My beef with him concerns his implementation and execution of programs designed to bail out banks at avoidable taxpayer risk and expense.  Lately, we have seen a spate of wonderful articles vindicating my attitude about this man.  One of my favorites was written by Gary Weiss for what was apparently the final issue of Conde Nast Portfolio.  Mr. Weiss began the article discussing what people remember most about Geithner from the first time they saw him on television:

In his worst moments, when the camera lights are burning and the doubt, the contempt, in the Capitol Hill hearing rooms become palpable, Tim Geithner has a look in his eye — at once wary and alarmed, even as he speaks quickly, sometimes interrupting, sometimes repeating his talking points.  It has become a look that he owns.  It is his.  It has made him famous in all the wrong ways.  The Geithner Look.

A few paragraphs later, Weiss recalled Geithner’s disastrous February 10 speech, intended to describe what was then known as the Financial Stability Plan — now referred to as the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or pee-pip).  Mr. Weiss recalled one of the reviews of that speech, wherein Geithner was described as having “the eyes of a shoplifter”.  I later learned that it was MSNBC’s Mike Barnicle, who came up with that gem.

The most revealing story about Geithner appeared in the April 26 edition of The New York Times.  This article, written by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, provided an understanding of Geithner’s background and how that has impacted his decisions and activities as Treasury Secretary.  This piece has received plenty of attention from a variety of commentators, most notably for the in-depth investigation into Geithner’s “roots”.  Becker and Morgenson summed-up their findings this way:

An examination of Mr. Geithner’s five years as president of the New York Fed, an era of unbridled and ultimately disastrous risk-taking by the financial industry, shows that he forged unusually close relationships with executives of Wall Street’s giant financial institutions.

His actions, as a regulator and later a bailout king, often aligned with the industry’s interests and desires, according to interviews with financiers, regulators and analysts and a review of Federal Reserve records.

After a thorough explanation of how Geithner’s social and professional ties have influenced his thinking, the motivation behind Turbo Tim’s creation of the PPIP became clear:

According to a recent report by the inspector general monitoring the bailout, Neil M. Barofsky, Mr. Geithner’s plan to underwrite investors willing to buy the risky mortgage-backed securities still weighing down banks’ books is a boon for private equity and hedge funds but exposes taxpayers to “potential unfairness” by shifting the burden to them.

Becker and Morgenson apparently went to great lengths to avoid characterizing Geithner as venal or corrupt.  Nicholas von Hoffman said it best while discussing the Times article in The Nation:

The authors did not have to spell it out for readers to conclude that Geithner, while honest in the narrow sense of the word, has been extremely helpful to his billionaire mentors and protectors.

Mr. von Hoffman was not so restrained while discussing the behavior of the bailed-out banks in an earlier piece he wrote for The Nation.  In attempting to figure out why those banks did not get back into the business of lending money after the government-provided capital infusions, von Hoffman pondered over some possible reasons.  First, he wondered whether the banks still lacked enough capital to back-up new loans.  I liked his second idea better:

Another possibility is that the banks may have found new ways to steal money, which is more profitable than lending it.  The banks’ conduct has been so devious, so mendacious, so shifty and so dishonorable that you cannot rule out any kind of sharp practice.  You just can’t trust the bastards.

In recent days, some banks have enhanced their reputations by announcing quarterly profits achieved not by business enterprise but by bookkeeping legerdemain.

Renowned journalist Robert Scheer saw fit to praise Becker and Morgenson’s article in a piece he wrote for the Truthdig website (where he serves as editor).  His analysis focused on how Geithner’s views were shaped while working for his mentors in the Clinton administration:   Robert Rubin and Larry Summers.  Scheer reminded us that these are the people who created “the policies that Clinton put in place and George W. Bush accelerated”:

The seeds of the current economic chaos were planted in those years, in which Wall Street lobbyists were given everything they wanted in the way of radical deregulation, and hence was born the madcap world of credit swaps and other unregulated derivatives.

Scheer noted how Turbo Tim has kept alive, what President Obama has often described as “the failed policies of the past eight years”:

Geithner has since pushed the Obama administration to approach the banking crisis not in response to the needs of destitute homeowners but rather from the side of the bankers who are seizing their homes.  Instead of keeping people in their homes with a freeze on foreclosures, he has rewarded the unscrupulous lenders who conned ordinary folks.

He still wants to give more money to Citigroup, which has just been found woefully short of cash by Treasury’s auditors, and has not stopped Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac and some other big banks ostensibly under government influence, and indeed sometimes ownership, from recently ending their temporary moratoriums on housing foreclosures.  Geithner has been in the forefront of coddling the banks in the hopes that welfare for the rich will trickle down to suffering homeowners, but that has not happened.

Rather than just complaining about the problem, Mr. Scheer has suggested a solution:

What is involved here is an extreme case of government-condoned “moral hazard” offering outrageous compensation to the superrich for screwing up royally.  Where is the socially conscious Obama we voted for?   E-mail him and ask.

Black And Reich

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April 16, 2009

I guess it’s because I was using TurboTax to work on my income tax return for the past few days, that I was constantly reminded of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  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”).  I recently read an article by a couple of Economics professors named Laurence J. Kotlikoff (Boston University) and Jeffrey Sachs (Columbia University) wherein they referred to this plan as the GASP (Geithner And Summers Plan).  Their bottom line:

The Geithner-and-Summers Plan should be scrapped.  President Obama should ask his advisors to canvas the economics and legal community to hear the much better ideas that are in wide circulation.

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).  During that time, the FSLIC helped block an attempted sale of Charles Keating’s Lincoln Savings and Loan, which was subsequently seized by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, despite opposition from five United States Senators, who became known as the Keating Five.  A recent interview with Professor Black by Jack Willoughby of Barrons revealed that Black’s aversion to the PPIP starts with the fact that it is being implemented by Geithner and Summers:

We have failed bankers giving advice to failed regulators on how to deal with failed assets.  How can it result in anything but failure?  If they are going to get any truthful investigation, the Democrats picked the wrong financial team.  Tim Geithner, the current Secretary of the Treasury, and Larry Summers, chairman of the National Economic Council, were important architects of the problems.  Geithner especially represents a failed regulator, having presided over the bailouts of major New York banks.

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.

For the past month or so, I’ve been hearing many stock market commentators bemoan the fact that there is so much money “on the sidelines”.  In other words, people with trading accounts are letting their money sit in brokerage money market accounts, rather than risking it in the stock markets.  I believe that many of these people are so discouraged by the sleazy environment on Wall Street, they are waiting for things to get cleaned up before they take any more chances in a casino where so many games are rigged.  In the Barrons interview, Black made a point that reinforced my opinion:

His (Geithner’s) use of language like “legacy assets” — and channeling the worst aspects of Milton Friedman — is positively Orwellian.  Extreme conservatives wrongly assume that the government can’t do anything right.  And they wrongly assume that the market will ultimately lead to correct actions.  If cheaters prosper, cheaters will dominate.  It is like Gresham’s law:  Bad money drives out the good.  Well, bad behavior drives out good behavior, without good enforcement.

By asking Professor Black a few simple, straightforward questions (in layperson’s language) Jack Willoughby got some fantastic and refreshing information in return (also in layperson’s language) making this article a “must read”.  As Black and many others have pointed out, these huge financial institutions must be broken down into smaller businesses.  Why isn’t this being undertaken?  Professor Black looks to where the buck stops:

Obama, who is doing so well in so many other arenas, appears to be slipping because he trusts Democrats high in the party structure too much.

These Democrats want to maintain America’s pre-eminence in global financial capitalism at any cost.  They remain wedded to the bad idea of bigness, the so-called financial supermarket — one-stop shopping for all customers — that has allowed the American financial system to paper the world with subprime debt.  Even the managers of these worldwide financial conglomerates testify that they have become so sprawling as to be unmanageable.

Another critic of the Geithner-Summers PPIP is former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich.  Reich is now a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.  His April 6 blog entry discussed the fact that the top 25 hedge fund managers earned a total of $11.6 billion last year:

But what causes me severe heartburn is that these are exactly the sort of investors Tim Geithner is trying to lure in to buy troubled assets from banks, with an extraordinary offer financed by you and me and other taxpayers:  If it turns out the troubled assets are worth more than these guys pay for them, they could make a fortune.  If it turns out the assets are worth less, these guys won’t lose a thing because we taxpayers will bail them out.  Plus, they get to pick only the highest-rated of the big banks’ bad assets and can review them carefully before buying.

What a deal.  Why can’t you and I get in on this bonanza? Because we’re too small.  The government will designate only about five big investor funds — run or owned by the richest of the rich — as potential buyers.  Hedge funds fit the bill perfectly.

It’s nice to know that more and more prominent individuals in the world of economics and public policy are taking the ethical stand against a program based on the principle of “socialized loss and privatized gain”.  I just hope President Obama doesn’t take too long to realize that these people are right and that the Geithner – Summers team is wrong.