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Austeri-FAIL

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I have never accepted the idea that economic austerity could be at all useful in resolving our unending economic crisis.  I posted my rant about this subject on December 19, 2011:

The entire European economy is on its way to hell, thanks to an idiotic, widespread belief that economic austerity measures will serve as a panacea for the sovereign debt crisis.  The increasing obviousness of the harm caused by austerity has motivated its proponents to crank-up the “John Maynard Keynes was wrong” propaganda machine.  You don’t have to look very far to find examples of that stuff.  On any given day, the Real Clear Politics (or Real Clear Markets) website is likely to be listing at least one link to such a piece.  Those commentators are simply trying to take advantage of the fact that President Obama botched the 2009 economic stimulus effort.  Many of us realized – a long time ago – that Obama’s stimulus measures would prove to be inadequate.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I pointed out that another stimulus program would be necessary because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was not going to accomplish its intended objective.  Beyond that, it was already becoming apparent that the stimulus program would eventually be used to support the claim that Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Economist Stephanie Kelton anticipated that tactic in a piece she published at the New Economic Perspectives website  . . .

It has finally become apparent to most rational thinkers that economic austerity is of no use to any national economy’s attempts to recover from a severe recession.  There have been loads of great essays published on the subject this week and I would like to direct you to a few of them.

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider wrote a great piece which included this explanation:

This morning brings news that Europe may finally be beginning to soften on the “austerity” philosophy that has brought it nothing but misery over the past several years.

The “austerity” idea, you’ll remember, was that the huge debt and deficit problem had ushered in a “crisis of confidence” and that, once business-people saw that governments were serious about debt reduction, they’d get confident and start spending again.

That hasn’t worked.

Instead, spending cuts have led to cuts in GDP which has led to greater deficits and the need for more spending cuts.  And so on.

On April 23, Nicholas Kulich wrote an article for The New York Times which began with the ugly truth that austerity has turned out to be a fiasco:

With political allies weakened or ousted, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s seat at the head of the European table has become much less comfortable, as a reckoning with Germany’s insistence on lock-step austerity appears to have begun.

“The formula is not working, and everyone is now talking about whether austerity is the only solution,” said Jordi Vaquer i Fanés, a political scientist and director of the Barcelona Center for International Affairs in Spain.  “Does this mean that Merkel has lost completely?  No.  But it does mean that the very nature of the debate about the euro-zone crisis is changing.”

A German-inspired austerity regimen agreed to just last month as the long-term solution to Europe’s sovereign debt crisis has come under increasing strain from the growing pressures of slowing economies, gyrating financial markets and a series of electoral setbacks.

Joe Weisenthal of The Business Insider provided us with this handy round-up of essays proclaiming the demise of economic austerity.  Here is his own nail in the coffin:

As we wrote this morning, the bad news for Angela Merkel is that the jig is up: There’s almost nobody left who is willing to go along with the German idea that the sole solution forEurope is spending discipline and “reform,” whatever that means.

One of the best essays on this subject was written by Hale Stewart for The Big Picture.  The title of the piece was “People Are Finally Figuring Out: Austerity is Stupid”.

Those in denial about the demise of economic austerity have found it necessary to ignore the increasing refutations of the policy from conservative economists, which began appearing early this year.  The most highly-publicized of these came from Harvard economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) criticized the policy on a number of occasions, such as his posting of January 11, 2012:

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

One would think that a consensus of reasonable people, speaking out against this ill-conceived policy, should be enough to convince The Powers That Be to pull the plug on it.  In a perfect world   .  .  .



Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Be Sure To Catch These Items

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As we reach the end of 2011, I keep stumbling across loads of important blog postings which deserve more attention.  These pieces aren’t really concerned with the usual, “year in review”- type of subject matter.  They are simply great items which could get overlooked by people who are too busy during this time of year to set aside the time to browse around for interesting reads.  Accordingly, I’d like to bring a few of these to your attention.

The entire European economy is on its way to hell, thanks to an idiotic, widespread belief that economic austerity measures will serve as a panacea for the sovereign debt crisis.  The increasing obviousness of the harm caused by austerity has motivated its proponents to crank-up the “John Maynard Keynes was wrong” propaganda machine.  You don’t have to look very far to find examples of that stuff.  On any given day, the Real Clear Politics (or Real Clear Markets) website is likely to be listing at least one link to such a piece.  Those commentators are simply trying to take advantage of the fact that President Obama botched the 2009 economic stimulus effort.  Many of us realized – a long time ago – that Obama’s stimulus measures would prove to be inadequate.  In July of 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Second Stimulus”, wherein I pointed out that another stimulus program would be necessary because the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was not going to accomplish its intended objective.  Beyond that, it was already becoming apparent that the stimulus program would eventually be used to support the claim that Keynesian economics doesn’t work.  Economist Stephanie Kelton anticipated that tactic in a piece she published at the New Economic Perspectives website:

Some of us saw this coming.  For example, Jamie Galbraith and Robert Reich warned, on a panel I organized in January 2009, that the stimulus package needed to be at least $1.3 trillion in order to create the conditions for a sustainable recovery.  Anything shy of that, they worried, would fail to sufficiently improve the economy, making Keynesian economics the subject of ridicule and scorn.

Despite the current “ridicule and scorn” campaign against Keynesian economics, a fantastic, unbiased analysis of the subject has been provided by Henry Blodget of The Business Insider.  Blodget’s commentary was written in easy-to-read, layman’s terms and I can’t say enough good things about it.  Here’s an example:

The reason austerity doesn’t work to quickly fix the problem is that, when the economy is already struggling, and you cut government spending, you also further damage the economy. And when you further damage the economy, you further reduce tax revenue, which has already been clobbered by the stumbling economy.  And when you further reduce tax revenue, you increase the deficit and create the need for more austerity.  And that even further clobbers the economy and tax revenue.  And so on.

Another “must read” blog posting was provided by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish).  Mish directed our attention to a rather extensive list of “Things to Say Goodbye To”, which was written last year by Clark McClelland and appeared on Jeff Rense’s website.  (Clark McClelland is a retired NASA aerospace engineer who has an interesting background.  I encourage you to explore McClelland’s website.)  Mish pared McClelland’s list down to nine items and included one of his own – loss of free speech:

A bill in Congress with an innocuous title – Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) – threatens to do much more.

*  *  *

This bill’s real intent is not to stop piracy, but rather to hand over control of the internet to corporations.

At his Financial Armageddon blog, Michael Panzner took a similar approach toward slimming down a list of bullet points which reveal the disastrous state of our economy:  “50 Economic Numbers From 2011 That Are Almost Too Crazy To Believe,” from the Economic Collapse blog.  Panzner’s list was narrowed down to ten items – plenty enough to undermine those “sunshine and rainbows” prognostications about what we can expect during 2012.

The final item on my list of “must read” essays is a rebuttal to that often-repeated big lie that “no laws were broken” by the banksters who caused the financial crisis.  Bill Black is an Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City in the Department of Economics and the School of Law.  Black directed litigation for the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB) from 1984 to 1986 and served as deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC) in 1987.  Black’s refutation of the “no laws were broken by the financial crisis banksters” meme led up to a clever homage to Dante’s Divine Comedy describing the “ten circles of hell” based on “the scale of ethical depravity by the frauds that drove the ongoing crisis”.  Here is Black’s retort to the big lie:

Sixty Minutes’ December 11, 2011 interview of President Obama included a claim by Obama that, unfortunately, did not lead the interviewer to ask the obvious, essential follow-up questions.

I can tell you, just from 40,000 feet, that some of the most damaging behavior on Wall Street, in some cases, some of the least ethical behavior on Wall Street, wasn’t illegal.

*   *   *

I offer the following scale of unethical banker behavior related to fraudulent mortgages and mortgage paper (principally collateralized debt obligations (CDOs)) that is illegal and deserved punishment.  I write to prompt the rigorous analytical discussion that is essential to expose and end Obama and Bush’s “Presidential Amnesty for Contributors” (PAC) doctrine.  The financial industry is the leading campaign contributor to both parties and those contributions come overwhelmingly from the wealthiest officers – the one-tenth of one percent that thrives by being parasites on the 99 percent.

I have explained at length in my blogs and articles why:

• Only fraudulent home lenders made liar’s loans
• Liar’s loans were endemically fraudulent
• Lenders and their agents put the lies in liar’s loans
• Appraisal fraud was endemic and led by lenders and their agents
• Liar’s loans could only be sold through fraudulent reps and warranties
• CDOs “backed” by liar’s loans were inherently fraudulent
• CDOs backed by liar’s loans could only be sold through fraudulent reps and warranties
• Liar’s loans hyper-inflated the bubble
• Liar’s loans became roughly one-third of mortgage originations by 2006

Each of these frauds is a conventional fraud that could be prosecuted under existing laws.

It’s nice to see someone finally take a stand against the “Presidential Amnesty for Contributors” (PAC) doctrine.  Every time Obama attempts to invoke that doctrine – he should be called on it.  The Apologist-In-Chief needs to learn that the voters are not as stupid as he thinks they are.


 

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Here We Go Again

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Goldman Sachs is back in the spotlight.  This time, there is a chorus of disgust being expressed about how Goldman conducts its business.  Back in June of 2009, Matt Taibbi famously characterized Goldman Sachs in the following terms:

The world’s most powerful investment bank is a great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money.

The latest episode of predation by the Vampire Squid concerns an August 16 report prepared by Alan Brazil, a member of Goldman’s trading team.  Brazil prepared the 54-page presentation for the firm’s institutional clients as a guide to the impending economic collapse with some trading strategies to benefit from that event.  Page 3 of the report starts with the headline:  “Here We Go Again”.  The statement was prescient in that the report itself initiated a renewed, consensual effort to condemn Goldman.  Page 4 has the headline:   “The Underlying Problem May Be Structural And Created By the Housing Bubble”.  The extent to which the underlying problem may have been caused by Goldman Sachs had been previously discussed by Matt Taibbi, who explained Goldman’s propensity to act the way it always has:  

If America is circling the drain, Goldman Sachs has found a way to be that drain  .  .  .

Shah Gilani of Forbes reacted to the publication of Alan Brazil’s report with the following statement, which was used for the title of his own article:

In my opinion, Goldman isn’t just a travesty of a mockery of a sham, it is a criminal enterprise and worthy of being stepped on itself.

Susan Pulliam and Liz Rappaport broke the story on Goldman’s “Dark View” for The Wall Street Journal:

The report, released by the Hedge Fund Strategies group in Goldman’s securities division, provides a glimpse into the trading ideas that are generated for hedge funds through strategists, such as Mr. Brazil, who are part of Goldman’s trading operation rather than its research group.

Such strategists sit alongside the traders who are executing trades for their clients.  Unlike analysts in firms’ research divisions—who are supposed to be walled off from information about the activity of the firm’s clients—these desk strategists have a front-row seat for viewing the ebb and flow of clients’ investment plays.

They can see if there is a groundswell of interest among hedge funds in taking bearish bets in a certain sector, and they watch trading volumes dry up or explode.  Their point of view is informed by more, and often confidential, information about clients than analysts’ opinions, making their research and ideas highly prized by traders.

The report itself makes note that the information included isn’t considered research by Goldman.  “This material is not independent advice and is not a product of Global Investment Research,” the report notes.

The idea that such a gloomy assessment had not been shared with the general public has become a frequently-expressed complaint.  Michael T. Snyder wrote a piece for Seeking Alpha, which provided this explanation for the lack of candor:

As I wrote about the other day, the financial world is about to hit the panic button.  Things could start falling apart at any time. Most of these big banks will not publicly admit how bad things are, but privately there is a whole lot of freaking out going on.

*   *   *

You aren’t going to hear the truth from the media or from our politicians, because keeping people calm is much more of a priority to them than is telling the truth.

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider dissuaded the “little people” from getting any grandiose ideas after reading Brazil’s briefing:

Unfortunately, lest you think your knowledge of this semi-secret report will finally allow you to out-trade hedge funds, it won’t. The hedge funds got the report on August 16th.  As usual, you’re the last to know.

Beyond that, there is Goldman’s longstanding reputation for “front running” its own clients, which must have inspired this remark in a critique of Alan Brazil’s report, appearing at the Minyanville website:

Coincidentally, he had some surefire trading strategies for clients interested in capitalizing on this trend.  Presumably, Goldman’s own traders began bidding the various recommended hedges up some time earlier, a possibility Goldman discloses up front.

So this is what the squid is down to these days:  peddling the obvious to the bottom-feeders below it in the financial food chain.

By now, those commentators who had criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.


 

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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

In my last posting, I discussed the need for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate and provide an accounting of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the financial crisis.  A more broad-based inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis is being conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by former California State Treasurer, Phil Angelides.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Like the Pecora Commission, the FCIC has subpoena power.

On Wednesday, January 13, the FCIC will hold its first public hearing which will include testimony from some interesting witnesses.  The witnesses will appear in panels, with three panels being heard on Wednesday and two more panels appearing on Thursday.  The witness list and schedule appear at The Huffington Post website.  Wednesday’s first panel is comprised of the following financial institution CEOs:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (who unknowingly appeared as Dr. Evil on several humorous, internet-based Christmas cards), Jamie Dimon (a/k/a “The Dimon Dog”) of JP Morgan Chase, John Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America.  Curiously, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup was not invited.

Frank Rich of The New York Times spoke highly of FCIC chairman Phil Angelides in his most recent column.  Nevertheless, as Mr. Rich pointed out, given the fact that the banking lobby has so much influence over both political parties, there is a serious question as to whether the FCIC will have as much impact on banking reform as did the Pecora Commission:

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph.  Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s.  The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009.  The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private.  The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties.

A similar degree of skepticism was apparent in a recent article by Binyamin Appelbaum of The Washington Post.  Mr. Appelbaum also made note of the fact that the relatively small, $8 million budget — for an investigation that has until December 15 to prepare its report — will likely be much less than the amount spent by the banks under investigation.  Appelbaum pointed out that FCIC vice chairman, William Thomas, a retired Republican congressman from California, felt that the commission would benefit from its instructions to focus on understanding the crisis rather than providing policy recommendations.  Nevertheless, both Angelides and Thomas expressed concern about the December 15 deadline:

The tight timetable also makes it impossible to produce a comprehensive account of the crisis, both men said.  Instead, the commission will focus its work on particular topics, perhaps producing a series of case studies, Angelides said.

*   *   *

Both Angelides and Thomas acknowledged that the commission is off to a slow start, having waited more than a year since the peak of the crisis to hold its first hearing.  Thomas said that a lot of work already was happening behind the scenes and that the hearing next week could be compared to a rocket lifting off after a lengthy construction process.

Even as books and speeches about the crisis pile up, Thomas expressed confidence that the committee’s work could still make a difference.

“There are a lot of people who still haven’t learned the lessons,” he said.

One of those people who still has not learned his lesson is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, who is currently facing a chorus of calls for his resignation or firing.  Economist Randall Wray, in a piece entitled, “Fire Geithner Now!” shared my sentiment that Turbo Tim is not the only one who needs to go:

There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke.  It is time for a fresh start.

Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed.  As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs.

Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized that Obama’s new economic team should be able to recognize the following four principles (which I have abbreviated):

1.  Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent.  Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities – which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis.  As such, they need to be shut down and resolved.  …

2.  Saving financial institutions does not save the economy.   …

3.  As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound.  Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous.  Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Main street.  …

4.   Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance.  The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin.  …

At The Business Insider website, Henry Blodget gave a four-minute, video presentation, citing five reasons why Geithner should resign.  The text version of this discussion appears at The Huffington Post.  Nevertheless, at The Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog, John Carney expressed his belief that Geithner would not quit or be forced to leave office until after the mid-term elections in November:

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

But there’s little chance this will happen.  The Obama administration cannot afford to show weakness.  If it caved to Congressional critics of Geithner, lawmakers would be further emboldened to chip away at the president’s authority.  Senate Republicans would likely turn the confirmation hearing of Geithner’s replacement into a brawl — one that would not reflect well on the White House or Democrat Congressional leadership.

There’s also little political upside to getting rid of Geithner now.  It will not save Congressional Democrats any seats in the mid-term election.  Obama’s popularity ratings won’t rise. None of the administration’s priorities will be furthered by firing Geithner.

All of this changes following the midterm elections, when Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress.  At that point, the administration will be looking for a fall guy.  Geithner will make an attractive fall guy.

Although there may not be much hope that the hard work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any significant financial reform legislation, at least we can look forward to the resignations of Turbo Tim and Larry Summers before the commission’s report is due on December 15.



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Damage Control

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December 17, 2009

Matt Taibbi hit another grand slam with his recent Rolling Stone article: “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  It was another classic work in his unique style.  The ugly truth it drove home was that Barack Obama used a “bait and switch” tactic in his Presidential campaign:  promising to reform Wall Street — until the day after he got elected — at which time he immediately jumped into bed with the culprits of the financial crisis.  The reaction of the Obama apologists to the Rolling Stone piece involved the usual tactic of attacking the messenger (in this case:  Taibbi himself).  It didn’t work.  The best way to see how this played out should begin with a reading of  Taibbi’s retort to a critique appearing in The American Prospect — a feeble attempt to demonstrate that Taibbi got his facts wrong.  A neutral judge, Felix Salmon of Reuters, then stepped in and ruled in favor of Taibbi.  The online responses to Felix Salmon’s essay are a great read.  At the Open Left website, David Sirota upbraided Taibbi’s critics, who spanned the political spectrum — many of whom expressed condescension at the “naïve” decision of an outside-the-beltway reporter to expose the breach of a campaign promise:

It’s certainly true that a lot of politicians’ words mean nothing – but if reporters start treating that as a non-newsworthy assumption in their coverage, then the whole journalistic system becomes a joke – a miasma of personality profiles and puff pieces that assumes that the only thing that must be valued in politics is personal intangibles like “charisma” and “charm” and “toughness” and all those other incessant cliches. And what a joke that makes of our democracy.  In a republic where we only get to vote our politicians in or out every few years, all we have to go on are their promises.  If we now must assume their promises aren’t true, and attack people for being “naïve” for daring to try to hold them to their promises, then we’ve made a joke of our whole political system.

Matt Taibbi’s article immediately forced the White House into a damage control mode.  Another softball interview was immediately set up with Steve Croft of 60 Minutes, wherein Obama attempted to redeem his false image as an adversary of the Wall Street investment banks.  The President took advantage of that opportunity to present himself as an antagonist of those he described as “fat cats”.  On the following day, Obama held a meeting in the White House cabinet room with some banking representatives who found the event important enough to attend.  Immediately afterward, Charlie Gasparino revealed the backstory behind Obama’s meeting with the bankers.  After informing us that the administration provided the bankers with Obama’s “talking points” in advance of the meeting, Gasparino disclosed this:

.  .  . people with first-hand knowledge of the sitdown said, it was a heavily scripted affair — with none of the fireworks Obama displays in public.

*   *   *

Said one CEO who attended:  “I expected to be taken to the woodshed, but the tone was quite the opposite.”

Said another senior exec with knowledge of the meeting: “The whole thing was so telegraphed that not much was accomplished, other than giving Obama a PR stunt.   . . .  He might have sounded mean on ‘60 Minutes,’ but during the meeting he was a hell of a lot nicer.”

Many commentators were quick to point out that by the time Obama started talking tough about “fat cats”, he had already given them all they wanted by allowing them to pay back their TARP loans on an expedited basis.  As Henry Blodget explained for The Business Insider:

And in case you missed what is really going on here, the banks that repaid TARP are now getting all the benefits of government help with none of the drawbacks.  They just ditched the bad stuff — namely, pay caps — and kept the good stuff (implicit bond guarantees, subsidized super-low interest rates, no obligation to do anything for anyone).  Obama can jawbone all he wants about “fat cats,” but that’s all he can do.

At The Washington Post, Steven Pearlstein bemoaned the fact that the TARP beneficiaries had been “let off their leash”.  Pearlstein expressed concern that this move created the potential for more problems in the future:

By rushing to cash in their chips, however, the administration not only gave up political leverage and additional profit, but took the risk that one or more of the banks may find that it can’t make it on its own.  While the financial system has rebounded faster than anyone could have imagined, potential threats still loom — a further collapse of commercial real estate, for example, or a string of sovereign debt defaults.  And bank profits, while having rebounded, remain significantly dependent on the availability of cheap funding from the Federal Reserve and other central banks that cannot be expected to last indefinitely.

The administration’s damage control effort turned out to be worthless.  With his centerpiece healthcare reform effort floundering in the Senate, Obama the President is appearing to be significantly less effective than Obama the candidate.  The President’s critics have been quick to pounce.  George Will noted that Obama has “seen his job approval vary inversely with his ubiquity”.  The New York Post’s Michael Goodwin alleged that Obama “doesn’t look like he cares that big chunks of the country, left, right and center, are giving up on him.”  However, the best analysis of the confidence crisis afflicting the Obama Presidency came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.com.  Gerstein observed that the new Preisdent’s leadership style was to blame — something Gerstein described as “the Reverse Roosevelt:  Talk boldly and carry a toothpick.”  While debunking the administration’s claim that it had lost the leverage it had over Wall Street with the TARP paybacks, Gerstein argued that such an excuse “doesn’t pass the laugh test” because the banking industry is the most regulated industry in the country.  The task Obama faces is to cultivate a leadership style that will be useful in confronting the challenges he undertook when he assumed office:

For those center dwellers, the issue is not that Obama is too liberal or too pragmatic (the chief complaints of the noisemakers on the left and right), but that he is not effective enough.  They question whether he has what it takes to get results:  to find the right balance on health care, to admit and fix the inadequacies of the stimulus, to begin taming the deficit without impeding growth.  It is a crisis of confidence that at its heart is, as Brookings scholar and former Clinton adviser Bill Galston points out, a crisis of competence.

*   *   *

But regardless of the reasons, Obama signed up for these missions, and his ability to succeed in them will largely hinge on whether he can grow as a leader.  Can he overcome his inhibitions, whatever their cause, and learn from the legacies of our most effective presidents about how to wield the full power of his office?  He clearly knows how to don the velvet glove (often with substantial impact) — will he come to understand when to unleash the iron fist?

Obama’s pattern so far is far from encouraging.  But I would not give up hope for growth.

It appears as though we are back to the themes of “hope” and “change”.  This time we’re hoping that Obama will change.



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Avoiding The Kool-Aid

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November 5, 2009

Ask NOT what your country can do for you  —

But ask what your country can do for its largest banks.

—  “Turbo” Tim

All right  .  . .  “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t really say that (yet) but we’ve all seen how his actions affirm that doctrine.  Former federal banking regulator, Professor William Black, recently criticized Geithner for not protecting the taxpayers when Turbo Tim bailed out CIT Group to the tune of 2.4 billion dollars this past summer.  CIT has now filed for bankruptcy.  Henry Blodget of The Business Insider described Professor Black’s outrage over this situation:

The government was in no way obligated to lend the struggling CIT money and, in fact, initially refused to provide it bailout funds.  More importantly, being the lender of last resort, the government should have guaranteed we’d be the first to get paid if CIT eventually filed Chapter 11.  By failing to do so, “it’s like he [Geithner] burned billions of dollars again in government money, our money, gratuitously,” says Black.

After Tuesday’s election defeats for the Democrats in two gubernatorial races, the subject of “bailout fatigue” has been getting more attention.

Acting under the pretext of “transparency” the Obama administration has developed a strategy of holding meetings for people and groups with whom the administration knows it is losing credibility.  Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake.com has written about the Obama team’s efforts to keep the disaffected Left under control by corralling these groups into what Hamsher calls “the veal pen”.  She described one meeting wherein Rahm Emanuel used the expression “f**king stupid” in reference to the critics of those Democrats opposing the public option in proposed healthcare reform legislation.

A different format was followed at what appeared to be a “message control” conference, held on Monday at the Treasury Department.  This time, the guest list was comprised of a politically diverse group of financial bloggers.  One attendee, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, described the meeting as “curious”:

None of us knew in advance how many attendees there would be; there were eight of us at a two-hour session, Interfluidity, Marginal Revolution, Kid Dynamite’s World, Across the Curve, Financial Armageddon, Accrued Interest, and Aleph (and of course, others may have been invited who had scheduling conflicts).

*   *   *

It wasn’t obvious what the objective of the meeting was (aside the obvious idea that if they were nice to us we might reciprocate.  Unfortunately, some of us are not housebroken).  I will give them credit for having the session be almost entirely a Q&A, not much in the way of presentation.  One official made some remarks about the state of financial institutions; later another said a few things about regulatory reform.  The funniest moment was when, right after the spiel on regulatory reform, Steve Waldman said, “I’ve read your bill and I think it’s terrible.”  They did offer to go over it with him.  It will be interesting to see if that happens.

*   *   *

My bottom line is that the people we met are very cognitively captured, assuming one can take their remarks at face value.  Although they kept stressing all the things that had changed or they were planning to change, the polite pushback from pretty all the attendees was that what Treasury thought of as major progress was insufficient.

*   *   *

Several of us raised questions about whether what their vision for the industry’s structure was and that the objective seemed to be to restore the financial system that got us in trouble in the first place.

Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall adopted Ms. Smith’s description of the event, adding a few observations of his own:

  • . . . it wasn’t clear that there was a “plan B” in place if things do not recover in 2010 as many mainstream analysts expect.  In fact, the suggestion from one official was that the tenure of the current crisis would likely be nearer the shorter end of expectations.
  • There was also a bit of a disconnect between the remarks various Treasury officials have made in public forums and what was said at the meeting.  … Yesterday, however, a number of those present clearly acknowledged that things could (still) go wrong and said such fears kept them awake at night.  While that is not unusual in and of itself, at the very least it adds to doubts I and others have expressed about the true state of the financial system and the economy.
  • Finally, the meeting seemed to confirm the strong grip that Wall Street has on the levers of legislative power.

The most informative rendition of the events at the conclave came from Kid Dynamite, whose two-part narrative began with a look at how Michael Panzner interrupted a Treasury official who was describing the Treasury’s current focus “on reducing the footprint of economic intervention cautiously, quickly and prudently”:

Michael Panzner jumped right in, addressing a concept I’ve written about previously – that of  “extend and pretend,” or “delay and pray” – the concept of attempting to avoid recognizing actual losses and or insolvencies, and growing out of them after enough time.  Panzner called it “fake it ‘till you make it.”  I mentioned that I felt like we were undergoing a “Ponzi scheme of confidence” – but that confidence mattered less than ever in the current environment where, contrary to perhaps the prior 10 years, confidence can no longer be “spent.”

Kid Dynamite’s report contained too many great passages for me to quote here without running on excessively.  Just be sure to read his entire report, including Part II (which should be posted by the time you read this).

David Merkel of The Aleph Blog also submitted a two-part report (so far — with more to come) although Part 2 is more informative.  Here are some highlights:

As all bloggers there will note, those from the Treasury were kind, intelligent, funny … they were real people, unlike the common tendency to demonize those in DC.

*   *   *

To the Treasury I would say, “Markets are inherently unstable, and that is a good thing.”  They often have to adjust to severe changes in the human condition, and governmental attempts to tame markets may result in calm for a time, and a tsunami thereafter.

*   *   *

As for the bank stress-testing, one can look at it two ways: 1) the way I looked at it at the time — short on details, many generalities, not trusting the results.  (Remember, I have done many such analyses myself for insurers.) or, 2) something that gave confidence to the markets when they were in an oversold state.  Duh, but I was dumb — the oversold market rallied when it learned that the Treasury had its back.

John Jansen from Across The Curve included his report on the meeting within his usual morning posting concerning the bond market on November 4.   In a subsequent posting that afternoon, he referred his readers to the Kid Dynamite report.  Here’s what Mr. Jansen did say about the event:

. . .  those officials expressed real concern about the downside risks to the economy (as did blogger Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon) and since I think that the relationship between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve has morphed into something somewhat incestuous I suspect that the Federal Reserve will not jump off the reservation and take the first baby steps to exiting its easy money policy.

The report at the Accrued Interest blog drew some hostile comments from readers who seemed convinced that Accrued was the only blogger there who actually drank the Kool-Aid being served by the Treasury.  Their reaction was easily understandable after reading this remark (which followed a breach of protocol with the admission that Turbo Tim was there in the flesh):

It was a fascinating experience and I have to admit, it was just plain cool to be within the bowels of power like that.

Huh?  All I can say is:  If you like being in powerful bowels, just take a cruise over to duPont Circle.  Actually — it was at his next statement where he lost me:

I am also on record as saying that Geithner was a good choice for Treasury secretary.

— and then it was all downhill from there.

The administration’s “charm offensive” has moved to the dicey issue of financial reform, where it is drawing criticism from across the political spectrum.  Given the fact that they have all but admitted to a strategy of simply reading The Secret and willing everything to get better by their positive thoughts  — Michael Panzner might as well start writing Financial Armageddon — The Sequel.



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