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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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Congress Under The Microscope

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

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

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


 

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Those Smart Bond Traders

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There seems to be a consensus that bond traders are smarter than stock traders.  Consider this thought from Investopedia’s Financial Edge website:

Many investors believe bond traders understand the economy better than equity traders.  Bond traders pay very close attention to any economic factor that might affect interest rates.  Equity traders recognize that changes in bond prices provide a good indication of what bond traders think of the economy.

Widespread belief that Ben Bernanke’s Zero Interest Rate Policy (ZIRP) has created a stock market “bubble” has led to fear that the bubble may soon pop and cause the market to crash.  It was strange to see that subject discussed by John Melloy at CNBC, given the news outlet’s reputation for stock market cheerleading. Nevertheless, Mr. Melloy recently presented us with some ominous information:

The Yale School of Management since 1989 has asked wealthy individual investors monthly to give the “probability of a catastrophic stock market crash in the U.S. in the next six months.”

In the latest survey in December, almost 75 percent of respondents gave it at least a 10 percent chance of happening.  That’s up from 68 percent who gave it a 10 percent probability last April, just before the events of May 6, 2010.

*   *   *

The Flash Crash Commission – containing members of the CFTC and SEC – made a series of recommendations for improving market structure Friday, including single stock circuit breakers, a more reliable audit trail on trades, and curbing the use of cancelled trades by high-frequency traders.  They still don’t know what actually caused the nearly 1,000-point drop in the Dow Jones Industrial Average in a matter of minutes.

*   *   *

Overall volume has been very light in the market though, as the individual investor put more money into bonds last year than stocks in spite of the gains.  Strategists said this has been one of the longer bull markets (starting in March 2009) with barely any retail participation.  Flows into equity mutual funds did turn positive in January and have continued this month however, according to ICI and TrimTabs.com.  Yet the fear of a crash persists.

Whether or not one is concerned about the possibility of a market crash, consensual ambivalence toward equities is on the rise.  Felix Salmon recently wrote an article for The New York Times entitled, “Wall Street’s Dead End”, which began with the observation that the number of companies listed on the major domestic exchanges peaked in 1997 and has been declining ever since.  Mr. Salmon discussed the recent trend toward private financing of corporations, as opposed to the tradition of raising capital by offering shares for sale on the stock exchanges:

Only the biggest and oldest companies are happy being listed on public markets today.  As a result, the stock market as a whole increasingly fails to reflect the vibrancy and heterogeneity of the broader economy.  To invest in younger, smaller companies, you increasingly need to be a member of the ultra-rich elite.

At risk, then, is the shareholder democracy that America forged, slowly, over the past 50 years.  Civilians, rather than plutocrats, controlled corporate America, and that relationship improved standards of living and usually kept the worst of corporate abuses in check.  With America Inc. owned by its citizens, the success of American business translated into large gains in the stock portfolios of anybody who put his savings in the market over most of the postwar period.

Today, however, stock markets, once the bedrock of American capitalism, are slowly becoming a noisy sideshow that churns out increasingly meager returns.  The show still gets lots of attention, but the real business of the global economy is inexorably leaving the stock market — and the vast majority of us — behind.

Investors who decided to keep their money in bonds, heard some discouraging news from bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO on February 2.   Gus Lubin of The Business Insider provided a good summary of what Bill Gross had to say:

His latest investment letter identifies four scenarios in which bondholders would get burned.  Basically these are sovereign default, currency devaluation, inflation, and poor returns relative to other asset classes.

In other words, you can’t win.  Gross compares Ben Bernanke to the devil and calls ZIRP a devil’s haircut:  “This is not God’s work – it has the unmistakable odor of Mammon.”

Gross recommends putting money in foreign bonds and other assets that yield more than Treasuries.

I was particularly impressed with what Bill Gross had to say about the necessary steps for making America more competitive in the global marketplace:

We need to find a new economic Keynes or at least elect a chastened Congress that can take our structurally unemployed and give them a chance to be productive workers again.  We must have a President whose idea of “centrist” policy is not to hand out presents to the right and the left and then altruistically proclaim the benefits of bipartisanship.  We need a President who does more than propose “Win The Future” at annual State of the Union addresses without policy follow-up.  America requires more than a makeover or a facelift.  It needs a heart transplant absent the contagious antibodies of money and finance filtering through the system.  It needs a Congress that cannot be bought and sold by lobbyists on K Street, whose pockets in turn are stuffed with corporate and special interest group payola.  Are record corporate profits a fair price for America’s soul?  A devil’s bargain more than likely.

You can’t discuss bond fund managers these days, without mentioning Jeffrey Gundlach, who recently founded DoubleLine Capital.  Jonathan Laing of Barron’s wrote a great article about Gundlach entitled “The King of Bonds”.  When I reached the third paragraph of that piece, I had to re-read this startling fact:

His DoubleLine Total Return Bond Fund (DBLTX), with $4.5 billion of assets as of Jan. 31, outperformed every one of the 91 bond funds in the Morningstar intermediate-bond-fund universe in 2010, despite launching only in April.  It notched a total return of 16.6%, compared with returns of 8.36% for the giant Pimco Total Return Fund (PTTAX), run by the redoubtable Bill Gross  . . .

The essay described how Gundlach’s former employer, TCW, feared that Gundlach was planning to leave the firm.  Accordingly, TCW made a pre-emptive strike and fired Gundlach.  From there, the story gets more interesting:

Five weeks after Gundlach’s dismissal, TCW sued the manager, four subordinates and DoubleLine for allegedly stealing trade secrets, including client lists, transaction information and proprietary security-valuation systems.  The suit also charged that a search of Gundlach’s offices had turned up a trove of porn magazines, X-rated DVDs and sexual devices, as well as marijuana.

*    *    *

He charges TCW with employing “smear tactics … to destroy our business.” As for “the sex tapes and such,” he says, they represented “a closed chapter in my life.”

That’s certainly easy to understand.  Porn just hasn’t been the same since Ginger Lynn retired.

Jeff Gundlach’s December webcast entitled, “Independence Day” can be found here.  Take a good look at the graph on page 16:  “Top 0.1% Income Earners Share of Total Income”.  It’s just one of many reminders that our country is headed in the wrong direction.


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MythBusting

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How many times have you heard politicians or mainstream media pundits dump on “The Internet” as an unreliable source of information, due to an abundance of unchecked, dubious reports, which are touted as the truth?  To the contrary, politicians are the least reliable sources of information in our society because – as everyone knows – they are crooks and liars.

The mainstream media have been vested with unchallenged credibility for too long.  It wasn’t until the advent of on-line news reporting (and blogging) when the news “authorities” were subjected to a regular scheme of serious fact-checking.  Nevertheless, the mainstream media still persist in promoting erroneous stories that seem to take on a life of their own – partly because so many news outlets stumble over each other for the sake of parroting the same meme reported by a competitor.  Remember the “Balloon Boy” story?  For an entire afternoon last year, the nation stayed glued to the television, watching a UFO-styled balloon float across Colorado with helicopters in hot pursuit.  Throughout that entire episode, no news reporter or TV commentator saw fit to raise the question:  Is that balloon really large enough to lift a little boy into the sky and haul him through the air like that while it is obviously deflating?  Of course not.  That would have killed the story.

This week brought us a few commentaries, which have done a good job of running against the mainstream media-generated consensus reality to show us what is hiding under the rock.  The first item was something I found on The Big Picture website:  a 50-page, on-line book by Jonathan Tasini entitled, It’s Not Raining, We’re Getting Peed On:  The Scam of the Deficit Crisis.  Tasini went beyond deflating the hype of the deficit crisis to challenge nine other myths, referred to as “Stupid Statements”.  He followed that with his discussion of a disease afflicting politicians and media commentators:  Elititis Experitits.  Tasini covered a lot of ground in a mere 50 pages, concluding with the point that the only deficit being experienced by America right now is a deficit of moral leadership.

Another fine example of mythbusting was provided by Brett Arends in a piece for MarketWatch entitled, “The Truth about California”.  Brett Arends took a noble step forward to challenge the popular myth that California is about to default on its debts and that the Golden State is in desperate need of a bailout from Uncle Sam.  Arends began the essay with this statement:

I know that facts and truth seem to be optional these days.  I know that in the exciting new world of infinite media everyone can choose to believe whatever fantasies they want. But in the case of California, it’s getting on my nerves.

Arends relied on data from the Tax Foundation to go beyond debunking the myth that “California needs a bailout” – to argue that California has been bailing out the rest of the country:

The numbers are simply staggering.  In the quarter century through 2005 (the most recent year for which we have data), Californians bailed out the rest of America to the tune of about $620 billion in today’s dollars.  In 2005 alone it came to nearly $50 billion.

That is 30 times next year’s forecast “budget shortfall” in Sacramento. The only reason California has a budget problem at all is because they have, foolishly, spent so much money subsidizing everyone else.

If it weren’t for that, California could cut its state and local taxes by around $1,300 a person.  That’s a $1,300 tax cut for every man, woman and child. Hmmm.  Funny you never read about that anywhere, isn’t it?

Our third example of mythbusting comes from recent California expatriate, Jr. Deputy Accountant, who exposed the “man behind the curtain” in Catherine Rampell’s article for The New York Times entitled, “Corporate Profits Were the Highest on Record Last Quarter”:

Filed under:  totally unbelievable headlines that are even less believable once you actually dig into the truth behind the big fancy headline.

As Jr. Deputy Accountant points out, Reading Rampell’s article as far as the third paragraph brings you to the disclaimer, which lets the air out of this UFO balloon:

The government does not adjust the numbers for inflation, in part because these corporate profits can be affected by pricing changes from all over the world and because the government does not have a price index for individual companies.

Beyond that, near the end of the Times article, the reader is confronted with an unpleasant fact, which undermines the optimistic tone of the headline:

“The economy is not growing fast enough to reduce significantly the unemployment rate or to prevent a slide into deflation,” Paul Dales, a United States economist for Capital Economics, wrote in a note to clients.  “This is unlikely to change in 2011 or 2012.”

At least the ugly truth was available to those willing to actually read the article.

As Jonathan Tasini pointed out in his on-line book, the traditional media are “uninformed, lazy and always desperate to be part of the insider crowd”.  Perhaps that is another reason why traditional media outlets are finding themselves replaced by Internet-based news sources.


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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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It seems as though everyone is bashing the Federal Reserve these days.  In my last posting, I criticized the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).  Since that time, I’ve seen an onslaught of outrage directed against the Fed from across the political spectrum.  Bethany McLean of Slate made a similar observation on November 9.  As the subtitle to her piece suggested, people who criticized the Fed were usually considered “oddballs”.  Ms. McLean observed that the recent Quarterly Letter by Jeremy Grantham (which I discussed here) is just another example of anti-Fed sentiment from a highly-respected authority.  Ms. McLean stratified the degrees of anti-Fed-ism this way:

If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters.  The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time.  The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

From the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican-oriented Investor’s Business Daily provided an editorial on November 9 entitled, “Fighting The Fed”.  More famously, in prepared remarks to be delivered during a trade association meeting in Phoenix, Sarah Palin ordered Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to “cease and desist” his plan to proceed with QE2.  As a result of the criticism of her statement by Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, it may be a while before we hear Ms. Palin chirping about this subject again.

The disparagement directed against the Fed from the political right has been receiving widespread publicity.  I was particularly impressed by the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009.  Here is the most-frequently quoted portion of Bunning’s diatribe:

.   .   .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

Michael Grunwald, author of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2009” cover story on Ben Bernanke, saw fit to write a sycophantic “puff piece” in support of Bernanke’s re-confirmation as Fed chairman.  In that essay, Grunwald attempted to marginalize Bernanke’s critics with this statement:

The mostly right-leaning (deficit) hawks rail about Helicopter Ben, Zimbabwe Ben and the Villain of the Year,   . . .

The “Helicopter Ben” piece was written by Larry Kudlow.  The “Zimbabwe Ben” and “Villain of the Year” essays were both written by Adrienne Gonzalez of the Jr. Deputy Accountant website, who saw her fanbase grow exponentially as a result of Grunwald’s remark.  The most amusing aspect of Grunwald’s essay in support of Bernanke’s confirmation was the argument that the chairman could be trusted to restrain his moneyprinting when confronted with demands for more monetary stimulus:

Still, doves want to know why he isn’t providing even more gas. Part of the answer is that he doesn’t seem to think that pouring more cash into the banking system would generate many jobs, because liquidity is not the current problem.  Banks already have reserves; they just aren’t using them to make loans and spur economic activity.  Bernanke thinks injecting even more money would be like pushing on a string.
*   *   *

To Bernanke, the benefits of additional monetary stimulus would be modest at best, while the costs could be disastrous. Reasonable economists can and do disagree.

Compare and contrast that Bernanke with the Bernanke who explained his rationale for more monetary stimulus in the November 4, 2010 edition of The Washington Post:

The FOMC decided this week that, with unemployment high and inflation very low, further support to the economy is needed.

*   *   *

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability. Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.

Bernanke should have said:  “Pushing on a string should help us fulfill that obligation.”

Meanwhile, the Fed is getting thoroughly bashed from the political left, as well.  The AlterNet website ran the text of this roundtable discussion from the team at Democracy Now (Michael Hudson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez – with a cameo appearance by Joseph Stiglitz) focused on the question of whether QE2 will launch an “economic war on the rest of the world”.  I enjoyed this opening remark by Michael Hudson:

The head of the Fed is known as “Helicopter Ben” because he talks about dropping money into the economy.  But if you see helicopters, they’re probably not your friends.  Don’t go out and wait for them to drop the money, because the money is all going electronically into the banks.

At the progressive-leaning TruthDig website, author Nomi Prins discussed the latest achievement by that unholy alliance of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve:

The Republicans may have stormed the House, but it was Wall Street and the Fed that won the election.

*   *   *

That $600 billion figure was about twice what the proverbial “analysts” on Wall Street had predicted.  This means that, adding to the current stash, the Fed will have shifted onto its books about $1 trillion of the debt that the Treasury Department has manufactured.  That’s in addition to $1.25 trillion more in various assets backed by mortgages that the Fed is keeping in its till (not including AIG and other backing) from the 2008 crisis days.  This ongoing bailout of the financial system received not a mention in pre- or postelection talk.

*   *   *

No winning Republican mentioned repealing the financial reform bill, since it doesn’t really actually reform finance, bring back Glass-Steagall, make the big banks smaller or keep them from creating complex assets for big fees.  Score one for Wall Street.  No winning Democrat thought out loud that maybe since the Republican tea partyers were so anti-bailouts they should suggest a strategy that dials back ongoing support for the banking sector as it continues to foreclose on homes, deny consumer and small business lending restructuring despite their federal windfall, and rake in trading profits.  The Democrats couldn’t suggest that, because they were complicit.  Score two for Wall Street.

In other words, nothing will change.  And that, more than the disillusionment of his supporters who had thought he would actually stand by his campaign rhetoric, is why Obama will lose the White House in 2012.

The only thing I found objectionable in Ms. Prins’ essay was her reference to “the pro-bank center”.  Since when is the political center “pro-bank”?  Don’t blame us!

As taxpayer hostility against the Fed continues to build, expect to see this book climb up the bestseller lists:  The Creature from Jekyll Island.   It’s considered the “Fedbashers’ bible”.


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Well-Deserved Scrutiny For The Fed

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In the wake of the 2010 elections, it’s difficult to find a pundit who doesn’t mention the Tea Party at least once while discussing the results.  This got me thinking about whether the man referred to as “The Godfather” of the Tea Party movement, Congressman Ron Paul (father of Tea Party candidate, Senator-elect Rand Paul) will become more influential in the next Congress.  More important is the question of whether Ron Paul’s book, End The Fed will be taken more seriously – particularly in the aftermath of the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).

The announcement by the Federal Open Market Committee to proceed with QE2 drew immediate criticism.  The best rebuke against QE 2 came from economist John Hussman, whose Weekly Market Comment – entitled, “Bubble, Crash, Bubble, Crash, Bubble …” was based on this theme:

We will continue this cycle until we catch on.  The problem isn’t only that the Fed is treating the symptoms instead of the disease.  Rather, by irresponsibly promoting reckless speculation, misallocation of capital, moral hazard (careless lending without repercussions), and illusory “wealth effects,” the Fed has become the disease.

One issue raised by Mr. Hussman – which should resonate well with supporters of the Tea Party – concerns the fact that the Fed is undertaking an unconstitutional exercise of fiscal policy (rather than monetary policy) most notably by its purchase of mortgage-backed securities:

In this example, the central bank is not engaging in monetary policy, but fiscal policy.  Creating government liabilities to acquire goods and assets, unless those assets are other government liabilities, is fiscal policy, pure and simple.

Hussman’s analysis of how the “the economic impact of QE2 is likely to be weak or even counterproductive” was best expressed in this passage:

We are betting on the wrong horse.  When the Fed acts outside of the role of liquidity provision, it does more harm than good. Worse, we have somehow accepted a situation where the Fed’s actions are increasingly independent of our democratically elected government.  Bernanke’s unsound leadership has placed the nation’s economic stability on two pillars:  inflated asset prices, and actions that – in Bernanke’s own words – should be “correctly viewed as an end run around the authority of the legislature” (see below).

The right horse is ourselves, and the ability of our elected representatives to create an economic environment that encourages productive investment, research, development, infrastructure, and education, while avoiding policies that promote speculation, discourage work, or defend reckless lenders from experiencing losses on bad investments.

On November 6, another brilliant critique of the Fed came from Ashvin Pandurangi (a/k/a “Ash”) of the Simple Planet website.  His essay began with a reminder of what the Fed really is:

The most powerful, influential economic policy-making institution in the country, the Federal Reserve (“Fed”), is an unelected body that is completely unaccountable to the people.

*   *   *

The Fed, by its own admission, is an independent entity within the government “having both public purposes, and private aspects”.  By “private aspects”, they mean the entire operation is wholly-owned by private member banks, who are paid dividends of 6% each year on their stock.  Furthermore, the Fed’s decisions “do not have to be ratified by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branch of government” and the Fed “does not receive funding appropriated by Congress”.  In 1982, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed this view when it held that “federal reserve banks are not federal instrumentalities … but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations”.

As we all know:  “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  At the end of his essay, Ash connected the dots for those either unable to do so or unwilling to face an ugly reality:

In the last two years, the almighty Fed has printed trillions of dollars in our name to buy worthless mortgage assets from “too big to fail” banks.  It has lent these banks our hard-earned money at about 0% interest, so they could lend our own money back to us at 3%+.  These banks also used our free money to ramp equity and commodity markets, which mostly benefited the top 1% of our population who owns 43% of financial wealth [2], and conveniently, also owns the Fed.  The latter has kept interest rates at next to nothing to punish savers and encourage speculation, making everything less affordable for average Americans who have seen their wages stay the same, decrease or disappear.  What’s left standing is the perniciously powerful, highly secretive and entirely unaccountable Fed, who now epitomizes the state of American democracy.

At least we still have freedom of speech!  As part of the Fed’s roll-out of QE2, Chairman Ben Bernanke found it necessary to write a public relations piece for The Washington Post – perhaps as an apology.  Stock market commentator Bill Fleckenstein had no trouble ripping Bernanke’s article to shreds:

Bernanke goes on to say:  “Although low inflation is generally good, inflation that is too low can pose risks to the economy — especially when the economy is struggling.  In the most extreme case, very low inflation can morph into deflation.”

Oh, yeah?  Says who?  I have not seen any instance where a “too low” inflation rate led to deflation.  When deflation is caused by new inventions or increased productivity (or in the old days, bumper crops), which we might term “good” deflation, it was not a consequence of too little inflation; it was due to progress.  Similarly, the “bad” deflation isn’t created via inflation that is too low; it tends to come from burst bubbles.  In other words, misguided policies, not low inflation, are the cause of deflation.

Because the timing of the Fed’s controversial move to proceed with QE2 dovetails so well with the “energizing” of the Tea Party movement, it will be interesting to observe whether life will become more uncomfortable for Chairman Bernanke.  A recent article by Joshua Zumbrun of Bloomberg News gave us this hint:

Six out of 10 self-identified Tea Party supporters who said they were likely to vote supported overhauling or abolishing the Fed, according to a Bloomberg News national poll conducted Oct. 7-10.

The article made note of the fact that Ron Paul’s ill-fated effort to Audit the Fed (HR 1207) received bipartisan support:

“You had a really strange alliance last year that supported the audit of the Fed and that may come back into play,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Here’s to bipartisanship!


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Double Bubble

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I’m sure there has been a huge number of search engine queries during the past few days, from people who are trying to find out what is meant by the term: “quantitative easing”.  My cynical, home-made definition of the term goes like this:

Quantitative easing involves the Federal Reserve’s purchase of Treasury securities as well as mortgage-backed securities from those privileged, too-big-to-fail banks.

The curiosity about quantitative easing has increased as a result of the release of the notes from the most recent meeting of the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) which boosted expectations that there will be another round of quantitative easing (often referred to as QE II).  On October 15, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke delivered a speech at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston.  After discussing how weak the economic recovery has been (as demonstrated by lackluster consumer spending and the miserable unemployment crisis) Bernanke pointed out that the Fed’s current predicament results from the fact that it has already lowered short-term, nominal interest rates to near-zero.  He then noted that the federal funds rate will be kept low “for longer than the markets expect”.  Bernanke finally got to the point that people wanted to hear him discuss:  whether there will be another round of quantitative easing.  Here is what he said:

In particular, the FOMC is prepared to provide additional accommodation if needed to support the economic recovery and to return inflation over time to levels consistent with our mandate.  Of course, in considering possible further actions, the FOMC will take account of the potential costs and risks of nonconventional policies, and, as always, the Committee’s actions are contingent on incoming information about the economic outlook and financial conditions.

In other words:  They’re still thinking about it.  Meanwhile, former Secretary of  Labor, Robert Reich, wrote a great essay telling us that the Fed will go ahead with more quantitative easing.  After defining the term, Professor Reich added this important tidbit:

Problem is, it won’t work.  Businesses won’t expand capacity and jobs because there aren’t enough consumers to buy additional goods and services.

I’m sure that was a helluva lot more common sense than many people were expecting from a professor at Berkeley.  Beyond that, Professor Reich gave us the rest of the bad news:

So where will the easy money go?  Into another stock-market bubble.

It’s already started.  Stocks are up even though the rest of the economy is still down because money is already so cheap. Bondholders (who can’t get much of any return from their loans) are shifting their portfolios into stocks.  Companies are buying back more shares of their own stock.  And Wall Street is making more bets in the stock market with money it can borrow at almost zero percent interest.

When our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program, the Fed feels pressed to come up with a fake one that blows another financial bubble.  And we know what happens when financial bubbles get too big.

Another bubble currently under expansion is the “junk bond” bubble.  Sy Harding wrote an important article for Forbes entitled, “Fed Still Blowing Bubbles?“.  Here is some of what he said:

The economy’s problems at this point don’t seem to be the level of interest rates, but the lack of jobs, dismal consumer confidence, and the unwillingness of banks to make loans.

However, just the anticipation of additional quantitative easing and still lower long-term interest rates has already potentially begun to pump up the next bubbles, as investors have moved out the risk curve in an effort to find higher rates of return. Money has been flowing at a dramatic pace into high-yield junk bonds, commodities, and gold.  And the stock market has surged up 12% just since its August low when talk of another round of quantitative easing began.  Meanwhile, the U.S. dollar has been trashed further on expectations that the Fed will be ‘printing’ more dollars to finance another round of quantitative easing.

Nevertheless, Sy Harding isn’t so sure that QE II is a “done deal”.  After making his own cost-benefit analysis, Mr. Harding reached this conclusion:

It’s a no-brainer.  Blow another bubble and worry about the consequences down the road.

Yet in his speech Friday morning Fed Chairman Bernanke did not go all in on quantitative easing, stopping short of announcing a new policy, saying only that the Fed contemplates doing more, but “will take into account the potential costs and risks.”

So uncertainty remains for a market that has probably already factored in a substantial new round of stimulus.

This raises an important question:  How will the markets react if the consensual assumption that there will be a QE II turns out to be wrong?

Bond guru, Mohamed El-Erian of PIMCO,  recently wrote a piece for the Financial Times, in which he asserted his conclusion that judging from the FOMC minutes, “it is virtually a foregone conclusion” that the Fed will proceed with QE II.  El-Erian described this anticipated action by the Fed as an effort to “push” investors “to move out on the risk spectrum and buy corporate bonds and stocks”.

Getting back to my earlier question:  If the Fed decides not to proceed with QE II, will the bubbles that have been inflated up to that point make such a large pop as to drive the economy toward that dreaded second dip into recession?  On the other hand, if the Fed does proceed to implement QE II:  What will be the ultimate cost to taxpayers for something Robert Reich describes as a “fake” jobs program “that blows another financial bubble” and accomplishes nothing else?

As Professor Reich has pointed out, the Fed itself is the one being “pushed” to take action here because “our elected representatives can’t and won’t come up with a real jobs program”.  Unfortunately, any “jobs program” initiated by the government has become a “third rail” issue with mid-term elections looming.   As I stated previously, if the economic crisis had been properly addressed two years ago, when the political will for an effective solution still existed, the Fed would not be faced with the current dilemma.  But here we are   .  .  .   just blowing more bubbles.


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Those First Steps Have Destroyed Mid-term Democrat Campaigns

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September 6, 2010

The steps taken by the Obama administration during its first few months have released massive, long-lasting fallout, destroying the re-election hopes of Democrats in the Senate and House.  Let’s take a look back at Obama’s missteps during that crucial period.

During the first two weeks of February, 2009 — while the debate was raging as to what should be done about the financial stimulus proposal — the new administration was also faced with making a decision on what should be done about the “zombie” Wall Street banks.  Treasury Secretary Geithner had just rolled out his now-defunct “financial stability plan” in a disastrous press conference.  Most level-headed people, including Joe Nocera of The New York Times, had been arguing in favor of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership – or temporary nationalization – until they could be restored to healthy, functional status.  Nevertheless, at this critical time, Obama, Geithner and Fed chair Ben Bernanke had decided to circle their wagons around the Wall Street banks.  Here’s how I discussed the situation on February 16, 2009:

Geithner’s resistance to nationalization of insolvent banks represents a stark departure from the recommendations of many economists.  While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month, Dr. Nouriel Roubini explained (during an interview on CNBC) that the cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost. If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.  So I think it’s a bad idea.  It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

Dr. Roubini’s solution is to face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.  On February 15, Dr. Roubini repeated this theme in a Washington Post article he co-wrote with fellow New York University economics professor, Matthew Richardson.

Even after Geithner’s disastrous press conference, President Obama voiced a negative reaction to the Swedish approach during an interview with Terry Moran of ABC News.

Nearly a month later, on March 12, 2009 —  I discussed how the administration was still pushing back against common sense on this subject, while attempting to move forward with its grandiose, “big bang” agenda.  The administration’s unwillingness to force those zombie banks to face the consequences of their recklessness was still being discussed —  yet another month later by Bill Black and Robert Reich.  Three months into his Presidency, Obama had established himself as a guardian of the Wall Street status quo.

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  Before Obama took office, Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, pointed out for Bloomberg Television back on January 8, 2009, that the President-elect’s proposed stimulus would be inadequate to heal the ailing economy:

“It will boost it,” Stiglitz said.  “The real question is — is it large enough and is it designed to address all the problems.  The answer is almost surely it is not enough, particularly as he’s had to compromise with the Republicans.”

On January 19, 2009, financier George Soros contended that even an $850 billion stimulus would not be enough:

“The economies of the world are falling off a cliff.  This is a situation that is comparable to the1930s.  And once you recognize it, you have to recognize the size of the problem is much bigger,” he said.

On February 26, 2009, Economics Professor James Galbarith pointed out in an interview that the stimulus plan was inadequate.  Two months earlier, Paul Krugman had pointed out on Face the Nation, that the proposed stimulus package of $775 billion would fall short.

More recently, on September 5, 2010, a CNN poll revealed that only 40 percent of those surveyed voiced approval of the way President Obama has handled the economy.  Meanwhile, economist Richard Duncan is making the case for another stimulus package “to back forward-looking technologies that will help the U.S. compete and to shift away from the nation’s dependency on industries vulnerable to being outsourced to low-wage centers abroad”.  Chris Oliver of MarketWatch provided us with this glimpse into Duncan’s thinking:

The U.S. is already on track to run up trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits through the next decade, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

“If the government doesn’t spend this money, we are going to collapse into a depression,” Duncan says.  “They are probably going to spend it.   . . . It would be much wiser to realize the opportunities that exist to spend the money in a concerted way to advance the goals of our civilization.”

Making the case for more stimulus, Paul Krugman took a look back at the debate concerning Obama’s first stimulus package, to address the inevitable objections against any further stimulus plans:

Those who said the stimulus was too big predicted sharply rising (interest) rates.  When rates rose in early 2009, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “The Bond Vigilantes:  The disciplinarians of U.S. policy makers return.”   The editorial declared that it was all about fear of deficits, and concluded, “When in doubt, bet on the markets.”

But those who said the stimulus was too small argued that temporary deficits weren’t a problem as long as the economy remained depressed; we were awash in savings with nowhere to go.  Interest rates, we said, would fluctuate with optimism or pessimism about future growth, not with government borrowing.

When in doubt, bet on the markets.  The 10-year bond rate was over 3.7 percent when The Journal published that editorial;  it’s under 2.7 percent now.

What about inflation?  Amid the inflation hysteria of early 2009, the inadequate-stimulus critics pointed out that inflation always falls during sustained periods of high unemployment, and that this time should be no different.  Sure enough, key measures of inflation have fallen from more than 2 percent before the economic crisis to 1 percent or less now, and Japanese-style deflation is looking like a real possibility.

Meanwhile, the timing of recent economic growth strongly supports the notion that stimulus does, indeed, boost the economy:  growth accelerated last year, as the stimulus reached its predicted peak impact, but has fallen off  — just as some of us feared — as the stimulus has faded.

I believe that Professor Krugman would agree with my contention that if President Obama had done the stimulus right the first time – not only would any further such proposals be unnecessary – but we would likely be enjoying a healthy economy with significant job growth.  Nevertheless, the important thing to remember is that President Obama didn’t do the stimulus adequately in early 2009.  As a result, his fellow Democrats will be paying the price in November.




Seeing Reality With Gold Glasses

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March 8, 2010

The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics concerning non-farm payrolls for the month of February has surprised most people and it has left a number of commentators feeling upbeat.  Reuters had reported that “The median forecast from the ten most accurate forecasters is for payrolls to fall by 70,000.”  Nevertheless, the BLS report disclosed a figure of approximately half that much.  Only 36,000 jobs had been lost and unemployment was holding at 9.7%.   One enthusiastic reaction to that news came from the Mad Hedge Fund Trader:

While the employment rate for those with no high school diploma is 16%, the kind of worker who lost their manufacturing jobs to China, the jobless rate for those with college degrees is only 4.5%.  This is proof that the dying sectors of the US economy are delivering the highest unemployment rates, and that America is clawing its way up the value chain in the global race for economic supremacy.  It is what America does best, creative destruction with a turbocharger.  There is a third influence here, which could be huge.  The BLS only contacts existing businesses for its survey.

*   *   *

The bottom line is that payroll figures are much better than they appear at first glance.

Prior to the release of that report, many commentators had been expressing their disappointment concerning the most recent economic indicators.  I discussed that subject on March 1.  On the following day, John Crudele of The New York Post focused on the dramatic drop in the Consumer Confidence Index, released by The Conference Board — a drop to 46 in February from January’s 56.5.  Here is the conclusion Mr. Crudele reached in assessing what most middle-class Americans understand about our current economic state:

Even with the stock market still bubbling and media trying its damnedest to convince us at least a million times a day that there’s an economic recovery, the American public isn’t buying it.

*   *   *

The economy has stabilized since then, helped greatly by the fact that some wealthy people feel wealthier because of an unbelievable snap back by the stock market during 2009.  (And by unbelievable in this context I mean that what happened shouldn’t be believed as either legitimate or sustainable.)

Don Luskin of The Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money blog articulated his dissatisfaction with the most recent economic indicators on February 26.  One week later, Luskin presented us with a very informative analysis for understanding the true value of one’s investments.  Luskin spelled it out this way:

Consider stocks priced not in money, but in gold.  In other words, instead of thinking of stocks as investments you make in order to increase your wealth in dollars, think of them as something to increase your wealth in gold.  After all, you don’t want to make money for its own sake — you want the money for what you can buy with it.  Gold is a symbol for all the things you might want to buy.

*   *   *

It’s easy to track stocks priced in gold because the price of the S&P 500 and the price of an ounce of gold vary closely with one another.  As of Thursday’s close, they were only about $10 apart, with the S&P 500 at 1123, and gold at about 1133.

How about a year ago, on the day of the bottom for stocks on March 9?  That day the S&P 500 closed at 676.53.  Gold closed at 920.85.  That means that one “unit” of the S&P could have bought 73% of an ounce of gold.

Today, with stocks and gold each having risen over the last year — but with stocks rising more — one “unit” of the S&P can buy 99% of an ounce of gold.  All we have to do is compare 73% a year ago to 99% now, and we can see that stocks, priced in gold, have risen 34.9%.

A 34.9% gain for stocks priced in gold is pretty good for a year’s work.  But it’s a far cry from the 69.1% that stocks have gained when they are priced in dollars.  Do you see what has happened here?  Stocks have made you lots of dollars.  But the dollar itself has fallen in value compared to the real and eternal value represented by gold.

Here’s the most troubling part.  The entire 34.9% gain made by stocks — priced in gold, that is — was achieved in just the first five weeks of rallying from the March 2009 bottom.  That means for most of the last year, since mid-April, while it has appeared that stocks have been furiously rallying, in reality they’ve just been sitting there.  All risk, no reward.

*   *   *

So why, then, did stocks — priced in dollars, not gold — continue so much higher?  Simple:  We experienced inflation-induced growth.  Throw enough stimulus money, an “extended period” of zero interest rates from the Fed, and a big dose of government debt at the economy, and you will get some growth — and, eventually, lots of inflation.

Luskin concluded the piece by explaining that if stocks move higher while gold moves lower, we will be seeing evidence of real growth.  On the other hand, if gold increases in value while stocks go down or simply get stuck where they are, there is no economic growth.

Luskin’s approach allows us to see through all that money-printing and excess liquidity Ben Bernanke has brought to the stock market, creating an illusion of increased value.

Everyone is hoping to see evidence of economic recovery as soon as possible.  Don Luskin has provided us with the “x-ray specs” for seeing through the hype to determine whether some of that evidence is real.



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