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The Weakest Link

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November 2, 2009

Everything was supposed to be getting “back to normal” by now.  Since late July, we’ve been hearing that the recession is over.  When the Gross Domestic Product number for the third quarter was released on Thursday, we again heard the ejaculations of enthusiasm from those insisting that the recession has ended.  Investors were willing to overlook the most recent estimate that another 531,000 jobs were lost during the month of October, so the stock market got a boost.  Nevertheless, as was widely reported, the Cash for Clunkers program added 1.66 percent to the 3.5 percent Gross Domestic Product annualized rate increase.  Since Cash for Clunkers was a short-lived event, something else will be necessary to fill its place, stimulating economic activity.  Once that sobering aspect of the story was absorbed, Friday morning’s news informed us that consumer spending had dropped for the first time in five months.  The Associated Press provided this report:

Economists worry that the recovery could falter in coming months if households cut back on spending to cope with rising unemployment, heavy debt loads and tight credit conditions.

“With incomes so soft, increased spending will be a struggle,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S.economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

The Commerce Department said Friday that spending dropped 0.5% in September, the first decline in five months.  Personal incomes were unchanged as workers contend with rising unemployment.  Wages and salaries fell 0.2%, erasing a 0.2% gain in August.

Another report showed that employers face little pressure to raise pay, even as the economy recovers.  The weak labor market makes it difficult for people with jobs to demand higher pay and benefits.

*   *   *

. . .  some economists believe that consumer spending will slow sharply in the current quarter, lowering GDP growth to perhaps 1.5%.  Analysts said the risk of a double-dip recession cannot be ruled out over the next year.

With unemployment as bad as it is, those who have jobs need to be mindful of the Sword of Damocles, as it hangs perilously over their heads.  As the AP report indicated, employers are now in an ideal position to exploit their work force.  Worse yet, as Mish pointed out:

Personal income decreased $15.5 billion (0.5 percent), while real disposable personal income decreased 3.4 percent, in contrast to an increase of 3.8 percent last quarter. Those are horrible numbers.

The war on the American consumer finally bit Wall Street in the ass on Friday when the S&P 500 index took a 2.8 percent nosedive.  When mass layoffs become the magic solution to make dismal corporate earnings reports appear positive, when the consumer is treated as a chump by regulatory agencies, lobbyists and government leaders, the consumer stops fulfilling the designated role of consuming.  When that happens, the economy stands still.  As Renae Merle reported for The Washington Post:

“The government handed the ball off to the consumer and the consumer fell on it,” said Robert G. Smith, chairman of Smith Affiliated Capital in New York. “This is a function of there being no jobs and wages going lower.”

The sell-off on the stock market also reflected a report released Friday showing a decline in consumer sentiment this month, analysts said.  The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 70.6 in October, compared with 73.5 in September.

Rich Miller of Bloomberg News discussed the resulting apprehension experienced by investors:

Only 31 percent of respondents to a poll of investors and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers in the U.S., Europe and Asia see investment opportunities, down from 35 percent in the previous survey in July.  Almost 40 percent in the latest quarterly survey, the Bloomberg Global Poll, say they are still hunkering down.  U.S. investors are even more cautious, with more than 50 percent saying they are in a defensive crouch.

*   *   *

Worldwide, investors and analysts now view the U.S. as the weak link in the global economy, with its markets seen as among the riskiest by a plurality of those surveyed.  One in four respondents expects an unemployment rate of 11 percent or more a year from now, compared with a U.S. administration forecast of 9.7 percent.  The jobless rate now is 9.8 percent, a 26-year high.

Even before the release of “good news” on Thursday followed by Friday’s bad news, stock analysts who base their trading decisions primarily on reading charts, could detect indications of continuing market decline, as Michael Kahn explained for Barron’s last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis continues to generate criticism from across the political spectrum while breeding dissent from within.  As I said last month, the administration’s current strategy is a clear breach of candidate Obama’s campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  The widespread opposition to the administration’s proposed legislation to regulate (read that: placate) large financial companies was discussed by Stephen Labaton for The New York Times:

Senior regulators and some lawmakers clashed once again with the Obama administration on Thursday, finding fault with central elements of the White House’s latest plan to unwind large financial companies when their troubles imperil the financial system.

The Times article focused on criticism of the administration’s plan, expressed by Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  As Mr.Labaton noted, shortly after Mr. Obama was elected President, Turbo Tim Geithner began an unsuccessful campaign to have Ms. Bair replaced.

On Friday, economist James K. Galbraith was interviewed by Bill Moyers.  Here’s what Professor Galbraith had to say about the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis:

They made a start, and certainly in the stimulus package, there were important initiatives.  But the stimulus package is framed as a stimulus, as something which is temporary, which will go away after a couple of years.  And that is not the way to proceed here.  The overwhelming emphasis, in the administration’s program, I think, has been to return things to a condition of normalcy, to use a 1920s word, that prevailed five and ten years ago.  That is to say, we’re back to a world in which Wall Street and the major banks are leading, and setting the path–

*   *   *

. . . they’ve largely been preoccupied with keeping the existing system from collapsing.  And the government is powerful.  It has substantially succeeded at that, but you really have to think about, do you want to have a financial sector dominated by a small number of very large institutions, very difficult to manage, practically impossible to regulate, and ruled by, essentially, the same people and the same culture that caused the crisis in the first place.

BILL MOYERS:  Well, that’s what we’re getting, because after all of the mergers, shakedowns, losses of the last year, you have five monster financial institutions really driving the system, right?

JAMES GALBRAITH:  And they’re highly profitable, and they are already paying, in some cases, extraordinary bonuses.  And you have an enormous problem, as the public sees very clearly that a very small number of people really have been kept afloat by public action .  And yet there is no visible benefit to people who are looking for jobs or people who are looking to try and save their houses or to somehow get out of a catastrophic personal debt situation that they’re in.

This is just another illustration of how “trickle down economics” doesn’t work.  President Obama knows better.  He told us that he would not follow that path.  Yet, here we are:  a country viewed as the weak link in the global economy because the well-being of those institutions considered “too big to fail” is the paramount concern of this administration.



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A Helluva Read

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August 31, 2009

We are constantly being bombarded with predictions and opinions about where the economy is headed.  Since last fall’s financial crisis, people have seen their home values reduced to shocking levels; they’ve seen their investments take a nosedive and they’ve watched our government attempt to respond to crises on several fronts.  There have been numerous programs including TARP, TALF, PPIP and quantitative easing, that some of us have tried to understand and that others find too overwhelming to approach.  When one attempts to gain an appreciation of what caused this crisis, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of different theories being espoused, depending upon which pundit is doing the talking.  One of my favorite explanations of what caused the financial crisis came from William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law.  In his lecture:  The Great American Bank Robbery (which can be seen here) Black explains that we have a culture of corruption at the highest levels of our government, which, combined with ineptitude, allowed some of the sleaziest people on Wall Street to nearly destroy our entire financial system.

William Black recently participated in a conference with a group of experts associated with the Economists for Peace and Security and the Initiative for Rethinking the Economy.  The panel included authorities from all over the world and met in Paris on June 15 – 16.  A report on the meeting was prepared by Professor James K. Galbraith and was published by The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.  The paper, entitled Financial and Monetary Issues as the Crisis Unfolds, is available here.  At 16 pages, the document goes into great detail about what has been going wrong and how to address it, in terms that are understandable to the layperson.  Here’s how the report was summarized in the Preface:

Despite some success in averting a catastrophic collapse of liquidity and a decline in output, the group was pessimistic that there would be sustained economic recovery and a return of high employment.  There was general consensus among the group that the pre-crisis financial system should not be restored, that reviving the financial sector first was not the way to revive the economy, and that governments should not pursue exit strategies that permit a return to the status quo. Rather, the crisis exposes the need for profound reform to meet a range of physical and social objectives.

As to the question of where we are now, at the current stage of the economic crisis, Professor Galbraith recalled one panel member’s analogy to the eye of a hurricane:

The first wall of the storm has passed over us:  the collapse of the banking system, which engendered panic and a massive public sector rescue effort.  At rest in the eye, we face the second:  the bankruptcy of states, provinces, cities, and even some national governments, from California, USA, to Belgium.  Since this is a slower process involving weaker players, complicated questions of politics, fairness, and solidarity, and more diffused system risk, there is no assurance that the response by capable actors at the national or transnational level will be either timely or sufficient, either in the United States or in Europe.

There is plenty to quote from in this document, especially in light of the fact that it provides a good deal of sound, constructive criticism of our government’s response to the crisis.  Additionally, the panel offered solutions you’re not likely to hear from politicians, most of whom are in the habit of repeating talking points, written by lobbyists.

Focusing on the situation here in the United States, the report gave us some refreshing criticism, especially in the current climate where commentators are stumbling over each other to congratulate Ben Bernanke on his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman:

American participants were almost equally skeptical of the effectiveness of the U.S.approach to date.  As one put it, “Diabetes is a metabolic disease.”  Elements of a metabolic disease can be treated (here, “stimulus” plays the role of insulin), but the key to success is to deal with the underlying metabolic problem.  In the economic sphere, that problem lies essentially with the transfer of resources and power to the top and the dismantling of effective taxing power over those at the top of the system.  (The speaker noted that the effective corporate tax rate for the top 20 firms in the United States is under 2 percent.)  The effect of this is to create a “trained professional class of retainers” who devote themselves to preserving the existing (unstable) system.  Further, there were massive frauds in the origination of mortgages, in the ratings processes that led to securitization, and in the credit default swaps that were supposed to insure against loss.  In the policy approach so far, there is a consistent failure to address,                 analyze, remedy, and prosecute these frauds.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, major legislation from health care to bank reform continues to be written in consultation with the lobbies; as one speaker noted, legislation on credit default swaps was being prepared by “Jamie Dimon and his lobbyists.”

One of the gravest dangers to economic recovery, finally, lies precisely in the crisis-fatigue of the political classes, in their lack of patience with a deep and intractable problem, and with their inflexible commitment to the preceding economic order.  This feeds denial of the problem, a deep desire to move back to familiar rhetorical and political ground, and the urge to declare victory, groundlessly and prematurely.  As one speaker argued, the U.S.discussion of  “green shoots” amounts to little more than politically inspired wishful thinking — a substitute for action, at least so far as hopes for the recovery of employment are concerned.

Lest I go on, quoting the whole damned thing, I’ll simply urge you to take a look at it.  At the conclusion of the paper was the unpleasant point that some of the damage from this crisis has been irreversible.  There was an admonition that before undertaking reconstruction of the damage, some careful planning should be done, inclusive of the necessary safeguards to make it possible to move forward.

Whether or not anyone in Washington will pay serious attention to these findings is another issue altogether.  Our system of legalized graft in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions, guarantees an uphill battle for anyone attempting to change the status quo.

Understanding The Creepy Bailouts

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March 26, 2009

The voting, taxpaying public had no trouble understanding the outrageousness of AIG’s use of government-supplied, bailout money to pay $165 million in bonuses to its employees.  As we all saw, there was a non-stop chorus of outrage, running from letters to the editors of small-town newspapers to death threats against AIG employees and their next-of-kin.  However, what most people don’t really understand is how this crisis came about and what the failed solutions have been.  Some of us have tried to familiarize ourselves with the alphabet soup of acronyms for those government-created entities, entrusted with the task of solving the most complex financial problems of all time.  Nevertheless, we are behind the curve with our own understanding and we will remain behind the curve regardless of how hard we try.  It’s no accident.  Opacity is the order of the day from the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission.  In other words:  You (the “little people”) are not supposed to know what is going on.  So just go back to work, pay your taxes and watch the television shows that are intended to tie-up your brain cells and dumb you down.

This week, Wall Street was excited to learn the details of Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s latest version of what, last week, was called the Financial Stability Plan.  In order to make the unpopular plan sound different, it was given a new name: the PPIP (Public-Private Investment Partnership or “pee-pip”).  Those economists who had voiced skepticism about the plan’s earlier incarnations were not impressed with the emperor’s new clothes.  As Nobel laureate and Princeton University Professor Paul Krugman explained in The New York Times:

But the real problem with this plan is that it won’t work.  Yes, troubled assets may be somewhat undervalued.  But the fact is that financial executives literally bet their banks on the belief that there was no housing bubble, and the related belief that unprecedented levels of household debt were no problem.  They lost that bet.  And no amount of financial hocus-pocus — for that is what the Geithner plan amounts to — will change that fact.

The plan’s supporters now claim that Professor Nouriel Roubini, an advocate for “nationalization” (or more accurately:  temporary receivership) of insolvent banks now supports the “new” plan.  As one can discern from the New York Daily News op-ed piece by Dr. Roubini and fellow New York University Professor Matthew Richardson, they simply described this plan a “a step in the right direction”.  More important were the caveats they included in their article:

But let’s not have any illusions.  The government bears the risk if and when the investors take a bath on the taxpayer-provided loans.  If the economy gets worse, it could get very ugly, very quickly.  The administration should be transparent in making clear that there is still a wealth transfer taking place here – from taxpayers to investors and banks.

*    *    *

Moreover, there’s the issue of transparency – or lack thereof.  No one knows what the loans or securities are worth.  Competing investors will help solve this by promoting price discovery.  But be careful what you wish for.  We might not like the answers.

James K. Galbraith (the son of famed economist John Kenneth Galbraith) has a PhD in Economics from Yale and is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.  His reaction to the PPIP appears on The Daily Beast website in an article entitled:  “The Geithner Plan Won’t Work”:

The ultimate objective, and in President Obama’s own words, the test of this plan, is whether it will “get credit flowing again.”  (I have dealt with that elsewhere.)  Short answer:  It won’t.  Once rescued, banks will sit quietly on the sidelines, biding their time, until borrowers start to reappear.  From 1989 to 1994, that took five years.  From 1929 to 1935 — you get the picture.

*    *    *

And the reality is, if the subprime securities are truly trash, most of the big banks are troubled and some are insolvent.  The FDIC should put them through receivership, get clean audits, install new management, and begin the necessary shrinkage of the banking system with the big guys, not the small ones.  It should not encumber the banking system we need with failed institutions.  And it should not be giving CPR to a market for toxic mortgages that never should have been issued, and certainly never securitized, in the first place.

Back in May of 2006, Dr. Galbraith wrote an article for Mother Jones that is particularly relevant to the current economic crisis.  Many commentators are now quoting Galbraith’s observations about how “the predator class” is in the process of crushing the rest of us:

Today, the signature of modern American capitalism is neither benign competition, nor class struggle, nor an inclusive middle-class utopia.  Instead, predation has become the dominant feature — a system wherein the rich have come to feast on decaying systems built for the middle class.  The predatory class is not the whole of the wealthy; it may be opposed by many others of similar wealth.  But it is the defining feature, the leading force.  And its agents are in full control of the government under which we live.

The validity of Galbraith’s argument becomes apparent after reading Matt Taibbi’s recent article for Rolling Stone, called “The Big Takeover”.  Taibbi’s article is a “must read” for anyone attempting to get an understanding of how this mess came about as well as the sinister maneuvers that were made after la mierda hit the fan.  It’s not a pretty picture and Matt deserves more than congratulations for his hard work on this project, putting the arcane financial concepts and terminology into plain, easy-to-understand English.  Beyond that, he provides the Big Picture, which, for those who read Galbraith’s discourse on predation, is all too familiar:

People are pissed off about this financial crisis, and about this bailout, but they’re not pissed off enough.  The reality is that the worldwide economic meltdown and the bailout that followed were together a kind of revolution, a coup d’etat.  They cemented and formalized a political trend that has been snowballing for decades: the gradual takeover of the government by a small class of connected insiders, who used money to control elections, buy influence and systematically weaken financial regulations.

The crisis was the coup de grace:  Given virtually free rein over the economy, these same insiders first wrecked the financial world, then cunningly granted themselves nearly unlimited emergency powers to clean up their own mess.  And so the gambling-addict leaders of companies like AIG end up not penniless and in jail, but with an Alien-style death grip on the Treasury and the Federal Reserve — “our partners in the government,” as Liddy put it with a shockingly casual matter-of-factness after the most recent bailout.

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

Let’s hope I haven’t scared you out of reading Matt’s article.  Besides:  If you don’t — you are going to feel really stupid when you have to admit that you don’t know what the ABCPMMMFLF is.