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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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Leadership Void

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*   *   *

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

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

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

Two years down – eight years to go.


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The Wrong Playbook

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President Obama is still getting it wrong.  Nevertheless, we keep hearing that he is such a clever politician.  Count me among those who believe that the Republicans are setting Obama up for failure and a loss to whatever goofball happens to win the GOP Presidential nomination in 2012 – solely because of a deteriorating economy.  Obama had the chance to really save the economy and “right the ship”.  When he had the opportunity to confront the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression, President Obama violated Rahm Emanuel’s infamous doctrine, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste”.  The new President immediately made a point of squandering the opportunity to overcome that crisis.  I voiced my frustration about this on October 7, 2010:

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

In September of 2009, I discussed a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  In analyzing Australia’s approach to the financial crisis, economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

On October 6, 2010, Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Workers in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile, America’s jobless rate has been hovering around 9 percent and the Federal Reserve found it necessary to print-up another $600 billion for a controversial second round of quantitative easing.  If that $600 billion had been used for the 2009 economic stimulus (and if the stimulus program had been more infrastructure-oriented) we would probably have enjoyed a result closer to that experienced by Australia.  Instead, President Obama chose to follow Japan’s strategy of perpetual bank bailouts (by way of the Fed’s “zero interest rate policy” or ZIRP and multiple rounds of quantitative easing), sending America’s economy into our own “lost decade”.

The only member of the Clinton administration who deserves Obama’s ear is being ignored.  Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has been repeatedly emphasizing that President Obama is making a huge mistake by attempting to follow the Clinton playbook:

Many of President Obama’s current aides worked for Clinton and vividly recall Clinton’s own midterm shellacking in 1994 and his re-election two years later – and they think the president should follow Clinton’s script. Obama should distance himself from congressional Democrats, embrace deficit reduction and seek guidance from big business.  They assume that because triangulation worked for Clinton, it will work for Obama.

They’re wrong.  Clinton’s shift to the right didn’t win him re-election in 1996. He was re-elected because of the strength of the economic recovery.

By the spring of 1995, the American economy already had bounced back, averaging 200,000 new jobs per month.  By early 1996, it was roaring – creating 434,000 new jobs in February alone.

Obama’s 2011 reality has us losing nearly 400,000 jobs per month.  Nevertheless, there is this misguided belief that the “wealth effect” caused by inflated stock prices and the current asset bubble will somehow make the Clinton strategy relevant.  It won’t.  Instead, President Obama will adopt a strategy of “austerity lite”, which will send America into a second recession dip and alienate voters just in time for the 2012 elections.  Professor Reich recently warned of this:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

If inviting a double-dip recession weren’t dumb enough – how about a second financial crisis?  Just add more systemic risk and presto! The banks won’t have any problems because the Fed and the Treasury will provide another round of bailouts.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns recently wrote an essay focused on Treasury Secretary Geithner’s belief that we need big banks to be even bigger.

Even if the Republicans nominate a Presidential candidate who espouses a strategy of simply relying on Jesus to extinguish fires at offshore oil rigs and nuclear reactors – Obama will still lose.  May God help us!


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More Disaster And Dishonesty

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Unfortunately, the cynicism expressed in my last posting was well-founded.  The Japanese government has been misleading everyone about the extent of the nuclear hazards at the aptly-named Fukushima power plant.  The only remaining question is whether the Japanese government was knowingly misleading everyone or whether it was just passing along the deception generated by the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO).  If the latter is the case, the Japanese are living under a similar system of “regulatory capture” to what we have in the United States.  The frustration I expressed about the difficulty involved in attempting to obtain credible information about the Japanese nuclear crisis was experienced and discussed by a number of other commentators.  Clive Crook put it this way:

From the start of this calamity I have wanted to know, “What is the worst that can happen at these nuclear sites?  Suppose everything that could go wrong does go wrong:  what then?”  I still don’t know the answer.  In what I have read so far — dozens of articles –nobody who knows what he is talking about has spelt this out carefully.

We are now learning that in 2008, the Japanese government had been warned by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that the nuclear reactors on the island nation could not withstand an earthquake.  Through cables obtained by WikiLeaks, The Telegraph was able to provide this report:

The document states:  “He [the IAEA official] explained that safety guides for seismic safety have only been revised three times in the last 35 years and that the IAEA is now re-examining them.

“Also, the presenter noted recent earthquakes in some cases have exceeded the design basis for some nuclear plants, and that this is a serious problem that is now driving seismic safety work.”

The cables also disclose how the Japanese government opposed a court order to shut down another nuclear power plant in western Japan because of concerns it could not withstand powerful earthquakes.

*   *   *

Another cable reported to Washington local concerns that a new generation of Japanese power stations that recycle nuclear fuel were jeopardising safety.

The cable, quoting a local newspaper, reports:  “There is something precarious about the way all electric power companies are falling in step with each other under the banner of the national policy.  We have seen too many cases of cost reduction competition through heightened efficiency jeopardizing safety.”

The cables also disclose how Taro Kono, a high-profile member of Japan’s lower house, told US diplomats in October 2008 that the government was “covering up” nuclear accidents.

The outrage expressed by Japanese citizens over their government’s handling of the entire situation – both pre-crisis and post-tsunami, is rapidly receiving more coverage.  American journalists who are covering the situation are expressing concern over their own safety.  NBC’s Lester Holt and his crew had been exposed to what was described as  “minute levels” of radiation, which was found on their shoes.

At a hearing before the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on March 16, Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Greg Jaczko testified that despite the fact that the Japanese government had established an evacuation zone with a radius of only 12 miles from the Fukushima plant, the NRC had recommended a 50-mile evacuation zone for U.S. forces and American citizens.

ABC News quoted the reaction of an expert from Europe, who provided a harshly different message than the vague statements issued by the Japanese government:

“There is talk of an apocalypse and I think the word is particularly well chosen,” European Union’s energy commissioner Günther Oettinger said today, according to various reports.  “Practically everything is out of control.  I cannot exclude the worst in the hours and days to come.”

The coming days will reveal the extent of the misrepresentations by TEPCO and the Japanese government concerning the threat posed by the hazardous situation at the Fukushima power plant.  As I said last time:  It’s not looking good.


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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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Where The Money Is

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June 1, 2009

For the past few months we have been hearing TV “experts” tell us that “it’s almost over” when discussing the Great Recession.  Beyond that, many of the TV news-readers insist that the “bear market” is over and that we are now in a “bull market”.  In his new column for The Atlantic (named after his book A Failure of Capitalism) Judge Richard A. Posner is using the term “depression” rather than “recession” to describe the current state of the economy.  In other words, he’s being a little more blunt about the situation than most commentators would care to be.  Meanwhile, the “happy talk” people, who want everyone to throw what is left of their life savings back into the stock market, are saying that the recession is over.  If you look beyond the “good news” coming from the TV and pay attention to who the “financial experts” quoted in those stories are … you will find that they are salaried employees of such companies as Barclay’s Capital and Charles Schwab  … in other words:  the brokerages and asset managers who want your money.   A more sober report on the subject, prepared by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) revealed that 74 percent of the economists it surveyed were of the opinion that the recession would end in the third quarter of this year.  Nineteen percent of the economists surveyed by the NABE predicted that the recession would end during the fourth quarter of 2009 and the remaining 7 percent opined that the recession would end during the first quarter of 2010.

Some investors, who would rather not wait for our recession to end before jumping back into the stock market, are rapidly flocking to what are called “emerging markets”.  To get a better understanding of what emerging markets are all about, read Chuan Li’s (mercifully short) paper on the subject for the University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development.  The rising popularity of investing in emerging markets was evident in Fareed Zakaria’s article from the June 8 issue of Newsweek:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the story of the global economy is a tale of two worlds.  In one, there is only gloom and doom, and in the other there is light and hope.  In the traditional bastions of wealth and power — America, Europe and Japan — it is difficult to find much good news.  But there is a new world out there — China, India, Indonesia, Brazil — in which economic growth continues to power ahead, in which governments are not buried under a mountain of debt and in which citizens remain remarkably optimistic about their future.  This divergence, between the once rich and the once poor, might mark a turn in history.

*    *    *

Compare the two worlds.  On the one side is the West (plus Japan), with banks that are overleveraged and thus dysfunctional, governments groaning under debt, and consumers who are rebuilding their broken balance sheets. America is having trouble selling its IOUs at attractive prices (the last three Treasury auctions have gone badly); its largest state, California, is veering toward total fiscal collapse; and its budget deficit is going to surpass 13 percent of GDP —  a level last seen during World War II.  With all these burdens, even if there is a recovery, the United States might not return to fast-paced growth for a while.  And it’s probably more dynamic than Europe or Japan.

Meanwhile, emerging-market banks are largely healthy and profitable.  (Every Indian bank, government-owned and private, posted profits in the last quarter of 2008!)  The governments are in good fiscal shape.  China’s strengths are well known — $2 trillion in reserves, a budget deficit that is less than 3 percent of GDP — but consider Brazil, which is now posting a current account surplus.

On May 31, The Economic Times reported similarly good news for emerging markets:

Growth potential and a long-term outlook for emerging markets remain structurally intact despite cyclically declining exports and capital outflows, a research report released on Sunday said.

According to Credit Suisse Research’s latest edition of Global Investor, looking forward to an eventual recovery from the current crisis, growth led by domestic factors in emerging markets is set to succeed debt-fuelled US private consumption as the most important driver of global economic growth over coming years.

The Seeking Alpha website featured an article by David Hunkar, following a similar theme:

Emerging markets have easily outperformed the developed world markets since stocks rebounded from March this year. Emerging countries such as Brazil, India, China, etc. continue to attract capital and show strength relative to developed markets.

On May 29, The Wall Street Journal‘s Smart Money magazine ran a piece by Elizabeth O’Brien, featuring investment bargains in “re-emerging” markets:

As the U.S. struggles to reverse the economic slide, some emerging markets are ahead of the game.  The International Monetary Fund projects that while the world’s advanced economies will contract this year, emerging economies will expand by as much as 2.5 percent, and some countries will grow a lot faster.  Even better news:  Some pros are finding they don’t have to pay a lot to own profitable “foreign” stocks.  The valuations on foreign stocks have become “very, very attractive,” says Uri Landesman, chief equity strategist for asset manager ING Investment Management Americas.

As for The Wall Street Journal itself, the paper ran a June 1 article entitled: “New Driver for Stocks”, explaining that China and other emerging markets are responsible the rebound in the demand for oil:

International stock markets have long taken their cues from the U.S., but as it became clear that emerging-market economies would hold up best and rebound first from the downturn, the U.S. has in some ways moved over to the passenger seat.

Jim Lowell of MarketWatch wrote a June 1 commentary discussing some emerging market exchange-traded funds (ETFs), wherein he made note of his concern about the “socio-politico volatility” in some emerging market regions:

Daring to drink the water of the above funds could prove to be little more than a way to tap into Montezuma’s revenge.  But history tells us that investors who discount the rewards are as prone to disappointment as those who dismiss the risks.

On May 29, ETF Guide discussed some of the exchange-traded funds focused on emerging markets:

Don’t look now, but emerging markets have re-discovered their mojo.  After declining more than 50 percent last year and leading global stocks into a freefall, emerging markets stocks now find themselves with a 35 percent year-to-date gain on average.

A website focused solely on this area of investments is Emerging Index.

So if you have become too risk-averse to allow yourself to get hosed when this “bear market rally” ends, you may want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of investing in emerging markets.  Nevertheless, “emerging market” investments might seem problematic as a way of dodging whatever bullets come by, when American stock market indices sink.  The fact that the ETFs discussed in the above articles are traded on American exchanges raises a question in my mind as to whether they could be vulnerable to broad-market declines as they happen in this country.  That situation could be compounded by the fact that many of the underlying stocks for such funds are, themselves, traded on American exchanges, even though the stocks are for foreign corporations.  By way of disclosure, as of the time of writing this entry, I have no such investments myself, although by the time you read this  . . .   I just might.

Update: I subsequently “stuck my foot in the water” by investing in the iShares MSCI Brazil Index ETF (ticker symbol: EWZ).  Any guesses as to how long I stick with it?

June 3 Update: Today the S&P 500 dropped 1.37 percent and EWZ dropped 5.37 percent — similar to the losses posted by many American companies.   Suffice it to say:  I am not a happy camper!  I plan on unloading it.

DISCLAIMER:  NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.

Jackass Of The Year Award

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January 1, 2009

At year’s end, we see retrospectives of the most important events, numerous top ten lists and recognitions of achievement in one area or another.  2008 brought a record level of cynicism to the American people because of the economic catastrophe, the Bernie Madoff scandal and the cartoon-like escapades from the Presidential campaign.  Accordingly, it seems only appropriate to pay homage to the biggest Jackass of the Year.  Since I advertise this website as a “Blago-free zone”, the current Governor of Illinois is automatically disqualified from the competition.  So, let’s take a look at some of the runners-up and finally, the winner of the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our first contestant is John Ensign.  He is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, representing the State of Nevada in the United States Senate.  On November 2, 2008 he appeared on the CBS television program, Face The Nation with Bob Schieffer.  Election day was two days away and Ensign found it necessary to blame the likely Republican losses on the economic downturn.  He described the Republicans’ fate in these terms:

“And we were starting to do very, very well, but when the financial crisis hit, that financial crisis really is — has been a — almost a body blow to Republicans.  And unfortunately, it was allowed to be portrayed that this was a result of deregulation, when in fact it was a result of overregulation.”

That’s right.  Ensign Douchebag thought he could convince the public that the economic crisis was the result of over-regulation of the financial system, rather than the deregulation described by everyone else in the world.  That noble statement certainly rates runner-up status for the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our next contestant is Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and embarrassment to Barack Obama.  Thank God Reverend Wright’s fifteen minutes of fame are finally over.  Although his infamous sermon with the less-than-patriotic remarks about America was given in 2003, by April of 2008, Rev. Wright made a point of resurrecting the controversy concerning his disappointing association with Barack Obama.   At that time Wright hit the road, appearing on Bill Moyers Journal, speaking before the NAACP and giving a grand performance before the National Press Club.  He made a fool of himself all three times and (perhaps to his disappointment) his bad karma never rubbed off on Barack.  The pastor has also been a disgrace to the name of the Right Reverend Carl Wright (comedic sidekick of Chicago blues maven, Pervis Spann).  Although Jeremiah Wright rated recognition, the competition for the Jackass Award was tough this year.

We cannot overlook the valiant efforts of Joe “The Tool” Lieberman to win this honor.  Although the people of Connecticut elected Joe to represent their state in the Senate, The Tool spent most of 2008 looking like a stray dog, following candidate John McCain around the campaign trial.  You can find my prior rants about Senator Lieberman here, here, here and here.

We must also give consideration to Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  John McCain was on to him.  It just wasn’t fair that poor, old Senator McCain took so much heat for pointing out that Cox had to go.  McCain made the mistake of stating that he, as President, would have authority to fire Cox.  Although he was wrong about that, he was right about the notion that Cox had been a problem for the SEC.  On December 16, Jessie Westerbrook of Bloomberg news reported that Cox was blaming his subordinates for the enforcement lapses that allowed the scam, perpetrated by Bernie Madoff, to continue for several years after the SEC should have stopped it.  Cox apparently believes in the doctrine that “the buck stops” several levels below himself on the SEC food chain.  The environment at the SEC, with Cox at the helm, was best summed up in a December 27 article from the Los Angeles Times by Amit Paley and David Hilzenrath.  Here’s what they had to say about the tenure of Chairman Cox and his performance during the economic crisis:

Though Cox speaks of staying calm in the face of financial turmoil, lawmakers across the political spectrum counter that this is actually another way of saying that his agency remained passive during the worst global financial crisis in decades.  And they claim that Cox’s stewardship before this year — focusing on deregulation as the agency’s staff shrank — laid the groundwork for the meltdown.

“The commission in recent years has handcuffed the inspection and enforcement division,” said Arthur Levitt, SEC chairman during the Clinton administration.  “The environment was not conducive to proactive enforcement activity.”

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But former officials said enforcement suffered during his tenure.  A pilot program begun last year required enforcement staff to meet with the commissioners before beginning settlement talks in certain cases involving nonfinancial firms.  Some former officials said the change was just one example of new bureaucratic impediments that slowed enforcement work.  The commissioners also made clear that they thought staff members were being too aggressive in some cases, the officials said.

”I think there has been a sentiment communicated to rank-and-file staff, lawyers and accountants that you don’t go after the establishment,” said Ross Albert, a former special counsel in the enforcement division.
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An analysis by law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius showed that the SEC’s actions against broker-dealers, who serve as intermediaries in financial trades, dropped about 33%, from about 89 cases in fiscal 2007 to 60 cases in fiscal 2008.

Heckuva’ job, Coxey!   Nevertheless, you have been overshadowed in this year’s competition.

The winner of the 2008 Jackass of the Year Award is a professor from Russia, named Igor Panarin.  He is a former member of the KGB, who is apparently so upset over the breakup of the Soviet Union, that for the past ten years, he has been predicting that the United States would also break up.  On December 29, Andrew Osborn reported in The Wall Street Journal that Panarin has been doing two interviews per day, discussing how “an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S.”  The article explained:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.  Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

Worse yet, the other five parts of the country will supposedly become republics that will be part of or under the influence of Canada, the European Union, Mexico, China or Japan.  Osborn’s article included a picture of Panarin’s map, showing how the various segments of the country would be apportioned.  Panarin’s ideas have brought him quite a bit of publicity  . . . and TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award for 2008!  Congratulations, Jackass!