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Turning Point

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As we approach Election Day, many commentators are confirming an observation used as the theme of my posting from September 6:

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.

Too many people whom the President thought he could count among his supporters have become his biggest critics.  One might expect that after eight years of outrage over the antics of the Bush administration, Maureen Dowd would be thrilled about the work done by the Obama White House.  Nevertheless, her most recent discussion of Obama’s performance was less than flattering:

In 2008, the message was him.  The promise was him.  And that’s why 2010 is a referendum on him.

With his coalition and governing majority shattering around him, President Obama will have to summon political skills — starting Wednesday — that he has not yet shown he has.

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With the exception of Obama, most Americans seemed to agree that the “right” thing to do until the economy recovered was to focus on jobs instead of getting the Congress mired for months in making over health insurance and energy policy.  And the “right” thing to do was to come down harder on the big banks for spending on bonuses instead of lending to small businesses that don’t get bailouts.

Contrary to the President’s expectations, the voting public has not overlooked the administration’s refusal to heed the advice of Bill Black, Robert Reich, and the roster of economists that included Adam Posen and Matthew Richardson advocating the use of the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  To the dismay of everyone in the world (outside of Obama’s inner circle) the new President chose to follow the advice of Larry Summers and put the welfare (as in corporate welfare) of those insolvent, too-big-to-fail banks ahead of the nation’s economic health.  When President Obama appeared on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart on October 27, Stewart began the discussion by asking Obama to explain the rationale underlying his appointment of Larry Summers (a retread from the Clinton administration) as director of the National Economic Council.  President Obama fell back on his two-year-old claim that to follow any course other than that recommended by Summers, would have resulted in the failure of at least 100 banks.  Obama’s claim that the cost of the financial crisis was less than 1% of GDP did not slip past Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism website.  Ms. Smith (who voted for Obama in 2008) didn’t pull any punches in refuting that claim:

I’m so offended by the latest Obama canard, that the financial crisis of 2007-2008 cost less than 1% of GDP, that I barely know where to begin.  Not only does this Administration lie on a routine basis, it doesn’t even bother to tell credible lies.  And this one came directly from the top, not via minions.  It’s not that this misrepresentation is earth-shaking, but that it epitomizes why the Obama Administration is well on its way to being an abject failure.

*   *   *

The reason Obama makes such baldfacedly phony statements is twofold:  first, his pattern of seeing PR as the preferred solution to all problems, and second, his resulting slavish devotion to smoke and mirrors over sound policy.

*   *   *

But Team Obama is no doubt rationalizing this chicanery:  if they can keep from recognizing losses until the recovery takes place, then the ultimate damage will be lower.  But Japan’s post bubble record shows that doesn’t work.  You simply don’t get a recovery with a diseased financial system.  You need to purge the bad assets, only then will meaningful growth resume.

Financial risk management guru, Chris Whalen, recently expressed his anguish over the administration’s unwillingness to restructure the zombie banks:

The reluctance comes partly from what truths restructuring will reveal.  As a result, these same large zombie banks and the U.S. economy will continue to shrink under the weight of bad debt, public and private.  Remember that the Dodd-Frank legislation was not so much about financial reform as protecting the housing GSEs.

Because President Barack Obama and the leaders of both political parties are unwilling to address the housing crisis and the wasting effects on the largest banks, there will be no growth and no net job creation in the U.S. for the next several years.  And because the Obama White House is content to ignore the crisis facing millions of American homeowners, who are deep underwater and will eventually default on their loans, the efforts by the Fed to reflate the U.S. economy and particularly consumer spending will be futile.

The idea that Obama sees “PR as the preferred solution to all problems” surfaced again in a great piece by Peter Baker of The New York Times, which included this observation:

Rather than entertaining the possibility that the program they have pursued is genuinely and even legitimately unpopular, the White House and its allies have concluded that their political troubles amount to mainly a message and image problem.

Baker’s article focused on the most recent gripe made by Obama at another one of his highbrow fundraisers.  Remember the blowback from the President’s recent diatribe at a fundraiser hosted by the appropriately-named Rich Richman?  Well, something similar happened again.  The setting this time was a $15,200-per-ticket affair for doctors at the home of a wealthy hospital executive in Boston.  While addressing this audience, the President explained that the reason why the voters have not embraced the Democrats during this election cycle is because the voters are having trouble thinking clearly, as they are “scared”.  Not surprisingly, this re-ignited the controversy focused on Obama’s elitism.

The Tea Party spokespeople aren’t the only ones who are accusing President Obama of elitism.  The Progressive-oriented TruthDig website, recently published an interesting essay by Chris Hedges, author of  Death of the Liberal Class.  Hedges points out that elitism is exactly the problem afflicting not only Obama, but the entire group, referred to as “the liberal class”.  Consider his argument:

The liberal class, which once made piecemeal and incremental reform possible, functioned traditionally as a safety valve.  During the Great Depression, with the collapse of capitalism, it made possible the New Deal.  During the turmoil of the 1960s, it provided legitimate channels within the system to express the discontent of African-Americans and the anti-war movement.  But the liberal class, in our age of neo-feudalism, is now powerless.  It offers nothing but empty rhetoric.  It refuses to concede that power has been wrested so efficiently from the hands of citizens by corporations that the Constitution and its guarantees of personal liberty are irrelevant.  It does not act to mitigate the suffering of tens of millions of Americans who now make up a growing and desperate permanent underclass.  And the disparity between the rhetoric of liberal values and the rapacious system of inverted totalitarianism the liberal class serves makes liberal elites, including Barack Obama, a legitimate source of public ridicule.  The liberal class, whether in universities, the press or the Democratic Party, insists on clinging to its privileges and comforts even if this forces it to serve as an apologist for the expanding cruelty and exploitation carried out by the corporate state.

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As long as the liberal class had even limited influence, whether through the press or the legislative process, liberals were tolerated and even respected.  But once the liberal class lost all influence it became a class of parasites.  The liberal class, like the déclassé French aristocracy, has no real function within the power elite.  And the rising right-wing populists, correctly, ask why liberals should be tolerated when their rhetoric bears no relation to reality and their presence has no influence on power.

As Maureen Dowd pointed out, Wednesday is going to be a big day.  If President Obama thought he had his hands full going into this election   .  .  .  wait until the aftermath.



The New Welfare Queens

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February 26, 2009

In 1999, UCLA Professor Franklin D. Gilliam wrote a report for Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism.  That paper concerned a study he had done regarding public perception of the “welfare queen” stereotype and how that perception had been shaped by the media.  He discussed how the term had been introduced by Ronald Reagan during the 1976 Presidential campaign.  Reagan told the story of a woman from Chicago’s South Side, who had been arrested for welfare fraud.  The term became widely used in reference to a racist (and sexist) stereotype of an iconic African-American woman, enjoying a lavish lifestyle and driving a Cadillac while cheating the welfare system.

Ten years after the publication of Gilliam’s paper, we have a new group of “welfare queens”:  the banks.  The banks have already soaked over a trillion dollars from the federal government to remedy their self-inflicted wounds.  Shortly after receiving their first $350,000,000,000 in payments under the TARP program (which had no mechanism of documenting where the money went) their collective reputation as “welfare queens” was firmly established.  In the most widely-reported example of “corporate welfare” abuse by a bank, public outcry resulted in Citigroup’s refusal of delivery on its lavishly-appointed, French-made, Falcon 50 private jet.  Had the sale gone through, Citi would have purchased the jet with fifty million dollars of TARP funds.  Now, as they seek even more money from us, the banks chafe at the idea that American taxpayers, economists and political leaders are suggesting that insolvent (or “zombie”) banks should be placed into temporary receivership until their “toxic assets” are sold off and their balance sheets are cleaned up.  This has been referred to as “nationalization” of those banks.

Despite all the bad publicity and public outrage, banks still persist in their welfare abuse.  After all, they have habits to support.  Their “drug” of choice seems to be the lavish golf outing at a posh resort.  The most recent example of this resulted in Maureen Dowd’s amusing article in The New York Times, about a public relations misstep by Sheryl Crow.

The New Welfare Queens have their defenders.  CNBC’s wildly-animated Jim Cramer has all but pulled out his remaining strands of hair during his numerous rants about how nationalization of banks “would crush America”.  A number of investment advisors, such as Bill Gross, co-chief investment officer at Pacific Investment Management Company, have also voiced objections to the idea of bank nationalization.

Another defender of these welfare queens appears to be Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke.   In his latest explanation of Turbo Tim Geithner’s “stress test” agenda, Bernanke attempted to assure investors that the Obama administration does not consider the nationalization of banks as a viable option for improving their financial health.  As Craig Torres and Bradley Keoun reported for Bloomberg News on February 25, the latest word from Bernanke suggests that nationalization is not on the table:

. . .  while the U.S. government may take “substantial” stakes in Citigroup Inc. and other banks, it doesn’t plan a full- scale nationalization that wipes out stockholders.

Nationalization is when the government “seizes” a company, “zeroes out the shareholders and begins to manage and run the bank, and we don’t plan anything like that,” Bernanke told lawmakers in Washington today.

The only way to deal with The New Welfare Queens is to replace their directors and managers.  The Obama administration appears unwilling to do that.  During his February 25 appearance on MSNBC’s Countdown, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) expressed his dread about the Administration’s plan to rehabilitate the banks:

I’ve got a bad feeling about this, as do a number of people.  I was just reading testimony from Adam Posen, who is our leading expert on Japan.  He says we are moving right on the track of the Japanese during the 1990s:  propping up zombie banks — just not doing resolution.

. . .  The actual implementation of policy looks like a kind of failure of nerve.

*   *   *

On the banks — I really can’t see  — there really seems to be — we’re going to put in some money, as we’re going to say some stern things to the bankers about how they should behave better.  But if there is a strategy there, it’s continuing to be a mystery to me and to everybody I’ve talked to.

You can read Adam Posen’s paper:  “Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System” here.  Another Economics professor, Matthew Richardson, wrote an excellent analysis of the pros and cons of bank nationalization for the RGE Monitor.  After discussing both sides of this case, he reached the following conclusion:

We are definitely caught between a rock and a hard place.  But the question is what can we do if a major bank is insolvent?  Sometimes the best way to repair a severely dilapidated house is to knock it down and rebuild it.  Ironically, the best hope of maintaining a private banking system may be to nationalize some of its banks.  Yes, it is risky.  It could go wrong. But it is the surest path to avoid a “lost decade” like Japan.

As the experts report on their scrutiny of the “stress testing” methodology, I get the impression that it’s all a big farce.  Eric Falkenstein received a PhD in Economics from Northwestern University.  His analysis of Geithner’s testing regimen (posted on the Seeking Alpha website) revealed it to be nothing more than what is often referred to as “junk science”:

Geithner noted he will wrap this up by April.  Given the absurdity of this exercise, they should shoot for Friday and save everyone a lot of time.  It won’t be any more accurate by taking two months.

On a similar note, Ari Levy wrote an illuminating piece for Bloomberg News, wherein he discussed the stress testing with Nancy Bush, bank analyst and founder of Annandale, New Jersey-based NAB Research LLC and Richard Bove of Rochdale Securities.  Here’s what Mr. Levy learned:

Rather than checking the ability of banks to withstand losses, the tests outlined yesterday are designed to convince investors that the firms don’t need to be nationalized, said analysts including (Nancy) Bush and Richard Bove from Rochdale Securities.

*   *   *

“I’ve always thought that this stress-testing was a politically motivated approach to try to defuse the argument that the banks didn’t have enough capital,” said Bove, in an interview from Lutz, Florida.  “They’re trying to prove that the banks are well-funded.”

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  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.

The News Nobody Wants To Hear

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December 11, 2008

You can’t watch a news program these days without hearing some “happy talk” about how our dismal economy is “on the verge of recovery”.  You have to remember that many of these shows are sponsored by brokerage firms.  That fact must be taken into consideration when you decide how much weight you will give the opinions of the so-called “experts” appearing on those programs to tell you that the stock market has reached “the bottom” and that it is now time to jump back in and start buying stocks.  Similarly, those people interested in making a home purchase (i.e. millionaires, who don’t have to worry about getting a mortgage) want to know when the residential real estate market will hit “bottom” so they can get the best value.  If I had a thousand dollars for every time during the past six months that some prognosticator has appeared on television to tell us that the stock market has “hit bottom”, I would have enough money to start my own geothermal power utility.

People interested in making investments have been scared away from stocks due to the pummeling that the markets have taken since the “mortgage crisis” raised its ugly head and devastated the world economy.  If those folks believe the hype and start buying stocks now, they are taking a greater risk than the enthusiastic promoters on TV might be willing to disclose.

People just don’t like bad news, especially when it is about the future and worse yet, if it’s about the economy.  On Friday, December 5, the stock market rallied, despite the dismal news that November’s non-farm employment loss was the greatest monthly employment decline in 34 years.  More than half a million people lost their jobs in November.  Despite this news, all of the major stock indices were up at least 3 percent for that day alone.  Have all these people bought into the magical thinking described in The Secret?  Do that many people believe that wishing hard enough can cause a dream to become reality?

There is one authority on the subject of economics, who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan. He is Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  In this time of uncertainty, many people (myself included) pay close attention to what Dr. Roubini has to say by regularly checking in on his website.  On December 5, we were surprised to hear Doctor Doom’s admission to Aaron Task (on the web TV show, Tech Ticker) that his own 401(k) plan is comprised entirely of stocks.  Dr. Roubini explained that he is not in the “Armageddon camp” and that for the long haul, stocks are still a good investment (although currently not a good idea for investors with more short-term goals).  Upon learning of this, I began to wonder if the revelation about Doctor Doom’s stock holdings could have been the reason for the stock market rally that day.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Roubini at a lecture he gave within staggering distance of my home.  I was able to talk to him about my concern over Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke’s idea of having the federal government purchase stocks in order to pep-up a depressed stock market.  How could this possibly be accomplished?  How could the Fed decide which stocks to buy to the exclusion of others?  Dr. Roubini told me that the government has already done this by purchasing preferred shares of stock issued by the banks participating in the TARP program.  He explained that rather than purchasing selected stocks of particular companies, the government would, more likely, invest in stock indices.  Before I get to Doctor Doom’s other points from his lecture, I will share this photo taken of yours truly and Doctor Roubini (who appears on your left):

Doctor Doom with Me

Dr. Roubini told the audience that he believes this recession will be worse than everyone expects. During the next few months, “the flow of macroeconomic news will be awful and worse than expected”. He opined that people are going to be surprised if they think that the stock market “bottom” will come in mid-2009. He expects that by the end of 2009 “things will still be bad” and unemployment will peak at 9% in early 2010. He thinks that the consensus on earnings-per-share estimates for stocks during the next year is “delusional”. He anticipates risk aversion among investors to be severe next year. We are now in a global recession and this has caused commodity prices to fall 30%. He pointed out that commodity prices could still fall another 20%. He considers it “very likely” that between 500 to 600 hedge funds will go out of business within the next six months. As this happens, the stocks held by these funds must be dumped onto the market. With respect to the beleaguered residential real estate market, he pointed out that home prices could fall another 15-20% by early 2010.

The good news provided by Dr. Roubini is that the global recession should end by the close of 2009. However, he expects recovery to be “weak” in 2010. He surmised that the possibility of a systemic meltdown has been minimized by the actions taken at the recent G7 meeting and most particularly with the G7 resolution to prevent further “Lehman Brothers-type” bankruptcies from taking place. He concluded that this recession should be nothing like the Japanese recession of the 1990s, which lasted nearly a decade.

So there you have it:  The news (almost) nobody wants to hear.  You can say these are the predictions voiced by one man who could be wrong.  Nevertheless, given Dr. Roubini’s track record, I and many others hold his opinions in high regard.  Now, let’s see how this all plays out.