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Demolition Derby

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June 24, 2010

They’re at the starting line, getting ready to trash the economy and turn our “great recession” into a full-on Great Depression II (to steal an expression from Paul Farrell).  Barry Ritholtz calls them the “deficit chicken hawks”.  The Reformed Broker recently wrote a clever piece which incorporated a moniker coined by Mark Thoma, the “Austerians”,  in reference to that same (deficit chicken hawk) group.   The Reformed Broker described them this way:

.  .  .  this gang has found a sudden (upcoming election-related) pang of concern over deficits and our ability to finance them.  Critics say the Austerians’ premature tightness will send the economy off a cliff, a la the 1930’s.

Count me among those who believe that the Austerians are about to send the economy off a cliff – or as I see it:  into a Demolition Derby.  The first smash-up in this derby was to sabotage any potential recovery in the job market.  Economist Scott Brown made this observation at the Seeking Alpha website:

One issue in deficit spending is deciding how much is enough to carry us through.  Removing fiscal stimulus too soon risks derailing the recovery.  Anti-deficit sentiment has already hampered a push for further stimulus to support job growth.  Across the Atlantic, austerity moves threaten to dampen European economic growth in 2011.  Long term, deficit reduction is important, but short term, it’s just foolish.

The second event in the Demolition Derby is to deny the extension of unemployment benefits.  Because the unemployed don’t have any money to bribe legislators, they make a great target.  David Herszenhorn of The New York Times discussed the despair expressed by Senator Patty Murray of Washington after the Senate’s failure to pass legislation extending unemployment compensation:

“This is a critical piece of legislation for thousands of families in our country, who want to know whether their United States Senate and Congress is on their side or is going to turn their back on them, right at a critical time when our economy is just starting to get around the corner,” Mrs. Murray said.

The deficit chicken hawk group isn’t just from the Republican side of the aisle.  You can count Democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Joe “The Tool” Lieberman among their ranks.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times lamented Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s preference for maintaining “the markets’ confidence in Washington” at the expense of the unemployed:

Look around at the American economy today.  Unemployment is 9.7 percent.  Inflation in recent months has been zero.  States are cutting their budgets.  Congress is balking at spending the money to prevent state layoffs.  The Fed is standing pat, too.  Bond investors, fickle as they may be, show no signs of panicking.

Which seems to be the greater risk:  too much action or too little?

The Demolition Derby is not limited to exacerbating the unemployment crisis.  It involves sabotaging the economic recovery as well.  In my last posting, I discussed a recent report by Comstock Partners, highlighting ten reasons why the so-called economic rebound from the financial crisis has been quite weak.  The report’s conclusion emphasized the necessity of additional fiscal stimulus:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

In a recent essay, John Mauldin provided a detailed explanation of how premature deficit reduction efforts  can impair economic recovery:

In the US, we must start to get our fiscal house in order.  But if we cut the deficit by 2% of GDP a year, that is going to be a drag on growth in what I think is going to be a slow growth environment to begin with.  If you raise taxes by 1% combined with 1% cuts (of GDP) that will have a minimum effect of reducing GDP by around 2% initially.  And when you combine those cuts at the national level with tax increases and spending cuts of more than 1% of GDP at state and local levels you have even further drags on growth.

Those who accept Robert Prechter’s Elliott Wave Theory for analyzing stock market charts to make predictions of long-term financial trends, already see it coming:  a cataclysmic crash.   As Peter Brimelow recently discussed at MarketWatch, Prechter expects to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average to drop below 1,000:

The clearest statement comes from the Elliott Wave Theorist, discussing a numerological technical theory with which it supplements the Wave Theory’s complex patterns:  “The only way for the developing configuration to satisfy a perfect set of Fibonacci time relationships is for the stock market to fall over the next six years and bottom in 2016.”

*   *   *

There will be a short-term rally at some point, thinks Prechter, but it will be a trap:  “The 7.25-year and 20-year cycles are both scheduled to top in 2012, suggesting that 2012 will mark the last vestiges of self-destructive hope.  Then the final years of decline will usher in capitulation and finally despair.”

So it is written.  The Demolition Derby shall end in disaster.





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Still Wrong After All These Years

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June 21, 2010

I’m quite surprised by the fact that people continue to pay serious attention to the musings of Alan Greenspan.  On June 18, The Wall Street Journal saw fit to publish an opinion piece by the man referred to as “The Maestro” (although – these days – that expression is commonly used in sarcasm).  The former Fed chairman expounded that recent attempts to rein in the federal budget are coming “none too soon”.  Near the end of the article, Greenspan made the statement that will earn him a nomination for TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award:

I believe the fears of budget contraction inducing a renewed decline of economic activity are misplaced.

John Mauldin recently provided us with a thorough explanation of why Greenspan’s statement is wrong:

There are loud calls in the US and elsewhere for more fiscal constraints.  I am part of that call.  Fiscal deficits of 10% of GDP is a prescription for disaster.  As we have discussed in previous letters, the book by Rogoff and Reinhart (This Time is Different) clearly shows that at some point, bond investors start to ask for higher rates and then the interest rate becomes a spiral.  Think of Greece.  So, not dealing with the deficit is simply creating a future crisis even worse than the one we just had.

But cutting the deficit too fast could also throw the country back in a recession.  There has to be a balance.

*   *   *

That deficit reduction will also reduce GDP.  That means you collect less taxes which makes the deficits worse which means you have to make more cuts than planned which means lower tax receipts which means etc.  Ireland is working hard to reduce its deficits but their GDP has dropped by almost 20%! Latvia and Estonia have seen their nominal GDP drop by almost 30%!  That can only be characterized as a depression for them.

Robert Reich’s refutation of Greenspan’s article was right on target:

Contrary to Greenspan, today’s debt is not being driven by new spending initiatives.  It’s being driven by policies that Greenspan himself bears major responsibility for.

Greenspan supported George W. Bush’s gigantic tax cut in 2001 (that went mostly to the rich), and uttered no warnings about W’s subsequent spending frenzy on the military and a Medicare drug benefit (corporate welfare for Big Pharma) — all of which contributed massively to today’s debt.  Greenspan also lowered short-term interest rates to zero in 2002 but refused to monitor what Wall Street was doing with all this free money.  Years before that, he urged Congress to repeal the Glass-Steagall Act and he opposed oversight of derivative trading.  All this contributed to Wall Street’s implosion in 2008 that led to massive bailout, and a huge contraction of the economy that required the stimulus package.  These account for most of the rest of today’s debt.

If there’s a single American more responsible for today’s “federal debt explosion” than Alan Greenspan, I don’t know him.

But we can manage the Greenspan Debt if we get the U.S. economy growing again.  The only way to do that when consumers can’t and won’t spend and when corporations won’t invest is for the federal government to pick up the slack.

This brings us back to my initial question of why anyone would still take Alan Greenspan seriously.  As far back as April of 2008 – five months before the financial crisis hit the “meltdown” stage — Bernd Debusmann had this to say about The Maestro for Reuters, in a piece entitled, “Alan Greenspan, dented American idol”:

Instead of the fawning praise heaped on Greenspan when the economy was booming, there are now websites portraying him in dark colors.  One site is called The Mess That Greenspan Made, another Greenspan’s Body Count.  Greenspan’s memoirs, The Age of Turbulence, prompted hedge fund manager William Fleckenstein to write a book entitled Greenspan’s Bubbles, the Age of Ignorance at the Federal Reserve.  It’s in its fourth printing.

The day after Greenspan’s essay appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Howard Gold provided us with this recap of Greenspan’s Fed chairmanship in an article for MarketWatch:

The Fed chairman’s hands-off stance helped the housing bubble morph into a full-blown financial crisis when hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of collateralized debt obligations, credit default swaps, and other unregulated derivatives — backed by subprime mortgages and other dubious instruments — went up in smoke.

Highly leveraged banks that bet on those vehicles soon were insolvent, too, and the Fed, the U.S. Treasury and, of course, taxpayers had to foot the bill.  We’re still paying.

But this was not just a case of unregulated markets run amok.  Government policies clearly made things much worse — and here, too, Greenspan was the culprit.

The Fed’s manipulation of interest rates in the middle of the last decade laid the groundwork for the most fevered stage of the housing bubble.  To this day, Greenspan, using heavy-duty statistical analysis, disputes the role his super-low federal funds rate played in encouraging risky behavior in housing and capital markets.

Among the harsh critiques of Greenspan’s career at the Fed, was Frederick Sheehan’s book, Panderer to Power.  Ryan McMaken’s review of the book recently appeared at the LewRockwell.com website – with the title, “The Real Legacy of Alan Greenspan”.   Here is some of what McMacken had to say:

.  .  .  Panderer to Power is the story of an economist whose primary skill was self-promotion, and who in the end became increasingly divorced from economic reality.  Even as early as April 2008 (before the bust was obvious to all), the L.A. Times, observing Greenspan’s post-retirement speaking tour, noted that “the unseemly, globe-trotting, money-grabbing, legacy-spinning, responsibility-denying tour of Alan Greenspan continues, as relentless as a bad toothache.”

*   *   *

Although Greenspan had always had a terrible record on perceiving trends in the economy, Sheehan’s story shows a Greenspan who becomes increasingly out to lunch with each passing year as he spun more and more outlandish theories about hidden profits and productivity in the economy that no one else could see.  He spoke incessantly on topics like oil and technology while the bubbles grew larger and larger.  And finally, in the end, he retired to the lecture circuit where he was forced to defend his tarnished record.

The ugly truth is that America has been in a bear market economy since 2000 (when “The Maestro” was still Fed chair).  In stark contrast to what you’ve been hearing from the people on TV, the folks at Comstock Partners put together a list of ten compelling reasons why “the stock market is in a secular (long-term) downtrend that began in early 2000 and still has some time to go.”  This essay is a “must read”.  Further undermining Greenspan’s recent opinion piece was the conclusion reached in the Comstock article:

The data cited here cover the major indicators of economic activity, and they paint a picture of an economy that has moved up, but only from extremely depressed numbers to a point where they are less depressed.  And keep in mind that this is the result of the most massive monetary and fiscal stimulus ever applied to a major economy.  In our view the ability of the economy to undergo a sustained recovery without continued massive help is still questionable.

As always, Alan Greenspan is still wrong.  Unfortunately, there are still too many people taking him seriously.




Financial Reform Might Actually Happen

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April 12, 2010

The long-overdue need for financial reform is finally getting some serious attention in Washington.  As banking lobbyists continue to grease palms in the Senate, we are beginning to hear a number of novel ideas from some clever commentators, focused on preventing another financial crisis.

On April 9, John Mauldin published a thought-provoking essay entitled, “Reform We Can Believe In”.  At one point in the piece, Mauldin considered the question that has been hanging over our heads for the past eighteen months:

What happens if we do nothing?

What happens when we have the next credit crisis, when a major sovereign government defaults, as I think will happen?  It will be a body blow to many banks, especially in Europe.  Once again, we could have banks worried about lending to each other or taking letters of credit, which would be a disaster for world trade and the recovery we are now in.

That we (and Europe and Britain) have taken so long to enact real reform has the potential to really put the world at risk.  In the next crisis, we will not have the tools available to stem the tide that we did the last time.  Rates are already low.  Do you think we could pass another TARP?  The Fed’s balance sheet is already bloated.  It could get much worse unless we get financial reforms that have some bite.

All this debating about a consumer protection agency and where it should be and all the other trivia is wasting time.  Fix the big things. Credit default swaps. Too big to fail.  Leverage. Then worry about the details.

Although I left out Mauldin’s suggestion to “leave the Fed alone” from that last paragraph, his essay contains a fantastic explanation of how the Federal Reserve System is organized.  Best of all, Mauldin spent plenty of time reflecting on Milton Friedman’s suggestion that we program a computer to set monetary policy, instead of leaving that authority with the Fed:

Let me be clear.  There are a lot of things not to like about the Federal Reserve System.  I think it was Milton Friedman who said we would be better off with a computer determining monetary policy.  A quote from an interview with him is instructive.  When asked “Do you still think it would be a good idea to have a computer run monetary policy?” he answered:

“Yes.  Of course it depends very much on how the computer is programmed.  I am not saying that any computer program would do.  In speaking of that, I have had in mind the idea that a computer would produce, for example, a constant rate of growth in the quantity of money as defined, let us say, by M2, something like 3% to 5% per year.  There are certainly occasions in which discretionary changes in policy guided by a wise and talented manager of monetary policy would do better than the fixed rate, but they would be rare.

“In any event, the computer program would certainly prevent any major disasters either way, any major inflation or any major depressions.  One of the great defects of our kind of monetary system is that its performance depends so much on the quality of the people who are put in charge.  We have seen that in the history of our own Federal Reserve System.

Another perspective on financial reform came from Jim McTague in the April 12 edition of Barron’s.  He began with the remark that both the House and Senate reform bills lack adequate measures for “efficient and intelligent policing”.  Nevertheless, the solution he embraced was simple:

The aptly named Richard Vigilante, who recently co-wrote a book called Panic with Minneapolis-based hedge-fund legend Andrew Redleaf, suggests this approach:  Force all firms managing other people’s money to publish their investment positions in detail before the market opens; this would include hedge funds.  Then, the short sellers could punish ineptness before it spreads by betting heavily against a particular institution’s stupid decisions.

“Bankers would hate it.  It’s their worst nightmare,” says Vigilante, whom I met with at Firehook bakery on Washington’s Farragut Square.  If the system had been in place in 2006, short sellers would have stamped out the smoldering subprime mania before it had a chance to spread, he asserts.

His suggestion is both brilliant and a model of simplicity — it could protect consumers against all kinds of risky financial products — but it will never become reality.

Bankers would scream about the need to protect their proprietary-trading information.  And, as was the case with health-insurance “reform,” Congress is bent on ramming a bill, no matter how flawed, through the legislative sausage works in order to mollify an uncommonly angry electorate before Nov. 2.  To entertain new ideas at this juncture, even good ones, would upset the ambitious timetable.

Like health care, the new financial regulatory regime is built atop the cracked masonry of the old one.  The same flatfoots who were on patrol when the subprime caper went down will be given larger beats to walk.  They will be overseen by a brain trust, a Council of Regulators, culled from their ranks, who, like chemical sniffers, would seek to uncover systemic threats to the volatile financial system.  In fact, COR is the core of the whole scheme.

The proposal for a Council of Regulators has drawn a good deal of criticism, primarily because it would be chaired by the Treasury Secretary.  Matthew Bishop and Michael Green, authors of The Road From Ruin, had this to say about a Council of Regulators in a recent Huffington Post piece:

Indeed, with the Treasury Secretary in the chair, would this council really face down the political leaders and try to stop an emerging bubble spreading a feelgood factor across the nation (as bubbles do, before they burst)?  Even in his pomp Alan Greenspan knew that a Fed chairman couldn’t risk being too gloomy about the economy and keep his job. What chance then of a Treasury Secretary, a cabinet member, being so bold?

Rather than another layer on top of the dysfunctional existing regulatory system, America needs to sweep away its absurd proliferation of regulators and replace them with a powerful super regulator, independent of day-to-day politics and empowered to do the job properly.

Regardless of what the final product will include – one thing is becoming increasingly likely:  Some semblance of financial reform legislation will eventually become enacted.  It won’t be perfect but anything will be better than what we have now.  (Well, almost anything  .  .  .)



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