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Congress Could Be Quite Different After 2012 Elections

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They come up for re-election every two years.  Each of the 435 members of the House of Representatives is in a constant “campaign mode” because the term of office is so short.  Lee White of the American Historical Association summed-up the impact of the 2010 elections this way:

On Tuesday, November 2, 2010, U.S. voters dramatically changed the landscape in Washington.  Republicans gained control of the House and, although the Democrats retained control of the Senate their margin in that body has been reduced to 53-47.

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Clearly the most dramatic change will be in the House with new Republican committee and subcommittee chairs taking over.

Voter discontent was revealed by the fact that just before the 2010 elections, the Congressional approval rating was at 17 percent.  More recently, according to a Gallup poll, taken during April 7-11 of 2011, Congressional job approval is now back down to 17 percent, after a bump up to 23 percent in February.  Of particular interest were the conclusions drawn by the pollsters at Gallup concerning the implications of the latest polling results:

Congress’ approval rating in Gallup’s April 7-11 survey is just four points above its all-time low.  The probability of a significant improvement in congressional approval in the months ahead is not high. Congress is now engaged in a highly contentious battle over the federal budget, with a controversial vote on the federal debt ceiling forthcoming in the next several months.  The Republican-controlled House often appears to be battling with itself, as conservative newly elected House members hold out for substantial cuts in government spending.  Additionally, Americans’ economic confidence is as low as it has been since last summer, and satisfaction with the way things are going in the U.S. is at 19%.

At this point, it appears as though we could be looking at an even larger crop of freshmen in the 2013 Congress than we saw in January, 2011.  (According to polling guru, Nate Silver, the fate of the 33 Senate incumbents is still an open question.)

One poster child for voter ire could be Republican Congressman Spencer Bachus of Alabama.  You might recall that at approximately this time last year, Matt Taibbi wrote another one of his great exposés for Rolling Stone entitled, “Looting Main Street”.  In his exceptional style, Taibbi explained how JPMorgan Chase bribed the local crooked politicians into replacing Jefferson County’s bonds, issued to finance an expensive sewer project, with variable interest rate swaps (also known as synthetic rate swaps).  Then came the financial crisis.  As a result, the rate Jefferson County had to pay on the bonds went up while the rates paid by banks to the county went down.  It didn’t take long for the bond rating companies to downgrade those sewer bonds to “junk” status.

JPMorgan Chase unsuccessfully attempted to dismiss a lawsuit arising from this snafu.  Law 360 reported on April 15 that the Alabama Supreme Court recently affirmed the denial of JPMorgan’s attempt to dismiss the case, which was based on these facts:

Jefferson County accuses JPMorgan of paying bribes to county officials in exchange for an appointment as lead underwriter for what turned out to be a highly risky refinancing of the county’s sewer debt, which caused Jefferson County billions of dollars in losses.  According to the complaint, JPMorgan, JPMorgan Chase and underwriting firm Blount Parrish & Co. handed out bribes, kickbacks and payoffs to swindle the county out of millions in inflated fees.

JPMorgan claimed that only the Governor of Alabama had authority to bring such a suit.  I wonder why former Alabama Governor Bob Riley didn’t bother to join Jefferson County as a party plaintiff, making the issue moot and saving Jefferson County some legal fees, before the case found its way to the state Supreme Court?

Joe Nocera of The New York Times recently put the spotlight on another character from Alabama politics:

Has Spencer Bachus, as the local congressman, decried this debacle?  Of course – what local congressman wouldn’t?  In a letter last year to Mary Schapiro, the chairwoman of the S.E.C., he said that the county’s financing schemes “magnified the inherent risks of the municipal finance market.”

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Bachus is not just your garden variety local congressman, though.  As chairman of the Financial Services Committee, he is uniquely positioned to help make sure that similar disasters never happen again – not just in Jefferson County but anywhere.  After all, the new Dodd-Frank financial reform law will, at long last, regulate derivatives.  And the implementation of that law is being overseen by Bachus and his committee.

Among its many provisions related to derivatives – all designed to lessen their systemic risk – is a series of rules that would make it close to impossible for the likes of JPMorgan to pawn risky derivatives off on municipalities.  Dodd-Frank requires sellers of derivatives to take a near-fiduciary interest in the well-being of a municipality.

You would think Bachus would want these regulations in place as quickly as possible, given the pain his constituents are suffering.  Yet, last week, along with a handful of other House Republican bigwigs, he introduced legislation that would do just the opposite:  It would delay derivative regulation until January 2013.

As Joe Nocera suggested, this might be more than simply a delaying tactic, to keep derivatives trading unregulated for another two years.  Bachus could be counting on Republican takeovers of the Senate and the White House after the 2012 election cycle.  At that point, Bachus and his fellow Tools of Wall Street could finally drive a stake through the heart of the nearly-stillborn baby known as “financial reform”.

On the other hand, the people vested with the authority to cast those votes that keep Spencer Bachus in office, could realize that he is betraying them in favor of the Wall Street banksters.  The “public memory” may be short but – fortunately – the term of office for a Congressman is equally brief.


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Double Bubble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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