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Jeremy Grantham And Ike

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As an avid reader of Jeremy Grantham’s Quarterly Letter, I was surprised when he posted a Special Topic report on January 14 — so close to release of his Fourth Quarter 2010 Letter, which is due in a couple of weeks.  At a time when many commentators are focused on the 50th anniversary of John F. Kennedy’s historic Inaugural Address, Jeremy Grantham has taken the opportunity to focus on President Dwight Eisenhower’s Farwell Address of January 17, 1961.  (Grantham included the full text of Ike’s Farwell Address at the conclusion of the Special Topic essay.)

One passage from Ike’s Farwell Address seemed particularly prescient in the wake of the TARP bailout (which was not a success) and the “backdoor bailouts” including the Maiden Lanes (which were never to be repaid) as well as the cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers, resulting from the Federal Reserve’s zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”).  Keep those Wall Street bailouts in mind while reading this passage from Ike’s speech:

Crises there will continue to be.  In meeting them, whether foreign or domestic, great or small, there is a recurring temptation to feel that some spectacular and costly action could become the miraculous solution to all current difficulties.  A huge increase in newer elements of our defense; development of unrealistic programs to cure every ill in agriculture; a dramatic expansion in basic and applied research – these and many other possibilities, each possibly promising in itself, may be suggested as the only way to the road we wish to travel.

But each proposal must be weighed in the light of a broader consideration:  the need to maintain balance in and among national programs – balance between the private and the public economy, balance between cost and hoped for advantage – balance between the clearly necessary and the comfortably desirable; balance between our essential requirements as a nation and the duties imposed by the nation upon the individual; balance between actions of the moment and the national welfare of the future.  Good judgment seeks balance and progress; lack of it eventually finds imbalance and frustration.

In his Special Topic report, Jeremy Grantham focused on the disappointing changes that caused Ike’s America to become 21st Century America.  After quoting Ike’s now-famous admonition about the power of the military-industrial complex (for which the speech is frequently quoted) Grantham pointed out that the unrestricted influence of corporate power over our government has become a greater menace:

Unfortunately, the political-economic power problem has mutated away from the military, although it has left important vestiges there, toward a broader problem:  the undue influence of corporate America on the government, and hence the laws, taxes, and social policies of the country. This has occurred to such a degree that there seems little real independence in Congress, with most Congressmen answering first to the desire to be reelected and the consequent need to obtain funding from, shall we say, sponsors, and the need to avoid making powerful enemies.

*   *   *

The financial resources of the carbon-based energy companies are particularly terrifying, and their effective management of propaganda goes back decades.  They established and funded “independent” think tanks and even non-profit organizations that have mysteriously always come out in favor of policies favorable to maintaining or increasing the profits of their financial supporters.  The campaign was well-organized and has been terrifyingly effective.

*   *   *

The financial industry, with its incestuous relationships with government agencies, runs a close second to the energy industry.  In the last 10 years or so, their machine, led by the famously failed economic consultant Alan Greenspan – one of the few businessmen ever to be laughed out of business – seemed perhaps the most effective.  It lacks, though, the multi-decadal attitude-changing propaganda of the oil industry.  Still, in finance they had the “regulators,” deregulating up a storm, to the enormous profit of their industry.

Grantham concluded his report with a suggestion for the greatest tribute we could give Eisenhower after America ignored Ike’s warnings about the vulnerability of our government to unrestricted influences.  Grantham’s proposed tribute to Ike would be our refusal to “take this 50-year slide lying down”.

To steal a slogan from the Tea Party, I suggest the voters need to “take America back” from the corporations which bought off the government.  Our government has every intention of maintaining the status quo.

In the 2010 elections, voters were led to believe that they could bring about governmental reform by voting for candidates who will eventually prove themselves as protectors of the wealthy at the expense of the disappearing middle class.  In the 2008 elections, Barack Obama convinced voters that he was the candidate of change they could believe in.  In the real world of 2011, economist Simon Johnson explained what sort of “change” those voters received, as exemplified by the President’s appointment of his new Chief of Staff:

Let’s be honest.  With the appointment of Bill Daley, the big banks have won completely this round of boom-bust-bailout.  The risk inherent to our financial system is now higher than it was in the early/mid-2000s.  We are set up for another illusory financial expansion and another debilitating crisis.

Bill Daley will get it done.

Just as Jeremy Grantham explained how Eisenhower’s concerns about the military-industrial complex were materialized in the form of a corporate-controlled government, another unholy alliance was discussed by Charles Ferguson, director of the documentary film, Inside Job.  Ferguson recently offered an analysis of the milieu that resulted in President Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council.  As Larry Summers announced plans to move on from that position, Ferguson explained how Summers had been granted the opportunity to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Summers is unique but not alone.  By now we are all familiar with the role of lobbying and campaign contributions, and with the revolving door between industry and government.  What few Americans realize is that the revolving door is now a three-way intersection.  Summers’ career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society:  the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

America needs new leaders who refuse to capitulate to the army of lobbyists on Capitol Hill.  Where are they?


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Post-Free-Market Reality

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The problem became obvious at the onset of the financial crisis.  All of the huffing and puffing about our glorious Free Market system was a big lie.  Once the credit bubble had burst, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson went into panic mode – his eyes bulging outward even more than normal.  During that fateful week of September 15 2008, Paulson had 24 telephone conversations with Lloyd Blankfein, his successor CEO at Goldman Sachs.  AIG had to get bailed out at taxpayer expense.  From across the pond, the reaction was immediate.  On September 18 2008, Philip Broughton wrote an article for the Daily Mail entitled, “Free-market capitalism lies shredded … while America’s confidence is badly shaken”.  Near the outset of the piece, Broughton chronicled the ugly truth:

For years now, we have had to listen to bankers attacking Washington for imposing regulations that inhibit the free markets from making even more money.

And all the while, they took exorbitant salaries, justifying them on the grounds of their huge contribution to capitalism.

How bitterly ironic it is, then, to see these one-time freemarketeers becoming socialists overnight.

The schoolyard bullies of Wall Street have gone running to the state for help, pleading to be saved from destruction.

They deserve neither our sympathy nor the billions in taxpayer support they are now receiving.

That theme has been reverberating through commentaries ever since.

A year later, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch provided an overview of writings by Jack Bogle, Marc Faber and Thomas Moore to support his contention that “America’s Soul of Capitalism” has been lost:

You know something’s very wrong:  A year ago, too-greedy-to-fail banks were insolvent, in a near-death experience.  Now, magically, they’re back to business as usual, arrogant, pocketing outrageous bonuses while Main Street sacrifices, and unemployment and foreclosures continue rising as tight credit, inflation and skyrocketing federal debt are killing taxpayers.

Down in Australia, The Propitious Manager wrote an essay on April 4 2010, expressing his amazement that America was having so much trouble trying to stomach the idea of government-backed healthcare:

When you read President O’bama’s healthcare plan the most striking message is the failure of a free market to provide for the community. The healthcare market in the US, left unfettered to run free, just crashes into a heap of mismanagement, inefficiency and opportunism (hold on – isn’t this a familiar story).  I’ll leave you to read the script – but it isn’t a pretty picture.

*   *   *

What I like to call post free market economies, are about identifying the markets which are essential to maintaining thriving people and communities and develop the frameworks which optimize their performance.  Some require complete freedom while others require varying degrees of framework from elected governments.  Developing an increasingly sophisticated community and social framework is really the challenge of the century.  One where it doesn’t matter whether your a rubbish collector or a billionaire – if you get sick, someone will care for you and if you invest your money it will be there when you wake up in the morning.

The idea that we are now living in a post-free-market economy presents itself in a recent commentary by Veronique de Rugy for Bloomberg News, entitled “Why Businesses Can’t Stand Free Markets”.  Ms. De Rugy discussed how businesses exploit regulatory capture and use lobbyists to obtain favorable laws and regulations in order to stifle competition at the expense of consumers.  She concluded with this thought:

Let’s hope that any court ruling deals a blow to the practice of entrenched businesses using government to impose higher costs on consumers while also thwarting upstart entrepreneurs.  No one said loving free markets was easy.

On the other hand, there are many “upstart entrepreneurs” seeking government assistance to circumvent obstacles existing in the free-market system.  This has become especially apparent in the burgeoning solar power industry, where American upstarts are attempting to compete with entities which obtain government financing – not only in China but in the eurozone as well.  Martin LaMonica recently discussed this problem in an article for CNET:

Before the financial crisis, solar challengers were able to build manufacturing facilities using private money–venture capital, private equity, and hedge funds.  These sources still exist, but private investors are being pickier about how they place their bets, said Ted Sullivan, solar analyst at Lux Research.

Raising money on the public markets with an initial public offering was possible a few years ago, too, but is very difficult now, said Ethan Zindler, head of policy analysis at Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  Banks, meanwhile, are unlikely to finance the first factory for a solar company if the technology is relatively new and untested.

That leaves government programs, such as low-cost loans, and state incentives for economic development to help fill the financing gap in many cases.

*   *   *

In an effort to stimulate exports, the China Development Bank has made $40 billion in credit available to six solar companies in the past six months, said Zindler from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.  The U.S. stimulus program made billions of dollars available to stimulate clean-energy technologies, but the U.S. can’t match the amount of money China has made available through these low-cost loans, he said.

“Chinese solar companies are grinding down the cost by building plants the size the world has never seen before and deploying unbelievable amounts of capital to do it,” Zindler said.

In the U.S., the solar industry scored a victory with the passage of the tax bill last week because it included a one-year extension to a grant that replaces a tax credit subsidy.  But it’s unclear what the long-term direction on renewable energy policy is in the U.S., which creates questions over how strong demand will be for solar, Zindler said.

In our post-free-market milieu, there are many exceptions to the general rule that government assistance to business is a bad thing.  Now that people are finally facing up to the reality that many companies (some of which are Cayman Islands-based corporations) have been receiving U.S. government subsidies (of some sort) for decades, difficult decisions must be made to determine when this is appropriate and when it’s not.  American voters need to face up to the fact that many of those poseurs claiming to be champions of “American free enterprise” are nothing more than hypocritical tools for whoever is lining their pockets.  “American free enterprise” died at Maiden Lane.  Deal with it.



The Big Lie Gets Some Blowback

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September 3, 2009

My favorite “blowback” story of the week resulted from the ill-advised decisions by people at The New York Times and the Financial Times to trumpet talking points apparently “Fed” (pun intended) to them by the Federal Reserve.  Both publications asserted that the TARP program has already returned profits for the Untied States government.  The Financial Times claimed the profit so far has been $14 billion.  The New York Times, reporting the amount as $18 billion, claimed that “taxpayers have begun seeing profits from the hundreds of billions of dollars in aid that many critics thought might never be seen again.”  So where is my check?  Anyone with a reasonable degree of intelligence, who bothered to completely read through either of these articles, could quickly recognize yet another rendition of The Big Lie.  The blowback against these articles was swift and harsh.  Matt Taibbi’s critique was short and sweet:

This is sort of like calculating the returns on a mutual fund by only counting the stocks in the fund that have gone up.  Forgetting for a moment that TARP is only slightly relevant in the entire bailout scheme — more on that in a moment — the TARP calculations are a joke, apparently leaving out huge future losses from AIG and Citigroup and others in the red.  Since only a small portion of the debt has been put down by the best borrowers, and since the borrowers in the worst shape haven’t retired their obligations yet, it’s crazy to make any conclusions about TARP, pure sophistry.

*   *   *

The other reason for that is that it’s only a tiny sliver of the whole bailout picture.  The real burden carried by the government and the Fed comes from the various anonymous bailout facilities — the TALF, the PPIP, the Maiden Lanes, and so on.       .  .  .

And there are untold trillions more the Fed has loaned out in the last 18 months and which we are not likely to find out much about, unless the recent court ruling green-lighting Bloomberg’s FOIA request for those records actually goes through.

Over at The Business Insider, John Carney also quoted Matt Taibbi’s piece, adding that:

We simply don’t know how to value the mortgage backed securities the Fed bought.  We don’t know how much the government will wind up paying on the backstops of Citi and Bear Stearns assets.  And we don’t know how much more money might have to be pumped into the system to keep it afloat.

At another centrist website called The Moderate Voice, Michael Silverstein pointed out that any news reporter with a conscience ought to feel a bit of shame for participating in such a propaganda effort:

I’ve been an economics and financial writer for 30 years.  I used to enjoy my work.  I used to take pride in it.  The markets were kinky, sure, but that made the writing more fun.

*   *   *

That’s not true anymore.  Reportage about the economy and the markets — at least in most mainstream media — now largely consists of parroting press releases from experts of various stripes or government spokespeople.  And the result is not just infuriating for a long-term professional in this field, but outright embarrassing.

A perfect example was yesterday’s “good news” supposedly showing that our economic masters were every bit as smart as they think they are.  A few banks have repaid their TARP loans, part of the $4 trillion that government has sunk into our black hole banking system.

*   *   *

The $74 billion the government has been repaid is less than two percent of the $4 trillion the government has borrowed or printed to keep incompetent lenders from going down.  Less than two percent!  Even this piddling sum was generated by a manipulated stock market rally that allowed banks shares to soar, bringing a lot of money into bank coffers, almost all of which they added to reserves before paying back a few billion to the government.

Rolfe Winkler at Reuters joined the chorus criticizing the sycophantic cheerleading for these claims of TARP profitability:

A very dangerous misconception is taking root in the press, that in addition to saving the world financial system, the bank bailout is making taxpayers money.

“As big banks repay bailout, U.S.sees profit” read the headline in the New York Times on Monday.  The story was parroted on evening newscasts.

*   *   *

Taxpayers should keep that in mind whenever they see misguided reports that they are making money from bailouts.  The truth is that the biggest banks are still insolvent and, ultimately, their losses are likely to be absorbed by taxpayers.

As the above-quoted sources have reported, the ugly truth goes beyond the fact that the Treasury and the Federal Reserve have been manipulating the stock markets by pumping them to the stratosphere  —  there is also a coordinated “happy talk” propaganda campaign to reinforce the “bull market” fantasy.  Despite the efforts of many news outlets to enable this cause, it’s nice to know that there are some honest sources willing to speak the truth.  The unpleasant reality is exposed regularly and ignored constantly.  Tragically, there just aren’t enough mainstream media outlets willing to pass along the type of wisdom we can find from Chris Whalen and company at The Institutional Risk Analyst:

Plain fact is that the Fed and Treasury spent all the available liquidity propping up Wall Street’s toxic asset waste pile and the banks that created it, so now Main Street employers and private investors, and the relatively smaller banks that support them both, must go begging for capital and liquidity in a market where government is the only player left.  The notion that the Fed can even contemplate reversing the massive bailout for the OTC markets, this to restore normalcy to the monetary models that supposedly inform the central bank’s deliberations, is ridiculous in view of the capital shortfall in the banking sector and the private sector economy more generally.

Somebody ought to write that on a cake and send it over to Ben Bernanke, while he celebrates his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman.



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