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Avoiding The Stock Market

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May 18, 2010

In the wake of the stock market’s “flash crash” on May 6, there have been an increasing number of reports that retail investors (“Ma and Pa”) are pulling their money out of stocks.  Beyond that, some commentators have stepped forward to speak out and advise retail investors to steer clear of the stock market, due to the volatility caused by “high-frequency trading” or HFT.  One recent example of this was Felix Salmon’s video message, which appeared at The Huffington Post.

HFT involves a practice wherein firms are paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves when the firms buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying firms to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) is to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  Many firms involved in high-frequency trading (Goldman Sachs, RGM Advisors, Tradebot Systems and others) have their computer servers “co-located” in the same building as the exchange, in order to get each of their orders processed a few nanoseconds faster than orders coming from further distances (albeit at the speed of light).  The Zero Hedge website has been critical of HFT for quite a while.  They recently published this informative piece on the subject, pointing out how HFT firms caused the catastrophe on May 6:

. . .  when the selling in size commences they all just shut down.  So much for providing liquidity when it is needed.

At The Market Ticker website, Karl Denninger explained how HFT platforms often use “predatory algorithms” to drive a stock’s price up to the full extent of a customer’s limit order (a practice called “frontrunning”):

Let’s say that there is a buyer willing to buy 100,000 shares of BRCM with a limit price of $26.40.  That is, the buyer will accept any price up to $26.40.

But the market at this particular moment in time is at $26.10, or thirty cents lower.

So the computers, having detected via their “flash orders” (which ought to be illegal) that there is a desire for Broadcom shares, start to issue tiny (typically 100 share lots) “immediate or cancel” orders – IOCs – to sell at $26.20.  If that order is “eaten” the computer then issues an order at $26.25, then $26.30, then $26.35, then $26.40.  When it tries $26.45 it gets no bite and the order is immediately canceled.

Now the flush of supply comes at, big coincidence, $26.39, and the claim is made that the market has become “more efficient.”

Nonsense; there was no “real seller” at any of these prices!  This pattern of offering was intended to do one and only one thing – manipulate the market by discovering what is supposed to be a hidden piece of information – the other side’s limit price!

The extent to which frontrunning takes place was the subject of a recent conversation between Larry Tabb of Tabb Group and Erin Burnett on CNBC.  The Zero Hedge website provided this analysis of the video clip:

The funniest bit of the exchange occurs at 3:35 into the clip, when Tabb publicly discloses that front-running is not only legal but occurs all the time on open exchanges. When Erin Burnett, who unfortunately still thinks that the Deutsche Mark is used in Germany, asks who is doing the front running, Tabb says “It could be anyone.”

A recent piece by Josh Lipton at the Minyanville website focused on the activity of retail investors since the recent “flash crash”:

Specifically, during the past week through May 12, your friends and neighbors pulled $2.8 billion out of US stock funds, according to the latest data from the professional number crunchers at Lipper FMI.

To put that stat in context, we called up Robert Adler, the head of Lipper FMI Americas, for a chat this morning.  He tells us that’s the most investors have pulled out, in fact, since March 11, 2009.

At the same time, says Adler, investors plowed $16.6 billion into money-market funds.  “That’s the first inflows money market funds have seen in the last 16 weeks,” he says.

*   *   *

“There was an about-face this past week by investors,” Adler says, noting that such outflows from both equity and bond funds, and a sharp reversal in money market funds, demonstrate a clear and dramatic shift in sentiment.

The analyst is quick to emphasize, however, that one week doesn’t make a trend.  “We have to wait another week to see whether this was simply event driven or if this is the beginning of a new trend,” he says.

The current risk-aversion experienced by retail investors is compounded by the ugly truth that stocks are currently overvalued.  Shawn Tully of Fortune made this very clear in a May 17 commentary, wherein he provided us with a sage bit of prognostication:

Here’s how I see the odds.  The chances are about one in three that we suffer a huge, wrenching correction in the next year or two similar to the one in 1987.  That possibility is so high because stocks are so startlingly expensive.  Another high probability event is that markets go on a long sideways grind, with smaller drops along the way.  What’s extremely unlikely is that the market rises substantially from current levels and stays there for any extended period.

Whatever happens in the next couple of years, the odds are overwhelming that investors who buy stocks today will reap puny returns for 10 years.  For example, if you’d purchased shares at today’s PE of 22 in early 2003, you would have gotten a return of around 3% a year, barely enough to compensate for inflation, let alone buy the blood pressure medication you’d need to survive the scary ride of stock ownership.

Now let’s look out a decade or two.  The evidence is extremely strong that price matters, and matters a lot:  except in rare cases, buying stocks when they are pricey — when the Shiller PE exceeds 20 — leads to puny returns ten years later.

Not that you’d ever know that from the happy talk from Wall Street.  So screen the noise out, and follow the numbers.  They’ll eventually get better for investors.  But to get back there, we may revisit October of 1987.

Considering the unlimited number of awful news events unfolding in America and around the world right now, we could be headed for a market crash much worse that that of October, 1987.  Cheers!



Watching For Storm Clouds

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October 26, 2009

As the economy continues to flounder along, one need not look very far to find enthusiastic cheerleaders embracing any seemingly positive information to reinforce the belief that this catastrophic chapter in history is about to reach an end.  Meanwhile, others are watching out for signs of more trouble.  The recent celebrations over the return of the Dow Jones Industrial Average to the 10,000 level gave some sensible commentators the opportunity to point out that this may simply be evidence that we are experiencing an “asset bubble” which could burst at any moment.

October 21 brought the latest Quarterly Report from SIGTARP, the Special Investigator General for TARP, who is a gentleman named Neil Barofsky.  Since the report is 256 pages long, it made more sense for Mr. Barofsky to submit to a few television interviews and simply explain to us, the latest results of his investigatory work.  In a discussion with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on that date, Mr. Barofsky voiced his concern about the potential consequences that could arise because those bailed-out banks, considered “too big to fail” have continued to grow, due to government-approved mergers:

“These banks that were too big to fail are now bigger,” Barofsky said.  “Government has sponsored and supported several mergers that made them larger and that guarantee, that implicit guarantee of moral hazard, the idea that the government is not going to let these banks fail, which was implicit a year ago, is now explicit, we’ve said it.  So if anything, not only have there not been any meaningful regulatory reform to make it less likely, in a lot of ways, the government has made such problems more likely.

“Potentially we could be in more danger now than we were a year ago,” he added.

In comparing where the economy is now, as opposed to this time last year, we haven’t seen much in the way of increased lending by the oversized banks.  In fact, we’ve only seen more hubris and bullying on their part.  Julian Delasantellis expressed it this way in his October 22 essay for the Asia Times:

Now, a year later, things have turned out exactly as expected – except that the roles are reversed.  The rulemakers have not disciplined the corrupted; it’s more accurate to say that the corrupted have abased the rulemakers.  If the intention was that the big investment banks would settle down into a sort of quiet, reserved suburban lifestyle, the reality has been that they’ve acted more like former gangsters placed into the US government’s witness protection program, taking over the numbers racket on the Saturday pee-wee soccer fields.

*   *   *

Obviously, there can’t be any inflation, or any real long-term earnings growth for consumer and business-oriented banks for that matter, as long as the economic crisis continues to destroy capital faster than Obama can ask Bernanke to print it.

These issues are of little concern to operations such as Goldman and Morgan, with their trading strategies and profit profiles essentially divorced from the real economy.  But down here on planetary level, as the little league baseball fields don’t get maintained because the businesses who funded the work go out of business after having their loans called, after elderly people with chest pains have to wait longer for one of the few ambulances on station after rescue service cutbacks, life is changing, changing for the long term, and it sure isn’t pretty.

“Proprietary trading” by banks such as Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan Chase, forms an important part of their business model.  This practice involves trading by those banks, on their own accounts, rather than the accounts of customers.  The possibility of earning lavish bonus payments helps to incentivize risk taking by the traders working on the “prop desks” of those institutions.  Gillian Tett wrote a report for the Financial Times on October 22, wherein she discussed an e-mail she received from a recently-retired banker, who stays in touch with his former colleagues — all of whom remain actively trading the markets.  Ms. Tett observed that this man was “feeling deeply shocked” when he shared his observations with her:

“Forget about the events of the past 12 months … the punters are back punting as aggressively as ever,” he wrote.  “Highly leveraged short-term trades are back in vogue as players … jostle to load up on everything from Reits [real estate investment trusts] and commercial property, commodities, emerging markets and regular stocks and bonds.

“Oh, I am sure the banks’ public relations people will talk about the subdued atmosphere in banking, but don’t you believe it,” he continued bitterly, noting that when money is virtually free — or, at least, at 0.5 per cent — traders feel stupid if they don’t leverage up.

“Any sense of control is being chucked out of the window.  After the dotcom boom and bust it took a good few years for the market to get its collective mojo back [but] this time it has taken just a few months,” he added.  He finished with a despairing question:  “Was October 2008 just a dress rehearsal for the crash when this latest bubble bursts?”

*   *   *

Yet, if you talk at length to traders — or senior bankers — it seems that few truly believe that fundamentals alone explain this pattern.  Instead, the real trigger is the amount of money that central bankers have poured into the system that is frantically seeking a home, because most banks simply do not want to use that cash to make loans.  Hence, the fact that the prices of almost all risk assets are rallying — even as non-risky assets such as Treasuries bounce too.

Now, some western policymakers like to argue — or hope –that this striking rally could be beneficial, in a way, even if it is not initially based on fundamentals.  After all, the argument goes, if markets rebound sharply, that should boost animal spirits in a way that could eventually seep through to the “real” economy.

On this interpretation, the current rally could turn out to be akin to the firelighter that one uses to start a blaze in a pile of damp wood.

*   *   *

So I, like my e-mail correspondent, am growing uneasy.  Perhaps, the optimistic “firelighter-igniting-the-damp-wood” scenario will yet come to play; but we will probably not really know whether the optimists are correct for at least another six months.

Gillian Tett’s “give it six months” approach seems much more sober and rational than what we hear from many of the exuberant commentators appearing on television.  Beyond that, she reminds us that our current situation involves a more important issue than the question of whether our economy can experience sustained growth:  The continued use of leveraged risk-taking by TARP beneficiaries invites the possibility of a return to last year’s crisis-level conditions.  As long as those banks know that the taxpayers will be back to bail them out again, there is every reason to assume that we are all headed for more trouble.




Offering Solutions

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October 22, 2009

Many of us are familiar with the old maxim asserting that “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.”  During the past year we’ve been exposed to plenty of hand-wringing by info-tainers from various mainstream media outlets decrying the financial crisis and our current economic predicament.  Very few of these people ever seem to offer any significant insight on such interesting topics as:  what really caused the meltdown, how to prevent it from happening again, whether any laws were broken that caused this catastrophe, whether any prosecutions might be warranted or how to solve our nation’s continuing economic ills, which seem to be immune to all the attempted cures.  The painful thorn in the side of Goldman Sachs, Matt Taibbi, recently raised an important question, reminding people to again scrutinize the vapid media coverage of this pressing crisis:

It’s literally amazing to me that our press corps hasn’t yet managed to draw a distinction between good news on Wall Street for companies like Goldman, and good news in reality.

*   *   *

In fact the dichotomy between the economic health of ordinary people and the traditional “market indicators” is not merely a non-story, it is a sort of taboo — unmentionable in major news coverage.

That quote inspired Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism to write a superb essay about how “access journalism” has created a controlled press.  What follows is just a small nugget of the great analysis in that piece:

So what do we have?  A media that predominantly bases its stories on what it is fed because it has to.  Ever-leaner staffing, compressed news cycles, and access journalism all conspire to drive reporters to focus on the “must cover” news, which is to a large degree influenced by the parties that initiate the story.  And that means they are increasingly in an echo chamber, spending so much time with the influential sources they feel they must cover that they start to be swayed by them.

*   *   *

The message, quite overly, is: if you are pissed, you are in a minority.  The country has moved on.  Things are getting better, get with the program. Now I saw the polar opposite today.  There is a group of varying sizes, depending on the topic, that e-mails among itself, mainly professional investors, analysts, economists (I’m usually on the periphery but sometimes chime in).  I never saw such an angry, active, and large thread about the Goldman BS fest today.  Now if people who have not suffered much, and are presumably benefitting from the market recovery are furious, it isn’t hard to imagine that what looks like complacency in the heartlands may simply be contained rage looking for an outlet.

Fortunately, one television news reporter has broken the silence concerning the impact on America’s middle class, caused by Wall Street’s massive Ponzi scam and our government’s response – which he calls “corporate communism”.  I’m talking about MSNBC’s Dylan Ratigan.  On Wednesday’s edition of his program, Morning Meeting, he decried the fact that the taxpayers have been forced to subsidize the “parlor game” played by Goldman Sachs and other firms involved in proprietary trading on our coin.  Mr. Ratigan then proceeded to offer a number of solutions available to ordinary people, who would like to fight back against those pampered institutions considered “too big to fail”.  Some of these measures involve:  moving accounts from one of those enshrined banks to a local bank or credit union; paying with cash whenever possible and contacting your lawmakers to insist upon financial reform.

My favorite lawmaker in the battle for financial reform is Congressman Alan Grayson, whose district happens to include Disney World.  His fantastic interrogation of Federal Reserve general counsel, Scott Alvarez, about whether the Fed tries to manipulate the stock markets, was a great event.  Grayson has now co-sponsored a “Financial Autopsy” amendment to the proposed Consumer Financial Protection Agency bill.  This amendment is intended to accomplish the following:

- Requires the CFPA conduct a “Financial Autopsy” of each state’s bankruptcies and foreclosures (a scientific sampling), and identify financial products that systematically led to a large number of bankruptcies and foreclosures.
- Requires the CFPA report to Congress annually on the top financial products (the companies and individuals that originated the products) that caused consumer bankruptcies and foreclosures.
- Requires the CFPA take corrective action to eliminate or restrict those deceptive products to prevent future bankruptcies and corrections

– The bottom line is to highlight destructive products based on if they are making people “broke”.

From his website, The Market Ticker, Karl Denninger offered his own contributions to this amendment:

This sort of “feel good” legislative amendment will of course be resisted, but it simply isn’t enough.  The basic principle of equity (better said as “fairness under the law”) puts forward the premise that one cannot cheat and be allowed to keep the fruits of one’s outrageous behavior.

So while I like the direction of this amendment, I would put forward the premise that the entirety of the gains “earned” from such toxic products, when found, are clawed back and distributed to the consumers so harmed, and that to the extent this does not fully compensate for that harm such a finding should give rise to a private, civil cause of action for the consumers who are bankrupted or foreclosed.

It’s nice to know that bloggers are no longer the only voices insisting on financial reform.  Ed Wallace of Business Week recently warned against the consequences of unchecked speculation on oil futures:

Is today’s stock market divorced from economic reality?  Probably.  It is a certainty that oil is.  We know that because those in the market are still putting out the same tired and incorrect logic that they used successfully last year to push oil to $147 a barrel while demand was plummeting.

Because oil is not carrying a market price that fairly reflects economic conditions and demand inventories, overpriced energy is siphoning off funds that could be used for corporate expansion, increased consumerism and, in time, the recreation of jobs in America.

Did you think that the “Enron Loophole” was closed by the enactment of the 2008 Farm Bill?  It wasn’t.  The Farm Bill simply gave more authority to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to regulate futures contracts that had been exempted by the loophole.  In case you’re wondering about the person placed in charge of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission by President Obama  –  his name is Gary Gensler and he used to work for  …  You guessed it:  Goldman Sachs.




Pay More Attention To That Man Behind The Curtain

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October 15, 2009

Reading the news these days can cause so much aggravation, I’m surprised more people haven’t pulled out all of their hair.  Regardless of one’s political perspective, there is an inevitable degree of outrage experienced from revelations concerning the role of government malfeasnace in causing and reacting to the financial crisis.  We have come to rely on satire to soothe our anger.  (For a good laugh, be sure to read this.)  Fortunately, an increasing number of commentators are not only exposing the systemic problems that created this catastrophe – they’re actually suggesting some good solutions.

Robert Scheer, editor of Truthdig, recently considered the idea that the debate over healthcare reform might just be a distraction from the more urgent need for financial reform:

The health care issue should never even have been brought up at a time when the economy is reeling and we are running such immense deficits to shore up the banks.  Instead of fixing the economy by saving Americans’ homes and jobs, we are preoccupied with pie-in-the-sky rhetoric on a hot issue that should have been addressed in calmer times.  It came up now because, despite all the hoary partisan posturing, it is a safer subject than the more pressing issue of what to do with Citigroup, AIG and General Motors, which the taxpayers happen to own but do not control.  While Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner plots in secret with the top bankers who got us into this mess, we are focused on the perennial circus of so-called health care reform.

There is an odd disconnect between the furious public debate over health care reform, with its emphasis on the cost of an increased government role, and the nonexistent discussion about the far more expensive and largely secretive government program to bail out Wall Street.  Why the agitation over the government spending $83 billion a year on health care when at least 20 times that amount has been thrown at the creators of the ongoing financial crisis without any serious public accountability?  On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal reported that employees of the financial industry that we taxpayers saved are slated to be paid a record $140 billion this year.

Remember, taxpayers:  That $140 billion is your money.  The bailed-out institutions may claim to have repaid their TARP obligations, but they also received trillions in loans from the Federal Reserve — and Ben Bernanke refuses to disclose which institutions received how much.

William Greider wrote a superb essay for the October 26 issue of The Nation, emphasizing the importance of the work undertaken by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by Phil Angelides, as well as the investigation being done by the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform:

Even if Congress manages to act this fall, the debate will not end.  Obama’s plan does not begin to get at the rot in the financial system.  Wall Street’s most notorious practices continue to flourish, and if unemployment rates keep rising through 2010, the public will not set aside its anger.  The Angelides investigators could put the story back on the front page.

*  *  *

Beyond Ponzi schemes and deceitful mortgage lending, a far larger crime may lurk at the center of the crisis — wholesale securities fraud.  “Risk models” reassured unwitting investors who bought millions of bundled mortgage securities and derivatives like credit-default swaps.  But as Christopher Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics has testified, many of the models lacked real-life markets where they could be tested and verified.  “Clearly, we have now many examples where a model or the pretense of a model was used as a vehicle for creating risk and hiding it,” Whalen said.  “More important, however, is the role of financial models for creating opportunities for deliberate acts of securities fraud.”  That’s what investigators can examine.  What did the Wall Street firms know about the reliability of these models when they sold the securities?  And what did they tell the buyers?

*  *  *

Surely the political system itself is a root cause of the financial crisis.  The swollen influence of financial interests pushed Congress and presidents to repeal regulation and look the other way as reckless excesses developed.  Efforts to restore a more reliable representative democracy can start with Congress.  The power of money could be curbed by new rules prohibiting members of key committees from accepting contributions from the sectors they oversee.  Regulatory agencies, likewise, need internal designs to protect them from capture by the industries they regulate.

The Federal Reserve, having failed in its obligations so profoundly, should be reconstituted as an accountable federal agency, shorn of the excessive secrecy and insider privileges accorded to bankers.  The Constitution gives Congress, not the executive branch, the responsibility for managing money and credit.  Congress must reassert this responsibility and learn how to provide adequate oversight and policy critique.

Reforming the financial system, in other words, can be the prelude to reviving representative democracy.

At The Huffington Post, Robert Borosage warned that the financial industry is waging a huge lobbying battle to derail any attempts at financial reform.  Beyond that, the banking lobbyists will re-write any legislation to make it more favorable to their own objectives:

The banking lobby is nothing if not shameless.  They hope to use the reforms to WEAKEN current law.  They are pushing to make the federal standard the ceiling on reform, stripping the power of states to have higher standards.  Basically, they are hoping to find a way to shut down the independent investigations of state attorneys general like New York’s Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo or Illinois’ Lisa Madigan.

*  *  *

Historically, the banks, as Senator Dick Durbin decried in disgust, “own the place.”  And they’ve succeeded thus far in frustrating reform, even while pocketing literally hundreds of billions in support from taxpayers.

*  *  *

But this time it could be different.  Backroom deals are no longer safe.  Americans have been fleeced of trillions in the value of their homes and their savings because of Wall Street’s reckless excesses.  Then as taxpayers, they were extorted to ante up literally trillions more to forestall economic collapse by bailing out the banking sector.  Insult was added to that injury when the Federal Reserve refused to tell the Congress who got the money and on what terms.

Legislators would be well advised to understand the cozy old ways of doing business are no longer acceptable.  Americans are livid and paying attention.  Legislators who rely on Wall Street to finance their campaigns and then lead the effort to block or dilute reforms will discover that their constituents know what they have been up to.  Organizations like my own Campaign for America’s Future, the Sunlight Foundation, Americans for Financial Reform, Huffington Post bloggers will make certain the word gets out.  Legislators may discover that Wall Street’s money is a burden, not a blessing.

The most encouraging article I have seen came from Dan Gerstein of Forbes.  His perspective matched my sentiments exactly.  Looking through President Obama’s empty rhetoric, Mr. Gerstein helped provide direction and encouragement to those of us who are losing hope that our dysfunctional government could do anything close to addressing our nation’s financial ills:

The Changer-in-Chief long ago gave up on the idea of dismantling and remaking the crazy-quilt regulatory system that Wall Street (along with its Washington enablers) rigged for its own enrichment at everyone else’s expense.

*  *  *

Instead, Team Obama opted to move around the deck chairs within the existing bureaucracy, daftly hoping this conformist approach would be enough to prevent another titanic meltdown.

*  *  *

In the end, though, the key to success will be countering Wall Street’s influence and putting the politicians’ feet to the ire.  Members of Congress need to know there will be consequences for sticking with the status quo.      . . .  Make clear to every incumbent: Endorse our plan and we’ll give you money and public support; back the banks, and we will run ads against you telling voters you are for corrupt capitalism.

As I have said before, this is all about power.  Right now, Wall Street has the political playing field to itself; it has the money, the access it buys and the fear it implies.  And the public is on the outside, looking incredulous that this rigged system is still in place more than a year after it was exposed.  But if the frustrated middle can organize and mobilize a focused, non-partisan revolt of the revolted — as opposed to the inchoate and polarizing tea party movement — that whole dynamic will quickly change.  And so too, I’m confident, will the voting habits of our elected officials.

Fortunately, individuals like Dan Gerstein are motivating people to stand up and let our elected officials know that they work for the people and not the lobbyists.  Larry Klayman, founder of Judicial Watch, has just written a new book:  Whores: Why And How I Came To Fight The Establishment.  The timing of the book’s release could not have been better.




The Longest Year

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September 14, 2009

As I write this, President Obama is preparing another fine-sounding, yet empty speech.  His subject this time is financial reform.  You may recall last week’s lofty address to the joint session of Congress, promoting his latest, somewhat-less-nebulous approach to healthcare reform.  He assured the audience that the so-called “public option” (wherein a government-created entity competes with private sector healthcare insurers) would be an integral part of the plan.  Within a week, two pieces of political toast from the Democratic Party (Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid) set about undermining that aspect of the healthcare reform agenda.  This is just one reason why, on November 2, 2010, the people who elected Democrats in 2006 and 2008 will be taking a “voters’ holiday”, paving the way for Republican majorities in the Senate and House.  The moral lapse involving the public option was documented by David Sirota for Danny Schechter’s NewsDissector blog:

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for the first time yesterday suggested she may be backing off her support of the public option – the government-run health plan that the private insurance industry is desperately trying to kill.  According to CNN, Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid “said they would support any provision that increases competition and accessibility for health insurance – whether or not it is the public option favored by most Democrats.”

This announcement came just hours before Steve Elmendorf, a registered UnitedHealth lobbyist and the head of UnitedHealth’s lobbying firm Elmendorf Strategies, blasted this email invitation throughout Washington, D.C. I just happened to get my hands on a copy of the invitation from a source – check it out:

From: Steve Elmendorf [mailto:steve@elmendorfstrategies.com]
Sent: Friday, September 11, 2009 8:31 AM
Subject: event with Speaker Pelosi at my home
You are cordially invited to a reception with

Speaker of the House
Nancy Pelosi

Thursday, September 24, 2009
6:30pm ~ 8:00pm

At the home of
Steve Elmendorf
2301 Connecticut Avenue, NW
Apt. 7B
Washington, D.C.

$5,000 PAC
$2,400 Individual

Again, Elmendorf is a registered lobbyist for UnitedHealth, and his firm’s website brags about its work for UnitedHealth on its website.

The sequencing here is important: Pelosi makes her announcement and then just hours later, the fundraising invitation goes out. Coincidental?  I’m guessing no – these things rarely ever are.

I wrote a book a few years ago called Hostile Takeover whose premise was that corruption and legalized bribery has become so widespread that nobody in Washington even tries to hide it. This is about as good an example of that truism as I’ve ever seen.

Whatever President Obama proposes to accomplish in terms of financial reform will surely be met with a similar fate.  Worse yet, his appointment of “Turbo” Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary and his nomination of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman are the best signals of the President’s true intention:  Preservation of the status quo, regardless of the cost to the taxpayers.

On this first anniversary of the demise of Lehman Brothers and the acknowledgment of the financial crisis, many commentators have noted the keen observations by Simon Johnson, a former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund, published in the May, 2009 issue of The Atlantic.  The theme of Johnson’s article, “The Quiet Coup” was that the current economic and financial crisis in the United States is “shockingly reminiscent” of those experienced in emerging markets (i.e. banana republics and proto-capitalist regimes).  The devil behind all the details in setting these systems upright after a financial crisis is the age-old concept of moral hazard or more simply:  sleaze.  In making the comparison of the United States to the emerging market countries he encountered at the IMF, Mr. Johnson began this way:

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity:  elite business interests — financiers, in the case of the U.S. — played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse.  More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive.  The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Here are a few more passages from “The Quiet Coup” that our political leaders would be well-advised to consider:

Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason:  it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change.  As an unnamed senior bank official said to The New York Times last fall, “It doesn’t matter how much Hank Paulson gives us, no one is going to lend a nickel until the economy turns.”  But there’s the rub:  the economy can’t recover until the banks are healthy and willing to lend.

*   *   *

The second problem the U.S. faces—the power of the oligarchy— is just as important as the immediate crisis of lending.  And the advice from the IMF on this front would again be simple:  break the oligarchy.

Oversize institutions disproportionately influence public policy; the major banks we have today draw much of their power from being too big to fail. Nationalization and re-privatization would not change that; while the replacement of the bank executives who got us into this crisis would be just and sensible, ultimately, the swapping-out of one set of powerful managers for another would change only the names of the oligarchs.

Ideally, big banks should be sold in medium-size pieces, divided regionally or by type of business.  Where this proves impractical—since we’ll want to sell the banks quickly— they could be sold whole, but with the requirement of being broken up within a short time.  Banks that remain in private hands should also be subject to size limitations.

Mr. Johnson pointed out the need to overhaul our current antitrust laws – not because any single institution controls so much market share as to influence prices – but because the failure of any one “to big to fail” bank could collapse the entire financial system.

One of my favorite reporters at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, observed the anniversary of the Lehman Brothers failure with an essay that focused, in large part, on a recent paper by Edward Kane, a finance professor at Boston College, who created the expression: “zombie bank” in 1987.   This month, the Networks Financial Institute at Indiana State University published a policy brief by Dr. Kane on the subject of financial regulation.  In her article:  “But Who Is Watching Regulators?”, Ms. Morgenson summed up Professor Kane’s paper in the following way:

This ugly financial episode we’ve all had to live through makes clear, Mr. Kane says, that taxpayers must protect themselves against two things:  the corrupting influence of bureaucratic self-interest among regulators and the political clout wielded by the large institutions they are supposed to police. Finally, he argues, taxpayers must demand that the government publicize the costs of efforts taken to save the financial system from itself.

Although you may have seen widely-publicized news reports about an “overwhelming number” of academicians opposing the current efforts to require transparency from the Federal Reserve, Professor Kane provides a strong argument in favor of Fed transparency as well as scrutiny of the Treasury and the other government entities enmeshed the complex system of bailouts created within the past year.

At thirty-eight pages, his paper is quite a deep read.  Nevertheless, it’s packed with great criticism of the Federal Reserve and the Treasury.  We need more of this and when someone of Professor Kane’s stature provides it, there had better be people in high places taking it very seriously.  The following are just a few of the many astute observations made by Dr. Kane:

Agency elitism would be evidenced by the extent to which its leaders use crises to establish interpretations and precedents that cover up its mistakes, inflate its powers, expand its discretion, and extend its jurisdiction. According to this standard, Fed efforts to use the crisis as a platform for self-congratulation and for securing enlarged systemic-risk authority sidetracks rather than promotes effective reform.

*   *   *

A financial institution’s incentive to disobey, circumvent or lobby against a particular rule increases with the opportunity cost of compliance. This means that, to sort out the welfare consequences of any regulatory program, we must assess not only the costs and benefits of compliance, but include the costs and benefits of circumvention as well.

*   *   *

Realistically, every government-managed program of disaster relief is a strongly lobbied and nontransparent tax-transfer scheme for redistributing wealth and shifting risk away from the disaster’s immediate victims.  A financial crisis externalizes – in margin and other collateral calls, in depositor runs, and in bank and borrower pleas for government assistance – a political and economic struggle over when and how losses accumulated in corporate balance sheets and in the portfolios of insolvent financial institutions are to be unwound and reallocated across society.  At the same time, insolvent firms and government rescuers share a common interest in mischaracterizing the size and nature of the redistribution so as to minimize taxpayer unrest.

In principle, lenders and investors that voluntarily assume real and financial risks should reap the gains and bear the losses their risk exposures generate.  However, in crises, losers pressure government officials to rescue them and to induce other parties to share their pain.

The advocates of crony capitalism and their tools (our politicians and regulatory bureaucrats) need to know that we are on to them.  If the current administration is willing to facilitate more of the same, then it’s time for some new candidates to step forward.




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The Forgotten Urgency Of Financial Reform

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September 10, 2009

With all the fighting over healthcare reform and the many exciting controversies envisioned by its opponents, such as:  death panels, state-sponsored abortions and illegal aliens’ coming to America for free breast implants, the formerly-urgent need for financial reform his slipped away from public concern.  Alan Blinder recently wrote a piece for The New York Times, lamenting how the subject of financial reform has disappeared from the Congressional radar:

After all we’ve been through, and with so much anger still directed at financial miscreants, the political indifference toward financial reform is somewhere between maddening and tragic.  Why is the pulse of reform so faint?

Blinder then discussed five reasons why.  My favorite concerned lobbying:

Almost everything becomes lobbied to death in Washington.  In the case of financial reform, the money at stake is mind-boggling, and one financial industry after another will go to the mat to fight any provision that might hurt it.

Mr. Blinder expressed concern that these three important changes would be left out of any financial reform legislation:  a) resolving the problem of having financial institutions that are “too big to fail”, b) cleaning up the derivatives mess and c) creating a “systemic risk regulator”.   (All right — I rearranged the order.)

In case you’re wondering just what the hell a “systemic risk regulator” is, Blinder provided the readers with a link to one of his earlier articles, which said this:

The main task of a systemic-risk regulator is to serve as an early-warning-and-prevention system, on the prowl for looming risks that extend across traditional boundaries and are becoming large enough to have systemic consequences.

*   *   *

Suppose such a regulator had been in place in 2005.  Because the market for residential mortgages and the mountain of securities built on them constituted the largest financial market in the world, that regulator probably would have kept a watchful eye on it.  If so, it would have seen what the banking agencies apparently missed:  lots of dodgy mortgages being granted by nonbank lenders with no federal supervision.

If the regulator saw those mortgages, it might then have looked into the securities being built on them.  That investigation might have turned up the questionable triple-A ratings being showered on these securities, and it certainly should have uncovered the huge risk concentrations both on and off of banks’ balance sheets.  And, unless it was totally incompetent, the regulator would have been alarmed to learn that a single company, American International Group, stood behind an inordinate share of all the credit-default swaps — essentially insurance policies against default — that had been issued.

Blinder shares the view, expressed by Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, that the Federal Reserve should serve as systemic risk regulator, because “there is no other alternative”.  Unfortunately, President Obama is also in favor of such an approach.  The drawback to empowering the Fed with such additional responsibility was acknowledged by Mr. Blinder:

On the other hand, some members of Congress are grumbling that the Fed has already overreached, usurping Congressional authority.  Others contend that it has performed so poorly as a regulator that it hardly deserves more power.

Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke discussed this issue himself back on March 5, in a speech entitled:  “Financial Reform to Address Systemic Risk”.  Near the end of this speech, Bernanke discussed the subject objectively, although he concluded with a pitch to get this authority for his own realm:

Some commentators have proposed that the Federal Reserve take on the role of systemic risk authority; others have expressed concern that adding this responsibility would overburden the central bank.  The extent to which this new responsibility might be a good match for the Federal Reserve depends a great deal on precisely how the Congress defines the role and responsibilities of the authority, as well as on how the necessary resources and expertise complement those employed by the Federal Reserve in the pursuit of its long-established core missions.

It seems to me that we should keep our minds open on these questions.  We have been discussing them a good deal within the Federal Reserve System, and their importance warrants careful consideration by legislators and other policymakers. As a practical matter, however, effectively identifying and addressing systemic risks would seem to require the involvement of the Federal Reserve in some capacity, even if not in the lead role.     .  .   .   The Federal Reserve plays such a key role in part because it serves as liquidity provider of last resort, a power that has proved critical in financial crises throughout history.  In addition, the Federal Reserve has broad expertise derived from its wide range of activities, including its role as umbrella supervisor for bank and financial holding companies and its active monitoring of capital markets in support of its monetary policy and financial stability objectives.

This rationale leads me to suspect that Mr. Bernanke might be planning to use his super powers as: “liquidity provider of last resort” to money-print away any systemic risks that might arise on his watch in such a capacity.  This is reminiscent of how comedian Steve Smith always suggests the use of duct tape to solve just about any problem that might arise in life.

In the September 8 edition of The Wall Street Journal, Peter Wallison wrote an article entitled:  “The Fed Can’t Monitor ‘Systemic Risk’”.   More important was the subtitle:  That’s like asking a thief to police himself.  Wallison begins with the point that President Obama’s inclusion of granting such powers to the Fed as the centerpiece of his financial regulatory reform agenda “is a serious error.”  Wallison seemed to share my concern about Bernanke’s “duct tape” panacea:

The problem is the Fed itself can create systemic risk.  Many scholars, for example, have argued that by keeping interest rates too low for too long the Fed created the housing bubble that gave us the current mortgage meltdown, financial crisis and recession.

Vesting such authority in the Fed creates an inherent conflict of interest.  Mr. Wallison explained this quite well:

Tasking the Fed with that responsibility would bury it among many other inconsistent roles and give the agency incentives to ignore warning signals that an independent body would be likely to spot.

Unlike balancing its current competing assignments — price stability and promoting full employment — detecting systemic risk would require the Fed to see the subtle flaws in its own policies.  Errors that are small at first could grow into major problems.  It is simply too much to expect any human institution to step outside of itself and see the error of its ways when it can plausibly ignore those errors in the short run.  If we are going to have a systemic-risk monitor, it should be an independent council of regulators.

When the dust finally settles on the healthcare reform debate, perhaps Congress can approach the subject of financial reform  . .  .  if it’s not too late by that point.




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Just In Time For Labor Day

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September 7, 2009

Friday’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, concerning non-farm payrolls for the month of August, left many people squirming.  The “green shoots” crowd usually has no trouble cherry-picking through the monthly BLS reports for something they can spin into happy-sounding news, utilizing the “not as bad as expected” approach.  Nevertheless, the August BLS report portrayed unpleasant conditions, not only for the unemployed but for those currently working full-time in the labor force, as well.

The current unemployment level is a living nightmare for the unemployed individuals and their families.  It also brings some degree of discomfort (although less significant) to those people with money to invest, who are waiting for signs of a sustainable economic upturn before heading back out from the sidelines and into the equities markets.  Both groups got an unvarnished look at the latest BLS data from Dave Rosenberg, Chief Economist at Gluskin Sheff in Toronto.  His September 4 economic commentary: Lunch with Dave, gave us a thorough analysis of the BLS report:

While the Obama economics team is pulling rabbits out of the hat to revive autos and housing, there is nothing they can really do about employment; barring legislation that would prevent companies from continuing to adjust their staffing requirements to the new world order of credit contraction. While nonfarm payrolls were basically in line with the consensus, declining 216,000 in August, there were downward revisions of 49,000 and the details were simply awful.  The fact that 65% of companies are still in the process of cutting their staff loads is quite disturbing — even manufacturing employment fell 63,000 in August, to its lowest level since April 1941 (!), despite the inventory replenishment in the automotive sector and all the excitement over the recent 50+ print in the ballyhooed ISM index.  The fact that temp agency employment is still declining, albeit at a slower pace, alongside the flat workweek and jobless claims stuck at 570,000, are all foreshadowing continued weakness in the labour market ahead.  Until we see signs of a sustained turnaround in the jobs market all bets are off over the sustainability of any economic recovery.

Looking at the details of the Household Survey, Rosenberg found “a rather alarming picture” of what is happening in the labor market:

First, employment in this survey showed a plunge of 392,000, but that number was flattered by a surge in self-employment (whether these newly minted consultants were making any money is another story) as wage & salary workers (the ones that work at companies, big and small) plunged 637,000 — the largest decline since March (when the stock market was testing its lows for the cycle).  As an aside, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes a number from the Household survey that is comparable to the nonfarm survey (dubbed the population and payroll-adjusted Household number), and on this basis, employment sank — brace yourself — by over 1 million, which is unprecedented.  We shall see if the nattering nabobs of positivity discuss that particular statistic in their post-payroll assessments; we are not exactly holding our breath.

Second, the unemployment rate jumped to 9.7% from 9.4% in July, the highest since June 1983 and at the pace it is rising, it will pierce the post-WWII high of 10.8% in time for next year’s midterm election.  And, this has nothing to do with a swelling labour force, which normally accompanies a turnaround in the jobs market — the ranks of the unemployed surged 466,000 last month.

The language of the BLS report itself on this subject demonstrates how the current unemployment crisis is not an “equal opportunity” phenomenon:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (10.1 percent), whites (8.9 percent), and Hispanics (13.0 percent) rose in August.  The jobless rates for adult women (7.6 percent), teenagers (25.5 percent), and blacks (15.1 percent) were little changed over the month.  The unemployment rate for Asians was 7.5 percent, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)The civilian labor force participation rate remained at 65.5 percent in August.  The employment population ratio, at 59.2 percent, edged down over the month and has declined by 3.5 percentage points since the recession began in December 2007.

Dave Rosenberg added the painful reminder that the unemployment picture always lags behind the end of a recession.  How far behind?  Look at this:

Jobless claims started off August at 554k and closed the month at 570k.  So it seems as though we enter September with the prospect of yet another month of declining payrolls because claims have to break decisively below 500k before jobs stop vanishing and below 400k before the unemployment rate stops rising.  Remember, in the early 1990s credit crunch the recession ended in March 1991 and yet the unemployment rate did not peak until June 1992; and in the last cycle, which was an asset deflation phase, the recession ended in November 2001 and yet the jobless rate did not peak until June 2003. So in the last two cycles, it took 15-20 months for the unemployment rate to peak even after the economic downturn officially ended.

At least Mr. Rosenberg had some constructive criticism for the current administration’s efforts at job creation.  It’s one thing to just yell:  “FAIL” and yet, quite another to put some thought into what needs to be done:

Our advice to the Obama team would be to create and nurture a fiscal backdrop that tackles this jobs crisis with some permanent solutions rather than recurring populist short-term fiscal goodies that are only inducing households to add to their burdensome debt loads with no long-term multiplier impacts.  The problem is not that we have an insufficient number of vehicles on the road or homes on the market; the problem is that we have insufficient labour demand.

As for those who are still in the labor force, the situation is also deteriorating, rather than improving.  A report by Carlos Torres for Bloomberg News noted that the “real number” for unemployment is 16.8 percent.  Beyond that, the work week for factory employees is currently 39.8 hours.  It will have to reach 41 hours before we even get a chance to see some changes:

The index of total hours worked, which takes into account changes in payrolls and the workweek, fell 0.3 percent last month to the lowest level since 2003.

“It tells us payrolls aren’t turning positive any time soon,” Joseph LaVorgna, chief  U.S.  economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York, said on a conference call yesterday, referring to the workweek figures. “This wasn’t a friendly report.”

A measure of unemployment, which includes the part-time workers who would prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking, reached 16.8 percent last month, the highest level in data going back to 1994.

The workweek for factory employees, which held at 39.8 hours last month, leads total payrolls by about three months, LaVorgna said.  Once it reaches at least 41 hours and once payrolls for temporary workers stabilize, then an increase in total employment can be expected months later, he said.

Payrolls for temporary workers started turning down in January 2007, 11 months before the recession began.  They dropped by another 6,500 workers in August, the government’s report showed yesterday.

In other words, the decline in temporary worker payrolls preceded the recession by 11 months!  Worse yet, the payrolls for temporary workers must stabilize before an increase in total employment comes along “months later”.

Meanwhile, at the Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor reports that many people who have jobs must still rely on food stamps to survive:

The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless.

*   *   *

The food stamp data suggest that “the labour market problems are more significant than you would expect, given just the unemployment rate”, said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.  “For me it suggests the consumer is not going to rebound or contribute to economic growth for the next year, as the consumer would in a traditional economic recovery.”

Consumer spending has traditionally been the engine of the US economy, making up about two thirds of GDP.  Economists fear that people may be unwilling to resume that role.

That conclusion is exactly what the “green shoots” enthusiasts don’t seem to understand.  Those who are well-off enough to pay for their groceries with real money will be focused on paying down their credit cards and saving money before they go out to buy another television or jet ski.  If these people have little or no “discretionary income”, then the High Frequency Trading computers on Wall Street can talk to each other all they want — but the stock values will not go up.

Happy Labor Day!




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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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A Helluva Read

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August 31, 2009

We are constantly being bombarded with predictions and opinions about where the economy is headed.  Since last fall’s financial crisis, people have seen their home values reduced to shocking levels; they’ve seen their investments take a nosedive and they’ve watched our government attempt to respond to crises on several fronts.  There have been numerous programs including TARP, TALF, PPIP and quantitative easing, that some of us have tried to understand and that others find too overwhelming to approach.  When one attempts to gain an appreciation of what caused this crisis, it quickly becomes apparent that there are a number of different theories being espoused, depending upon which pundit is doing the talking.  One of my favorite explanations of what caused the financial crisis came from William K. Black, Associate Professor of Economics and Law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City School of Law.  In his lecture:  The Great American Bank Robbery (which can be seen here) Black explains that we have a culture of corruption at the highest levels of our government, which, combined with ineptitude, allowed some of the sleaziest people on Wall Street to nearly destroy our entire financial system.

William Black recently participated in a conference with a group of experts associated with the Economists for Peace and Security and the Initiative for Rethinking the Economy.  The panel included authorities from all over the world and met in Paris on June 15 – 16.  A report on the meeting was prepared by Professor James K. Galbraith and was published by The Levy Economics Institute of Bard College.  The paper, entitled Financial and Monetary Issues as the Crisis Unfolds, is available here.  At 16 pages, the document goes into great detail about what has been going wrong and how to address it, in terms that are understandable to the layperson.  Here’s how the report was summarized in the Preface:

Despite some success in averting a catastrophic collapse of liquidity and a decline in output, the group was pessimistic that there would be sustained economic recovery and a return of high employment.  There was general consensus among the group that the pre-crisis financial system should not be restored, that reviving the financial sector first was not the way to revive the economy, and that governments should not pursue exit strategies that permit a return to the status quo. Rather, the crisis exposes the need for profound reform to meet a range of physical and social objectives.

As to the question of where we are now, at the current stage of the economic crisis, Professor Galbraith recalled one panel member’s analogy to the eye of a hurricane:

The first wall of the storm has passed over us:  the collapse of the banking system, which engendered panic and a massive public sector rescue effort.  At rest in the eye, we face the second:  the bankruptcy of states, provinces, cities, and even some national governments, from California, USA, to Belgium.  Since this is a slower process involving weaker players, complicated questions of politics, fairness, and solidarity, and more diffused system risk, there is no assurance that the response by capable actors at the national or transnational level will be either timely or sufficient, either in the United States or in Europe.

There is plenty to quote from in this document, especially in light of the fact that it provides a good deal of sound, constructive criticism of our government’s response to the crisis.  Additionally, the panel offered solutions you’re not likely to hear from politicians, most of whom are in the habit of repeating talking points, written by lobbyists.

Focusing on the situation here in the United States, the report gave us some refreshing criticism, especially in the current climate where commentators are stumbling over each other to congratulate Ben Bernanke on his nomination to a second term as Federal Reserve chairman:

American participants were almost equally skeptical of the effectiveness of the U.S.approach to date.  As one put it, “Diabetes is a metabolic disease.”  Elements of a metabolic disease can be treated (here, “stimulus” plays the role of insulin), but the key to success is to deal with the underlying metabolic problem.  In the economic sphere, that problem lies essentially with the transfer of resources and power to the top and the dismantling of effective taxing power over those at the top of the system.  (The speaker noted that the effective corporate tax rate for the top 20 firms in the United States is under 2 percent.)  The effect of this is to create a “trained professional class of retainers” who devote themselves to preserving the existing (unstable) system.  Further, there were massive frauds in the origination of mortgages, in the ratings processes that led to securitization, and in the credit default swaps that were supposed to insure against loss.  In the policy approach so far, there is a consistent failure to address,                 analyze, remedy, and prosecute these frauds.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, major legislation from health care to bank reform continues to be written in consultation with the lobbies; as one speaker noted, legislation on credit default swaps was being prepared by “Jamie Dimon and his lobbyists.”

One of the gravest dangers to economic recovery, finally, lies precisely in the crisis-fatigue of the political classes, in their lack of patience with a deep and intractable problem, and with their inflexible commitment to the preceding economic order.  This feeds denial of the problem, a deep desire to move back to familiar rhetorical and political ground, and the urge to declare victory, groundlessly and prematurely.  As one speaker argued, the U.S.discussion of  “green shoots” amounts to little more than politically inspired wishful thinking — a substitute for action, at least so far as hopes for the recovery of employment are concerned.

Lest I go on, quoting the whole damned thing, I’ll simply urge you to take a look at it.  At the conclusion of the paper was the unpleasant point that some of the damage from this crisis has been irreversible.  There was an admonition that before undertaking reconstruction of the damage, some careful planning should be done, inclusive of the necessary safeguards to make it possible to move forward.

Whether or not anyone in Washington will pay serious attention to these findings is another issue altogether.  Our system of legalized graft in the form of lobbying and campaign contributions, guarantees an uphill battle for anyone attempting to change the status quo.

The SEC Is Out To Lunch

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August 27, 2009

Back on January 5, I wrote a piece entitled:  “Clean-Up Time On Wall Street” in which I pondered whether our new President-elect and his administration would really “crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis”.  I quoted from a December 15 article by Stephen Labaton of The New York Times, examining the failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitated such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the Times piece included these points:

.  .  .  H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.

*  *  *

There are other difficulties plaguing the agency. A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.

I then questioned the wisdom of Barack Obama’s appointment of Mary Schapiro as the new Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, quoting from an article by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell of The Wall Street Journal concerning Schapiro’s track record as chair of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA):

Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul.  “The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

*   *   *

In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.

I also quoted from a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3  New York Times, written by Michael Lewis, author of Liar’s Poker, and David Einhorn.  Here’s what they had to say about the SEC:

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

Keeping all of this in mind, let’s have a look at the current lawsuit brought by the SEC against Bank of America, pending before Judge Jed S. Rakoff of The United States District Court for the Southern District of New York.  The matter was succinctly described by Louise Story of The New York Times:

The case centers on $3.6 billion bonuses that were paid out by Merrill Lynch late last year, just before that firm was merged with Bank of America.  Neither company disclosed the bonuses to shareholders, and the S.E.C. has charged that the companies’ proxy statement about the merger were misleading in their description of the bonuses.

To make a long story short, Bank of America agreed to settle the case for a mere $33 million, despite its insistence that it properly disclosed to its shareholders, the bonuses it authorized for Merrill Lynch & Co employees.  The mis-handling of this case by the SEC was best described by Rolfe Winkler of Reuters.  The moral outrage over this entire matter was best expressed by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker.  Denninger’s bottom line was this:

It is time for the damn gloves to come off.  Our economy cannot recover until the scam street games are stopped, the fraudsters are removed from the executive suites (and if necessary from Washington) and the underlying frauds – particularly including the games played with the so-called “value” of assets on the balance sheets of various firms are all flushed out.

On a similarly disappointing note, there is the not-so-small matter of:  “Where did all the TARP money go?”  You may have read about Elizabeth Warren and you may have seen her on television, discussing her role as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, tasked with scrutinizing the TARP bank bailouts.  Neil Barofsky was appointed Special Investigator General of TARP (SIGTARP).  Why did all of this become necessary?  Let’s take another look back to last January.  At that time, a number of Democratic Senators, including:  Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington) voted to oppose the immediate distribution of the second $350 billion in TARP funds.  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Barack Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed. The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At that time, Obama was engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the second $350 billion would not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Although it was a nice-sounding pledge, the new President never lived up to it.  Worse yet, we now have to rely on Congress, to insist on getting to the bottom of where all the money went.  Although Elizabeth Warren was able to pressure “Turbo” Tim Geithner into providing some measure of disclosure, there are still lots of questions that remain unanswered.  I’m sure many people, including Turbo Tim, are uncomfortable with the fact that Neil Barofsky is doing “too good” of a job as SIGTARP.  This is probably why Congress has now thrown a “human monkey wrench” into the works, with its addition of former SEC commissioner Paul Atkins to the Congressional Oversight Panel.  Expressing his disgust over this development, David Reilly wrote a piece for Bloomberg News, entitled: “Wall Street Fox Beds Down in Taxpayer Henhouse”.  He discussed the cynical appointment of Atkins with this explanation:

Atkins was named last week to be one of two Republicans on the five-member TARP panel headed by Harvard Law School professor Elizabeth Warren.  He replaces former Senator John Sununu, who stepped down in July.

*   *   *

And while a power-broker within the commission, Atkins was also seen as the sharp tip of the deregulatory spear during George W. Bush’s presidency.

Atkins didn’t waver from his hands-off position, even as the credit crunch intensified.  Speaking less than two months before the collapse of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc., Atkins in one of his last speeches at the SEC warned against calls for a “new regulatory order.”

He added, “We must not immediately jump to the conclusion that failures of firms in the marketplace or the unavailability of credit in the marketplace is caused by market failure, or indeed regulatory failure.”

When I spoke with him yesterday, Atkins hadn’t changed his tune.  “If the takeaway by some people is that deregulation is the thing that led to problems in the marketplace, that’s completely wrong,” he said.  “The problems happened in the most heavily regulated areas of the financial-services industry.”

Regulated by whom?