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From Cover-up to Bailout

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It has been one year since the earthquake and tsunami which caused the Fukushima nuclear power plant catastrophe.  From the very beginning (March 14, 2011) I suspected a cover-up:

Since the Fukushima nuclear crisis began, we were given spotty, uninformative reports about the extent of the damage to the critical equipment, despite assurances that the “reactor vessels remain intact”.

Throughout the year following the Fukushima disaster, there has been an unending series of accounts concerning efforts by the plant operator, Tepco, as well as by governmental officials to cover-up the true extent of this tragedy.  The hazardous radiation levels to which local residents were subjected, have become the focus of the most recent news reports exposing cover-up tactics.  Asia Times correspondent Pepe Escobar was recently interviewed for Russia Today.  Escobar reported that Fukushima officials concealed radiation data vital to safely evacuate people from that area.  This was accomplished by the deletion of e-mails detailing the spread of radiation.  An unidentified official (or several officials) from Fukushima prefecture should face responsibility for the loss of that data.  At one point during the interview, Escobar remarked that the situation “sounds and looks and quacks like a major cover-up”.  He expects that ultimately, “a low-level official” will take the fall for this transgression, with no consequences other than a generous severance package.

The Mainichi Daily News report on this suspicious situation revealed that officials from Fukushima prefecture deleted five days of early radiation dispersion data.  In typical bureaucratic fashion, Fukushima prefecture officials claimed that “it was the responsibility of the central government to release the data”.

The obfuscation tactics employed by the plant operator, Tepco, have been apparent since the onset of this disaster.  Nevertheless, Tepco continues to “play dumb”.  In a March 28 report by Karen Sloan of the Associated Press, Tepco characterized the situation with the explanation that “conditions could be worse than officials had pictured”.  The report pointed out that there are “fatally–high radiation levels” at the #2 reactor with less water than anticipated available  for cooling the reactor.  The damage is so severe that Tepco will need to “develop special equipment and technology” to decommission the plant.  Worse yet, the other reactors which experienced meltdowns “could be in worse shape”.  You can watch the video version of Karen Sloan’s report here.  As for those “fatally–high radiation levels”, Anne Sewell of the Digital Journal pointed out that measurements revealed those levels to be “up to 10 times the lethal dose”.  Beyond that, Ms. Sewell didn’t hesitate to remind her readers of the continuing problems encountered by those who have reported on this crisis:

Japanese authorities and Tepco representatives have been caught lying about the true situation at Fukushima on numerous occasions, which adds to the overwhelming stress on the residents.

First-hand accounts of the situation in Fukushima prefecture are provided by blogger Lori Mochizuki and her cohorts at the Fukushima Diary website.  Their motto appears on the masthead of the site:  “We are against the media blackout – Please support us so that we may inform the world.”

Those interested in keeping-up with the slow trickle of truth about this tragedy can follow the Fukushima Update website.   Arnie Gundersen, Chief Engineer of Fairewinds Associates, is another source who provides regular updates on Fukushima.

As we have witnessed in the aftermath of the financial crisis, those entities responsible for the world’s worst disasters always find themselves rewarded with taxpayer-funded bailouts.  The Fukushima nuclear catastrophe is yet another example of this principle.  On March 29, Kentaro Hamada of Reuters reported that Tepco has asked the Japanese government for a $12.6 billion taxpayer-funded bailout.  (This amounts to 1 trillion yen.)  This amount would be in addition to the 850 billion yen which Tepco requested from the government in order to provide victim compensation.  That’s right – a free $10.7 billion insurance policy!  Is that coverage available to other companies?  I’m afraid to ask!  Nevertheless, some Japanese officials insist that the indemnity should come at a price – as the Reuters article explained:

The government is keen to obtain an initial majority stake in Tepco in return for the fund injection, with an option to boost the stake to two-thirds if the firm drags its feet on corporate reforms.  A final decision, however, would have to wait until the company finds a new chairman, a second source with knowledge of the matter said.

*   *   *

Trade Minister Yukio Edano, who is responsible for approving a public fund injection, has said he wants the government to have a significant say in managing Tepco, but the two sides have differed over how big the government stake should be.

Moral hazard and nuclear radiation hazard make such a wonderful combination!


 

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Stock Market Bears Have Not Yet Left The Building

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The new year has brought an onslaught of optimistic forecasts about the stock market and the economy.  I suspect that much of this enthusiasm is the result of the return of stock market indices to “pre-Lehman levels” (with the S&P 500 above 1,250).  The “Lehman benchmark” is based on conditions as they existed on September 12, 2008 – the date on which Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The importance of the Lehman benchmark is primarily psychological — often a goal to be reached in this era of “less bad” economic conditions.  The focus on the return of market and economic indicators to pre-Lehman levels is something I refer to as “pre-Lehmanism”.  You can find examples of  pre-Lehmanism in discussions of such diverse subjects as:  the plastic molding press industry in Japan, copper consumption, home sales, bank dividends (hopeless) and economic growth.  Sometimes, pre-Lehmanism will drive a discussion to prognostication based on the premise that since we have surpassed the Lehman benchmark, we could be on our way back to good times.  Here’s a recent example from Bloomberg News:

“Lehman is the poster child for the demise of the banking industry,” said Michael Mullaney, who helps manage $9.5 billion at Fiduciary Trust Co. in Boston.  “We’ve recovered from that.  We’re comfortable with equities. If we do get a continuation of the strength in the economy and corporate earnings, we could get a reasonably good year for stocks in 2011.”

Despite all of this enthusiasm, some commentators are looking behind the rosy headlines to examine the substantive facts underlying the claims.  Consider this recent discussion by Michael Panzner, publisher of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall:

Yes, there are some developments that look, superficially at least, like good news.  But if you dig even a little bit deeper, it seems that more often than not nowadays there is less there than meets the eye.

The optimists have talked, for example, about the recovery in corporate profits, but they downplay the layoffs and cut-backs in investment that contributed to those gains.  They note the recovery in the banking sector, but forget to mention all of the financial and political assistance those firms have received — and are still receiving.  They highlight signs of stability in the housing market, but ignore lopsidedly bearish supply-and-demand fundamentals that are impossible to miss.

In an earlier posting, Michael Panzner questioned the enthusiasm about a report that 24 percent of employers participating in a survey expressed plans to boost hiring of full-time employees during 2011, compared to last year’s 20 percent of surveyed employers:

Call me a cynic (for the umpteenth time), but the fact that less that less than a quarter of employers plan to boost full-time hiring this year — a measly four percentage-point increase from last year — doesn’t sound especially “healthy” to me.

No matter how you slice it, the so-called recovery still seems to be largely a figment of the bulls’ imagination.

As for specific expectations about stock market performance during 2011, Jessie of Jesse’s Café Américain provided us with the outlook of someone on the trading floor of an exchange:

I had the opportunity to speak with a pit trader the other day, and he described the mood amongst traders as cautious.  They see the stock market rising and cannot get in front of it, as the buying is too well backed.  But the volumes are so thin and the action so phony that they cannot get comfortable on the long side either, so are buying insurance against a correction even while riding the rally higher.

This is a market setup for a flash crash.

Last May’s “flash crash” and the suspicious “late day rallies” on thin volume aren’t the only events causing individual investors to feel as though they’re being scammed.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith noted the consequences of driving “the little guy” out of the market:

Small investors (so-called retail investors) have been exiting the U.S. stock market for 34 straight weeks, pulling almost $100 billion out of the market. They are voting with their feet based on their situational awareness that the game is rigged, and that the rigging alone greatly increases the risks of another meltdown.

John Hussman of the Hussman Funds recently provided a technical analysis demonstrating that – at least for now – the risk/reward ratio is just not that favorable:

As of last week, the stock market remained characterized by an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields condition that has historically produced poor average market returns, and consistently so across historical time frames.  However, this condition is also associated with what I’ve called “unpleasant skew” – the most probable market movement is actually a small advance to marginal new highs, but the right tail is truncated and the left tail is fat, meaning that there is a lower than normal likelihood of large gains, and a much larger than normal potential for sharp and abrupt market losses.

The notoriously bearish Doug Kass is actually restrained with his pessimism for 2011, expecting the market to go “sideways” or “flat” (meaning no significant rise or fall).  Nevertheless, Kass saw fit to express his displeasure over the degree of cheerleading that can be seen in the mass media:

The recent market advance has spurred an accumulation of optimism.  S&P price targets are being lifted by many whose memories are short and who had blinders on as the equity market and economy entered the last downturn.  Bullish sentiment, coincident with rising share prices, is approaching an extreme, and the chorus of bullish talking heads grows ever louder on CNBC and elsewhere.

Speculation has entered the market.  The Iomegans of the late 1990s tech bubble have been replaced by the Shen Zhous, who worship at the altar of rare earths.

Not only are trends in the market being too easily extrapolated, the same might be true for the health of the domestic economy.

On New Year’s Eve, Kelly Evans of The Wall Street Journal wrote a great little article, summing-up the year-end data, which has fueled the market bullishness.  Beyond that, Ms. Evans provided a caveat that would never cross the minds of most commentators:

Still, Wall Street’s exuberance should send shudders down any contrarian’s spine.  To the extent the stock market anticipates growth, the economy will have to fire on all cylinders next year and then some.  At least one cylinder, the housing market, still is sputtering.  Upward pressure on food and gas prices also threatens to keep a lid on consumer confidence and rob from spending power even as the labor market continues its gradual and choppy recovery.

The coming year could turn out to be the reverse of 2010:  decent economic growth, but a disappointing showing by the stock market.  That’s the last thing most people expect right now, precisely why investors should be worried about it happening.

The new year may be off to a great start  . . .  but the stock market bears have not yet left the building.  Ignore their warnings at your own peril.


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