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Trouble Ahead

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Forget about what you’ve been told by the “rose-colored glasses” crowd.  We are headed for more economic trouble.  On September 17, economist Lakshman Achuthan gave his prognosis for the economy to Guy Raz, of NPR’s All Things Considered:

Achuthan, co-founder and chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, says all of his economic indicators point to more sputtering ahead.

“The risk of a new recession is quite high,” he says.

In Toronto, Michael Babad of The Globe And Mail saw fit to focus on the latest forecast from “Dr. Doom”:

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who forecast the financial crisis, went further today, warning that “we are entering a recession.”   The question isn’t whether there will be a double-dip, he said on Twitter, but rather how deep it will be.

And the answer, added the chairman and co-founder of Roubini Global Economics, depends on the response of policy makers and developments in the euro zone’s ongoing crisis.

As Gretchen Morgenson reported for The New York Times, the European sovereign debt crisis is already beginning to “wash up on American shores”.  The steep exposure of European banks to the sovereign debt of eurozone countries has become a problem for the United States:

Some of these banks are growing desperate for dollars.  Fearing the worst, investors are pulling back, refusing to roll over the banks’ commercial paper, those short-term i.o.u.’s that are the lifeblood of commerce.  Others are refusing to renew certificates of deposit. European banks need this money, in dollars, to extend loans to American companies and to pay their own debts.

Worries over the banks’ exposure to shaky European government debt have unsettled markets over there – shares of big French banks have taken a beating – but it is unclear how much this mess will hurt the economy back here.  American stock markets, at least, seem a bit blasé about it all:  the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 5.3 percent last week.

Last Thursday, I expressed my suspicion that the recent stock market exuberance was based on widespread expectation of another round of quantitative easing.  This next round is being referred to as “QE3”.   QE3 is good news for Wall Street because of those POMO auctions, wherein the New York Fed purchases Treasury securities – worth billions of dollars – on a daily basis.  After the auctions, the Primary Dealers take the sales proceeds to their proprietary trading desks, where the funds are leveraged and used to purchase high-beta, Russell 2000 stocks.  You saw the results during QE2:  A booming stock market – despite a stalled economy.

I believe that the European debt situation will become the controlling factor, which will turn the tide in favor of QE3 at the September 20-21 Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

Most pundits have expressed doubts that the Fed would undertake another round of quantitative easing.  Bill McBride of Calculated Risk put it this way:

QE3 is unlikely at the September meeting, but not impossible – however most observers think the FOMC will announce a program to change the composition of their balance sheet (extend maturities).  It is also possible that the FOMC will announce a reduction in the interest rate paid on excess reserves (currently 0.25%).

Tim Duy expressed a more skeptical outlook at his Fed Watch website:

Even more unlikely is another round of quantitative easing.  I don’t think there is much appetite at the Fed for additional asset purchases given the inflation numbers and the stability of longer-term inflation expectations relative to the events that prompted last fall’s QE2.

On the other hand, hedge fund manager Bill Fleckenstein presents a more persuasive case that the Fed can be expected to react to the “massive red ink in world equity markets” (due to floundering European bank stocks) by resorting to its favorite panacea – money printing:

So, to sum up my expectations, I believe that not only will we get a bold new round of QE from the Fed this week, but other central banks will join the party.  (The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are already printing money in an attempt to weaken their currencies.)  If that happens, I believe that assets (stocks, bonds and commodities) will rally rather dramatically, at least for a while, with the length and size of the rally depending on the individual idea/asset.

If no QE is announced, and we basically see nothing done, it will probably be safe to short stocks for investors who can handle that strategy.  Markets would be pummeled until the central planners (i.e., these bankers) are forced to react to the carnage. Such is the nature of the paper-money-central-bank-moral-hazard standard that is currently in place.

The Fed will announce its decision at 2:15 on Wednesday, September 21.  Even if the FOMC proceeds with QE3, its beneficial effects will (again) be limited to the stock market.  The real American economy will continue to stagnate through its “lost decade”, which began in 2007.


 

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The Best Argument For Financial Reform

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March 26, 2010

Thomas Hoenig, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, spoke out in favor of financial reform on Wednesday in a speech before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.  The shocking aspect of Hoenig’s speech is that it comes from the mouth of a member of the Federal Reserve’s Open Market Committee (FOMC) which sets economic policy.  Beyond that, Hoenig brutally criticized what has been done so far to tilt the playing field in favor of the megabanks, at the expense of smaller banks.  Here are some choice bits from what should be mandatory reading for everyone in Congress:

As a nation, we have violated the central tenants of any successful system.  We have seen the formation of a powerful group of financial firms.  We have inadvertently granted them implied guarantees and favors, and we have suffered the consequences.  We must correct these violations.  We must reinvigorate fair competition within our system in a culture of business ethics that operates under the rule of law.  When we do this, we will not eliminate the small businesses’ need for capital, but we will make access to capital once again earned, as it should be.

*   *   *

The fact is that Main Street will not prosper without a healthy financial system.  We will not have a healthy financial system now or in the future without making fundamental changes that reverse the wrong-headed incentives, change behavior and reinforce the structure of our financial system.  These changes must be made so that the largest firms no longer have the incentive to take too much risk and gain a competitive funding advantage over smaller ones.  Credit must be allocated efficiently and equitably based on prospective economic value.  Without these changes, this crisis will be remembered only in textbooks and then we will go through it all again.

Hoenig’s speech comes at a time when the Senate is considering a watered-down version of financial reform that has been widely criticized.  Economist Simon Johnson pointed out how any approach based on U.S. authority alone to “resolve” or break up systemically dangerous banks would be doomed because “there is no cross-border agreement on resolution process and procedure — and no prospect of the same in sight”.

Blogger Mike Konczal expressed his disappointment with what has become of the Financial Reform Bill as it has been dragged through the legislative process:

It’s funny, I know what a good financial reform bill becoming a bad financial reform bill looks like through this process.  I’ve seen bribes and more bribes and last-minute giveaway changes.

The notion that bribery has been an obstacle to financial reform became a central theme of Karl Denninger’s enthusiastic reaction to Hoenig’s speech:

All in all it’s nice to see Thomas Hoenig wake up.  Now let’s see if we can get CONgress to stop opening the bribe envelopes, er, ignore the campaign contributions for a sufficient period of time to actually fix this mess, forcing those “big banks” to get that leverage ratio down to where it belongs, along with marking their assets to the market.

Thomas Hoenig provided exactly the type of leadership needed and at exactly the right time to give a boost to serious financial reform.  We can only hope that there will be enough responsible, ethical people in the Senate to incorporate Hoenig’s suggestions into the Financial Reform Bill.  If only  . . .



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Dumping On Alan Greenspan

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March 22, 2010

On Friday, March 19, former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan appeared before the Brookings Institution to present his 48-page paper entitled, “The Crisis”.  The obvious subject of the paper concerned the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.  With this document, Greenspan attempted to add his own spin to history, for the sake of restoring his tattered public image.  The man once known as “The Maestro” had fallen into the orchestra pit and was struggling to preserve his prestige.  After the release of his paper on Friday, there has been no shortage of criticism, despite Greenspan’s “enlightened” change of attitude concerning bank regulation.  Greenspan’s refusal to admit the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy had anything to do with causing the crisis has placed him directly in the crosshairs of more than a few critics.

Sewell Chan of The New York Times provided this summary of Greenspan’s paper:

Mr. Greenspan, who has long argued that the market is often a more effective regulator than the government, has now adopted a more expansive view of the proper role of the state.

He argues that regulators should enforce collateral and capital requirements, limit or ban certain kinds of concentrated bank lending, and even compel financial companies to develop “living wills” that specify how they are to be liquidated in an orderly way.

*   *   *

. . . Mr. Greenspan warned that “megabanks” formed through mergers created the potential for “unusually large systemic risks” should they fail.

Mr. Greenspan added:  “Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

That is as close as Greenspan came to admitting that the Federal Reserve had a role in helping to cause the financial crisis.  Nevertheless, these magic words from page 39 of “The Crisis” are what got everybody jumping:

To my knowledge, that lowering of the federal funds rate nearly a decade ago was not considered a key factor in the housing bubble.

The best retort to this denial of reality came from Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation.  His essay entitled, “Explaining the Impact of Ultra-Low Rates to Greenspan” is a must read.  Here’s how Ritholtz concluded the piece:

The lack of regulatory enforcement was a huge factor in allowing the credit bubble to inflate, and set the stage for the entire credit crisis.  But it was intricately interwoven with the ultra low rates Alan Greenspan set as Fed Chair.

So while he is correct in pointing out that his own failures as a bank regulator are in part to blame, he needs to also recognize that his failures in setting monetary policy was also a major factor.

In other words, his incompetence as a regulator made his incompetence as a central banker even worse.

Paul La Monica wrote an interesting post for CNN Money’s The Buzz blog entitled, “Greenspan and Bernanke still don’t get it”.  He was similarly unimpressed with Greenspan’s denial that Fed monetary policy helped cause the crisis:

This argument is getting tiresome.  Keeping rates so low helped inflate the bubble.

*   *   *

“The Fed wasn’t the sole culprit.  But if not for an artificially steep yield curve, we probably would not have had a global financial crisis,” said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

“Greenspan and Bernanke are missing the point.  It all stems from monetary policy,” Norris added.  “If you give bankers an inducement to lend more than they ordinarily would they are going to do so.”

From across the pond, Stephen Foley wrote a great article for The Independent entitled, “For the wrong answers, turn to Greenspan”.  He began the piece this way:

The former US Federal Reserve chairman, the wizened wiseman of laissez-faire economics, shocked us all — and probably himself — when he told a congressional panel in 2008 that he had found “a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak”.  He meant that he had realised banks cannot be trusted to manage their own risks, and that markets do not smoothly self-correct.

But instead of taking that revelation and helping to point the way to a new, post-crisis financial world, he has shuddered to an intellectual halt.  It is the same intellectual stop sign that Wall Street’s bankers are at.  The failure to move forward is regrettable, dangerous and more than a little self-serving.

These reactions to Greenspan’s paper are surely just the beginning of an overwhelming backlash.  The Economist has already weighed in and before too long, we might even see a movie documenting the Fed’s responsibility for helping to cause The Great Recession.



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Seeing Reality With Gold Glasses

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March 8, 2010

The most recent report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics concerning non-farm payrolls for the month of February has surprised most people and it has left a number of commentators feeling upbeat.  Reuters had reported that “The median forecast from the ten most accurate forecasters is for payrolls to fall by 70,000.”  Nevertheless, the BLS report disclosed a figure of approximately half that much.  Only 36,000 jobs had been lost and unemployment was holding at 9.7%.   One enthusiastic reaction to that news came from the Mad Hedge Fund Trader:

While the employment rate for those with no high school diploma is 16%, the kind of worker who lost their manufacturing jobs to China, the jobless rate for those with college degrees is only 4.5%.  This is proof that the dying sectors of the US economy are delivering the highest unemployment rates, and that America is clawing its way up the value chain in the global race for economic supremacy.  It is what America does best, creative destruction with a turbocharger.  There is a third influence here, which could be huge.  The BLS only contacts existing businesses for its survey.

*   *   *

The bottom line is that payroll figures are much better than they appear at first glance.

Prior to the release of that report, many commentators had been expressing their disappointment concerning the most recent economic indicators.  I discussed that subject on March 1.  On the following day, John Crudele of The New York Post focused on the dramatic drop in the Consumer Confidence Index, released by The Conference Board — a drop to 46 in February from January’s 56.5.  Here is the conclusion Mr. Crudele reached in assessing what most middle-class Americans understand about our current economic state:

Even with the stock market still bubbling and media trying its damnedest to convince us at least a million times a day that there’s an economic recovery, the American public isn’t buying it.

*   *   *

The economy has stabilized since then, helped greatly by the fact that some wealthy people feel wealthier because of an unbelievable snap back by the stock market during 2009.  (And by unbelievable in this context I mean that what happened shouldn’t be believed as either legitimate or sustainable.)

Don Luskin of The Wall Street Journal’s Smart Money blog articulated his dissatisfaction with the most recent economic indicators on February 26.  One week later, Luskin presented us with a very informative analysis for understanding the true value of one’s investments.  Luskin spelled it out this way:

Consider stocks priced not in money, but in gold.  In other words, instead of thinking of stocks as investments you make in order to increase your wealth in dollars, think of them as something to increase your wealth in gold.  After all, you don’t want to make money for its own sake — you want the money for what you can buy with it.  Gold is a symbol for all the things you might want to buy.

*   *   *

It’s easy to track stocks priced in gold because the price of the S&P 500 and the price of an ounce of gold vary closely with one another.  As of Thursday’s close, they were only about $10 apart, with the S&P 500 at 1123, and gold at about 1133.

How about a year ago, on the day of the bottom for stocks on March 9?  That day the S&P 500 closed at 676.53.  Gold closed at 920.85.  That means that one “unit” of the S&P could have bought 73% of an ounce of gold.

Today, with stocks and gold each having risen over the last year — but with stocks rising more — one “unit” of the S&P can buy 99% of an ounce of gold.  All we have to do is compare 73% a year ago to 99% now, and we can see that stocks, priced in gold, have risen 34.9%.

A 34.9% gain for stocks priced in gold is pretty good for a year’s work.  But it’s a far cry from the 69.1% that stocks have gained when they are priced in dollars.  Do you see what has happened here?  Stocks have made you lots of dollars.  But the dollar itself has fallen in value compared to the real and eternal value represented by gold.

Here’s the most troubling part.  The entire 34.9% gain made by stocks — priced in gold, that is — was achieved in just the first five weeks of rallying from the March 2009 bottom.  That means for most of the last year, since mid-April, while it has appeared that stocks have been furiously rallying, in reality they’ve just been sitting there.  All risk, no reward.

*   *   *

So why, then, did stocks — priced in dollars, not gold — continue so much higher?  Simple:  We experienced inflation-induced growth.  Throw enough stimulus money, an “extended period” of zero interest rates from the Fed, and a big dose of government debt at the economy, and you will get some growth — and, eventually, lots of inflation.

Luskin concluded the piece by explaining that if stocks move higher while gold moves lower, we will be seeing evidence of real growth.  On the other hand, if gold increases in value while stocks go down or simply get stuck where they are, there is no economic growth.

Luskin’s approach allows us to see through all that money-printing and excess liquidity Ben Bernanke has brought to the stock market, creating an illusion of increased value.

Everyone is hoping to see evidence of economic recovery as soon as possible.  Don Luskin has provided us with the “x-ray specs” for seeing through the hype to determine whether some of that evidence is real.



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The Dishonesty Behind The Bernanke Vote

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January 28. 2010

While reading a recent Huffington Post piece by Jason Linkins, wherein he criticized President Obama’s proposed spending freeze, I was struck by Linkins’ emphasis on the notion that this proposal signaled a return to “institutionalized infantilism”:

One of the most significant things that Obama promised to do during the campaign was to simply level with the American people — deal with them in straightforward fashion, tell the hard truths, make the tough choices, and go about explaining his decisions as if he were talking to adults.

Linkins referred to a recent essay about the freeze, written by Ryan Avent of The Economist, which underscored the greater, underlying problem motivating politicians such as Obama to believe they can “slip one by” the gullible public:

This is yet another move toward the infantilisation of the electorate; whatever the gamesmanship behind the proposal, Mr. Obama has apparently concluded that the electorate can’t be expected to handle anything like a real description of the tough decisions which must be made.

Matt Taibbi made a similar observation about our President, while pondering whether the announced reliance on the wisdom of Paul Volcker meant an end to Tim Geithner’s days as Treasury Secretary:

Obama, as is his nature I think, tried to take the fork in the road all year, making nice to his base while actually delivering to his money people, not realizing the two were perpetually in conflict.  His failure to make a clear choice, or rather to make the right choice, is what has doomed him everywhere politically.

It will be interesting to see what comes next, whether this is just for show or not.

We are now witnessing another example of this “infantilisation of the electorate” as it takes place with the dishonest maneuvering to get Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term past a filibuster.  Here’s how this scam was exposed by Josh Rosner at The Big Picture website:

Sources have suggested that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) intends to vote “yes” on Chairman Bernanke’s cloture vote and “no” on the floor.  The cloture vote requires 60 “yes” votes to approve and really is THE vote to confirm.  The floor vote only requires a simple majority to pass and therefore is a less important vote requiring fewer “yes” votes.

Get it?  These Senators believe they can go back to their constituents with a straight face and tell the chumps that they voted against Bernanke’s confirmation when, in fact, they facilitated his confirmation by voting for cloture to give Bernanke a boost over the potentially insurmountable, 60-vote hurdle.  This sleight-of-hand comes along at the precise moment when we are learning about Bernanke’s true role in the AIG bailout.  As Ryan Grim reported for The Huffington Post:

A Republican senator said Tuesday that documents showing Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernake covered up the fact that his staff recommended he not bailout AIG are being kept from the public.  And a House Republican charged that a whistleblower had alerted Congress to specific documents provide “troubling details” of Bernanke’s role in the AIG bailout.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a Bernanke critic, said on CNBC that he has seen documents showing that Bernanke overruled such a recommendation.  If that’s the case, it raises questions about whether bailing out AIG was actually necessary, and what Bernanke’s motives were.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism disclosed that Congressman Darrell Issa, who has been investigating the AIG bailout in his role as ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “believes there is evidence that says Bernanke overruled his staff and authorized the rescue”.  Ms. Smith explained how Issa is pushing ahead to investigate:

Rep. Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee has asked to Committee Chairman Towns to subpoena more documents from the Fed regarding its decision-making process in the AIG bailout.

*   *   *

In addition, Issa has noted that the Fed had failed to comply in full with previous subpoenas, and has not released any documents relative to AIG prior to September 2008 or after May 2009, even though they fall within the scope of previous subpoenas.

Congressman Issa’s letter can be viewed in its entirety here.

You may recall that the fight against the Fed for release of the AIG bailout documents became the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose confirmation of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Fed chair.  Senator Jim Bunning did a fantastic job articulating many of those points during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  Beyond that, economist Randall Wray gave us “3 Reasons to Fear Bernanke’s Reappointment” at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 website.  Dr. Wray concluded his essay with this statement:

To be clear, I would prefer to replace Bernanke with someone who actually understands monetary policy and who advocates regulation and supervision of financial institutions.

The really pressing issue at this point is whether the withheld AIG bailout documents, which are the subject of Congressman Issa’s latest inquiry, might actually reveal some malefaction on the part of Bernanke himself.  A revelation of that magnitude would certainly kill the confirmation effort.  If Bernanke is confirmed prior to the release of documents indicating malfeasance on his part, I’ll be wishing I had a dollar for every time a Senator would say:  “I just voted for cloture –but I voted against confirmation.”



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The Battle Over Bernanke

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January 25, 2010

Ben Bernanke’s four-year term as chairman of the Federal Reserve ends on January 31.  There is presently no vote scheduled to confirm President Obama’s nomination of Bernanke to that post because four Senators (Bernie Sanders, D-Vt.; Jim Bunning, R-Ky.; Jim DeMint, R-S.C. and David Vitter, R-La.) have placed holds on Bernanke’s nomination.  In order for the Senate to proceed to a vote on the nomination, 60 votes will be required.  At this point, there is a serious question as to whether the pro-Bernanke faction can produce those 60 votes.  A number of commentators have described last week’s win by Scott Brown as a “chill factor” for those Senators considering whether to vote for confirmation.  Ryan Grim of The Huffington Post put it this way:

Opposition to the reconfirmation of Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is growing in the Senate in the wake of a Republican Scott Brown’s victory, fueled by populist rage, in the Massachusetts Senate race.

James Pethokoukis of Reuters explained the situation in these terms:

Liberals in Congress want him gone.  Then again, they want pretty much the whole Obama economic team gone.  But Geithner and Summers aren’t up for a Senate vote.  Bernanke is.  And if Dems start bailing, don’t expect Republicans to save him.  No politician in America gains anything by voting for Bernanke.  A “no” vote is a free vote.  Wall Street still loves him, though.  Geithner, too.

At The Hill, Tony Romm reported:

Bernanke has taken heat as Wall Street’s profits have soared while unemployment has become stuck in double digits, and the wave of economic populism soaring through Washington in the wake of a stunning Democratic loss in the Massachusetts Senate races comes at a bad time for his confirmation.

If Bernanke is not confirmed, he will continue to sit on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors because each Fed Governor is appointed to a 14-year term.  Donald Kohn, the vice chairman, would serve as the interim chairman until Bernanke’s successor is nominated and confirmed.

The forces pushing for Bernanke’s confirmation have now resorted to scare tactics, warning that dire consequences will result from a failure to re-confirm Bernanke.  Senator “Countrywide Chris” Dodd warned that if Bernanke is not confirmed, the economy will go into a “tailspin”.  An Associated Press report, written by Jennine Aversa and carried by The Washington Post, warned that a failure to confirm Bernanke could raise the risk of a double-dip recession.  At The Atlantic, Megan McArdle exploited widespread concern over already-depleted retirement savings:

Spiking his nomination may have grim effects on 401(k)s throughout the land.

Not to be outdone, Judge Richard Posner issued this warning from his perch at The Atlantic:

If he is not confirmed, the independence of the Fed will take a terrible hit, because the next nominee will have to make outright promises to Congress of bank bashing, and of keeping interest rates way down regardless of inflation risk, in order to be confirmed.

I guess that these people forgot to mention that if Bernanke is not confirmed:

A plague of locusts shall be visited upon us,

The earth will be struck by a Texas-sized asteroid,

An incurable venereal disease will be spread via toilet seats,

The Internet will vanish, and   . . .

Osama bin Laden will become the next Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

At the Think Progress website, Matthew Yglesias pondered the issue:

What happens if Ben Bernanke isn’t reconfirmed?  Well, some folks seem to think it will send markets into a tailspin.  But it’s worth emphasizing that in literal terms almost nothing will happen.

Beyond that, as Sudeep Reddy and Damian Paletta explained in The Wall Street Journal:

The Federal Open Market Committee — which consists of the presidentially appointed Fed governors in Washington and the presidents of the regional Fed banks — meets Jan. 26-27 and traditionally elects a chairman and vice chairman at its first meeting of the year.  The committee, which makes monetary policy decisions, is set to elect Mr. Bernanke as its chairman at that meeting, a move that doesn’t require approval of the White House or the Senate.

Min Zeng of The Wall Street Journal filled us in as to what else we can expect from the FOMC this week:

Next week, the two-day FOMC meeting will end Wednesday afternoon with a statement on an interest-rate decision and policymakers’ latest outlook on the economy and inflation.

The FOMC is widely expected by market participants to keep its main policy rate — the fed-funds target rate — at ultra-low levels near zero as recent data haven’t demonstrated a persistent and strong economic recovery, with a jobless rate still hovering around the highest level in more than two decades.

Fed policymakers are also likely to stick to their plan to end the $1.25 trillion mortgage-backed securities purchases program at the end of March.  The central bank should also reiterate its plan to let some emergency lending programs expire Feb. 1.

The Fed could soon hike the rate it charges on emergency loans, known as the discount rate, but that would largely be symbolic now that banks have been borrowing less and less from it as financial markets stabilized.

Meanwhile, the battle against the Bernanke confirmation continues.  Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has urged his readers to contact the “undecided” Senators and voice opposition to Bernanke.  Mish has also provided the names and contact information for those Senators, as well as the names of those Senators who are currently on record as either supporting or opposing Bernanke.

I’d like to see Bernanke lose, regardless of the consequences.  The rationale for this opinion was superbly articulated by Senator Jim Bunning during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  If you’re not familiar with it — give it a read.  Here is Senator Bunning’s conclusion to those remarks, delivered directly to Bernanke:

From monetary policy to regulation, consumer protection, transparency, and independence, your time as Fed Chairman has been a failure.  You stated time and again during the housing bubble that there was no bubble.  After the bubble burst, you repeatedly claimed the fallout would be small.  And you clearly did not spot the systemic risks that you claim the Fed was supposed to be looking out for.  Where I come from we punish failure, not reward it.  That is certainly the way it was when I played baseball, and the way it is all across America.  Judging by the current Treasury Secretary, some may think Washington does reward failure, but that should not be the case.  I will do everything I can to stop your nomination and drag out the process as long as possible.  We must put an end to your and the Fed’s failures, and there is no better time than now.

Amen.



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More Fun Hearings

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January 11, 2010

In my last posting, I discussed the need for a 9/11-type of commission to investigate and provide an accounting of the Federal Reserve’s role in causing the financial crisis.  A more broad-based inquiry into the causes of the financial crisis is being conducted by the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, led by former California State Treasurer, Phil Angelides.  The Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC) was created by section 5 of the Fraud Enforcement and Recovery Act (or FERA) which was signed into law on May 20, 2009.   The ten-member Commission has been modeled after the Pecora Commission of the early 1930s, which investigated the causes of the Great Depression, and ultimately provided a basis for reforms of Wall Street and the banking industry.  Like the Pecora Commission, the FCIC has subpoena power.

On Wednesday, January 13, the FCIC will hold its first public hearing which will include testimony from some interesting witnesses.  The witnesses will appear in panels, with three panels being heard on Wednesday and two more panels appearing on Thursday.  The witness list and schedule appear at The Huffington Post website.  Wednesday’s first panel is comprised of the following financial institution CEOs:  Lloyd Blankfein of Goldman Sachs (who unknowingly appeared as Dr. Evil on several humorous, internet-based Christmas cards), Jamie Dimon (a/k/a “The Dimon Dog”) of JP Morgan Chase, John Mack of Morgan Stanley and Brian Moynihan of Bank of America.  Curiously, Vikram Pandit of Citigroup was not invited.

Frank Rich of The New York Times spoke highly of FCIC chairman Phil Angelides in his most recent column.  Nevertheless, as Mr. Rich pointed out, given the fact that the banking lobby has so much influence over both political parties, there is a serious question as to whether the FCIC will have as much impact on banking reform as did the Pecora Commission:

Though bad history shows every sign of repeating itself on Wall Street, it will take a near-miracle for Angelides to repeat Pecora’s triumph.  Our zoo of financial skullduggery is far more complex, with many more moving pieces, than that of the 1920s.  The new inquiry does have subpoena power, but its entire budget, a mere $8 million, doesn’t even match the lobbying expenditures for just three banks (Citi, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America) in the first nine months of 2009.  The firms under scrutiny can pay for as many lawyers as they need to stall between now and Dec. 15, deadline day for the commission’s report.

More daunting still is the inquiry’s duty to reach into high places in the public sector as well as the private.  The mystery of exactly what happened as TARP fell into place in the fateful fall of 2008 thickens by the day — especially the behind-closed-door machinations surrounding the government rescue of A.I.G. and its counterparties.

A similar degree of skepticism was apparent in a recent article by Binyamin Appelbaum of The Washington Post.  Mr. Appelbaum also made note of the fact that the relatively small, $8 million budget — for an investigation that has until December 15 to prepare its report — will likely be much less than the amount spent by the banks under investigation.  Appelbaum pointed out that FCIC vice chairman, William Thomas, a retired Republican congressman from California, felt that the commission would benefit from its instructions to focus on understanding the crisis rather than providing policy recommendations.  Nevertheless, both Angelides and Thomas expressed concern about the December 15 deadline:

The tight timetable also makes it impossible to produce a comprehensive account of the crisis, both men said.  Instead, the commission will focus its work on particular topics, perhaps producing a series of case studies, Angelides said.

*   *   *

Both Angelides and Thomas acknowledged that the commission is off to a slow start, having waited more than a year since the peak of the crisis to hold its first hearing.  Thomas said that a lot of work already was happening behind the scenes and that the hearing next week could be compared to a rocket lifting off after a lengthy construction process.

Even as books and speeches about the crisis pile up, Thomas expressed confidence that the committee’s work could still make a difference.

“There are a lot of people who still haven’t learned the lessons,” he said.

One of those people who still has not learned his lesson is Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner, who is currently facing a chorus of calls for his resignation or firing.  Economist Randall Wray, in a piece entitled, “Fire Geithner Now!” shared my sentiment that Turbo Tim is not the only one who needs to go:

There is a growing consensus that it is time for President Obama to fire Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.  While he is at it, he needs to clean house by firing Larry Summers, by banning Robert Rubin from Washington, and by appointing a replacement for Chairman Bernanke.  It is time for a fresh start.

Geithner is facing renewed scrutiny due to his questionable actions while at the NYFed.  As reported on Bloomberg and in the NYT, secret emails show that the NYFed under Geithner’s command prohibited AIG from reporting that it was passing government bail-out funds directly to counterparties, including Goldman Sachs.

Beyond that, Professor Wray emphasized that Obama’s new economic team should be able to recognize the following four principles (which I have abbreviated):

1.  Banks do not face a liquidity crisis, rather they are massively insolvent.  Reported profits are due entirely to trading activities – which amount to nothing more than a game of Old Maid, with institutions selling bad assets to each other at inflated prices on a quid-pro-quo basis.  As such, they need to be shut down and resolved.  …

2.  Saving financial institutions does not save the economy.   …

3.  As such, all of the bail-outs and guarantees provided to financial institutions (over $20 trillion) need to be unwound.  Not because we cannot “afford” them but because they are dangerous.  Unfortunately, Congress has come to see all of these trillions of dollars committed to Wall Street as a barrier to spending more on Main street.  …

4.   Finally, we need an economic team that understands government finance.  The current team is hopelessly confused, led and misguided by Robert Rubin.  …

At The Business Insider website, Henry Blodget gave a four-minute, video presentation, citing five reasons why Geithner should resign.  The text version of this discussion appears at The Huffington Post.  Nevertheless, at The Business Insider’s Clusterstock blog, John Carney expressed his belief that Geithner would not quit or be forced to leave office until after the mid-term elections in November:

We would like to see Geithner go now.

*   *   *

But there’s little chance this will happen.  The Obama administration cannot afford to show weakness.  If it caved to Congressional critics of Geithner, lawmakers would be further emboldened to chip away at the president’s authority.  Senate Republicans would likely turn the confirmation hearing of Geithner’s replacement into a brawl — one that would not reflect well on the White House or Democrat Congressional leadership.

There’s also little political upside to getting rid of Geithner now.  It will not save Congressional Democrats any seats in the mid-term election.  Obama’s popularity ratings won’t rise. None of the administration’s priorities will be furthered by firing Geithner.

All of this changes following the midterm elections, when Democrats will likely lose seats in Congress.  At that point, the administration will be looking for a fall guy.  Geithner will make an attractive fall guy.

Although there may not be much hope that the hard work of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission will result in any significant financial reform legislation, at least we can look forward to the resignations of Turbo Tim and Larry Summers before the commission’s report is due on December 15.



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A 9-11 Commission For The Federal Reserve

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January 7, 2010

After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Congress passed Public Law 107-306, establishing The National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States (also known as the 9-11 Commission).  The Commission was chartered to create a full and complete account of the circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, including preparedness for and the immediate response to the attacks.  The Commission was also mandated to provide recommendations designed to guard against future attacks.  The Commission eventually published a report with those recommendations.  The failure to implement and adhere to those recommendations is now being discussed as a crucial factor in the nearly-successful attempt by The Undiebomber to crash a jetliner headed to Detroit on Christmas Day.

On January 3, 2010, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke gave a speech at the Annual Meeting of the American Economic Association in Atlanta, entitled: “Monetary Policy and the Housing Bubble”.  The speech was a transparent attempt to absolve the Federal Reserve from culpability for causing the financial crisis, due to its policy of maintaining low interest rates during Bernanke’s tenure as Fed chair as well as during the regime of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan.  Bernanke chose instead, to focus on a lack of regulation of the mortgage industry as being the primary reason for the crisis.

Critical reaction to Bernanke’s speech was swift and widespread.  Scott Lanman of Bloomberg News discussed the reaction of an economist who was unimpressed:

“It sounds a little bit like a mea culpa,” said Randall Wray, an economics professor at the University of Missouri in Kansas City, who was in Atlanta and didn’t attend Bernanke’s speech. “The Fed played a role by promoting the most dangerous financial innovations used by institutions to fuel the housing bubble.”

Nomi Prins attended the speech and had this to say about it for The Daily Beast:

But having watched his entire 10-slide presentation (think: Economics 101 with a political twist), I had a different reaction: fear.

My concern is straightforward:  Bernanke doesn’t seem to have learned the lessons of the very recent past.  The flip side of Bernanke’s conclusion — we need stronger regulation to avoid future crises — is that the Fed’s monetary, or interest-rate, policy was just fine.  That the crisis that brewed for most of the decade was merely a mistake of refereeing, versus the systemic issue of mega-bank holding companies engaged in reckless practices, many under the Fed’s jurisdiction.

*   *   *

Meanwhile, justifying past monetary policy rather than acknowledging the real-world link between Wall Street practices and general economic troubles suggests that Bernanke will power the Fed down the path of the same old mistakes.  Focusing on lending problems is important, but leaving goliath, complex banks to their worst practices (albeit with some regulatory tweaks) is to miss the world as it is.

As the Senate takes on the task of further neutering the badly compromised financial reform bill passed by the House (HR 4173) — supposedly drafted to prevent another financial crisis — the need for a better remedy is becoming obvious.  Instead of authorizing nearly $4 trillion for the next round of bailouts which will be necessitated as a result of the continued risky speculation by those “too big to fail” financial institutions, Congress should take a different approach.  What we really need is another 9/11-type of commission, to clarify the causes of the financial catastrophe of September 2008 (which manifested itself as a credit crisis) and to make recommendations for preventing another such event.

David Leonhardt of The New York Times explained that Greenspan and Bernanke failed to realize that they were inflating a housing bubble because they had become “trapped in an echo chamber of conventional wisdom” that home prices would never drop.  Leonhardt expressed concern that allowing the Fed chair to remain in such an echo chamber for the next bubble could result in another crisis:

What’s missing from the debate over financial re-regulation is a serious discussion of how to reduce the odds that the Fed — however much authority it has — will listen to the echo chamber when the next bubble comes along.  A simple first step would be for Mr. Bernanke to discuss the Fed’s recent failures, in detail.  If he doesn’t volunteer such an accounting, Congress could request one.

In the future, a review process like this could become a standard response to a financial crisis.  Andrew Lo, an M.I.T. economist, has proposed a financial version of the National Transportation Safety Board — an independent body to issue a fact-finding report after a crash or a bust.  If such a board had existed after the savings and loan crisis, notes Paul Romer, the Stanford economist and expert on economic growth, it might have done some good.

Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation, argued that Bernanke’s failure to understand what really caused the credit crisis is just another reason for a proper investigation addressing the genesis of that event:

Unfortunately, it appears to me that the Fed Chief is defending his institution and the judgment of his immediate predecessor, rather than making an honest appraisal of what went wrong.

As I have argued in this space for nearly 2 years, one cannot fix what’s broken until there is a full understanding of what went wrong and how.  In the case of systemic failure, a proper diagnosis requires a full understanding of more than what a healthy system should look like.  It also requires recognition of all of the causative factors — what is significant, what is incidental, the elements that enabled other factors, the “but fors” that the crisis could not have occurred without.

Ritholtz contended that an honest assessment of the events leading up to the credit crisis would likely reveal a sequence resembling the following time line:

1.  Ultra low interest rates led to a scramble for yield by fund managers;

2.  Not coincidentally, there was a massive push into subprime lending by unregulated NONBANKS who existed solely to sell these mortgages to securitizers;

3.  Since they were writing mortgages for resale (and held them only briefly) these non-bank lenders collapsed their lending standards; this allowed them to write many more mortgages;

4.  These poorly underwritten loans — essentially junk paper — was sold to Wall Street for securitization in huge numbers.

5.  Massive ratings fraud of these securities by Fitch, Moody’s and S&P led to a rating of this junk as Triple AAA.

6.  That investment grade rating of junk paper allowed those scrambling bond managers (see #1) to purchase higher yield paper that they would not otherwise have been able to.

7.  Increased leverage of investment houses allowed a huge securitization manufacturing process; Some iBanks also purchased this paper in enormous numbers;

8.  More leverage took place in the shadow derivatives market.  That allowed firms like AIG to write $3 trillion in derivative exposure, much of it in mortgage and credit related areas.

9.  Compensation packages in the financial sector were asymmetrical, where employees had huge upside but shareholders (and eventually taxpayers) had huge downside.  This (logically) led to increasingly aggressive and risky activity.

10.  Once home prices began to fall, all of the above fell apart.

As long as the Federal Reserve chairman keeps his head buried in the sand, in a state of denial or delusion about the true cause of the financial crisis, while Congress continues to facilitate a system of socialized risk for privatized gain, we face the dreadful possibility that history will repeat itself.



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Turning Up The Heat

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December 21, 2009

By now you should be aware of the fact that for his 56th birthday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”.  Were the folks at Time so arrogant as to believe that this honor would insure the confirmation of Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve?  More than a few commentators expressed the view that Time’s “Person of the Year” award might actually jeopardize Bernanke’s chance at confirmation.  For example, take a look at what Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) had to say:

That Bernanke is on the cover of Time Magazine means one thing “Bernanke’s Time Is Limited” He is on his way out.  And that is good news.

*   *   *

The quicker this blows up, the quicker we can recover.  And knowing what we know about Time Magazine, Central Banking will blow up sooner rather than later.  Moreover, Bernanke will not be part of the solution, and that is a good thing.

I thank Time Magazine for the information and their kiss of death warning. However, I must also remind readers that Stalin made the cover twice, so immediate results just might be expecting too much.

When Bernanke was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee during the confirmation hearing on December 3, Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky gave him a magnificent pummeling, most notable for the assertion:  “You are the definition of a moral hazard!”  My only criticism of Bunning’s diatribe was that he should have said:  “You are the personification of a moral hazard” or “You are the epitome of a moral hazard”  —  otherwise, it was perfect.  If that weren’t enough, Senator Bunning demanded that Bernanke answer seventy written questions submitted by Bunning himself.  Those of you who have ever been a party to a lawsuit might recall having to provide signed answers to written interrogatories.  Most jurisdictions place a limit on the number of such interrogatories to the extent of approximately 35.  Senator Bunning propounded twice that many to Bernanke and the nominee answered all of them.  Don Luskin of Smart Money analyzed one of these answers in a way that underscored the necessity of removing Bernanke from the Fed chairmanship.

On December 18, Victoria McGrane reported for Politico that the Bernanke nomination “could be in more trouble than previously thought”.  Although the Senate Banking Committee voted to confirm the nomination, ultimately the entire Seante must vote on the matter.  The fact that six Republicans and one Democrat from the Banking Committee voted against the nomination was portrayed as an ominous signal, casting doubt on the likelihood of confirmation.  Ms. McGrane discussed the reaction to the confirmation hearings expressed by Brian Gardner, a bank analyst for Keefe, Bruyette and Woods:

Two aspects of the two-hour debate that preceded the committee vote struck Gardner as worrisome for Bernanke:  the unenthusiastic — even apologetic — tone from some of the senators who voted yes and a dispute over the Fed’s refusal to release documents about the bailout of insurance giant American International Group to senators on the committee.

The article explained that the AIG bailout documents were available for review by “some banking committee staffers” although the documents have been withheld by the Fed from individual senators and the public, based on the Fed’s claim that the documents are “protected”.

This is apparently an assertion by the Fed that there is some sort of privilege protecting the AIG bailout documents from disclosure.  Nevertheless, if the fight over these records ever gets before a court, it is likely that production of the documents would be compelled, since any claim of privilege was waived once the Fed allowed the “banking committee staffers” to review the items.

The Politico report noted the significance of this matter:

That spat could have legs, Gardner said, and if it resonates with a public already fuming at the Fed, it could sway the votes of yes-leaning senators.

The battle over the AIG bailout documents was also the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

No doubt, some of the e-mail messages contain privileged conversations among lawyers.  Others probably include private information that is irrelevant to A.I.G.’s role in the crisis. But the vast majority of these documents could be made public without legal concern.  So why haven’t the Treasury and the Federal Reserve already made sure the public could see this information?  Do they want to protect A.I.G., or do they worry about shining too much sunlight on their own performance leading up to and during the crisis?

What will these e-mails reveal about the actions of Ben Bernanke and “Turbo” Tim Geithner during the AIG bailout phase of the financial crisis?  Were laws violated or do they simply exhibit some poor decision-making and cronyism?

Most of us are now getting ready for the coldest month of the year – but for Ben Bernanke, the heat is being turned up  —  full blast.



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A Look Ahead

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December 7, 2009

As 2010 approaches, expect the usual bombardment of prognostications from the stars of the info-tainment industry, concerning everything from celebrity divorces to the nuclear ambitions of Iran.   Meanwhile, those of us preferring quality news reporting must increasingly rely on internet-based venues to seek out the views of more trustworthy sources on the many serious subjects confronting the world.  On October 29, I discussed the most recent GMO Quarterly Newsletter from financial wizard Jeremy Grantham and his expectation that the stock market will undergo a

“correction” or drop of approximately 20 percent next year.   Grantham’s paper inspired others to ponder the future of the troubled American economy and the overheated stock market.  Mark Hulbert, editor of The Hulbert Financial Digest, wrote a piece for the December 5 edition of The New York Times, picking up on Jeremy Grantham’s stock performance expectations.  Hulbert noted Grantham’s continuing emphasis on “high-quality, blue chip” stocks as the most likely to perform well in the coming year.  Grantham’s rationale is based on the fact that the recent stock market rally was excessively biased in favor of junk stocks, rather than the higher-quality “blue chips”, such as Wal-Mart.  Hulbert noted how Wal-mart shares gained only 14 percent since March 9, while the shares of the debt-laden electronics services firm, Sanmina-SCI, have risen more than 600 percent during that same period.  Hulbert pointed out that the conclusion to be reached from this information should be pretty obvious:

As an unintended consequence, Mr. Grantham said, high-quality stocks today are about as cheap as they have ever been relative to shares of firms with weaker finances.

It’s almost a certain bet that high-quality blue chips will outperform lower-quality stocks over the longer term,” he said.

My favorite reaction to Jeremy Grantham’s newsletter came from Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, who emphasized Grantham’s broader view for the economy as a whole, rather than taking a limited focus on stock performance.  Farrell targeted President Obama’s “predictably irrational” economic policies by presenting us with a handy outline of Grantham’s criticism of those policies.  Farrell prefaced his outline with this statement:

So please listen closely to his 14-point analysis of the rampant irrationality at the highest level of American government today, because what he is also predicting is another catastrophic meltdown dead ahead.

At the first point in the outline, Farrell made this observation:

If Grantham ever was a fan, he’s clearly disillusioned with the president.   His 14 points expose the extremely irrational behavior of Obama breaking promises by turning Washington over to Wall Street, a blunder that will trigger the Great Depression 2.

Farrell’s discussion included a reference to the latest article by Matt Taibbi for Rolling Stone, entitled “Obama’s Big Sellout”.  The Rolling Stone website described Taibbi’s latest essay in these terms:

In “Obama’s Big Sellout”, Matt Taibbi argues that President Obama has packed his economic team with Wall Street insiders intent on turning the bailout into an all-out giveaway.  Rather than keeping his progressive campaign advisers on board, Taibbi says Obama gave key economic positions in the White House to the very people who caused the economic crisis in the first place.  Taibbi also points to the ties Obama’s appointees have to one main in particular:  Bob Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs co-chairman who served as Treasury secretary under Bill Clinton.

Since the article is not available online yet, you will have to purchase the latest issue of Rolling Stone or wait patiently for the release of their next issue, at which time “Obama’s Big Sellout” should be online.  In the mean time, they have provided this brief video of Matt Taibbi’s discussion of the piece.

The new year will also bring us a new book by Danny Schecter, entitled The Crime of Our Time.  Mr. Schecter recently discussed this book in a live interview with Max Keiser.  (The interview begins at 16:55 into the video.)  In discussing the book, Schecter explained how “the financial industry essentially de-regulated its own marketplace.  They got rid of the laws that required disclosure and accountability …” and created a “shadow banking system”.  Shechter’s previous book, Plunder, has now become a film that will be released soon.  In Plunder, he described how the subprime mortgage crisis nearly destroyed the American economy.  The interview by Max Keiser contains a short clip from the upcoming film.  Danny also directed the movie based on (and named after) his 2006 book, In Debt We Trust, wherein he predicted the bursting of the credit bubble.

It was right at this point last year when Danny’s father died.  The event is easy for me to remember because my own father died one week later.  At that time, I was comforted by reading Danny’s eloquent piece about his father’s death.  Danny was kind enough to respond to the e-mail I had sent him since, as an old fan from his days at WBCN radio in Boston, during the early 1970s, my friends and I tried our best to provide Danny with any leads we came across.  These days, it’s good to see that Danny Schechter “The News Dissector” is still at it with the same vigor he demonstrated more than thirty-five years ago.  I look forward to his new book and the new film.



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