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Keeping The Megabank Controversy On Republican Radar

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It was almost a year ago when Lou Dolinar of the National Review encouraged Republicans to focus on the controversy surrounding the megabanks:

“Too Big to Fail” is an issue that Republicans shouldn’t duck in 2012.  President Obama is in bed with these guys.  I don’t know if breaking up the TBTFs is the solution, but Republicans need to shame the president and put daylight between themselves and the crony capitalists responsible for the financial meltdown.  They could start by promising not to stock Treasury and other major economic posts with these, if you pardon the phase, malefactors of great wealth.

One would expect that those too-big-to-fail banks would be low-hanging fruit for the acolytes in the Church of Ayn Rand.  After all, Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist for the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has not been the only authority to characterize the megabanks as intolerable parasites, infesting and infecting our free-market economy:

Too Big To Fail banks benefit from an unfair, nontransparent, and dangerous subsidy scheme.  This isn’t a market.  It’s a government-backed distortion of historic proportions.  And it should be eliminated.

Last summer, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by what he called, “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

… I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

So why aren’t the Republican Presidential candidates squawking up a storm about this subject during their debates?  Mike Konczal lamented the GOP’s failure to embrace a party-wide assault on the notion that banks could continue to fatten themselves to the extent that they pose a systemic risk:

When it comes to “ending Too Big To Fail” it actually punts on the conservative policy debates, which is a shame.  There’s a reference to “Explore reforms now being considered by the U.K. to make the unwinding of its biggest banks less risky for the broader economy” but it is sort of late in the game for this level of vagueness on what we mean by “unwinding.”  That unwinding part is a major part of the debate.  Especially if you say that you want to repeal Dodd-Frank and put into place a system for taking down large financial firms – well, “unwinding” the biggest financial firms is what a big chunk of Dodd-Frank does.

Nevertheless, there have been occasions when we would hear a solitary Republican voice in the wilderness.  Back in November,  Jonathan Easley of The Hill discussed the views of Richard Shelby (Ala.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Banking Committee:

“Dr. Volcker asked the other question – if they’re too big to fail, are they too big to exist?” Shelby said Wednesday on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.”  “And that’s a good question.  And some of them obviously are, and some of them – if they don’t get their house in order – they might not exist.  They’re going to have to sell off parts to survive.”

*   *   *

“But the question I think we’ve got to ask – are we better off with the bigger banks than we were?  The [answer] is no.”

This past weekend, Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk resulting from the “too big to fail” status of the megabanks:

The concentration of assets in a few institutions is greater today than at the height of the 2008 meltdown.  Taxpayers continue to be at risk as large financial institutions have forgotten the results of their earlier bets.  Legislation may have aided members of Congress during this election cycle, but it has done little to ward off the next crisis.

While I am a champion for free-market capitalism, I believe that, in some instances, proactive regulation is a necessity.  Financial institutions should be heavily regulated due to the basic fact that rewards are afforded to the financial institutions, while the taxpayers are saddled with the risk.  The moral hazard is alive and well.

So far, there has been only one Republican Presidential candidate to speak out against the ongoing TBTF status of a privileged few banks – Jon Huntsman.  It was nice to see that the Fox News website had published an opinion piece by the candidate – entitled, “Wall Street’s Big Banks Are the Real Threat to Our Economy”.  Huntsman described what has happened to those institutions since the days of the TARP bailouts:

Taxpayers were promised those bailouts would be a one-time, emergency measure.  Yet today, we can already see the outlines of the next financial crisis and bailouts.

The six largest financial institutions are significantly bigger than they were in 2008, having been encouraged to snap up Bear Stearns and other competitors at bargain prices.

These banks now have assets worth over 66% of gross domestic product – at least $9.4 trillion – up from 20% of GDP in the 1990s.

*   *   *

The Obama and Romney plan simply appears to be to cross our fingers and hope no Too-Big-To-Fail banks fail on their watch – a stunning lack of leadership on such a critical economic issue.

As president, I will break up the big banks, end future taxpayer bailouts, and restore capitalist principles – competition and creative destruction – to our financial sector.

As of this writing, Jon Huntsman has been the only Presidential candidate – including Obama – to discuss a proposal for ending the TBTF situation.  Huntsman has tactfully cast Mitt Romney in the role of the “Wall Street status quo” candidate with himself appearing as the populist.  Not even Ron Paul – with all of his “anti-bank” bluster, has dared approach the TBTF issue (probably because the solution would involve touching his own “third rail”:  regulation).  Simon Johnson had some fun discussing how Ron Paul was bold enough to write an anti-Federal Reserve book – End the Fed – yet too timid to tackle the megabanks:

There is much that is thoughtful in Mr. Paul’s book, including statements like this (p. 18):

“Just so that we are clear: the modern system of money and banking is not a free-market system.  It is a system that is half socialized – propped up by the government – and one that could never be sustained as it is in a clean market environment.”

*   *   *

There is nothing on Mr. Paul’s campaign website about breaking the size and power of the big banks that now predominate (http://www.ronpaul2012.com/the-issues/end-the-fed/).  End the Fed is also frustratingly evasive on this issue.

Mr. Paul should address this issue head-on, for example by confronting the very specific and credible proposals made by Jon Huntsman – who would force the biggest banks to break themselves up.  The only way to restore the market is to compel the most powerful players to become smaller.

Ending the Fed – even if that were possible or desirable – would not end the problem of Too Big To Fail banks.  There are still many ways in which they could be saved.

The only way to credibly threaten not to bail them out is to insist that even the largest bank is not big enough to bring down the financial system.

It’s time for those “fair weather free-marketers” in the Republican Party to show the courage and the conviction demonstrated by Jon Huntsman.  Although Rick Santorum claims to be the only candidate with true leadership qualities, his avoidance of this issue will ultimately place him in the rear – where he belongs.


 

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An Ominous Drumbeat Gets Louder

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August 13, 2009

Regular readers of this blog (all four of them) know that I have been very skeptical about the current “bear market rally” in the stock markets.  Nevertheless, the rally has continued.  However, we are now beginning to hear opinions from experts claiming that not only is this rally about to end — we could be headed for some real trouble.

Some commentators are currently discussing “The September Effect” and looking at how the stock market indices usually drop during the month of September.  Brett Arends gave us a detailed history of the September Effect in Tuesday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Throughout the summer rally, a number of analysts focused on the question of how this rally could be taken seriously with such thin trading volume.  When the indices dropped on Monday, many blamed the decline on the fact that it was the lowest volume day for 2009.  However, take a look at Kate Gibson’s discussion of this situation for MarketWatch:

One market technician believes trading volume in recent days on the S&P 500 is a sign that the broad market gauge will test last month’s lows, then likely fall under its March low either next month or in October.

The decline in volume started on Friday and suggests the S&P 500 will make a new low beneath its July 8 bottom of 869.32, probably next week, on the way to a test in September or October of its March 6 intraday low of 666.79, said Tony Cherniawski, chief investment officer at Practical Investor, a financial advisory firm.

“In a normal breakout, you get rising volume. In this case, we had rising volume for a while; then it really dropped off last week,” said Cherniawski, who ascribes the recent rise in equities to “a huge short-covering rally.”

The S&P has rallied more than 50 percent from its March lows, briefly slipping in late June and early July.

Friday’s rise on the S&P 500 to a new yearly high was not echoed on the Nasdaq Composite Index, bringing more fodder to the bearish side, Cherniawski said.

“Whenever you have tops not confirmed by another major index, that’s another sign something fishy is going on,” he said.

What impressed me about Mr. Cherniawski’s statement is that, unlike most prognosticators, he gave us a specific time frame of “next week” to observe a 137-point drop in the S&P 500 index, leading to a further decline “in September or October” to the Hadean low of 666.

At CNNMoney.com, the question was raised as to whether the stock market had become the latest bubble created by the Federal Reserve:

The Federal Reserve has spent the past year cleaning up after a housing bubble it helped create.  But along the way it may have pumped up another bubble, this time in stocks.

*   *   *

But while most people take the rise in stocks as a hopeful sign for the economy, some see evidence that the Fed has been financing a speculative mania that could end in another damaging rout.

One important event that gave everyone a really good scare took place on Tuesday’s Morning Joe program on MSNBC.  Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel (responsible for scrutiny of the TARP bailout program) discussed the fact that the “toxic assets” which had been the focus of last fall’s financial crisis, were still on the books of the banks.  Worse yet, “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s PPIP (Public-Private Investment Program) designed to relieve the banks of those toxins, has now morphed into something that will help only the “big” banks (Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, et al.) holding “securitized” mortgages.  The banks not considered “too big to fail”, holding non-securitized “whole” loans, will now be left to twist in the wind on Geithner’s watch.  The complete interview can be seen here.  This disclosure resulted in some criticism of the Obama administration, coming from sources usually supportive of the current administration. Here’s what The Huffington Post had to say:

Warren, who’s been leading the call of late to reconcile the shoddy assets weighing down the bank sector, warned of a looming commercial mortgage crisis.  And even though Wall Street has steadied itself in recent weeks, smaller banks will likely need more aid, Warren said.

Roughly half of the $700 billion bailout, Warren added, was “don’t ask, don’t tell money. We didn’t ask how they were going to spend it, and they didn’t tell how they were going to spend it.”

She also took a passing shot at Tim Geithner – at one point, comparing Geithner’s handling of the bailout money to a certain style of casino gambling.  Geithner, she said, was throwing smaller portions of bailout money at several economic pressure points.

“He’s doing the sort of $2 bets all over the table in Vegas,” Warren joked.

David Corn, a usually supportive member of the White House press corps, reacted with indignation over Warren’s disclosures in an article entitled:  “An Economic Time Bomb Being Mishandled by the Obama Administration?”  He pulled no punches:

What’s happened is that accounting changes have made it easier for banks to contend with these assets. But this bad stuff hasn’t gone anywhere.  It’s literally been papered over. And it still has the potential to wreak havoc.  As the report puts it:

If the economy worsens, especially if unemployment remains elevated or if the commercial real estate market collapses, then defaults will rise and the troubled assets will continue to deteriorate in value.  Banks will incur further losses on their troubled assets.  The financial system will remain vulnerable to the crisis conditions that TARP was meant to fix.

*   *   *

In a conference call with a few reporters (myself included), Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor heading the Congressional Oversight Panel, noted that the biggest toxic assets threat to the economy could come not from the behemoth banks but from the “just below big” banks.  These institutions have not been the focus of Treasury efforts because their troubled assets are generally “whole loans” (that is, regular loans), not mortgage securities, and these less-than-big banks have been stuck with a lot of the commercial real estate loans likely to default in the next year or two.  Given that the smaller institutions are disproportionately responsible for providing credit to small businesses, Warren said, “if they are at risk, that has implications for the stability of the entire banking system and for economic recovery.”  Recalling that toxic assets were once the raison d’etre of TARP, she added, “Toxic assets posed a very real threat to our economy and have not yet been resolved.”

Yes, you’ve heard about various government efforts to deal with this mess.  With much hype, Secretary Timothy Geithner in March unveiled a private-public plan to buy up this financial waste.  But the program has hardly taken off, and it has ignored a big chunk of the problem (those”whole loans”).

*   *   *

The Congressional Oversight Panel warned that “troubled assets remain a substantial danger” and that this junk–which cannot be adequately valued–“can again become the trigger for instability.”  Warren’s panel does propose several steps the Treasury Department can take to reduce the risks.  But it’s frightening that Treasury needs to be prodded by Warren and her colleagues, who characterized troubled assets as “the most serious risk to the American financial system.”

On Wednesday morning’s CNBC program, Squawk Box, Nassim Taleb (author of the book, Black Swan — thus earning that moniker as his nickname) had plenty of harsh criticism for the way the financial and economic situations have been mishandled.  You can see the interview with him and Nouriel Roubini here, along with CNBC’s discussion of his criticisms:

“It is a matter of risk and responsibility, and I think the risks that were there before, these problems are still there,” he said. “We still have a very high level of debt, we still have leadership that’s literally incompetent …”

“They did not see the problem, they don’t look at the core of problem.  There’s an elephant in the room and they did not identify it.”

Pointing his finger directly at Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President Obama, Taleb said policymakers need to begin converting debt into equity but instead are continuing the programs that created the financial crisis.

“I don’t think that structural changes have been addressed,” he said.  “It doesn’t look like they’re fully aware of the problem, or they’re overlooking it because they don’t want to take hard medicine.”

With Bernanke’s term running out, Taleb said Obama would be making a mistake by reappointing the Fed chairman.

Just in case you aren’t scared yet, I’d like to direct your attention to Aaron Task’s interview with stock market prognosticator, Robert Prechter, on Aaron’s Tech Ticker internet TV show, which can be seen at the Yahoo Finance site.  Here’s how some of Prechter’s discussion was summarized:

“The big question is whether the rally is over,” Prechter says, suggesting “countertrend moves can be tricky” to predict.  But the veteran market watcher is “quite sure the next wave down is going to be larger than what we’ve already experienced,” and take major averages well below their March 2009 lows.

“Well below” the Hadean low of 666?  Now that’s really scary!