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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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A Shocking Decision

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September 23, 2010

Nobody seems too surprised about the resignation of Larry Summers from his position as Director of the National Economic Council.  Although each commentator seems to have a unique theory for Summers’ departure, the event is unanimously described as “expected”.

When Peter Orszag resigned from his post as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the gossip mill focused on his rather complicated love life.  According to The New York Post, the nerdy-looking number cruncher announced his engagement to Bianna Golodryga of ABC News just six weeks after his ex-girlfriend, shipping heiress Claire Milonas, gave birth to their love child, Tatiana.  That news was so surprising, few publications could resist having some fun with it.  Politics Daily ran a story entitled, “Peter Orszag:  Good with Budgets, Good with Babes”.  Mark Leibovich of The New York Times pointed out that the event “gave birth” to a fan blog called Orszagasm.com.  Mr. Leibovich posed a rhetorical question at the end of the piece that was apparently answered with Orszag’s resignation:

This goes to another obvious — and recurring — question:  whether someone whose personal life has become so complicated is really fit to tackle one of the most demanding, important and stressful jobs in the universe. “Frankly I don’t see how Orszag can balance three families and the national budget,” wrote Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.

The shocking nature of the Orszag love triangle was dwarfed by President Obama’s nomination of Orszag’s replacement:  Jacob “Jack” Lew.  Lew is a retread from the Clinton administration, at which point (May 1998 – January 2001) he held that same position:  OMB Director.  That crucial time frame brought us two important laws that deregulated the financial industry:  the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (which legalized proprietary trading by the Wall Street banks) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which completely deregulated derivatives trading, eventually giving rise to such “financial weapons of mass destruction” as naked credit default swaps.  Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Lew does not believe that deregulation of the financial industry was a proximate cause of  the 2008 financial crisis.  Lew’s testimony at his September 16 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee was discussed by Shahien Nasiripour  of The Huffington Post:

Lew, a former OMB chief for President Bill Clinton, told the panel that “the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation,” and after discussing those issues, added that he didn’t “personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t believe that deregulation was the proximate cause.”

Experts and policymakers, including U.S. Senators, commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission, top leaders in Congress, former financial regulators and even Obama himself have pointed to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a major cause of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

During 2009, Lew was working for Citigroup, a TARP beneficiary.  Between the TARP bailout and the Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities from that zombie bank, Citi was able to give Mr. Lew a fat bonus of $950,000 – in addition to the other millions he made there from 2006 until January of 2009 (at which point Hillary Clinton found a place for him in her State Department).

The sabotage capabilities Lew will enjoy as OMB Director become apparent when revisiting my June 28 piece, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax”:

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

You have one guess as to what agency will be authorized to make sure those new rules comport with the intent of the financial “reform” bill   .   .   .   Yep:  the OMB (see OIRA).

President Obama’s nomination of Jacob Lew is just the latest example of a decision-making process that seems incomprehensible to his former supporters as well as his critics.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism refuses to let Obama’s antics go unnoticed:

The Obama Administration, again and again, has taken the side of the financial services industry, with the occasional sops to unhappy taxpayers and some infrequent scolding of the industry to improve the optics.

Ms. Smith has developed some keen insight about the leadership style of our President:

The last thing Obama, who has been astonishingly accommodating to corporate interests, needs to do is signal weakness.  But he has made the cardinal mistake of trying to please everyone and has succeeded in having no one happy with his policies.  Past Presidents whose policies rankled special interests, such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan, were tenacious and not ruffled by noise.  Obama, by contrast, announces bold-sounding initiatives, and any real change will break eggs and alienate some parties, then retreats.  So he creates opponents, yet fails to deliver for his allies.

Yes, the Disappointer-In-Chief has failed to deliver for his allies once again – reinforcing my belief that he has no intention of running for a second term.




Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax

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June 28, 2010

You don’t have to look too far to find damning criticism of the so-called financial “reform” bill.  Once the Kaufman-Brown amendment was subverted (thanks to the Obama administration), the efforts to solve the problem of financial institutions’ growth to a state of being “too big to fail” (TBTF) became a lost cause.  Dylan Ratigan, who had been fuming for a while about the financial reform charade, had this to say about the product that emerged from reconciliation on Friday morning:

It means that the same people who brought you these horrible changes — rising wealth discrepancy, massive unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure – have now further institutionalized the policies that will keep the causes of these problems firmly in place.

The best trashing of this bill came from Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge:

Congrats, middle class, once again you get raped by Wall Street, which is off to the races to yet again rapidly blow itself up courtesy of 30x leverage, unlimited discount window usage, trillions in excess reserves, quadrillions in unregulated derivatives, a TBTF framework that has been untouched and will need a rescue in under a year, non-existent accounting rules, a culture of unmitigated greed, and all of Congress and Senate on its payroll.  And, sorry, you can’t even vote some of the idiots that passed this garbage out:  after all there is a retiring lame duck in charge of it all.  We can only hope his annual Wall Street (i.e. taxpayer funded) annuity will satisfy his conscience for destroying any hope America could have of a credible financial system.

*   *   *

In other words, the greatest theatrical production of the past few months is now over, it has achieved nothing, it will prevent nothing, and ultimately the financial markets will blow up yet again, but not before the Teleprompter in Chief pummels the idiot public with address after address how he singlehandedly was bribed, pardon, achieved a historic event of being the only president to completely crumble under Wall Street’s pressure on every item that was supposed to reign in the greatest risktaking generation (with Other People’s Money) in history.

Robert Lenzner of Forbes focused his criticism of the bill on the fact that nothing was done to limit the absurd leverage used by the banks to borrow against their capital.  After all, at the January 13 hearing of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, Lloyd Bankfiend of Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan’s Dimon Dog admitted that excessive leverage was a key problem in causing the financial crisis.  As I discussed in “Lev Is The Drug”:

Lloyd Blankfein repeatedly expressed pride in the fact that Goldman Sachs has always been leveraged to “only” a  23-to-1 ratio.  The Dimon Dog’s theme was something like:  “We did everything right  . . . except that we were overleveraged”.

At Forbes, Robert Lenzner discussed the ugly truth about how the limits on leverage were excised from this bill:

The capitulation on this matter of leverage is extraordinary evidence of Wall Street’s power to influence Congress through its lobbying dollars.  It is another example of the public servants serving the agents of finance capitalism.  After pumping in gobs of sovereign credit to replace the credit that had been wiped out and replace the supply of credit to the economic system, a weak reform bill will just be an invitation to drum up the leverage that caused the crisis in the first place.

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

At the Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some more negative reactions to the bill, along with her own cutting commentary:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

The only two measures I see as genuine accomplishments, the Audit the Fed provisions, and the creation of a consumer financial product bureau, do not address systemic risks.  And the consumer protection authority was substantially watered down.  Recall a crucial provision, that banks be required to offer plain vanilla variants of products, was axed early on.

So there you have it.  The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.





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The Window Of Opportunity Is Closing

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September 17, 2009

In my last posting, I predicted that President Obama’s speech on financial reform would be “fine-sounding, yet empty”.  As it turned out, many commentators have described the speech as just that.  There weren’t many particulars discussed at all.  As Caroline Baum reported for Bloomberg News:

At times he sounded more like a parent scolding a disobedient child than a president proposing a new regulatory framework.

“We will not go back to the days of reckless behavior and unchecked excess that was at the heart of this crisis,” Obama said in a speech at Federal Hall in New York City.  (“You will not stay out until 2 a.m. again.”)

*   *   *

Obama warned “those on Wall Street” against taking “risks without regard for consequences,” expecting the American taxpayer to foot the bill.  But his words rang hollow.

*   *   *

But you can’t, with words alone, alter the perception — now more entrenched than ever — that the government won’t allow large institutions to fail.

How do you convince bankers they will pay for their risk-taking when they’ve watched the government prop up banks, investment banks, insurance companies, auto companies and housing finance agencies?

They learn by example.  The system of privatized profits and socialized losses has suited them fine until now.

Although the President had originally voiced support for expanding the authority of the Federal Reserve to include the role of “systemic risk regulator”, Ms. Baum noted that Allan Meltzer, professor of political economy at Carnegie Mellon University, believes that Mr. Obama has backed away from that ill-conceived notion:

“The Senate Banking Committee doesn’t want to give the Fed more power,” Meltzer said.   “I’ve never seen such unanimity, and I’ve been testifying before the committee since 1962.”

Ms. Baum took that criticism a step further with her observation that the mission undertaken by any systemic risk regulator would not likely fare well:

Bankers Outfox Regulators

It is fantasy to believe a new, bigger, better regulator will ferret out problems before they grow to system-sinking size.  Those being regulated are always one-step ahead of the regulator, finding new cracks or loopholes in the regulatory fabric to exploit.  When the Basel II accord imposed higher risk- based capital requirements on international banks, banks moved assets off the balance sheet.

What’s more, regulators tend to identify with those they regulate, a phenomenon known as “regulatory capture,” making it highly unlikely that a new regulator would succeed where previous ones have failed.

At this point in the economic crisis, with Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke’s recent declaration that the recession is “very likely over”, there is concern that President Obama’s incipient attempt at enacting financial reform may already be too late.  A number of commentators have elaborated on this theme.  At Credit Writedowns, Edward Harrison made this observation:

If you are looking for reform in the financial sector, the moment has passed.  And only to the degree that the underlying weaknesses in the global financial system are made manifest and threaten the economy will we see any appetite for reform amongst politicians.  So, as I see it, the Obama administration has missed the opportunity for reform.

More important, the following point by Mr. Harrison has been expressed in several recent essays:

Irrespective, I believe the need for reform is clear.  Those gloom & doom economists were right because the economic model which brought us to the brink of disaster in 2008 is the same one we have at present and that necessarily means another crisis will come.

At MSN’s MoneyCentral, Michael Brush shared that same fear in a piece entitled, “Why a meltdown could happen again”:

Some observers say it’s OK that a year has gone by without reform; we don’t want to get it wrong.  But the political reality is that as the urgency passes, it’s harder to pass reforms.

“We have lulled ourselves into the mind-set that we are out of the woods, when we aren’t,” says Cornelius Hurley, the director of the Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law at Boston University School of Law.  “I don’t think time is our friend here. We risk losing the sense of urgency so that nothing happens.”

*   *   *

Douglas Elliott, a former JPMorgan investment banker now with the Brookings Institution, thinks the unofficial deadline for financial-sector reform is now October 2010 — right before the next congressional elections.

That leaves lawmakers a full year to get the job done.

But given all the details they have to work out — and the declining sense of urgency as stocks keep ticking higher — you have to wonder how much progress they’ll make.

On the other hand, back at Credit Writedowns, Edward Harrison voiced skepticism that such a deadline would be met:

You are kidding yourself if you think real reform is coming to the financial sector before the mid-term elections, especially with healthcare, two wars and the need to ensure recovery still on politicians’ plates. Obama could go for real reform in 2011 — or in a second term in 2013.  But, unless economic crisis is at our door, there isn’t a convincing argument which says reform is necessary.

At The Washington Post, Brady Dennis discussed 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.  Mr. Dennis pointed out how the success of the Pecora Commission was rooted in the fact that populist outrage provided the fuel to help mobilize reform efforts, and he contrasted that situation with where we are now:

“Pecora’s success was his ability to crystallize the anger that a lot of Americans were feeling toward Wall Street,” said Michael Perino, a law professor at St. John’s University and author of an upcoming book about the hearings. “He was able to create a clamor for reform.”

But Pecora also realized that such clamor was fleeting

*   *   *

“We’ve passed the moment when there’s this palpable anger directed at the financial community,” Perino said of the current crisis.  “When you leave the immediate vicinity of the crisis, as you get farther and farther away in time, the urgency fades.”

Unfortunately, we appear to be at a point where it is too late to develop regulations against many of the excesses that led to last year’s financial crisis.  Beyond that, many people who allowed the breakdown to occur (Bernanke, Geithner, et al.) are still in charge and the players who gamed the system with complex financial instruments are back at it again, with new derivatives — even some based on life insurance policies.  Perhaps another harbinger of doom can be seen in this recent Bloomberg article:  “Credit Swaps Lose Crisis Stigma as Confidence Returns”.  Nevertheless, from our current perspective, some of us don’t have that much confidence in our financial system or our leadership.



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Pay Close Attention To This Man

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January 11, 2009

For several years, I have enjoyed following MSN’s Strategy Lab competition.  Strategy Lab is a stock-picking challenge.  They select six contestants: some seasoned professionals, some amateurs and occasionally, one of their own pundits.  Each contestant manages a mock, $100,000 portfolio for a six-month period.  Sometimes, the amateur will out-play the pros.  I always enjoy it when the “conventional wisdom” followed by the investing herd is proven wrong by a winning contestant, who ignores such dogma.

Our current economic situation requires original thinking.  Following the conventional wisdom during an unconventional economic crisis seems like a path to failure.  While checking in on the Strategy Lab website, I noticed an original thinker named Andrew Horowitz.  Mr. Horowitz is a contestant in the current Strategy Lab competition.  He is the only player who has made any money at all with his imaginary $100,000.  Andrew’s portfolio has earned him 13.44 percent as of Wednesday, January 21.  His competitors have been posting dismal results.  One of the regulars, John Reese (nicknamed “Guru Investor”) is down by 41.55 percent.  I think I’ll steer clear of his ashram.  The others currently have losses roughly equivalent to Andrew’s gains.

Andrew Horowitz is the president and founder of Horowitz & Co., an investment advisory firm serving individual and corporate clients since the late 1980’s.  He has written a book, entitled:  The Disciplined Investor.  It is focused on his experiences and what he has learned from twenty years in the investment advisory business.  He has been featured and quoted regularly in the media, including such publications as The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, Bloomberg, Barron’s and Reuters.  He also has a blog website with the same name as his book:  The Disciplined Investor.

His recent article for MSN caught my attention.  It is entitled:  “Why invest in this market anyway?” He began this journal entry discussing a “consider the source” approach to evaluating the advice given by those currently encouraging people to buy stocks now, while they are “cheap”.  His “where do we go from here” discussion resonated with my belief about where the stock market is headed:

The fourth-quarter earnings season kicked off with little fanfare last week and a great deal of bad news.  Many have asked if there is a light at the end of this tunnel.  My reply:  Sure there is, but it’s the headlights of a speeding 18-wheeler coming straight for us.  We have the choice of getting run over or stepping aside.

This is not a popular commentary.  I know that many investors would prefer to hear all about opportunities to make money on the “upside,” but until there is one shred of good news, I refuse to throw my hard-earned money into a bonfire just to watch it be incinerated.

Mr. Horowitz also made a point of emphasizing something we don’t hear often enough from those media darlings entrusted to preach the gospel of the brokerage firms:

With all the talk of change coming from our government officials, it is evident that if things continue down this path the only thing that will be left in our pockets is change.  It’s as if investors are waiting for something incredible and magical to be said, but there is only so much that words can accomplish.  Americans need action, assistance and reform in the banking system.

In an era when we are bombarded with investing advice from a multitude of “experts” appearing on television and all over the internet, it becomes difficult to distinguish a good signal from all of the noise.  One’s ability to give good investment advice in a bull market does not necessarily qualify that person to be a reliable advisor in the current milieu.  The performance by Andrew Horowitz in the Strategy Lab competition (so far) underscores the value of that old maxim:  “Money talks and bullshit walks”.  I’ll be paying close attention to what he has to say as we make our way through the treacherous economic times ahead.

This Should Have Happened Last Year

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September 18, 2008

I’m sorry.  What is happening in the financial markets right now, should have happened at this time, last year.  I put my money where my mouth was, in the belief that a laissez-faire Republican government would have let market conditions run their course.  That strategy caused me to lose money for the past year.  When precious metals should have been going up, they were going down.  Something “stinky” was happening.  At this time, last year, Jon Markman of msn.com was discussing the “duct tape and pixie dust” being used to hold the economy together.  In hindsight, I suspect that there may have been an effort to keep the ca-ca from hitting the fan until after Election Day (November 4).  Time will tell whether there was some skullduggery involved in such an effort.  Do you think that the “oil speculators” realized, at some point, that they could manipulate the prices of the small handful of stocks (30) that comprise the Dow Jones Industrials, by manipulating the price of oil?  Are these same “oil speculators” on “good behavior” right now, out of fear that the “Enron Loophole” could be doomed?

I apologize because I have been making (back) lots of money this week, while many people have seen their retirement plans crash and burn.  I stuck to my belief that the emperor was not really wearing any clothes.  It cost me money to adhere to that opinion, although it is now “payback time”.  To no surprise, the Carly Fiorinas of this nosedive will walk away with their golden parachutes intact.  However, will AIG still be free to make crucial decisions about which lawsuits to litigate?  Do they have a right to make those (and other) decisions as they used to, now that you and I own eighty percent of that company?

Meanwhile, John “Keating Five” McCain claims that he will champion the interests of those suckers who vote for him, by bringing “The Good Old Boys of Wall Street” to Alaskan frontier justice.  Why would anyone believe this?  Based on his record, McCain could not expect the voters to consider him as the advocate of the downtrodden.  For some reason, the Obama campaign has expressed an unwillingness to use the “Keating Five” episode of McCain’s life, as fodder for negative ads.  (They may find themselves thinking more clearly in late October.)

Let’s take a look back at the “glory days” of The Keating Five, from what is available on Wikipedia.org:

The Keating Five scandal was prompted by the activities of one particular savings and loan: Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, California. Lincoln’s chairman was Charles Keating, who ultimately served five years in prison for his corrupt mismanagement of Lincoln.  In the four years since Keating’s American Continental Corporation (ACC) had purchased Lincoln in 1984, Lincoln’s assets had increased from $1.1 billion to $5.5 billion.  Such savings and loan associations had been deregulated in the early 1980s, allowing them to make highly risky investments with their depositors’ money, a change of which Keating took advantage.  Lincoln’s investments took the form of buying land, taking equity positions in real estate development projects, and buying high-yield junk bonds.

*   *   *

The core allegation of the Keating Five affair is that Keating had made contributions of about $1.3 million to various U.S. Senators, and he called on those Senators to help him resist regulators. The regulators backed off, to later disastrous consequences.

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(f)ive senators, Alan Cranston (D-CA), Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), John Glenn (D-OH), John McCain (R-AZ), and Donald W. Riegle (D-MI), were accused of improperly aiding Charles H. Keating, Jr., chairman of the failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association, which was the target of an investigation by the Federal Home Loan Bank Board (FHLBB).

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After a lengthy investigation, the Senate Ethics Committee determined in 1991 that Alan Cranston, Dennis DeConcini, and Donald Riegle had substantially and improperly interfered with the FHLBB in its investigation of Lincoln Savings. Senators John Glenn and John McCain were cleared of having acted improperly but were criticized for having exercised “poor judgment”.  All five of the senators involved served out their terms. Only Glenn and McCain ran for re-election, and they were both re-elected.

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McCain and Keating had become personal friends following their initial contacts in 1981, and McCain was the closest socially to Keating of the five senators. Like DeConcini, McCain considered Keating a constituent as he lived in Arizona. Between 1982 and 1987, McCain had received $112,000 in political contributions from Keating and his associates. In addition, McCain’s wife Cindy McCain and her father Jim Hensley had invested $359,100 in a Keating shopping center in April 1986, a year before McCain met with the regulators. McCain, his family, and their baby-sitter had made nine trips at Keating’s expense, sometimes aboard Keating’s jet. Three of the trips were made during vacations to Keating’s opulent Bahamas retreat at Cat Cay. McCain did not pay Keating (in the amount of $13,433) for some of the trips until years after they were taken, when he learned that Keating was in trouble over Lincoln. On his Keating Five experience, McCain has said: “The appearance of it was wrong. It’s a wrong appearance when a group of senators appear in a meeting with a group of regulators, because it conveys the impression of undue and improper influence. And it was the wrong thing to do.”

So where is the Obama ad using “Poor Judgment” as its theme?  Wouldn’t it be nice to see that phrase repeated under a picture of Sarah Palin?