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Kill The Whales

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October 8, 2009

Those whales are back in the news again — this time due to calls for their slaughter.  In case you’re wondering what kind of person would advocate the killing of whales, I would like to identify two people who recently spoke out in favor of such action.  The first of these individuals is one of my favorite columnists at The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 2002 for her “trenchant and incisive” coverage of Wall Street.  The second is the chair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, Sheila Bair.  Two women want to have whales killed?  Yes.  However, the “whales” in question are those infamous financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  On October 3, Gretchen Morgenson wrote a piece for The New York Times, entitled:  “The Cost of Saving These Whales” in which she defined “to big to fail” institutions as “banks that are so big and interconnected that their very existence threatens the world”.   She discussed the problems caused by the continued existence of those whales with this explanation:

During the credit bust, our leaders embraced the too-big-to-fail policy, reluctantly bailing out large institutions to save the system from collapse, they said.  Yet even as the crisis has abated, these policy makers have shown little interest in cutting financial monsters down to size.  This is especially disturbing given that some institutions have grown even larger as a result of the mess.

It is perverse, of course, to reward big banks’ mistakes with bailouts financed by beleaguered taxpayers.  But the too-big-to-fail doctrine benefits the banks in other ways as well:  the implication that an institution will not be allowed to fall gives it significant cost advantages over smaller, perhaps more responsible competitors.

On October 4, Sheila Bair of the FDIC gave a speech before the International Institute of Finance at their annual meeting in Istanbul, Turkey.  At the outset, she pointed out that “the first task” in creating “a more resilient, transparent, and better-regulated financial system” would be to scrap the “too big to fail” doctrine.  She went on to explain how to go about killing those whales:

To do this we need a resolution regime that provides for the orderly wind-down of banking and other financial enterprises without imposing costs on the taxpayers.

The solution must involve a practical and effective mechanism for the orderly resolution of these institutions similar to that used for FDIC-insured banks.

This new regime would not permit taxpayer funds to be used to prop up a firm or its management.  Instead, senior management would be replaced, and losses would be borne by the stockholders and creditors.

On September 23, 2009 Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner testified before the House Financial Services Committee to explain his planned financial reform agenda.  Here’s what Turbo Tim had to say about the plan for dealing with the “too big to fail” problem:

First, we cannot allow firms to reap the benefits of explicit or implicit government subsidies without very strong government oversight.  We must substantially reduce the moral hazard created by the perception that these subsidies exist; address their corrosive effects on market discipline; and minimize their encouragement of risk-taking.

So, in other words … the government subsidies to these institutions will continue, but only if the recipients get “very strong government oversight”.  In his next sentence Geithner expressed his belief that the moral hazard was created “by the perception that these subsidies exist” rather than the FACT that they exist.  Geithner’s scheme of continued corporate welfare for the biggest financial institutions is consistent with what we learned about him from Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson in their New York Times article back on April 26.  That essay gave us some great insight about Turbo Tim’s blindness to moral hazard:

Last June, with a financial hurricane gathering force, Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. convened the nation’s economic stewards for a brainstorming session.  What emergency powers might the government want at its disposal to confront the crisis? he asked.

Timothy F. Geithner, who as president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank oversaw many of the nation’s most powerful financial institutions, stunned the group with the audacity of his answer.  He proposed asking Congress to give the president broad power to guarantee all the debt in the banking system, according to two participants, including Michele Davis, then an assistant Treasury secretary.

The proposal quickly died amid protests that it was politically untenable because it could put taxpayers on the hook for trillions of dollars.

“People thought, ‘Wow, that’s kind of out there,’” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency, who heard about the idea afterward.  Mr. Geithner says, “I don’t remember a serious discussion on that proposal then.”

But in the 10 months since then, the government has in many ways embraced his blue-sky prescription.  Step by step, through an array of new programs, the Federal Reserve and Treasury have assumed an unprecedented role in the banking system, using unprecedented amounts of taxpayer money, to try to save the nation’s financiers from their own mistakes.

And more often than not, Mr. Geithner has been a leading architect of those bailouts, the activist at the head of the pack.  He was the federal regulator most willing to “push the envelope,” said H. Rodgin Cohen, a prominent Wall Street lawyer who spoke frequently with Mr. Geithner.

Geithner’s objective of putting the prosperity of the banks ahead of any concern for the taxpayers was again demonstrated in this AFP report from October 6:

On proposed changes to the financial system, Geithner said it was “legitimate” for banks to be influential and admitted that reform could “pose risks to financial innovation.”

Nevertheless, he stressed that “the most important issue is that if stability (of financial institutions) is not guaranteed, it will become harder to raise capital.”

On October 6, Newsweek published an interview conducted by Nancy Cook with William Black, a former federal regulator during the Savings & Loan crisis and a professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri – Kansas City.  The interview included a discussion of the government’s response to the financial crisis.  One remark made by Mr. Black reinforced my opinion about Turbo Tim:

“Some of the things Bernanke did were very bad, but he is in sharp contrast to Geithner who has been wrong about everything in his career.  When Geithner was once answering a question in response to Ron Paul, he said, ‘I’ve never been a regulator.’  He was then the President of the New York Federal Reserve, and he purports that he was never a regulator?  That is a demonstration of what is wrong with the Federal Reserve banks if the head of the unit doesn’t think he’s a regulator.  He’s a disaster.”

It should come as no surprise that Richard Carnell, a Professor at Fordham Law School and former Assistant Treasury Secretary for President Clinton, would have this to say about Geithner’s financial reform agenda, when asked for his comments by Kim Thai of Fortune:

The plan includes useful reforms.  But it’s also naive, timid, misguided, politically inept, and intellectually dishonest.

It places naive faith in regulation.  Yet regulation failed disastrously over the past decade.  Bank regulators had ample powers to keep banks safe but did too little, too late.  They let banks use $12-13 in borrowed money for every $1 in shareholders’ money.  The administration’s response?  Give regulators more powers.

[The plan] preserves a preposterous tangle of overlapping regulators.  And it didn’t arrive until June, seven months after the election.  By then the crisis had faded and special interest politics had come roaring back.

It entrenches bailouts for large financial institutions.  Voters know that’s rotten policy.  It makes firms like General Electric divest their banks.  That serves no purpose.  It’s like trying to ward off the Mexican Mafia by fortifying the Canadian border.  Small wonder voters remain skeptical.

It appears as though Turbo Tim is not up to the job of killing those whales.  Perhaps the President should find someone who is.



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Jobs And Propaganda

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August 10, 2009

On Friday, Wall Street celebrated a “less bad” Employment Situation Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.  Although the consensus estimate for jobs lost during the month of July was 345,000 — the report from the BLS on Friday recited that non-farm payrolls decreased by 247,000.  You may have heard the BLS referred to as the “Bureau of Lies and Statistics” by those who see BLS reports as “cooked data” for propaganda purposes.  Criticism of the spin given to the report could be found at the Zero Hedge website, which featured an entry with the title:  “The Truth Behind Today’s BLS Report” with quotes from such authorities as consulting economist John Williams and economist David Rosenberg.  Mr. Rosenberg was quoted as providing this caveat:

It may be dangerous to extrapolate today’s report into a view that we are about to turn the corner on the job market front.

At The Atlantic Online, Daniel Indiviglio wrote a piece entitled:  “Did the Unemployment Rate Really Go Down?”  Among his points were these:

As a recession drags on for this long, and people are unable to find jobs, they begin leaving the workforce.  They become discouraged regarding job prospects.  BLS offers an unemployment rate that includes these discouraged workers.  In June 2009, that was 10.1%.  For July, it was 10.2%.

Given this change in unemployment including discouraged workers, I think it’s pretty clear that the 0.1% decrease in the reported unemployment rate can be misleading.  In reality, those who would like a job but don’t have one increased by 0.1% up to10.2%.

*   *   *

I just think we need to be careful not to get too excited about today’s numbers.  Although they appear to show a decrease in the unemployment rate, the deeper numbers show the contrary.  We may see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’ve got a ways to go.

Claims of “good news” about the unemployment picture are regularly contradicted, if not by our own personal experiences, then by those of our relatives and friends.  Beyond that, we see daily reports of middle-class families using food stamps for the first time in their lives and we read about escalating bankruptcy filings.

One article I found particularly interesting was written by Nancy Cook for Newsweek on August 7.  It concerned the problems faced by teenagers this year, who sought summer jobs.  They weren’t able to get those jobs because they found themselves “competing with unemployed adults who are now willing to take positions that were considered entry-level in prerecessionary times.”  Ms. Cook discussed how the inability of teenagers to obtain summer jobs impairs their personal and professional development:

Where does that leave high-school- and college-age students, apart from spending their summers lying on the couch?  It leaves them with little income and, worse, few job skills, says Andrew Sum, director of the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University in Boston.  “It hurts their ability to get jobs in the future,” he says.  Teens who work in high school and college on average earn salaries 16 percent higher than teens who don’t work, according to the center’s research.

*   *   *

Working summer jobs certainly translates into higher earning power in the long term, but more important, it gives teens “soft skills.”  Those skills teach them to be punctual, write professional e-mails, and work well in teams.  “There’s lots of evidence that shows that employers place a high premium on those skills,” Sum says.  “If you don’t work, you develop cultural signals from other kids, from the streets, or from sitting at home in front of a computer, which is the worst way to learn how to get along with people.”

I find it difficult to believe that normal, human, retail investors would find so much encouragement from reading about the BLS report.  The use of the BLS data to justify Friday’s market pop appears as just another excuse to explain the ongoing inflation of equities prices, caused by banks playing with TARP and other bailout money for their own benefit.