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Manifesto

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For the past few years, a central mission of this blog has been to focus on Washington’s unending efforts to protect, pamper and bail out the Wall Street megabanks at taxpayer expense.  From Maiden Lane III to TARP and through countless “backdoor bailouts”, the Federal Reserve and the Treasury Department have been pumping money into businesses which should have gone bankrupt in 2008.  Worse yet, President Obama and Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless have expressed no interest in bringing charges against those miscreants responsible for causing the financial crisis.  The Federal Reserve’s latest update to its Survey of Consumer Finances for 2010 revealed that during the period of 2007-2010, the median family net worth declined by a whopping thirty-eight percent.  Despite the massive extent of wealth destruction caused by the financial crisis, our government is doing nothing about it.

I have always been a fan of economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, whose Weekly Market Comment essays are frequently referenced on this website.  Professor Hussman’s most recent piece, “The Heart of the Matter” serves as a manifesto of how the financial crisis was caused, why nothing was done about it and why it is happening again both in the United States and in Europe.  Beyond that, Professor Hussman offers some suggestions for remedying this unaddressed and unresolved set of circumstances.  It is difficult to single out a passage to quote because every word of Hussman’s latest Market Comment is precious.  Be sure to read it.  What I present here are some hints as to the significance of this important essay:

The ongoing debate about the economy continues along largely partisan lines, with conservatives arguing that taxes just aren’t low enough, and the economy should be freed of regulations, while liberals argue that the economy needs larger government programs and grand stimulus initiatives.

Lost in this debate is any recognition of the problem that lies at the heart of the matter:  a warped financial system, both in the U.S. and globally, that directs scarce capital to speculative and unproductive uses, and refuses to restructure debt once that debt has gone bad.

Specifically, over the past 15 years, the global financial system – encouraged by misguided policy and short-sighted monetary interventions – has lost its function of directing scarce capital toward projects that enhance the world’s standard of living. Instead, the financial system has been transformed into a self-serving, grotesque casino that misallocates scarce savings, begs for and encourages speculative bubbles, refuses to restructure bad debt, and demands that the most reckless stewards of capital should be rewarded through bailouts that transfer bad debt from private balance sheets to the public balance sheet.

*   *   *

By our analysis, the U.S. economy is presently entering a recession.  Not next year; not later this year; but now.  We expect this to become increasingly evident in the coming months, but through a constant process of denial in which every deterioration is dismissed as transitory, and every positive outlier is celebrated as a resumption of growth.  To a large extent, this downturn is a “boomerang” from the credit crisis we experienced several years ago.  The chain of events is as follows:

Financial deregulation and monetary negligence -> Housing bubble -> Credit crisis marked by failure to restructure bad debt -> Global recession -> Government deficits in U.S. and globally -> Conflict between single currency and disparate fiscal policies in Europe -> Austerity -> European recession and credit strains -> Global recession.

In effect, we’re going into another recession because we never effectively addressed the problems that produced the first one, leaving us unusually vulnerable to aftershocks.  Our economic malaise is the result of a whole chain of bad decisions that have distorted the financial markets in ways that make recurring crisis inevitable.

*   *   *

Every major bank is funded partially by depositors, but those deposits typically represent only about 60% of the funding.  The rest is debt to the bank’s own bondholders, and equity of its stockholders.  When a country like Spain goes in to save a failing bank like Bankia – and does so by buying stock in the bank – the government is putting its citizens in a “first loss” position that protects the bondholders at public expense.  This has been called “nationalization” because Spain now owns most of the stock, but the rescue has no element of restructuring at all.  All of the bank’s liabilities – even to its own bondholders – are protected at public expense.  So in order to defend bank bondholders, Spain is increasing the public debt burden of its own citizens.  This approach is madness, because Spain’s citizens will ultimately suffer the consequences by eventual budget austerity or risk of government debt default.

The way to restructure a bank is to take it into receivership, write down the bad assets, wipe out the stockholders and much of the subordinated debt, and then recapitalize the remaining entity by selling it back into the private market.  Depositors don’t lose a dime.  While the U.S. appropriately restructured General Motors – wiping out stock, renegotiating contracts, and subjecting bondholders to haircuts – the banking system was largely untouched.

*   *   *

If it seems as if the global economy has learned nothing, it is because evidently the global economy has learned nothing.  The right thing to do, again, is to take receivership of insolvent banks and wipe out the stock and subordinated debt, using the borrowed funds to protect depositors in the event that the losses run deep enough to eat through the intervening layers of liabilities (which is doubtful), and otherwise using the borrowed funds to stimulate the economy after the restructuring occurs.  We’re going to keep having crises until global leaders recognize that short of creating hyperinflation (which also subordinates the public, in this case by destroying the value of currency), there is no substitute for debt restructuring.

For some insight as to why the American megabanks were never taken into temporary receivership, it is useful to look back to February of 2010 when Michael Shedlock (a/k/a“Mish”) provided us with a handy summary of the 224-page Quarterly Report from SIGTARP (the Special Investigator General for TARP — Neil Barofsky).  My favorite comment from Mish appeared near the conclusion of his summary:

Clearly TARP was a complete failure, that is assuming the goals of TARP were as stated.

My belief is the benefits of TARP and the entire alphabet soup of lending facilities was not as stated by Bernanke and Geithner, but rather to shift as much responsibility as quickly as possible on to the backs of taxpayers while trumping up nonsensical benefits of doing so.  This was done to bail out the banks at any and all cost to the taxpayers.

Was this a huge conspiracy by the Fed and Treasury to benefit the banks at taxpayer expense?  Of course it was, and the conspiracy is unraveling as documented in this report and as documented in AIG Coverup Conspiracy Unravels.

On January 29 2010, David Reilly wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek concerning the previous week’s hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.  After quoting from Reilly’s article, Mish made this observation:

Most know I am not a big believer in conspiracies.  I regularly dismiss them.  However, this one was clear from the beginning and like all massive conspiracies, it is now in the light of day.

David Reilly began the Bloomberg Business Week piece this way:

The idea of secret banking cabals that control the country and global economy are a given among conspiracy theorists who stockpile ammo, bottled water and peanut butter.  After this week’s congressional hearing into the bailout of American International Group Inc., you have to wonder if those folks are crazy after all.

Wednesday’s hearing described a secretive group deploying billions of dollars to favored banks, operating with little oversight by the public or elected officials.

That “secretive group” is The Federal Reserve of New York, whose president at the time of the AIG bailout was “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  David Reilly’s disgust at the hearing’s revelations became apparent from the tone of his article:

By pursuing this line of inquiry, the hearing revealed some of the inner workings of the New York Fed and the outsized role it plays in banking.  This insight is especially valuable given that the New York Fed is a quasi-governmental institution that isn’t subject to citizen intrusions such as freedom of information requests, unlike the Federal Reserve.

At least in the Eurozone there is fear that the taxpayers will never submit to enhanced economic austerity measures, which would force the citizenry into an impoverished existence so that their increased tax burden could pay off the debts incurred by irresponsible bankers.  In the United States there is no such concern.  The public is much more compliant.  Whether that will change is anyone’s guess.


 

European Sovereign Debt Crisis Gets Scary

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The simplest explanation of the European sovereign debt crisis came from Joe Weisenthal at the Business Insider website.  He compared the yield on the 5-year bond for Sweden with that of Finland, illustrated by charts, which tracked those yields for the past year:

Basically they look identical all through the year up until November and then BAM.  Finnish yields are exploding higher, right as Swedish yields are blasting lower.

The only obvious difference between the two:   Finland is part of the Eurozone, meaning it can’t print its own money. Sweden has no such risk.

While everyone’s attention was focused on the inability of Greece to pay the skyrocketing interest rates on its bonds, Italy snuck up on us.  The Italian debt crisis has become so huge that many commentators are voicing concern that “sovereign debt contagion” across the Eurozone is spreading faster than we could ever imagine.  The Los Angeles Times is now reporting that Moody’s Investors Service is ready to hit the panic button:

Throwing more logs on the Eurozone fire, Moody’s Investors Service said early Monday that the continent’s debt crisis now is “threatening the credit standing of all European sovereigns.”

That’s a not-so-subtle warning that even Moody’s top-rung Aaa ratings of countries including Germany, France, Austria and the Netherlands could be in jeopardy.

Meanwhile, every pundit seems to have a different opinion about how the crisis will unfold and what should be done about it.  The latest buzz concerns a widely-published rumor that the IMF is preparing a 600 billion euro ($794 billion) loan for Italy.  The problem with that scenario is that most of those billions would have to come from the United States – meaning that Congress would have to approve it.  Don’t count on it.  Former hedge fund manager, Bruce Krasting provided a good explanation of the Italian crisis and its consequences:

I think the Italian story is make or break.  Either this gets fixed or Italy defaults in less than six months.  The default option is not really an option that policy makers would consider.  If Italy can’t make it, then there will be a very big crashing sound.  It would end up taking out most of the global lenders, a fair number of countries would follow into Italy’s vortex.  In my opinion a default by Italy is certain to bring a global depression; one that would take many years to crawl out of.  The policy makers are aware of this too.

So I say something is brewing.  And yes, if there is a plan in the works it must involve the IMF.  And yes, it’s going to be big.

Please do not read this and conclude that some headline is coming that will make us all feel happy again.  I think headlines are coming.  But those headlines are likely to scare the crap out of the markets once the implications are understood.

In the real world of global finance the reality is that any country that is forced to accept an IMF bailout is also blocked from issuing debt in the public markets.  IMF (or other supranational debt) is ALWAYS senior to other indebtedness of the country. That’s just the way it works.  When Italy borrows money from the IMF it automatically subordinates the existing creditors. Lenders hate this.  They will vote with their feet and take a pass at Italian new debt issuance for a long time to come.  Once the process starts, it will not end.  There will be a snow ball of other creditors.  That’s exactly what happened in the 80’s when Mexico failed; within a year two dozen other countries were forced to their debt knees.  (I had a front row seat.)

I don’t see a way out of this box.  The liquidity crisis in Italy is scaring us to death, the solution will almost certainly kill us.

Forcing taxpayers to indemnify banks which made risky bets on European sovereign debt is popular with K Street lobbyists and their Congressional puppets.  This has led most people to assume that we will be handed the bill.  Fortunately, there are some smart people around, who are devising better ways to get “out of this box”.  Economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, proposed this idea to facilitate significant writedowns on Greek bonds while helping banks cope the impact of accepting 25 percent of the face value of those bonds, rather than the hoped-for 50 percent:

Given the extremely high leverage ratios of European banks, it appears doubtful that it will be possible to obtain adequate capital through new share issuance, as they would essentially have to duplicate the existing float.  For that reason, I suspect that before this is all over, much of the European banking system will be nationalized, much of the existing debt of the European banking system will be restructured, and those banks will gradually be recapitalized, post-restructuring and at much smaller leverage ratios, through new IPOs to the market.  That’s how to properly manage a restructuring – you keep what is essential to the economy, but you don’t reward the existing stock and bondholders – it’s essentially what we did with General Motors.  That outcome is not something to be feared (unless you’re a bank stockholder or bondholder), but is actually something that we should hope for if the global economy is to be unchained from the bad debts that were enabled by financial institutions that took on imponderably high levels of leverage.

Notably, credit default swaps are blowing out even in the U.S., despite leverage ratios that are substantially lower (in the 10-12 range, versus 30-40 in Europe).  As of last week, CDS spreads on U.S. financials were approaching and in some cases exceeding 2009 levels.  Bank stocks are also plumbing their 2009 depths, but with a striking degree of calm about it, and a definite tendency for scorching rallies on short-covering and “buy-the-dip” sentiment.  There is a strong mood on Wall Street that we should take these developments in stride.  I’m not convinced.  Our own measures remain defensive about the prospective return/risk tradeoff in the stock market.

The impact this crisis will have on the stock market explains why mainstream news media coverage has consistently understated the magnitude of the situation.  It will be interesting to observe how the “happy talk” gets amped-up as the situation deteriorates.


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Time For Another Victory Lap

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I’m no cheerleader for President Obama.  Since he first became our Disappointer-In-Chief, I have vigorously voiced my complaints about his decisions.  At the end of President Obama’s first month in office, I expressed concern that his following the advice of “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Larry Summers was putting the welfare (pun intended) of the Wall Street banks ahead of the livelihoods of those who voted for him.  I lamented that this path would lead us to a ten-year, Japanese-style recession.  By September of 2010, it was obvious that those early decisions by the new President would prove disastrous for the Democrats at the mid-term elections.  At that point, I repeated my belief that Obama had been listening to the wrong people when he decided to limit spending on the economic stimulus package to approximately half of what was necessary to end the economic crisis:

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.

Last week, I was about to write a piece, describing that decision as “Obama’s Tora Bora moment”.  When I sat down at my computer just after 11 p.m. on Sunday, I realized that the timing wouldn’t have been appropriate for such a metaphor.  The President was about to make his historic speech, announcing that Osama Bin Laden had been killed.  Just as many have criticized the Obama administration’s handling of the disaster in the Gulf of Corexit as “Obama’s Katrina Moment”, I believe that the President’s decision to “punt” on the stimulus – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  The consequences have been enormously expensive (simply adding the $600 billion cost of QE 2 alone to a better-planned stimulus program would have reduced our current unemployment level to approximately 5%).  Beyond that, the advocates of “Austerian” economics have scared everyone in Washington into the belief that the British approach is somehow the right idea – despite the fact that their economy is tanking.  Never mind the fact Australia’s stimulus program was successful and ended the recession in that country.

The Fox Ministry of Truth has brainwashed a good number of people into believing that Obama’s stimulus program (a/k/a the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009) was a complete failure.  You will never hear the Fox Ministry of Truth admit that prominent Republican economist Keith Hennessey, the former director of the National Economic Council under President George W. Bush, pointed out that the 2009 stimulus “increased economic growth above what it otherwise would have been”.  The Truth Ministry is not likely to concede that John Makin of the conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute, published this statement at the AEI website:

Absent temporary fiscal stimulus and inventory rebuilding, which taken together added about 4 percentage points to U.S. growth, the economy would have contracted at about a 1 percent annual rate during the second half of 2009.

On the other hand, count me among those who are skeptical that the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy can have any impact on our current unemployment crisis (it hasn’t yet).

Many of Obama’s critics have complained that the Presidential appearance at Ground Zero was an inappropriate “victory lap” – despite the fact that George W. Bush was invited to the event (although he declined).  Not only was that victory lap appropriate – Obama is actually entitled to run another.   As E.J. Dionne pointed out, the controversial “nationalization” of the American auto industry (what should have been done to the Wall Street banks) has become a huge success:

The actual headlines make the point. “Demand for fuel-efficient cars helps GM to $3.2 billion profit,” declared The Washington Post.  “GM Reports Earnings Tripled in First Quarter, as Revenue Jumped 15 Percent,” reported The New York Times.

*   *   *

“Having the federal government involved in every aspect of the private sector is very dangerous,” Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., told Fox News in December 2008.  “In the long term it could cause us to become a quasi-socialist country.”  I don’t see any evidence that we have become a “quasi-socialist country,” just big profits.

Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, called the bailout “the leading edge of the Obama administration’s war on capitalism,” while other members of Congress derided the president’s auto industry task force.  “Of course we know that nobody on the task force has any experience in the auto business, and we heard at the hearing many of them don’t even own cars,” declared Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, after a hearing on the bailout in May 2009. “And they’re dictating the auto industry for our future? What’s wrong with this picture?”

*   *   *

In the case of the car industry, allowing the market to operate without any intervention by government would have wiped out a large part of the business that is based in Midwestern states.  This irreversible decision would have damaged the economy, many communities and tens of thousands of families.

And contrary to the predictions of the critics, government officials were quite capable of working with the market in restructuring the industry. Government didn’t overturn capitalism.  It tempered the market at a moment when its “natural” forces were pushing toward catastrophe. Government had the resources to buy the industry time.

In fairness, President Obama has finally earned some bragging rights, after punting on health care, the stimulus and financial “reform”.  He knows his Republican opponents will never criticize him for his own “Tora Bora moment” – because to do so would require an admission that a more expensive economic stimulus was necessary in 2009.  As a result, it will be up to an Independent candidate or a Democratic challenger to Obama (less likely these days) to explain that the persistent economic crisis – our own “lost decade” – lingers on as a result of Obama’s “Tora Bora moment”.


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The Pushback From Europe

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March 16, 2009

There was plenty of action and plenty of inaction in Europe last week, toward addressing the world financial crisis.  Our new Treasury Secretary, “Turbo” Tim Geithner, has been in Horsham, (West Sussex County) U.K., chatting it up with G-20 finance ministers in a run-up meeting to the big London Summit on April 2.  (Meanwhile . . . Who was conducting the “stress tests” on the nineteen “stressed” banks while Turbo Tim was across the pond, eating the awful, British food?  Worse yet:  Treasury still has a few positions to fill.)

We got a taste of the European response to the financial crisis during Sunday’s broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press.  Near the end of the program, David Gregory asked the BBC’s Katty Kay about the “back story” to the G-20 finance ministers’ meeting in England:

MR. GREGORY:  You’re just back from Europe, Katty, and one of the big debates this week with the administration and Europe is that Europe does not want to do larger stimulus.  And we know that some of the problems in Europe and around the globe with this recession are quite acute.

MS. KAY:  You know, it’s really interesting traveling through Europe this week, and two things really struck me.  One is that there is less public concern about the nature of this crisis, and part of that is that Europeans have a broader social safety net.  I was speaking to a journalist in Sweden who said to me, “You know, if I lose my job, I lose some of my income.  But I still have very good health care and my children have very good state education.”  So people aren’t as panicked by this recession as they are here.  That means that there is less political pressure on European leaders to spend their way out of this and to act some kind of stimulus package, a global stimulus package, what the administration’s been calling for.  There is also a feeling in Europe that they don’t want to have to submit to an American made solution to what is seen by many, by many Europeans as an American made problem.  There is a real resistance here …

Europe’s portrayal of the world financial crisis as “an American problem” became painfully apparent during the recent G-20 finance ministers’ meeting.  As Damien Paletta and Stephen Fidler reported for The Wall Street Journal, the G-20 members exploited the opportunity to pressure Secretary Geithner on solving the problems in America’s banking sector before asking the G-20 to make any efforts toward increased economic stimulus spending.  The G-20 members are well-aware of the Obama administration’s unwillingness to place insolvent banks under government receivership, particularly since this is widely perceived in the United States as being too “un-American”, or worse yet  —  European.  As The Wall Street Journal article pointed out:

The turnaround suggests the limits of U.S. power in the world emerging out of the rubble of the financial crisis.  Many countries, including U.S. allies, are increasingly putting pressure on America to clean up a mess they believe it created.

Mr. Geithner’s actions during the next two weeks will be scrutinized by both Wall Street and world financial markets, which have remained unconvinced that the Obama administration can pull the world out of the downturn.

*    *    *

Participants said they were pleasantly surprised by the meeting’s unity of purpose, given comments beforehand from the Germans and the French rebuffing U.S. calls to make further commitments to fiscal expansion.  But it was also clear U.S. officials had a long way to go before they could satisfy concerns about the banking sector, which emerged as a surprising point of contention during the negotiations.

“I and some others were expecting much quicker movement on the part of the administration” related to the treatment of banks, said one central banker.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, there can only be one culprit responsible for this attitude about our government’s failure to address the unresolved problem of “troubled assets” (i.e. mortgage-backed securities and the multitude of  ill-begotten “derivatives”) responsible for the questionable health of so many American banks.  This culprit is Nobel Prize-winning Economist, Paul Krugman.  Professor Krugman has written again and again about the urgent need for the Obama administration to face the ugly reality that the “zombie banks” must be placed under government receivership (which is not really “nationalization”).

Fortunately, Professor Krugman stepped up and pointed out (in The New York Times) that if the EU really believes that it doesn’t have any skin in this game, it is in for an unpleasant surprise:

The clear and present danger to Europe right now comes from a different direction — the continent’s failure to respond effectively to the financial crisis.

Europe has fallen short in terms of both fiscal and monetary policy: it’s facing at least as severe a slump as the United States, yet it’s doing far less to combat the downturn.

*    *    *

Why is Europe falling short? Poor leadership is part of the story.  European banking officials, who completely missed the depth of the crisis, still seem weirdly complacent.

*    *    *

You might expect monetary policy to be more forceful. After all, while there isn’t a European government, there is a European Central Bank.  But the E.C.B. isn’t like the Fed, which can afford to be adventurous because it’s backed by a unitary national government — a government that has already moved to share the risks of the Fed’s boldness, and will surely cover the Fed’s losses if its efforts to unfreeze financial markets go bad.  The E.C.B., which must answer to 16 often-quarreling governments, can’t count on the same level of support.

Europe, in other words, is turning out to be structurally weak in a time of crisis.

What transpired in this trans-continental dialogue was a lot like a volleyball game between politicians and commentators from the European Union against politicians and commentators from the United States.  After the EU team “spiked” the ball over the net —  it hit Tim Geithner on the head.  The ball then bounced away.  Just as the ball passed above Paul Krugman  —  “Boom Goes the Dynamite!”  Nice play, Paul!