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Congressional Sleaze In The Spotlight

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Last February, I wrote a piece entitled, “License To Steal”, concerning a certain legal loophole which allows members of Congress to trade stocks using “insider information”:

On January 26, 2009, Congressman Brian Baird introduced H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  The bill was intended to resolve the situation concerning one of the more sleazy “perks” of serving in Congress.  As it presently stands, the law prohibiting “insider trading” (e.g. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.  In that scenario, Ms. Stewart’s sale of the ImClone stock would have been entirely legal.  That’s because the laws which apply to you and I do not apply to those in Congress.  Needless to say, within six months of its introduction, H.R.682 was referred to the Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties where it died of neglect.  Since that time, there have been no further efforts to propose similar legislation.

At a time when the public is finally beginning to understand how our elected officials are benefiting from a system of “legalized graft” in the form of campaign contributions, more attention is being focused on how the “real money” is made in Congress.  A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

Peter J. Boyer wrote an article for Newsweek, explaining how Peter Schweizer came about writing this book.  Schweizer is the William J. Casey research fellow at the Hoover Institution and as Boyer pointed out, Schweizer is considered by liberal critics as a “right wing hit man”.  It’s nice to see someone from the right provide us with an important treatise on crony capitalism.  The book exposes insider trading by both Democrats and Republicans – hell-bent on profiteering from the laws they enact.  Boyer’s essay provided us with some examples of the sleazy trades made by Congress-cretins, as described in Throw Them All Out.  Here are a few examples:

Indeed, Schweizer reports that, during the debate over Obama’s health-care reform package, John Boehner, then the House minority leader, was investing “tens of thousands of dollars” in health-insurance-company stocks, which made sizable gains when the proposed public option in the reform deal was killed.

*   *   *

One of the more dramatic episodes in the book recounts the trading activity of Republican Rep. Spencer Bachus, of Alabama, who, as the ranking member of the House Financial Services Committee, was privy to sensitive high-level meetings during the 2008 financial crisis and proceeded to make a series of profitable stock-option trades.

Bachus was known in the House as a guy who liked to play the market, and in fact he was pretty good at it; one year, he reported a capital gain in excess of $150,000 from his trading activities. More striking is that Bachus boldly carried forth his trading in the teeth of the impending financial collapse, the nightmarish dimensions of which he had learned about first-hand in confidential briefings from Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson and Fed chairman Ben Bernanke.  On Sept. 19, 2008, after attending two such briefings, Bachus bought options in an index fund (ProShares UltraShort QQQ) that effectively amounted to a bet that the market would fall.  That is indeed what happened, and, on Sept. 23, Bachus sold his “short” options, purchased for $7,846, for more than $13,000—nearly doubling his investment in four days.

Around the time Congress and the Bush administration worked out a TARP bailout, Bachus made another options buy and again nearly doubled his money.

*   *   *

After the first briefing from Bernanke and Paulson, brokers for Democratic Congressman Jim Moran, of Virginia, and his wife sold their shares in 90 companies, dodging the losses that others who stayed in the market would soon face. Republican Rep. Shelley Capito, of West Virginia, sold between $100,000 and $250,000 of Citigroup stock the day after the first meeting, recording capital gains on Citigroup transactions in that rocky period.

Peter Schweizer’s analysis of the bipartisan culture of corruption on Capitol Hill reinforces one of my favorite criticisms of American government:  Our Sham Two-Party System.  The Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party owes its allegiance to no population, no principle, no cause – other than pocketing as much money as possible.  Just as there have been some recent “pushback” efforts by outraged citizens, Schweizer is now advocating a “Throw Them All Out” campaign.  This could have a potentially significant impact on Congress, because the term of office in the House of Representatives lasts for only two years.  Consider Schweizer’s thought at the close of the Newsweek piece:

“I was troubled,” he says, “by the fact that the political elite gets to play by a different set of rules than the rest of us.  In the process of researching this book, I came to the conclusion that political party and political philosophy matter a lot less than we think.  Washington is a company town, and politics is a business. People wonder why we don’t get more change in Washington, and the reason is that the permanent political class is very comfortable.  Business is good.”

I concluded my February 28 posting with this point:

“Inside information” empowers the party in possession of that knowledge with something known as “information asymmetry”, allowing that person to take advantage of (or steal from) the less-informed person on the other side of the trade.  Because membership in Congress includes a license to steal, can we ever expect those same individuals to surrender those licenses?  Well, if they were honest  .   .   .

A successful “Throw Them All Out” campaign would obviate the necessity of attempting to convince this Congress to pass the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act).  If the next Congress knows that its political survival is depending on its passage of the STOCK Act, we might see it become law.


 

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Voters Got Fooled Again

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September 13, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, the articles are turning up all over the place.  Newsweek’s Howard Fineman calls them pre-mortems:  advance analyses of why the Democrats will lose power in November.  Some of us saw the handwriting on the wall quite a while ago.  Before President Obama had completed his first year in office, it was becoming clear that his campaign theme of “hope” and “change” was just a ruse to con the electorate.   On September 21, 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”, based on this theme:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history — not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.  Although the Treasury Department is starting to “come clean” to Congressional Oversight chair Elizabeth Warren, we can’t even be sure about the amount of money infused into the financial sector by one means or another because of the lack of transparency and accountability at the Federal Reserve.

In November of 2009, Matt Taibbi wrote an article for Rolling Stone entitled,“Obama’s Big Sellout”.  Taibbi’s essay inspired Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write his own critique of Obama’s first eleven months in office.  Beyond that, Mr. Harrison’s assessment of the fate of proposed financial reform legislation turned out to be prescient.  Remember – Ed Harrison wrote this on December 11, 2009:

As you probably know, I have been quite disappointed with this Administration’s leadership on financial reform.  While I think they ‘get it,’ it is plain they lack either the courage or conviction to put forward a set of ideas that gets at the heart of what caused this crisis.

It was clear to many by this time last year that the President may not have been serious about reform when he picked Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the leaders of his economic team.  As smart and qualified as these two are, they are rightfully seen as allied with Wall Street and the anti-regulatory movement.

At a minimum, the picks of Geithner and Summers were a signal to Wall Street that the Obama Administration would be friendly to their interests.  It is sort of like Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi as a first stop in the 1980 election campaign to let southerners know that he was friendly to their interests.

I reserved judgment because one has to judge based on actions.  But last November I did ask Is Obama really “Change we can believe in?” because his Administration was being stacked with Washington insiders and agents of the status quo.

Since that time it is obvious that two things have occurred as a result of this ‘Washington insider’ bias.  First, there has been no real reform.  Insiders are likely to defend the status quo for the simple reason that they and those with whom they associate are the ones who represent the status quo in the first place.  What happens when a company is nationalized or declared bankrupt is instructive; here, new management must be installed to prevent the old management from covering up past mistakes or perpetuating errors that led to the firm’s demise.  The same is true in government.

That no ‘real’ reform was coming was obvious, even by June when I wrote a brief note on the fake reform agenda.  It is even more obvious with the passage of time and the lack of any substantive reform in health care.

Second, Obama’s stacking his administration with insiders has been very detrimental to his party.  I imagine he did this as a way to overcome any worries about his own inexperience and to break with what was seen as a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial failings.  While I am an independent, I still have enough political antennae to know that taking established politicians out of incumbent positions (Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine) jeopardizes their seat.  So, the strategy of stacking his administration has not only created a status quo bias, but it has also weakened his party.

Mr. Harrison’s point about those incumbencies is now being echoed by many commentators – most frequently to point out that Janet Napolitano was replaced as Governor of Arizona by Jan Brewer.  Brewer is expected to win in November despite her inability to debate or form a coherent sentence before a live audience.

Bob Herbert of The New York Times recently wrote a great piece, in which he blasted the Democrats for failing to “respond adequately to their constituents’ most dire needs”:

The Democrats are in deep, deep trouble because they have not effectively addressed the overwhelming concern of working men and women:  an economy that is too weak to provide the jobs they need to support themselves and their families.  And that failure is rooted in the Democrats’ continued fascination with the self-serving conservative belief that the way to help ordinary people is to shower money on the rich and wait for the blessings to trickle down to the great unwashed below.

It was a bogus concept when George H.W. Bush denounced it as “voodoo economics” in 1980, and it remains bogus today, no matter how hard the Democrats try to dress it up in a donkey costume.

I was surprised to see that Howard Fineman focused his campaign pre-mortem on President Obama himself, rather than critiquing the Democratic Party as a whole.  At a time when mainstream media pundits are frequently criticized for going soft on those in power in order to retain “access”, it was refreshing to see Fineman point out some of Obama’s leadership flaws:

The president is an agreeable guy, but aloof, and not one who likes to come face to face with the enemy. Sure, GOP leaders were laying traps for him from the start.  And it was foolish to assume Mitch McConnell or John Boehner would play ball.  But Obama doesn’t really know Republicans, and he doesn’t seem to want to take their measure.  (Nor has he seemed all that curious about what makes Democratic insiders tick.)  It’s the task of the presidency to cajole people, including your enemies, into doing what they don’t want to do if it is good for the country.  Did Obama think he could eschew the rituals of politics — that all he had to do was invoke His Hopeness to bring people aboard?

Well, people aren’t on board and that’s the problem.  The voters were taken for chumps and they were fooled by some good campaign propaganda.  Nevertheless, as President George W. Bush once said:

Fool me once – shame on – shame on you.  Fool me – You can’t get fooled again!

At this point, it does not appear as though the voters who supported President Obama and company in 2008 are willing to let themselves get fooled again.  At least the Republicans admit that their primary mission is to make life easier for rich people at everyone else’s expense.  The fact that the voters hate being lied to – more than anything else – may be the one lesson the Democrats learn from this election cycle.




Unrealistic Expectations

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April 22, 2010

Newsweek’s Daniel Gross is back at it again.  His cover story for Newsweek’s April 9 issue is another attempt to make a preemptive strike at writing history.  You may remember his cover story for the magazine’s July 25 issue, entitled:  “The Recession Is Over”.  During the eight months since the publication of that article, the sober-minded National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER —  which is charged with making the determination that a recession has ended – has yet to make such a proclamation.

The most recent cover story by Daniel Gross, “The Comeback Country” has drawn plenty of criticism.  (The magazine cover used the headline “America’s Back” to introduce the piece.)  At The Huffington Post, Dan Dorfman discussed the article with Olivier Garret, the CEO of Casey Research, an economic and investment consulting firm.  Garret described the Newsweek cover story as “fantasy journalism” and he shared a number of observations with Dan Dorfman:

“You know when a magazine like Newsweek touts a bullish economic recovery on its cover, just the opposite is likely to be the case,” he says.  “It sees superficial signs of improvement, but it’s ignoring the big picture.”

*   *   *

Meanwhile, Garret sees additional signs of economic anguish.  Among them:  More foreclosures and delinquencies of real estate properties will plague construction spending; banks haven’t yet cleaned up their balance sheets; private debt is no longer going down as it did in 2009; both short and long term rates should be headed higher, and many companies, he says, tell him they’re reluctant to invest and hire.

He also sees some major corporate bankruptcies, worries about the country’s ability to repay its debt, looks for rising cost of capital, which should further slow the economy, and expects a spreading sovereign debt crisis.

*  *  *

Many economists are projecting GDP growth in the range of 3% to 4% in the first quarter and similar growth for the entire year.  Much too optimistic, Garret tells me.  His outlook (which would clobber the stock market if he’s right):  up 0.4%-0.5% in the first quarter after revisions and between 0% and 1% for all of 2010.

“Fantasy economies only work in the mind, not in real life,” he says.

Given his bleak economic outlook, Garret expects a major market adjustment, say about a 10% to 20% decline in stock prices over the next six months.  He figures it could be triggered by one event, such as as an extension of the sovereign debt crisis.

David Cottle of The Wall Street Journal had this reaction to the Newsweek article:

Therefore, when you see a cover such as Newsweek’s recent effort, yelling “America’s Back” in no uncertain terms, it’s quite tempting to stock up on bonds, cash, tinned goods and ammunition.

Now, in fairness to the author, Daniel Goss, he makes the good point that the U.S. economy is growing at a clip that has consistently surprised gloomy forecasters.  It is.  The turnaround we’ve seen since Lehman Brothers imploded has been remarkable, if not entirely satisfying, he says, and he is quite right.  At the very least, U.S. growth is all-too-predictably leaving the European version in the dust.  Goss is also pretty upfront about the corners of the U.S. economy that have so far failed to keep up:  job creation and the housing market being the most obvious.

However, the problem with all these ‘back to normal’ pieces, and Goss’s is only one of many creeping out as the sky resolutely fails to fall in, is that the ‘normal’ they want to go back to was, in reality, anything but.

The financial sector remains unreformed, the global economy remains dangerously unbalanced.  The perilous highways that brought us to 2007 have not been sealed off in favor of straighter, if slower, roads.  Of course it would be great for us all if America were ‘back’ and so we must hope Newsweek’s cover doesn’t join the ranks of those which cruel history renders unintentionally hilarious .

But back where?  That’s the real question.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has turned to Americans themselves to find out just how “back” America really is.  This report from April 20 didn’t seem to resonate so well with the rosy picture painted by Daniel Gross:

Americans are united in the belief that the economy is in bad shape (92% give it a negative rating), and for many the repercussions are hitting close to home.  Fully 70% of Americans say they have faced one or more job or financial-related problems in the past year, up from 59% in February 2009.  Jobs have become difficult to find in local communities for 85% of Americans.  A majority now says that someone in their household has been without a job or looking for work (54%); just 39% said this in February 2009. Only a quarter reports receiving a pay raise or a better job in the past year (24%), while almost an equal number say they have been laid off or lost a job (21%).

As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for middle-class Americans, the first few months of 2009 are already looking like “the good old days”.   The “comeback” isn’t looking too good.



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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.

Matt Taibbi Deserves An Award

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June 25, 2009

Like many people, I found out about Matt Taibbi as a result of his frequent appearances on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher.  Last spring, Matt appeared on Real Time to discuss his research into the global economic crisis and the resulting scheme of numerous bailouts engineered in response to each sub-crisis of this economic catastrophe.  My March 26 piece: “Understanding The Creepy Bailouts“, quoted from Matt’s fantastic article for Rolling Stone magazine, entitled: “The Big Takeover”.  (At that time, the “Big Takeover” link led to the complete article.  Rolling Stone now provides only abbreviated versions of its published articles on line.)  One important theme of Matt’s commentary was evident in this passage:

The mistake most people make in looking at the financial crisis is thinking of it in terms of money, a habit that might lead you to look at the unfolding mess as a huge bonus-killing downer for the Wall Street class.  But if you look at it in purely Machiavellian terms, what you see is a colossal power grab that threatens to turn the federal government into a kind of giant Enron — a huge, impenetrable black box filled with self-dealing insiders whose scheme is the securing of individual profits at the expense of an ocean of unwitting involuntary shareholders, previously known as taxpayers.

Matt has a unique way of discussing the extremely complicated, technical issues involved in the financial crisis, by breaking them down into understandable, plain-language points.  Unfortunately, most mainstream journalists lack either the understanding or the courage (or both) to discuss our financial predicament in such a frank, informative manner.  Take for example:  Fareed Zakaria’s discussion of the economic catastrophe as it appeared in Newsweek under the title “The Capitalist Manifesto”.  Nobody could to a better job of ripping that thing to shreds than Matt Taibbi himself.  With his June 24 blog entry, he did just that:

Zakaria works hard to tell the crisis story minus these outrageous details.  Then he goes on to argue that, basically, nothing should be done.  We mostly just need a “gut check”; we, all of us, need to rediscover that little voice in all of us that says, “if it doesn’t feel right, we shouldn’t be doing it.”  I mean, that is actually what he wrote.  No one needs to go to jail, we don’t need to worry about who’s to blame, we just need, you know, do a better job using our trusty moral compasses to navigate the seas of life.  It’s classic Zakaria in the sense that he attacks ugly political phenomena with tired cliches and hack pablum until you’re almost too bored to keep your eyes open, then in the end reduces it all to a dumbed-down t-shirt that carries us forward to another cycle of political inaction: Laissez-faire capitalism doesn’t rip off people, people rip off people!

Matt’s previous blog entry on June 18, focused on one of my favorite subjects:  the hideous monster we have come to know as Goldman Sachs.  I had written a piece about that entity on May 21, discussing how Paul Farrell of MarketWatch and John Crudele of the New York Post had been voicing the same suspicions I had been harboring about Goldman.  After reading Matt Taibbi’s June 18 article, I enthusiastically sent the link to my friends.  This stuff was just too good!  Matt was laying it on the line in a way few others had the courage or the skill to do.  I doubt whether many in the mainstream media will follow his lead.  Here is one of the highlights from that piece:

Any way you slice it, Goldman was responsible for putting tens of billions of toxic mortgages on the market, resulting in mass foreclosures, mass depletion of retirement funds, and a monstrously over-leveraged financial system that we will now all be bailing out for the next half-century or so.  All of this so that Goldman could make a few billion bucks acting as the middleman in all of these deadly transactions.

If that weren’t enough, Matt pointed out that the upcoming issue of Rolling Stone would feature another of his reports  —  this one focused exclusively on Goldman Sachs.  That issue (#1082-83, with the Jonas Brothers on the cover) is now on the newsstands.  Matt’s article:  “The Wall Street Bubble Machine” is best explained in the subtitle:

From tech stocks to high gas prices, Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression  — And they’re about to do it again.

In case you are wondering how they’re going to do it again  . . .  Matt reports that it will be by way of the “Cap and Trade” program.  Goldman has already positioned itself to serve as one of our government’s premier carbon credit pimps.  Matt offered this explanation:

Goldman is ahead of the headlines again, just waiting for someone to make it rain in the right spot.  Will this market be bigger than the energy-futures market?

“Oh, it’ll dwarf it,” says a former staffer on the House energy committee.

Matt’s “bottom line” paragraph at the conclusion of the essay underscores what I believe are America’s biggest problems:  “lobbying” and “campaign contributions” (our tradition of legalized graft).  Our government is not just one of laws . . . it is one of loopholes, exemptions and waivers.  Those things cost money.  The people who have the money to “invest” in such machinations, usually find themselves rewarded handsomely  . . .  at the expense of the taxpayers.  Here’s how Matt wrapped it up:

But this is it.  This is the world we live in now.  And in this world, some of us have to play by the rules, while others get a note from the principal, excusing them from homework until the end of time, plus 10 billion free dollars in a paper bag to buy lunch.  It’s a gangster state, running on gangster economics, and even prices can’t be trusted anymore; there are hidden taxes in every buck you pay.  And maybe we can’t stop it, but we should at least know where it’s all going.

Amen.

Where The Money Is

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June 1, 2009

For the past few months we have been hearing TV “experts” tell us that “it’s almost over” when discussing the Great Recession.  Beyond that, many of the TV news-readers insist that the “bear market” is over and that we are now in a “bull market”.  In his new column for The Atlantic (named after his book A Failure of Capitalism) Judge Richard A. Posner is using the term “depression” rather than “recession” to describe the current state of the economy.  In other words, he’s being a little more blunt about the situation than most commentators would care to be.  Meanwhile, the “happy talk” people, who want everyone to throw what is left of their life savings back into the stock market, are saying that the recession is over.  If you look beyond the “good news” coming from the TV and pay attention to who the “financial experts” quoted in those stories are … you will find that they are salaried employees of such companies as Barclay’s Capital and Charles Schwab  … in other words:  the brokerages and asset managers who want your money.   A more sober report on the subject, prepared by the National Association for Business Economics (NABE) revealed that 74 percent of the economists it surveyed were of the opinion that the recession would end in the third quarter of this year.  Nineteen percent of the economists surveyed by the NABE predicted that the recession would end during the fourth quarter of 2009 and the remaining 7 percent opined that the recession would end during the first quarter of 2010.

Some investors, who would rather not wait for our recession to end before jumping back into the stock market, are rapidly flocking to what are called “emerging markets”.  To get a better understanding of what emerging markets are all about, read Chuan Li’s (mercifully short) paper on the subject for the University of Iowa Center for International Finance and Development.  The rising popularity of investing in emerging markets was evident in Fareed Zakaria’s article from the June 8 issue of Newsweek:

It is becoming increasingly clear that the story of the global economy is a tale of two worlds.  In one, there is only gloom and doom, and in the other there is light and hope.  In the traditional bastions of wealth and power — America, Europe and Japan — it is difficult to find much good news.  But there is a new world out there — China, India, Indonesia, Brazil — in which economic growth continues to power ahead, in which governments are not buried under a mountain of debt and in which citizens remain remarkably optimistic about their future.  This divergence, between the once rich and the once poor, might mark a turn in history.

*    *    *

Compare the two worlds.  On the one side is the West (plus Japan), with banks that are overleveraged and thus dysfunctional, governments groaning under debt, and consumers who are rebuilding their broken balance sheets. America is having trouble selling its IOUs at attractive prices (the last three Treasury auctions have gone badly); its largest state, California, is veering toward total fiscal collapse; and its budget deficit is going to surpass 13 percent of GDP —  a level last seen during World War II.  With all these burdens, even if there is a recovery, the United States might not return to fast-paced growth for a while.  And it’s probably more dynamic than Europe or Japan.

Meanwhile, emerging-market banks are largely healthy and profitable.  (Every Indian bank, government-owned and private, posted profits in the last quarter of 2008!)  The governments are in good fiscal shape.  China’s strengths are well known — $2 trillion in reserves, a budget deficit that is less than 3 percent of GDP — but consider Brazil, which is now posting a current account surplus.

On May 31, The Economic Times reported similarly good news for emerging markets:

Growth potential and a long-term outlook for emerging markets remain structurally intact despite cyclically declining exports and capital outflows, a research report released on Sunday said.

According to Credit Suisse Research’s latest edition of Global Investor, looking forward to an eventual recovery from the current crisis, growth led by domestic factors in emerging markets is set to succeed debt-fuelled US private consumption as the most important driver of global economic growth over coming years.

The Seeking Alpha website featured an article by David Hunkar, following a similar theme:

Emerging markets have easily outperformed the developed world markets since stocks rebounded from March this year. Emerging countries such as Brazil, India, China, etc. continue to attract capital and show strength relative to developed markets.

On May 29, The Wall Street Journal‘s Smart Money magazine ran a piece by Elizabeth O’Brien, featuring investment bargains in “re-emerging” markets:

As the U.S. struggles to reverse the economic slide, some emerging markets are ahead of the game.  The International Monetary Fund projects that while the world’s advanced economies will contract this year, emerging economies will expand by as much as 2.5 percent, and some countries will grow a lot faster.  Even better news:  Some pros are finding they don’t have to pay a lot to own profitable “foreign” stocks.  The valuations on foreign stocks have become “very, very attractive,” says Uri Landesman, chief equity strategist for asset manager ING Investment Management Americas.

As for The Wall Street Journal itself, the paper ran a June 1 article entitled: “New Driver for Stocks”, explaining that China and other emerging markets are responsible the rebound in the demand for oil:

International stock markets have long taken their cues from the U.S., but as it became clear that emerging-market economies would hold up best and rebound first from the downturn, the U.S. has in some ways moved over to the passenger seat.

Jim Lowell of MarketWatch wrote a June 1 commentary discussing some emerging market exchange-traded funds (ETFs), wherein he made note of his concern about the “socio-politico volatility” in some emerging market regions:

Daring to drink the water of the above funds could prove to be little more than a way to tap into Montezuma’s revenge.  But history tells us that investors who discount the rewards are as prone to disappointment as those who dismiss the risks.

On May 29, ETF Guide discussed some of the exchange-traded funds focused on emerging markets:

Don’t look now, but emerging markets have re-discovered their mojo.  After declining more than 50 percent last year and leading global stocks into a freefall, emerging markets stocks now find themselves with a 35 percent year-to-date gain on average.

A website focused solely on this area of investments is Emerging Index.

So if you have become too risk-averse to allow yourself to get hosed when this “bear market rally” ends, you may want to consider the advantages and disadvantages of investing in emerging markets.  Nevertheless, “emerging market” investments might seem problematic as a way of dodging whatever bullets come by, when American stock market indices sink.  The fact that the ETFs discussed in the above articles are traded on American exchanges raises a question in my mind as to whether they could be vulnerable to broad-market declines as they happen in this country.  That situation could be compounded by the fact that many of the underlying stocks for such funds are, themselves, traded on American exchanges, even though the stocks are for foreign corporations.  By way of disclosure, as of the time of writing this entry, I have no such investments myself, although by the time you read this  . . .   I just might.

Update: I subsequently “stuck my foot in the water” by investing in the iShares MSCI Brazil Index ETF (ticker symbol: EWZ).  Any guesses as to how long I stick with it?

June 3 Update: Today the S&P 500 dropped 1.37 percent and EWZ dropped 5.37 percent — similar to the losses posted by many American companies.   Suffice it to say:  I am not a happy camper!  I plan on unloading it.

DISCLAIMER:  NOTHING CONTAINED ANYWHERE ON THIS SITE CONSTITUTES ANY INVESTING ADVICE OR RECOMMENDATION.  ANY PURCHASES OR SALES OF SECURITIES ARE SOLELY AT THE DISCRETION OF THE READER.

Painting Themselves Into A Corner

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April 27, 2009

During the April 21 – 24 timeframe, ABC News and The Washington Post conducted a poll to ascertain President Obama’s approval rating.  The poll revealed that 69 percent of Americans favor the job performance of our new President.  Fifty percent of those polled believe that the country is on the right track (compared with 19 percent just before Obama’s inauguration).  This seemed like a particularly strong showing since, just one week before this poll began, we saw the anti-taxation “tea parties” that had been promoted by Fox News.

A recent article by Ben Smith and Jonathan Martin for Politico revealed that in some states, the “tea parties” have helped energize the Republican base:

“There is a sense of rebellion brewing,” said Katon Dawson, the outgoing South Carolina Republican Party chairman, who cited unexpectedly high attendance at anti-tax “tea parties” last week.

As the article by Smith and Martin pointed out, this “rebellion” is taking place at exactly the time when many Republican Party leaders are tacking to the center and looking for someone like Utah Governor Jon Huntsman as a possible Presidential candidate for 2012.  Nevertheless, as the article noted, rank-and-file Republicans outside of Washington have no desire to adopt more moderate views:

Within the party, conservative groups have grown stronger absent the emergence of any organized moderate faction.

Many of those comprising the Republican base appear to be motivated by antipathy toward the increasing acceptance of gay marriage, rather than by a reaction to all of the bailouts that have been taking place.  In fact, I was surprised to observe, during the extensive “tea party” coverage, that none of the protesters were upset about the bank bailouts or Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s use of the Federal Reserve to manage the bank bailouts in furtherance of his attempts to avoid legislative oversight.  I guess Fox News had not primed the protesters for that sort of outrage.

The Politico article by Smith and Martin reveals that “cultural issues” remain as the primary concern of the Republican base.  Meanwhile, Newt Gingrich is trying to position himself as the next Republican standard bearer.  Those touting the “sanctity of marriage” (including the Catholic Church) don’t seem particularly concerned that Newt has been married three times.  Newt’s vision for the future is the same vision he was seeing almost twenty years ago:  lower taxes.  If others within the Republican Party have a broader vision and feel the need to expand their appeal to the voters, they can expect plenty of opposition from the party’s base — and therein lies the problem.  Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman has written extensively about how the political primary system works to the benefit of political candidates with the most extreme views.  This is because the only people who vote in political primaries are those with strongly held views and most of them come from the extremes.  This is why wing-nuts such as Minnesota Congresswoman Michelle Bachmann get nominated.  In the absence of any strong moderate or centrist uprising within the Republican ranks, the GOP could be destined to find itself marginalized.  It’s beginning to appear as though the only way for promising, new, centrist Republicans to get elected is to run as independents in the general elections.  Once elected, they can reclaim the “high ground” within the party.  In the mean time, Republican leaders are either unconcerned by or oblivious to the fact that they are painting themselves into a corner by continuing to pander to their base.

The Republicans Have No Choice

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March 2, 2009

Republican pundit Mike Murphy drove the message home on the March 1 telecast of NBC’s Meet The Press.  Demographics have changed since the Republican heyday of the Reagan era.  The Republican mission, message and strategy must adapt to our changing world.

On the other hand, last week brought us the CPAC (Conservative Political Action Convention) with its unique focus that has no relevance to current reality.  The Democratically-inclined pundits on MSNBC were delighted by the CPAC festivities. These commentators were left with visions of Sarah Palin as the 2012 Presidential candidate, dancing in their heads.

We’ve seen and heard plenty of opinions about the current leadership vacuum within the Republican Party.  Almost by default, he who makes the most noise, Rush Limbaugh, has found himself as the new, de facto leader of the Republicans.  Although he is not a candidate for anything, he enjoys more of a papal role with the diehard Republicans.  His message is amplified by people like Chris Matthews on MSNBC (who regularly discourses about how the Republicans always swing back to the “hard right”, when a moderate Presidential candidate fails).  Matthews then describes John McCain as the failed “moderate” and proceeds to (hopefully) set the stage for a “wing nut” Presidential candidate such as Sarah Palin or Bobby “The Exorcist” Jindal.  In either case, Obama gets re-elected — even if unemployment is at 42 percent and the Dow Jones is at 369.

The problem with Chris Matthews’ logic is that McCain pandered to the hard-right “base” in his quest for the White House and could not really be considered as a truly moderate candidate.  The Republicans could wise-up and move toward the center by 2012.  Besides:  They have no choice.

Here in Florida, we have a fait accompli.  Our next Senator, replacing the retiring Republican Senator Mel Martinez, will be our current Governor, Charlie Crist.  Governor Crist is a moderate Republican who enjoys a 73% approval rating.  Crist’s support of President Obama’s stimulus bill resulted in his appearance in Ft. Myers on February 10, to introduce the new President to an adoring crowd.  Governor Crist took lots of heat for that, from know-nothing conservative pundits.   Charlie Crist is laughing all the way to the Senate.  As the February 24 article by Aaron Blake on The Hill website pointed out:  the Democrats don’t have any strong challengers.  It’s a lost cause.  Here, “on the ground”, everyone knows it.

Meanwhile the “liberal” media are busy snarking at Crist, repeating the “gay” rumors that circulated prior to his recent marriage.  This hostility is probably due to the fact that Crist is on the record as opposing any change to Florida’s existing ban on gay adoption.  Any useful resemblance to former Republican Senator Larry Craig’s hypocrisy on gay issues would be a convenient “G-bomb” to throw into an election campaign.   The Huffington Post is big on these “gay” rumors, as is the current incarnation of Wonkette.  What those people don’t know is that the rumors never seemed to matter.  For example:  I’ve known and worked with many conservative Republicans who assumed those rumors were true.  Nevertheless, they still supported and voted for Charlie Crist.  It didn’t matter to them, nor did the issue ever matter to any significant number of people in this State.  Governor Crist had been married to a woman named Amanda Morrow in 1979.  That marriage lasted one year.  On December 12, 2008 he married Carole Rome.  Many of the rumor-mongers claim that this was a “staged” marriage, to advance Crist’s political career.  Nevertheless, you can trust my opinion, as a heterosexual bachelor of approximately the same age as Governor Crist …  If he is trying to “fake” a marriage at this point in his life … You will see him running out of the Governor’s mansion within a very short time, yelling:  “All right!  I’m GAY!  I CONFESS!!!  I’m GAAAAAAAAAYYY!!!”

I don’t believe we will see that happen.  Beyond that, I’m really disappointed that purportedly “gay-friendly” media would be taking these cheap shots at Charlie Crist.  He is going to be our next Senator and he will win because a majority of Democratic voters will support his candidacy.  Deal with it.

The next question is whether the Republican party will finally figure out, after the 2010 election, that there is a trend here.  Republicans are faced with the likelihood that future campaign strategies will nullify the efforts of extremists whose political ambitions have been based on the existence of the political primary system.  As Newsweek‘s Howard Fineman has often discussed, the political primary system, by its nature, results in extremists from both sides getting much better traction than they would have in an open election.  Politicians are on to this.  Watch for more centrists running as independent candidates — and witness the disintegration of the “wing nut” dominance within the Republican Party.

The Stupid War Against The Stimulus

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February 23, 2009

We keep hearing rants against President Obama’s economic stimulus bill.  The final version of the bill was passed by both the House of Representatives and the Senate on February 13.  On February 17, it was signed into law by our new President.  It is now called the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.  Nevertheless, there are people out there (nearly all of them Republicans) fuming about the stimulus bill, despite the fact that the debate is now over.  The bill has already gone into effect.  So what’s the point?  Many commentators feel that currently, there is fierce competition to stand out as the new leader of the Republican Party.  Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal apparently believes he can advance his career by complaining about the stimulus and refusing to accept money allocated under the stimulus bill to expand eligibility for unemployment compensation because it would increase taxes on employers.  As Robert Pear and J. David Goodman reported for The New York Times, Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour said that he, too, would reject the money for expanding unemployment insurance:

“There is some we will not take in Mississippi,” Governor Barbour told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday.  “We want more jobs.  You don’t get more jobs by putting an extra tax on creating jobs.”

The article noted that California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (also a Republican) would be happy to take any money from the stimulus bill that had been rejected by any other governor.

The hostility against the stimulus just doesn’t make sense.  A few Republicans may think they might look like heroes to the traditional Republican “base” right now, but as the stimulus plan begins to bear fruit, they are going to look like fools.

Tom Friedman discussed one intriguing conversation he had with a true American capitalist (the sort of voter Republicans always have taken for granted) in the February 21 New York Times:

The wind and solar industries in America “were dead in the fourth quarter,” said John Woolard, chief executive of BrightSource Energy, which builds and operates cutting-edge solar-thermal plants in the Mojave Desert.  Almost five gigawatts of new solar-thermal projects — the equivalent of five big nuclear plants — at various stages of permitting were being held up because of a lack of financing.

“All of these projects will now go ahead,” said Woolard.  “You are talking about thousands of jobs  …  We really got something right in this legislation.”

These jobs will be in engineering, constructing and operating huge solar systems and wind farms and manufacturing new photovoltaics.  Together they will drive innovation in all these areas — and move wind and solar technology down the cost-volume learning curve so they can compete against fossil fuels and become export industries at the “ChinIndia price,” that is the price at which they can scale in China and India.

Mr. Wollard “gets it” but the usual Republican spokesmen don’t.  As Jonathan Alter points out in the March 2 edition of Newsweek:

Columnist Charles Krauthammer called the $787 billion stimulus package “a legislative abomination,” and Karl Rove wrote that “the more Americans learn about the bill, the less they like it.”

Polls say otherwise.  The public likes the signs of action, respects that the new president is willing to admit error and appreciates his constant reminders that there are no easy cures to what ails us.

*   *   *

The GOP did a good job trivializing the stimulus, but Obama may have the last laugh.  The package is so big, and stretches across so many states, that it provides him at least four years of photo ops as Daddy O on tour, bringing home the jobs right in your local media market.  It was hardly a coincidence that video of bridge repair in Missouri began airing only moments after the president signed the bill.

As Walter Alarkon explained in his February 21 posting on The Hill website, there is a split among Republican governors as to whether the party’s next leader will be a centrist or a traditional conservative.  As his piece demonstrated, there are some Republicans who “get it”:

One possible White House hopeful, Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman Jr. (R), wouldn’t criticize the stimulus despite his red state bona fides.  He said that the federal money would fund infrastructure projects that could help the Beehive State’s economy.

“You have to have a party that is results oriented, that actually develops solutions to some of our nagging problems of today,” he said.

He said that Republicans who turn to “gratuitous rhetoric” will continue to lose.

Another Republican who “gets it” is Florida Governor Charlie Crist.  During his February 22 appearance on NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory asked Governor Crist whether he thought it was a mistake for the Republican Party to define itself by opposition to the stimulus.  Governor Crist gave this response:

Well, it may be.  All I know is I have to do what I think is in the best interest of the people of Florida.  And from my perspective, it’s to try and help them.  Help them every single day in every way that I can in education, in infrastructure, in health care; do the kinds of things that keep us from having to raise taxes.  You know, another part that people don’t talk about in the stimulus bill is that it cuts taxes.  About a third of it cuts taxes.   . . .   At the same time, because of the stimulus we’ll be able to pay our teachers more next year than we were this past year.  So I think it works, it works well, it helps people, it does what’s right.

How does one argue with that?  The current moot debate over the stimulus bill simply underscores one of the reasons why the Republicans suffered such huge losses in 2006 and 2008.  They need to abandon the failed strategy of focusing on the preferences of their so-called “base” and start representing the rest of America.  If they don’t learn this lesson, they will never win a majority in the Senate or the House and they will have to abandon their dreams of another Republican President.