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Cairo In America

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We have seen quite a bit of hand-wringing by those in the mainstream news media about the repression against protests in Cairo during the past few weeks.  What we don’t see on television are the oppressive tactics used against protesters and journalists here in the United States.  Never mind the fact that the Obama administration refuses to prosecute any of the crimes which led to the financial crisis.  Simply protesting against the refusal of Attorney General Eric Hold-harmless to do his job can result in arrests and beatings administered by police.  At The eXiled blog,Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement:

Remember how in November, Bloomberg and the NYPD got a lot of heat from the city’s media establishment for the arrest rampage they unleashed on journalists covering the eviction raid on Liberty Plaza?  Cops arrested more than two dozen accredited journalists from major news outlets, including the New York Post, NPR, AFP and The Associated Press.  Hell, cops even clubbed a couple of reporters for the baggertarian rag The Daily Caller.  As a result, New York’s police commissioner made a big show of issuing an order that instructed police officers not to interfere with journalists covering OWS.

But clearly that was just for show.

Because this month the NYPD has gone out of its way to harass and arrest journalists covering OWS, especially targeting live streamers and indie journalists who can’t be counted on for propaganda support like the mainstream folks.  According to Free Press’ Josh Stearns, who has been maintaining a list of journalists arrested while covering the Occupy Movement across the country, at least five journalists and seven live streamers were arrested by the NYPD in the first half of December.

*   *   *

The NYPD continued harassing indie journalists five days later during the D17 protests.  Some were bashed with batons, others were threatened with having their official press passes revoked. By the end of the day, at least two journalists were arrested, including photojournalist Zach Roberts and Jennifer Dworkin, an independent filmmaker who had worked for PBS.

It will be interesting to see whether a new piece of technology, called the “Occucopter” will enable those reporters to obtain valuable images of abusive police tactics – without getting their own skulls crushed in the process.  The Guardian provided this report:

This week in New York, Occupy Wall Street protesters have a new toy to help them expose potentially dubious actions of the New York police department.  In response to constant police surveillance, police violence and thousands of arrests, Occupy Wall Street protesters and legal observers have been turning their cameras back on the police.  But police have sometimes made filming difficult through physical obstruction and “frozen zones”.  This occurred most notably during the eviction of protesters from Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan, where police prevented even credentialed journalists from entering.

Now the protesters are fighting back with their own surveillance drone.  Tim Pool, an Occupy Wall Street protester, has acquired a Parrot AR drone he amusingly calls the “occucopter”.  It is a lightweight four-rotor helicopter that you can buy cheaply on Amazon and control with your iPhone.  It has an onboard camera so that you can view everything on your phone that it points at.  Pool has modified the software to stream live video to the internet so that we can watch the action as it unfolds.  You can see video clips of his first experiments here.  He told us that the reason he is doing this “comes back to giving ordinary people the same tools that these multimillion-dollar news corporations have.  It provides a clever loophole around certain restrictions such as when the police block press from taking shots of an incident.”

The American public is no longer content to sit back and do nothing while the Obama administration sits back and does nothing to prosecute those criminals whose fraudulent conduct devastated the American economy.  In my last posting, I discussed the intensifying wave of criticism directed against the President by his former supporters as well as those disgusted by Obama’s subservience to his benefactors on Wall Street.  Since that time, Scot Paltrow wrote a great piece for Reuters, concerning the Justice Department’s failure to intervene against improper foreclosure procedures.  Paltrow’s widely-acclaimed essay inspired several commentators to express their disgust about government permissiveness toward such egregious conduct.  At The Big Picture, Barry Ritholtz shared his reaction to the Reuters article:

The fraud is rampant, self-evident, easy to prosecute.  The only reason it hasn’t been done so far is that this nation is led by corrupt cowards and suffers from a ruinous two-party system.

We were once a great nation that set a shining example for the rest of the world as to what the Rule of Law meant.  That is no more, as we have become a corrupt plutocracy.  Why our prosecutors cower in front of the almighty banking industry is beyond my limited ability to comprehend.

Without any sort of legal denouement, we should expect an angry electorate and an unhappy nation.

Is there any hope for America or will we continue on our course of devolution toward becoming a banana republic?  At his Pragmatic Capitalism blog, Cullen Roche brought a glimmer of hope to some of us when he published Saxo Bank’s list of 10 outrageous predictions for 2012.  I was particularly encouraged by the third item on the list:

3. A yet unannounced candidate takes the White House

In 1992, Texas billionaire Ross Perot managed to take advantage of a recessionary economy and popular disgust with US politics and reap 18.9 per cent of the popular vote.  Three years of Obama has brought too little change and only additional widespread disillusionment with the entire US political system, and conditions for a third party candidate have never been riper.  Someone with a strong programme for real change throws his or her hat in the ring early in 2012 and snatches the presidency in November in one of the most pivotal elections in US history, taking 38 per cent of the popular vote.

I’m keeping my fingers crossed.


 

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Trouble Ahead

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Forget about what you’ve been told by the “rose-colored glasses” crowd.  We are headed for more economic trouble.  On September 17, economist Lakshman Achuthan gave his prognosis for the economy to Guy Raz, of NPR’s All Things Considered:

Achuthan, co-founder and chief operations officer of the Economic Cycle Research Institute, says all of his economic indicators point to more sputtering ahead.

“The risk of a new recession is quite high,” he says.

In Toronto, Michael Babad of The Globe And Mail saw fit to focus on the latest forecast from “Dr. Doom”:

Nouriel Roubini, the New York University professor who forecast the financial crisis, went further today, warning that “we are entering a recession.”   The question isn’t whether there will be a double-dip, he said on Twitter, but rather how deep it will be.

And the answer, added the chairman and co-founder of Roubini Global Economics, depends on the response of policy makers and developments in the euro zone’s ongoing crisis.

As Gretchen Morgenson reported for The New York Times, the European sovereign debt crisis is already beginning to “wash up on American shores”.  The steep exposure of European banks to the sovereign debt of eurozone countries has become a problem for the United States:

Some of these banks are growing desperate for dollars.  Fearing the worst, investors are pulling back, refusing to roll over the banks’ commercial paper, those short-term i.o.u.’s that are the lifeblood of commerce.  Others are refusing to renew certificates of deposit. European banks need this money, in dollars, to extend loans to American companies and to pay their own debts.

Worries over the banks’ exposure to shaky European government debt have unsettled markets over there – shares of big French banks have taken a beating – but it is unclear how much this mess will hurt the economy back here.  American stock markets, at least, seem a bit blasé about it all:  the Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index rose 5.3 percent last week.

Last Thursday, I expressed my suspicion that the recent stock market exuberance was based on widespread expectation of another round of quantitative easing.  This next round is being referred to as “QE3”.   QE3 is good news for Wall Street because of those POMO auctions, wherein the New York Fed purchases Treasury securities – worth billions of dollars – on a daily basis.  After the auctions, the Primary Dealers take the sales proceeds to their proprietary trading desks, where the funds are leveraged and used to purchase high-beta, Russell 2000 stocks.  You saw the results during QE2:  A booming stock market – despite a stalled economy.

I believe that the European debt situation will become the controlling factor, which will turn the tide in favor of QE3 at the September 20-21 Federal Open Market Committee meeting.

Most pundits have expressed doubts that the Fed would undertake another round of quantitative easing.  Bill McBride of Calculated Risk put it this way:

QE3 is unlikely at the September meeting, but not impossible – however most observers think the FOMC will announce a program to change the composition of their balance sheet (extend maturities).  It is also possible that the FOMC will announce a reduction in the interest rate paid on excess reserves (currently 0.25%).

Tim Duy expressed a more skeptical outlook at his Fed Watch website:

Even more unlikely is another round of quantitative easing.  I don’t think there is much appetite at the Fed for additional asset purchases given the inflation numbers and the stability of longer-term inflation expectations relative to the events that prompted last fall’s QE2.

On the other hand, hedge fund manager Bill Fleckenstein presents a more persuasive case that the Fed can be expected to react to the “massive red ink in world equity markets” (due to floundering European bank stocks) by resorting to its favorite panacea – money printing:

So, to sum up my expectations, I believe that not only will we get a bold new round of QE from the Fed this week, but other central banks will join the party.  (The Bank of Japan and Swiss National Bank are already printing money in an attempt to weaken their currencies.)  If that happens, I believe that assets (stocks, bonds and commodities) will rally rather dramatically, at least for a while, with the length and size of the rally depending on the individual idea/asset.

If no QE is announced, and we basically see nothing done, it will probably be safe to short stocks for investors who can handle that strategy.  Markets would be pummeled until the central planners (i.e., these bankers) are forced to react to the carnage. Such is the nature of the paper-money-central-bank-moral-hazard standard that is currently in place.

The Fed will announce its decision at 2:15 on Wednesday, September 21.  Even if the FOMC proceeds with QE3, its beneficial effects will (again) be limited to the stock market.  The real American economy will continue to stagnate through its “lost decade”, which began in 2007.


 

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Senator Kaufman Will Be Missed

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Ted Kaufman filled Joe Biden’s seat representing the state of Delaware in the United States Senate on January 15, 2009, when Biden resigned to serve as Vice-President.  Kaufman’s 22-month term as Senator concluded on November 15, when Chris Coons was sworn in after defeating Christine O’Donnell in the 2010 election.

Senator Kaufman served as Chairman of the Congressional Oversight Panel – the entity created to monitor TARP on behalf of Congress.  The panel’s November Oversight Report was released at the COP website with an embedded, five-minute video of Senator Kaufman’s introduction to the Report.  At the DelawareOnline website, Nicole Gaudiano began her article about Kaufman’s term by pointing out that C-SPAN ranked Kaufman as the 10th-highest among Senators for the number of days (126) when he spoke on the Senate floor during the current Congressional session.  Senator Kaufman was a high-profile advocate of financial reform, who devoted a good deal of effort toward investigating the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.

On November 9, Senator Kaufman was interviewed by NPR’s Robert Siegel, who immediately focused on the fact that aside from the Securities and Exchange Commission’s civil suit against Goldman Sachs and the small fine levied against Goldman by FINRA, we have yet to see any criminal prosecutions arising from the fraud and other violations of federal law which caused the financial crisis.  Kaufman responded by asserting his belief that those prosecutions will eventually proceed, although “it takes a while” to investigate and prepare these very complex cases:

When you commit fraud on Wall Street or endanger it, you have good attorneys around you to kind of clean up after you.  So they clean up as they go.  And then when you actually go to trial, these are very, very, very complex cases.  But I still think we will have some good cases.  And I also think that if isn’t a deterrent, they will continue to do that.  And I think we have the people in place now at the Securities Exchange Commission and the Justice Department to hold them accountable.

We can only hope so   .  .  .

Back on March 17, I discussed a number of reactions to the recently-released Valukas Report on the demise of Lehman Brothers, which exposed the complete lack of oversight by the Federal Reserve Bank of New York — the entity with investigators in place inside of Lehman Brothers after the collapse of Bear Stearns.  The FRBNY had the perfect vantage point to conduct effective oversight of Lehman.  Not only did the FRBNY fail to do so — it actually helped Lehman maintain a false image of being financially solvent.  It is important to keep in mind that Lehman CEO Richard Fuld was a class B director of the FRBNY during this period.  Senator Kaufman’s reaction to the Valukas Report resulted in his widely-quoted March 15 speech from the Senate floor, in which he emphasized that the government needs to return the rule of law to Wall Street:

We all understood that to restore the public’s faith in our financial markets and the rule of law, we must identify, prosecute, and send to prison the participants in those markets who broke the law.  Their fraudulent conduct has severely damaged our economy, caused devastating and sustained harm to countless hard-working Americans, and contributed to the widespread view that Wall Street does not play by the same rules as Main Street.

*   *   *

Many have said we should not seek to “punish” anyone, as all of Wall Street was in a delirium of profit-making and almost no one foresaw the sub-prime crisis caused by the dramatic decline in housing values.  But this is not about retribution.  This is about addressing the continuum of behavior that took place — some of it fraudulent and illegal — and in the process addressing what Wall Street and the legal and regulatory system underlying its behavior have become.

As part of that effort, we must ensure that the legal system tackles financial crimes with the same gravity as other crimes.

The nagging suspicion that those nefarious activities at Lehman Brothers could be taking place “at other banks as well” became a key point in Senator Kaufman’s speech:

Mr. President, I’m concerned that the revelations about Lehman Brothers are just the tip of the iceberg.  We have no reason to believe that the conduct detailed last week is somehow isolated or unique.  Indeed, this sort of behavior is hardly novel.  Enron engaged in similar deceit with some of its assets.  And while we don’t have the benefit of an examiner’s report for other firms with a business model like Lehman’s, law enforcement authorities should be well on their way in conducting investigations of whether others used similar “accounting gimmicks” to hide dangerous risk from investors and the public.

Within a few months after that speech by Senator Kaufman, a weak financial reform bill was enacted to appease (or more importantly:  deceive) the outraged taxpayers.  Despite that legislative sham, polling results documented the increased public skepticism about the government’s ability or willingness to do right by the American public.

On October 20, Sam Gustin interviewed economist Joseph Stiglitz for the DailyFinance website.  Their discussion focused on the recent legislative attempt to address the causes of the financial crisis.  Professor Stiglitz emphasized the legal system’s inability to control that type of  sleazy behavior:

The corporations have the right to give campaign contributions.  So basically we have a system in which the corporate executives, the CEOs, are trying to make sure the legal system works not for the companies, not for the shareholders, not for the bondholders – but for themselves.

So it’s like theft, if you want to think about it that way.  These corporations are basically now working now for the CEOs and the executives and not for any of the other stakeholders in the corporation, let alone for our broader society.

You look at who won with the excessive risk-taking and shortsighted behavior of the banks.  It wasn’t the shareholder or the bondholders.  It certainly wasn’t American taxpayers.  It wasn’t American workers.  It wasn’t American homeowners.  It was the CEOs, the executives.

*   *   *

Economists focus on the whole notion of incentives.  People have an incentive sometimes to behave badly, because they can make more money if they can cheat.  If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

And that’s why, for instance, in our antitrust law, we often don’t catch people when they behave badly, but when we do we say there are treble damages. You pay three times the amount of the damage that you do.  That’s a strong deterrent.

For now, there are no such deterrents for those CEOs who nearly collapsed the American economy and destroyed 15 million jobs.  Robert Scheer recently provided us with an update about what life is now like for Sandy Weill, the former CEO of Citigroup.  Scheer’s essay – entitled “The Man Who Shattered Our Economy” revealed that Weill just purchased a vineyard estate in Sonoma, California for a record $31 million.  That number should serve as a guidepost when considering the proposition expressed by Professor Stiglitz:

If our economic system is going to work then we have to make sure that what they gain when they cheat is offset by a system of penalties.

What are the chances of that happening?


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Listening To Smart People

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As the mid-term election cycle reaches its climax, we find ourselves exposed to an increasing amount of stupid pronouncements by desperate politicians, overworked commentators and plain-old idiots, who managed to attract the interest of television news personnel.  I was particularly amused by the recent outburst from Juan Williams about the fact that he gets nervous when he sees people in “Muslim garb” boarding a plane in which he is a passenger.  NPR saw fit to fire him for making a remark described as “inconsistent with our editorial standards and practices”.  Despite the widespread hand-wringing over the “bigoted” nature of the statement, I was more focused on its stupidity.  Does Juan Williams seriously believe that terrorists would board a plane dressed in Muslim garb?  I would assume that all terrorists learn in Jihad 101 that the traditional garb for airborne martyrdom is the Adidas warm-up suit.  Wearing “Muslim garb” for such an occasion would serve only as an offer to be waterboarded.

Another example of election year asininity is the thought that someone could get elected to the Senate by claiming that the incumbent opponent of said candidate “actually voted to use taxpayer dollars to pay for Viagra for convicted child molesters and sex offenders”.  It was beginning to appear as though stupid has become the “new normal”.

Finally, some fresh air came along when a few news outlets reminded us that there are still some smart people among us.  The Los Angeles Times was kind enough to publish an interview with Elizabeth Warren, conducted by Jim Puzzanghera.  President Obama decided to appoint Professor Warren to launch the newly-created Consumer Financial Protection Bureau out of fear that a protracted confirmation battle would ensue if he appointed her as director of that agency.  With non-stop news coverage currently focused on the recent disclosures of fraudulent conduct extending from the mortgage origination process right through the foreclosure process, it would seem that the election-eve interview would provide an opportunity to assail the targets of the new agency.  When asked whether she would support the scattergun approach of seeking a nationwide foreclosure moratorium “while bank paperwork problems are being worked out”, Professor Warren gave us a glimpse of some traits we haven’t seen in a while:  restraint and common sense.  Here is her response to that tough question:

This agency will not veer from its support of American families, whether it’s in the foreclosure crisis or elsewhere.  But no one would want this agency … to act before it had collected all of the necessary data and thought through the options.  The (state) attorneys general are moving fast, and at this moment, I think that’s the right response … with emphasis on “at this moment.”

Professor Warren wasn’t the only smart person to draw some curiosity from the ADD-addled news media this week.  My favorite stock market guru, Jeremy Grantham, released his latest Quarterly Letter on Tuesday.  Its Halloween-based theme made it impossible to overlook.  As usual, Mr. Grantham gave us his unique, brilliant perspective in exposing how the Federal Reserve’s reckless (if not actually criminal) monetary policy helped cause the financial crisis and how Chairman Bernanke’s anticipated move toward more quantitative easing could make a bad situation worse.  Here are a few gems from Grantham’s must-read essay:

And these are most decidedly not normal times.  The unusual number of economic and financial problems has put extreme pressure on the Fed and the Administration to help the economy recover.  The atypical disharmony in Congress, however, has made the Federal government dysfunctional, and almost nothing significant – good or bad – can be done. Standard fiscal stimulus at a level large enough to count now seems impossible, even in the face of an economy that is showing signs of sinking back as the original stimulus wears off. This, of course, puts an even bigger burden on the Fed and induces, it seems, a state of panic.  Thus, the Fed falls back on its last resort – quantitative easing.  This has been used so rarely that its outcome is generally recognized as uncertain.

*   *   *

And of all of the many mistakes of the current Administration, the worst, in my opinion, are directly related to this fiasco:  the inexplicable choice of Geithner, who was actually placed at the scene of the crime in New York and whose fingerprints were on the murder weapon, and the reappointment of  … gulp … Bernanke himself, about whose reappointment much juicy Republican criticism was made, all of it completely justified in my view.  There may, however, be a small ray of hope.  The recent Fed appointee, Vice Chair Janet Yellen, said not long ago, “Of course asset bubbles must be taken seriously!”  She also said, “It is conceivable that accommodative monetary policy could provide tinder for a buildup of leverage and excessive risk taking.”  Yes, sir!  Or rather, madam!  A promising start.  These sentiments, of course, are completely contrary to the oft-repeated policies of Greenspan and his chief acolyte, Bernanke.  Perhaps she will slap some good sense into her boss on this issue.

*   *   *

Since it is customary in polite society to apologize for causing distress, on behalf of the Fed, let me apologize for the extraordinary destructiveness of its policies for the last 15 years.  Bernanke’s version of an apology, delivered in January this year to the American Economic Association, was to claim that the Fed’s monetary policy during the 2000-08 period was appropriate, and that there were no major failings, such as missing the housing bubble completely, that were worth mentioning.  This stubbornness in the face of clear data is right up there with efficient market believers.  And very impolite indeed.

Now I have to go back to waiting another three months for Jeremy Grantham’s next Quarterly Letter.  As always, the current one will be tough to beat.  In the mean time, it’s nice to know that there are some smart people around, capable of providing solutions to our most pressing problems.  If only those vested with the authority to implement those ideas were paying attention   .   .   .



A Wake-up Call From Dennis Blair

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February 19, 2009

Although President Obama has been criticized for many of his appointments, the selection of retired Admiral Dennis Blair as Director of National Intelligence appears to have been a wise choice.  Blair graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1968.  He attended Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar contemporaneously with Bill Clinton.  (However, I doubt that Blair was standing next to Bill when the former President “didn’t inhale”.)  Blair retired from the Navy in 2002.

On Thursday, February 12, Blair appeared before the Senate Intelligence Committee and surprised his audience with his new threat assessment.  As Tom Gjelten reported for National Public Radio:

National Intelligence Director Dennis Blair’s dramatic report last week — that the economic crisis is now the United States’ top “near-term security concern” — caught some members of Congress by surprise.  But it makes sense.

The global economic downturn could easily change the world. Previously stable countries could become unstable.  The geopolitical lineup could shift sharply, some countries becoming more powerful while others get weaker.  Allies could turn into adversaries.

Pamela Hess of the Associated Press provided this account of the hearing:

Blair’s 49-page statement opened with a detailed description of the economic crisis.  It was a marked departure from threat briefings of years past, which focused first on traditional threats and battlefields like Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan.

“The primary near-term security concern of the United States is the global economic crisis and its geopolitical implications,” he said in a written statement for the committee.

Blair cited the inability of other nations to meet their humanitarian obligations and hostility toward the United States for causing this crisis as potential causes for unrest, as this AFP report disclosed:

“Statistical modeling shows that economic crises increase the risk of regime-threatening instability if they persist over a one to two year period,” Blair said.

“Besides increased economic nationalism, the most likely political fallout for US interests will involve allies and friends not being able to fully meet their defense and humanitarian obligations.”

*   *   *

“It already has increased questioning of US stewardship of the global economy and the international financial structure,” Blair said, with trading partners already upset over a “Buy American” provision in a US stimulus bill.

Rosalie Westenskow of UPI noted Blair’s concern that the impact of climate change, coinciding with the economic crisis, could provide a troublesome combination to facilitate government instability:

“The impacts (of climate change) will worsen existing problems such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership and weak political institutions,” Blair told senators last week.

As temperatures rise, scientists predict natural disasters like floods and drought will also increase and government instability worldwide is likely to follow, he said.

On February 17, during an interview in Tokyo with Martha Raddatz of ABC News, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ratified Blair’s concern about the security threat posed by the global economic crisis:

“Yes, we have to look at this as part of our threat matrix,” the secretary of state said.  “I know some people have criticized him and said, ‘what does the economy have to do with terrorism.’ That’s a very short-sighted view.  I think what director Blair was saying is that we get fixated sometimes on the headlines of dangers, and that is not in any way to underestimate the continuing threat from terrorism, the instability in the Middle East and Afghanistan and Pakistan and elsewhere.”

“But this economic crisis, left unresolved, will create massive unemployment,” she said.  “It will upend governments, it will unfortunately breed instability, and I appreciated his putting that into the context of the threat matrix.”

It’s nice to know that we have an intelligence director who is not wedded to the Bush administration’s fixation on September 11 -style attacks.  As this February 16 editorial from the San Francisco Chronicle pointed out:

The new threat isn’t as easy to identify – or vilify – as al Queda, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less serious.

*    *    *

No one knows what form the next wave of instability will take. The United States must start making preparations now – by shoring up our own flailing economy and supporting our allies as much as we possibly can.  Blair’s warning shows how dangerous it will be for Washington to continue battling along the same tired ideological lines that it has for the last several weeks.  This economic crisis could be putting more than our wallets at risk.

Of course, we don’t really need another reason to stay awake at night and worry.  Fortunately, we now have someone in a crucial position, capable of identifying and focusing on new threats.  Thanks for the “heads up” Admiral Blair!