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Obama And The TARP

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I always enjoy it when a commentator appearing on a talk show reminds us that President Obama has become a “tool” for the Wall Street bankers.  This theme is usually rebutted with the claim that the TARP bailout happened before Obama took office and that he can’t be blamed for rewarding the miscreants who destroyed our economy.  Nevertheless, this claim is not entirely true.  President Bush withheld distribution of one-half of the $700 billion in TARP bailout funds, deferring to his successor’s assessment of the extent to which the government should intervene in the banking crisis.  As it turned out, during the final weeks of the Bush Presidency, Hank Paulson’s Treasury Department declared that there was no longer an “urgent need” for the TARP bailouts to continue.  Despite that development, Obama made it clear that anyone on Capitol Hill intending to get between the banksters and that $350 billion was going to have a fight on their hands.  Let’s jump into the time machine and take a look at my posting from January 19, 2009 – the day before Obama assumed office:

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Of course, we all know how that worked out  .   .   .  another Obama promise bit the dust.

The new President’s efforts to enrich the Wall Street banks at taxpayer expense didn’t end with TARP.  By mid-April of 2009, the administration’s “special treatment” of those “too big to fail” banks was getting plenty of criticism.  As I wrote on April 16 of that year:

Criticism continues to abound concerning the plan by Turbo Tim and Larry Summers for getting the infamous “toxic assets” off the balance sheets of our nation’s banks.  It’s known as the Public-Private Investment Program (a/k/a:  PPIP or “pee-pip”).

*   *   *

One of the harshest critics of the PPIP is William Black, an Economics professor at the University of Missouri.  Professor Black gained recognition during the 1980s while he was deputy director of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC).

*   *   *

I particularly enjoyed Black’s characterization of the PPIP’s use of government (i.e. taxpayer) money to back private purchases of the toxic assets:

It is worse than a lie.  Geithner has appropriated the language of his critics and of the forthright to support dishonesty.  That is what’s so appalling — numbering himself among those who convey tough medicine when he is really pandering to the interests of a select group of banks who are on a first-name basis with Washington politicians.

The current law mandates prompt corrective action, which means speedy resolution of insolvencies.  He is flouting the law, in naked violation, in order to pursue the kind of favoritism that the law was designed to prevent.  He has introduced the concept of capital insurance, essentially turning the U.S. taxpayer into the sucker who is going to pay for everything.  He chose this path because he knew Congress would never authorize a bailout based on crony capitalism.

Although President Obama’s hunt for Osama bin Laden was a success, his decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – became Obama’s own “Tora Bora moment”, at which point he allowed economic recovery to continue on its elusive path away from us.  Economist Steve Keen recently posted this video, explaining how Obama’s failure to promote an effective stimulus program has guaranteed us something worse than a “double-dip” recession:  a quadruple-dip recession.

Many commentators are currently discussing efforts by Republicans to make sure that the economy is in dismal shape for the 2012 elections so that voters will blame Obama and elect the GOP alternative.  If Professor Keen is correct about where our economy is headed, I can only hope there is a decent Independent candidate in the race.  Otherwise, our own “lost decade” could last much longer than ten years.


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Plagiarism 101

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February 15, 2010

There has been plenty of excitement recently concerning the resignation of Gerald Posner from The Daily Beast as a result of a plagiarism scandal.  Here’s how Posner described it in his own words:

Last Friday, Jack Shafer in Slate ran an article pinpointing five sentences from one of my stories in The Daily Beast, which I admitted met the definition of plagiarism and I accepted full responsibility for that error, an incident I called “accidental plagiarism.”  On Monday, he had found other examples, and although I disagreed with some of his characterizations, I again accepted full accountability.

When The Daily Beast had asked me last Friday if there were any more problems than the five original sentences highlighted by Shafer, I had confidently told them, “No.”  It was not because I had subjected my own articles to so-called plagiarism software, or because I was in denial about any deliberate plagiarism.

*   *   *

This afternoon I received a call from Edward Felsenthal, the excellent managing editor of The Daily Beast.  He informed me that as part of the Beast’s internal investigation, they had uncovered more instances in earlier articles of mine in which there the same problems of apparent plagiarism as the ones originally brought to life last Friday by Shafer.  I instantly offered my resignation and Edward accepted.

This event created quite a stir in the blogosphere, where plagiarism is commonplace.  Although most bloggers follow the “fair use” standard, which allows for quoting a limited portion of published material only when identifying the original publisher of that material (attribution), a good number of bloggers are more than sloppy about it.  In the case of the Associated Press, they don’t want you quoting anything.  This is due to the nature of their business model.  There is no single publication called “The Associated Press” nor is there any single Associated Press website that runs all of its stories.  The AP makes its money by selling its stories to media outlets for republication under an AP byline.  I recently adopted a policy of simply pointing out that “Jane Doe did a story for the Associated Press concerning XYZ” with a link to the story.

Gerald Posner admitted that Jack Shafer of Slate exposed what Posner described as “accidental plagiarism”.   On February 11, Shafer responded by presenting an argument that Posner is a “serial plagiarist”.  Shafer went on to explain how plagiarism not only causes harm to the author of the poached writing — it also causes harm to the readers:

In an essay published by Media Ethics (fall 2006), Edward Wasserman attacks the wrong of plagiarism at its roots.  Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work.  But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers.  By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny “the public insight into how key facts come to light” and undermines the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts.  In Wasserman’s view, plagiarism violates the very “truth-seeking and truth-telling” mission of journalism.

From The Atlantic Wire website, John Hudson implied that Jack Shafer didn’t have any particular vendetta against Posner; Shafer was simply sticking to his mission of exposing lapses in media ethics:

Shafer has made a habit of pushing journalists to be more accurate and responsible from his post at Slate’s Press Box, a column devoted to media criticism.  Voices like his are increasingly crucial as journalistic mores shift, with Shafer both demonstrating and explaining how Web writing can work.

Nothing beats a good scandal — but when the scandal involves a scandal-breaker, there seems to be a bit of karma happening.

At the ScienceBlogs website, Razib Kahn characterized the Posner situation as more a problem of being pathologically dumb than being a pathological plagiarist:

The Ben Domenech case actually shows that yes, internet-age plagiarists can be pathologically dumb.  There are plenty of cases of small-time plagiarists; my friend Randall Parker of FuturePundit was pointed to another blogger who was copying his posts almost verbatim.  Small potatoes.  But if you’re a professional journalist, you’re going to get caught if you have any prominence if people can compare the text on the internet.

I think catching people plagiarizing like this is a good sign that there are some mental peculiarities at work here; cognitive biases if you will.  This isn’t cheating on college papers, unethical as it is, this is being unethical for short-term gains when there’s a very high probability that you’ll be caught and humiliated in public in the long-term.

Being called unethical is something that Posner had probably been expecting — but being called dumb has to really hurt!



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The Weakest Link

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November 2, 2009

Everything was supposed to be getting “back to normal” by now.  Since late July, we’ve been hearing that the recession is over.  When the Gross Domestic Product number for the third quarter was released on Thursday, we again heard the ejaculations of enthusiasm from those insisting that the recession has ended.  Investors were willing to overlook the most recent estimate that another 531,000 jobs were lost during the month of October, so the stock market got a boost.  Nevertheless, as was widely reported, the Cash for Clunkers program added 1.66 percent to the 3.5 percent Gross Domestic Product annualized rate increase.  Since Cash for Clunkers was a short-lived event, something else will be necessary to fill its place, stimulating economic activity.  Once that sobering aspect of the story was absorbed, Friday morning’s news informed us that consumer spending had dropped for the first time in five months.  The Associated Press provided this report:

Economists worry that the recovery could falter in coming months if households cut back on spending to cope with rising unemployment, heavy debt loads and tight credit conditions.

“With incomes so soft, increased spending will be a struggle,” Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S.economist at High Frequency Economics, wrote in a note to clients.

The Commerce Department said Friday that spending dropped 0.5% in September, the first decline in five months.  Personal incomes were unchanged as workers contend with rising unemployment.  Wages and salaries fell 0.2%, erasing a 0.2% gain in August.

Another report showed that employers face little pressure to raise pay, even as the economy recovers.  The weak labor market makes it difficult for people with jobs to demand higher pay and benefits.

*   *   *

. . .  some economists believe that consumer spending will slow sharply in the current quarter, lowering GDP growth to perhaps 1.5%.  Analysts said the risk of a double-dip recession cannot be ruled out over the next year.

With unemployment as bad as it is, those who have jobs need to be mindful of the Sword of Damocles, as it hangs perilously over their heads.  As the AP report indicated, employers are now in an ideal position to exploit their work force.  Worse yet, as Mish pointed out:

Personal income decreased $15.5 billion (0.5 percent), while real disposable personal income decreased 3.4 percent, in contrast to an increase of 3.8 percent last quarter. Those are horrible numbers.

The war on the American consumer finally bit Wall Street in the ass on Friday when the S&P 500 index took a 2.8 percent nosedive.  When mass layoffs become the magic solution to make dismal corporate earnings reports appear positive, when the consumer is treated as a chump by regulatory agencies, lobbyists and government leaders, the consumer stops fulfilling the designated role of consuming.  When that happens, the economy stands still.  As Renae Merle reported for The Washington Post:

“The government handed the ball off to the consumer and the consumer fell on it,” said Robert G. Smith, chairman of Smith Affiliated Capital in New York. “This is a function of there being no jobs and wages going lower.”

The sell-off on the stock market also reflected a report released Friday showing a decline in consumer sentiment this month, analysts said.  The Reuters/University of Michigan consumer sentiment index fell to 70.6 in October, compared with 73.5 in September.

Rich Miller of Bloomberg News discussed the resulting apprehension experienced by investors:

Only 31 percent of respondents to a poll of investors and analysts who are Bloomberg subscribers in the U.S., Europe and Asia see investment opportunities, down from 35 percent in the previous survey in July.  Almost 40 percent in the latest quarterly survey, the Bloomberg Global Poll, say they are still hunkering down.  U.S. investors are even more cautious, with more than 50 percent saying they are in a defensive crouch.

*   *   *

Worldwide, investors and analysts now view the U.S. as the weak link in the global economy, with its markets seen as among the riskiest by a plurality of those surveyed.  One in four respondents expects an unemployment rate of 11 percent or more a year from now, compared with a U.S. administration forecast of 9.7 percent.  The jobless rate now is 9.8 percent, a 26-year high.

Even before the release of “good news” on Thursday followed by Friday’s bad news, stock analysts who base their trading decisions primarily on reading charts, could detect indications of continuing market decline, as Michael Kahn explained for Barron’s last Wednesday.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis continues to generate criticism from across the political spectrum while breeding dissent from within.  As I said last month, the administration’s current strategy is a clear breach of candidate Obama’s campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  The widespread opposition to the administration’s proposed legislation to regulate (read that: placate) large financial companies was discussed by Stephen Labaton for The New York Times:

Senior regulators and some lawmakers clashed once again with the Obama administration on Thursday, finding fault with central elements of the White House’s latest plan to unwind large financial companies when their troubles imperil the financial system.

The Times article focused on criticism of the administration’s plan, expressed by Sheila Bair, chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  As Mr.Labaton noted, shortly after Mr. Obama was elected President, Turbo Tim Geithner began an unsuccessful campaign to have Ms. Bair replaced.

On Friday, economist James K. Galbraith was interviewed by Bill Moyers.  Here’s what Professor Galbraith had to say about the Obama administration’s response to the economic crisis:

They made a start, and certainly in the stimulus package, there were important initiatives.  But the stimulus package is framed as a stimulus, as something which is temporary, which will go away after a couple of years.  And that is not the way to proceed here.  The overwhelming emphasis, in the administration’s program, I think, has been to return things to a condition of normalcy, to use a 1920s word, that prevailed five and ten years ago.  That is to say, we’re back to a world in which Wall Street and the major banks are leading, and setting the path–

*   *   *

. . . they’ve largely been preoccupied with keeping the existing system from collapsing.  And the government is powerful.  It has substantially succeeded at that, but you really have to think about, do you want to have a financial sector dominated by a small number of very large institutions, very difficult to manage, practically impossible to regulate, and ruled by, essentially, the same people and the same culture that caused the crisis in the first place.

BILL MOYERS:  Well, that’s what we’re getting, because after all of the mergers, shakedowns, losses of the last year, you have five monster financial institutions really driving the system, right?

JAMES GALBRAITH:  And they’re highly profitable, and they are already paying, in some cases, extraordinary bonuses.  And you have an enormous problem, as the public sees very clearly that a very small number of people really have been kept afloat by public action .  And yet there is no visible benefit to people who are looking for jobs or people who are looking to try and save their houses or to somehow get out of a catastrophic personal debt situation that they’re in.

This is just another illustration of how “trickle down economics” doesn’t work.  President Obama knows better.  He told us that he would not follow that path.  Yet, here we are:  a country viewed as the weak link in the global economy because the well-being of those institutions considered “too big to fail” is the paramount concern of this administration.



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An Ominous Drumbeat Gets Louder

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August 13, 2009

Regular readers of this blog (all four of them) know that I have been very skeptical about the current “bear market rally” in the stock markets.  Nevertheless, the rally has continued.  However, we are now beginning to hear opinions from experts claiming that not only is this rally about to end — we could be headed for some real trouble.

Some commentators are currently discussing “The September Effect” and looking at how the stock market indices usually drop during the month of September.  Brett Arends gave us a detailed history of the September Effect in Tuesday’s edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Throughout the summer rally, a number of analysts focused on the question of how this rally could be taken seriously with such thin trading volume.  When the indices dropped on Monday, many blamed the decline on the fact that it was the lowest volume day for 2009.  However, take a look at Kate Gibson’s discussion of this situation for MarketWatch:

One market technician believes trading volume in recent days on the S&P 500 is a sign that the broad market gauge will test last month’s lows, then likely fall under its March low either next month or in October.

The decline in volume started on Friday and suggests the S&P 500 will make a new low beneath its July 8 bottom of 869.32, probably next week, on the way to a test in September or October of its March 6 intraday low of 666.79, said Tony Cherniawski, chief investment officer at Practical Investor, a financial advisory firm.

“In a normal breakout, you get rising volume. In this case, we had rising volume for a while; then it really dropped off last week,” said Cherniawski, who ascribes the recent rise in equities to “a huge short-covering rally.”

The S&P has rallied more than 50 percent from its March lows, briefly slipping in late June and early July.

Friday’s rise on the S&P 500 to a new yearly high was not echoed on the Nasdaq Composite Index, bringing more fodder to the bearish side, Cherniawski said.

“Whenever you have tops not confirmed by another major index, that’s another sign something fishy is going on,” he said.

What impressed me about Mr. Cherniawski’s statement is that, unlike most prognosticators, he gave us a specific time frame of “next week” to observe a 137-point drop in the S&P 500 index, leading to a further decline “in September or October” to the Hadean low of 666.

At CNNMoney.com, the question was raised as to whether the stock market had become the latest bubble created by the Federal Reserve:

The Federal Reserve has spent the past year cleaning up after a housing bubble it helped create.  But along the way it may have pumped up another bubble, this time in stocks.

*   *   *

But while most people take the rise in stocks as a hopeful sign for the economy, some see evidence that the Fed has been financing a speculative mania that could end in another damaging rout.

One important event that gave everyone a really good scare took place on Tuesday’s Morning Joe program on MSNBC.  Elizabeth Warren, Chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel (responsible for scrutiny of the TARP bailout program) discussed the fact that the “toxic assets” which had been the focus of last fall’s financial crisis, were still on the books of the banks.  Worse yet, “Turbo” Tim Geithner’s PPIP (Public-Private Investment Program) designed to relieve the banks of those toxins, has now morphed into something that will help only the “big” banks (Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan, et al.) holding “securitized” mortgages.  The banks not considered “too big to fail”, holding non-securitized “whole” loans, will now be left to twist in the wind on Geithner’s watch.  The complete interview can be seen here.  This disclosure resulted in some criticism of the Obama administration, coming from sources usually supportive of the current administration. Here’s what The Huffington Post had to say:

Warren, who’s been leading the call of late to reconcile the shoddy assets weighing down the bank sector, warned of a looming commercial mortgage crisis.  And even though Wall Street has steadied itself in recent weeks, smaller banks will likely need more aid, Warren said.

Roughly half of the $700 billion bailout, Warren added, was “don’t ask, don’t tell money. We didn’t ask how they were going to spend it, and they didn’t tell how they were going to spend it.”

She also took a passing shot at Tim Geithner – at one point, comparing Geithner’s handling of the bailout money to a certain style of casino gambling.  Geithner, she said, was throwing smaller portions of bailout money at several economic pressure points.

“He’s doing the sort of $2 bets all over the table in Vegas,” Warren joked.

David Corn, a usually supportive member of the White House press corps, reacted with indignation over Warren’s disclosures in an article entitled:  “An Economic Time Bomb Being Mishandled by the Obama Administration?”  He pulled no punches:

What’s happened is that accounting changes have made it easier for banks to contend with these assets. But this bad stuff hasn’t gone anywhere.  It’s literally been papered over. And it still has the potential to wreak havoc.  As the report puts it:

If the economy worsens, especially if unemployment remains elevated or if the commercial real estate market collapses, then defaults will rise and the troubled assets will continue to deteriorate in value.  Banks will incur further losses on their troubled assets.  The financial system will remain vulnerable to the crisis conditions that TARP was meant to fix.

*   *   *

In a conference call with a few reporters (myself included), Elizabeth Warren, the Harvard professor heading the Congressional Oversight Panel, noted that the biggest toxic assets threat to the economy could come not from the behemoth banks but from the “just below big” banks.  These institutions have not been the focus of Treasury efforts because their troubled assets are generally “whole loans” (that is, regular loans), not mortgage securities, and these less-than-big banks have been stuck with a lot of the commercial real estate loans likely to default in the next year or two.  Given that the smaller institutions are disproportionately responsible for providing credit to small businesses, Warren said, “if they are at risk, that has implications for the stability of the entire banking system and for economic recovery.”  Recalling that toxic assets were once the raison d’etre of TARP, she added, “Toxic assets posed a very real threat to our economy and have not yet been resolved.”

Yes, you’ve heard about various government efforts to deal with this mess.  With much hype, Secretary Timothy Geithner in March unveiled a private-public plan to buy up this financial waste.  But the program has hardly taken off, and it has ignored a big chunk of the problem (those”whole loans”).

*   *   *

The Congressional Oversight Panel warned that “troubled assets remain a substantial danger” and that this junk–which cannot be adequately valued–“can again become the trigger for instability.”  Warren’s panel does propose several steps the Treasury Department can take to reduce the risks.  But it’s frightening that Treasury needs to be prodded by Warren and her colleagues, who characterized troubled assets as “the most serious risk to the American financial system.”

On Wednesday morning’s CNBC program, Squawk Box, Nassim Taleb (author of the book, Black Swan — thus earning that moniker as his nickname) had plenty of harsh criticism for the way the financial and economic situations have been mishandled.  You can see the interview with him and Nouriel Roubini here, along with CNBC’s discussion of his criticisms:

“It is a matter of risk and responsibility, and I think the risks that were there before, these problems are still there,” he said. “We still have a very high level of debt, we still have leadership that’s literally incompetent …”

“They did not see the problem, they don’t look at the core of problem.  There’s an elephant in the room and they did not identify it.”

Pointing his finger directly at Fed Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and President Obama, Taleb said policymakers need to begin converting debt into equity but instead are continuing the programs that created the financial crisis.

“I don’t think that structural changes have been addressed,” he said.  “It doesn’t look like they’re fully aware of the problem, or they’re overlooking it because they don’t want to take hard medicine.”

With Bernanke’s term running out, Taleb said Obama would be making a mistake by reappointing the Fed chairman.

Just in case you aren’t scared yet, I’d like to direct your attention to Aaron Task’s interview with stock market prognosticator, Robert Prechter, on Aaron’s Tech Ticker internet TV show, which can be seen at the Yahoo Finance site.  Here’s how some of Prechter’s discussion was summarized:

“The big question is whether the rally is over,” Prechter says, suggesting “countertrend moves can be tricky” to predict.  But the veteran market watcher is “quite sure the next wave down is going to be larger than what we’ve already experienced,” and take major averages well below their March 2009 lows.

“Well below” the Hadean low of 666?  Now that’s really scary!

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.

The Second Stimulus

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July 9, 2009

It’s a subject that many people are talking about, but not many politicians want to discuss.  It appears as though a second economic stimulus package will be necessary to save our sinking economy and get people back to work.  Because of the huge deficits already incurred in responding to the financial meltdown, along with the $787 billion price tag for the first stimulus package and because of the President’s promise to get healthcare reform enacted, there aren’t many in Congress who are willing to touch this subject right now, although some are.  A July 7 report by Shamim Adam for Bloomberg News quoted Laura Tyson, an economic advisor to President Obama, as stating that last February’s $787 billion economic stimulus package was “a bit too small”.  Ms. Tyson gave this explanation:

“The economy is worse than we forecast on which the stimulus program was based,” Tyson, who is a member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory board, told the Nomura Equity Forum.  “We probably have already 2.5 million more job losses than anticipated.”

As Victoria McGrane reported for Politico, other Democrats are a bit uncomfortable with this subject:

Democrats are all over the map on the stimulus and the possibility of a sequel, and it’s not hard to see why:  When it comes to a second stimulus, they may be damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

Kevin Hall and David Lightman reported for the McLatchy Newspapers that at least one high-ranking Democrat was keeping an open mind about the subject:

“I think we need to be open to whether we need additional action,” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Tuesday.  “We need to continue to focus on bringing the economy back to a place where we’re not losing jobs.”

An informative article by Theo Francis and Elise Craig, in the July 7 issue of Business Week, explained the real-world difficulties in putting the original stimulus to work:

Dispensing billions of dollars, it turns out, simply takes time, particularly given government contracting rules and the fact that much of federal spending is funneled through the states. Moreover, some spending was intentionally spread out over several years, and other projects are fundamentally more long-term in nature.  “There are real constraints — physical, legal, and then just the process of how fast you can commit funds,” says George Guess, co-director of the Center for Public Finance Research at American University’s School of Public Affairs.  “It’s the way it works in a decentralized democracy, and that’s what we’re stuck with.”

Nevertheless, from the very beginning, when the stimulus was first proposed and through last spring, many economists and other commentators voiced their criticism that the $787 billion stimulus package was simply inadequate to deal with the disaster it was meant to address.  Back on December 28, Nobel laureate Paul Krugman explained on Face The Nation, that a stimulus package in the $675-775 billion range would fall short:

So you do the math and you say, you know, even these enormous numbers we’re hearing about are probably enough to mitigate but by no means to reverse the slump we’re heading into.

On July 5, Professor Krugman emphasized the need for a second stimulus:

The problem, in other words, is not that the stimulus is working more slowly than expected; it was never expected to do very much this soon.  The problem, instead, is that the hole the stimulus needs to fill is much bigger than predicted.  That — coupled with the fact that yes, stimulus takes time to work — is the reason for a second round, ASAP.

Another Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, pointed out for Bloomberg TV back on January 8, that the President-elect’s proposed stimulus would be inadequate to heal the ailing economy:

“It will boost it,” Stiglitz said.  “The real question is — is it large enough and is it designed to address all the problems.  The answer is almost surely it is not enough, particularly as he’s had to compromise with the Republicans.”

On February 26, Economics Professor James Galbarith pointed out in an interview that the stimulus plan was inadequate.

On January 19, financier George Soros contended that even an $850 billion stimulus would not be enough:

“The economies of the world are falling off a cliff.  This is a situation that is comparable to the 1930s. And once you recognize it, you have to recognize the size of the problem is much bigger,” he said.

Despite all these warnings, as well as a Bloomberg survey conducted in early February, revealing the opinions of economists that the stimulus would be inadequate to avert a two-percent economic contraction in 2009, the President stuck with the $787 billion plan.  He is now in the uncomfortable position of figuring out how and when he can roll out a second stimulus proposal.

President Obama should have done it right the first time.  His penchant for compromise — simply for the sake of compromise itself — is bound to bite him in the ass on this issue, as it surely will on health care reform — should he abandon the “public option”.  The new President made the mistake of assuming that if he established a reputation for being flexible, his opposition would be flexible in return.  The voting public will perceive this as weak leadership.  As a result, President Obama will need to re-invent this aspect of his public image before he can even consider presenting a second economic stimulus proposal.

The World Holds Its Breath

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January 19, 2009

All over the world, people are waiting with abated breath as the Obama Presidency begins.  Some thought it would never happen.  I have often wondered whether, at the last minute, the Bush-Cheney junta might decide that it does not want to give up its authority.  Would they contrive some sort of “national security emergency” as a pretext for declaring martial law and suspending the Constitution?  Such a tactic would be entirely consistent with what we have seen for the past eight years.  Surely, there must be some provision buried in the so-called “Patriot Act” allowing the Bush-Cheney regime to continue, despite the expiration of its Constitutionally-prescribed existence.  Constitutional restrictions to unlimited executive power have been ignored by the outgoing administration for the past eight years.  Why should now be any different?  My skepticism on this matter will continue until Barack Obama completes his recitation of the Presidential Oath.

In the mean time, there are those who question whether President Obama will really deliver on his promise of change.  From the liberal side of the political spectrum, plenty of opinions have been published (by reputable commentators) expressing apprehension as to what likely will happen and what actually may not happen during Obama’s tenure in the White House.

On January 18, Salon.com featured an article by David Sirota entitled:  “Obama Sells Out to Wall Street”.  Mr. Sirota expressed his concern over Obama’s accelerated push to have immediate authority to dispense the remaining $350 billion available under the TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program) bailout:

Somehow, immediately releasing more bailout funds is being portrayed as a self-evident necessity, even though the New York Times reported this week that “the Treasury says there is no urgent need” for additional money.  Somehow, forcing average $40,000-aires to keep giving their tax dollars to Manhattan millionaires is depicted as the only “serious” course of action.  Somehow, few ask whether that money could better help the economy by being spent on healthcare or public infrastructure.  Somehow, the burden of proof is on bailout opponents who make these points, not on those who want to cut another blank check.

Discomfort about another hasty dispersal of the remaining TARP funds was shared by a few prominent Democratic Senators who, on Thursday, voted against authorizing the immediate release of the remaining $350 billion.  They included Senators Russ Feingold (Wisconsin), Jeanne Shaheen (New Hampshire), Evan Bayh (Indiana) and Maria Cantwell (Washington).  The vote actually concerned a “resolution of disapproval” to block distribution of the TARP money, so that those voting in favor of the resolution were actually voting against releasing the funds.  Earlier last week, Obama had threatened to veto this resolution if it passed.  The resolution was defeated with 52 votes (contrasted with 42 votes in favor of it).  At this juncture, Obama is engaged in a game of “trust me”, assuring those in doubt that the next $350 billion will not be squandered in the same undocumented manner as the first $350 billion.  As Jeremy Pelofsky reported for Reuters on January 15:

To win approval, Obama and his team made extensive promises to Democrats and Republicans that the funds would be used to better address the deepening mortgage foreclosure crisis and that tighter accounting standards would be enforced.

“My pledge is to change the way this plan is implemented and keep faith with the American taxpayer by placing strict conditions on CEO pay and providing more loans to small businesses,” Obama said in a statement, adding there would be more transparency and “more sensible regulations.”

Meanwhile, there is worldwide concern about what Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton can accomplish in the foreign relations and anti-terrorism arenas.  As discussed in an editorial from the January 18 Times of London:

Mr Obama’s biggest immediate challenge is in Afghanistan.  The president is hoping a troop surge, which he opposed in Iraq, will work. However, the prospect of a military solution in Afghanistan is remote and he may learn that the hard way.  In the meantime, he has to hope Iraq does not flare up again and that the Iran nuclear question remains one for diplomacy rather than military conflict.  His drive for a Middle East peace deal is not the first by a US president and nor will it be the last.

As the sun finally rises over the Obama Presidency, there are still plenty of clouds in the sky.  Does this mean we are in for more turmoil?  Some people might take this as a sign that it’s about to start raining money.

Pay Close Attention To This Man

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January 11, 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jackass Of The Year Award

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January 1, 2009

At year’s end, we see retrospectives of the most important events, numerous top ten lists and recognitions of achievement in one area or another.  2008 brought a record level of cynicism to the American people because of the economic catastrophe, the Bernie Madoff scandal and the cartoon-like escapades from the Presidential campaign.  Accordingly, it seems only appropriate to pay homage to the biggest Jackass of the Year.  Since I advertise this website as a “Blago-free zone”, the current Governor of Illinois is automatically disqualified from the competition.  So, let’s take a look at some of the runners-up and finally, the winner of the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our first contestant is John Ensign.  He is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, representing the State of Nevada in the United States Senate.  On November 2, 2008 he appeared on the CBS television program, Face The Nation with Bob Schieffer.  Election day was two days away and Ensign found it necessary to blame the likely Republican losses on the economic downturn.  He described the Republicans’ fate in these terms:

“And we were starting to do very, very well, but when the financial crisis hit, that financial crisis really is — has been a — almost a body blow to Republicans.  And unfortunately, it was allowed to be portrayed that this was a result of deregulation, when in fact it was a result of overregulation.”

That’s right.  Ensign Douchebag thought he could convince the public that the economic crisis was the result of over-regulation of the financial system, rather than the deregulation described by everyone else in the world.  That noble statement certainly rates runner-up status for the Jackass of the Year Award.

Our next contestant is Reverend Jeremiah Wright, former pastor of Chicago’s Trinity United Church of Christ and embarrassment to Barack Obama.  Thank God Reverend Wright’s fifteen minutes of fame are finally over.  Although his infamous sermon with the less-than-patriotic remarks about America was given in 2003, by April of 2008, Rev. Wright made a point of resurrecting the controversy concerning his disappointing association with Barack Obama.   At that time Wright hit the road, appearing on Bill Moyers Journal, speaking before the NAACP and giving a grand performance before the National Press Club.  He made a fool of himself all three times and (perhaps to his disappointment) his bad karma never rubbed off on Barack.  The pastor has also been a disgrace to the name of the Right Reverend Carl Wright (comedic sidekick of Chicago blues maven, Pervis Spann).  Although Jeremiah Wright rated recognition, the competition for the Jackass Award was tough this year.

We cannot overlook the valiant efforts of Joe “The Tool” Lieberman to win this honor.  Although the people of Connecticut elected Joe to represent their state in the Senate, The Tool spent most of 2008 looking like a stray dog, following candidate John McCain around the campaign trial.  You can find my prior rants about Senator Lieberman here, here, here and here.

We must also give consideration to Christopher Cox, the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  John McCain was on to him.  It just wasn’t fair that poor, old Senator McCain took so much heat for pointing out that Cox had to go.  McCain made the mistake of stating that he, as President, would have authority to fire Cox.  Although he was wrong about that, he was right about the notion that Cox had been a problem for the SEC.  On December 16, Jessie Westerbrook of Bloomberg news reported that Cox was blaming his subordinates for the enforcement lapses that allowed the scam, perpetrated by Bernie Madoff, to continue for several years after the SEC should have stopped it.  Cox apparently believes in the doctrine that “the buck stops” several levels below himself on the SEC food chain.  The environment at the SEC, with Cox at the helm, was best summed up in a December 27 article from the Los Angeles Times by Amit Paley and David Hilzenrath.  Here’s what they had to say about the tenure of Chairman Cox and his performance during the economic crisis:

Though Cox speaks of staying calm in the face of financial turmoil, lawmakers across the political spectrum counter that this is actually another way of saying that his agency remained passive during the worst global financial crisis in decades.  And they claim that Cox’s stewardship before this year — focusing on deregulation as the agency’s staff shrank — laid the groundwork for the meltdown.

“The commission in recent years has handcuffed the inspection and enforcement division,” said Arthur Levitt, SEC chairman during the Clinton administration.  “The environment was not conducive to proactive enforcement activity.”

*    *    *

But former officials said enforcement suffered during his tenure.  A pilot program begun last year required enforcement staff to meet with the commissioners before beginning settlement talks in certain cases involving nonfinancial firms.  Some former officials said the change was just one example of new bureaucratic impediments that slowed enforcement work.  The commissioners also made clear that they thought staff members were being too aggressive in some cases, the officials said.

”I think there has been a sentiment communicated to rank-and-file staff, lawyers and accountants that you don’t go after the establishment,” said Ross Albert, a former special counsel in the enforcement division.
*    *    *
An analysis by law firm Morgan, Lewis & Bockius showed that the SEC’s actions against broker-dealers, who serve as intermediaries in financial trades, dropped about 33%, from about 89 cases in fiscal 2007 to 60 cases in fiscal 2008.

Heckuva’ job, Coxey!   Nevertheless, you have been overshadowed in this year’s competition.

The winner of the 2008 Jackass of the Year Award is a professor from Russia, named Igor Panarin.  He is a former member of the KGB, who is apparently so upset over the breakup of the Soviet Union, that for the past ten years, he has been predicting that the United States would also break up.  On December 29, Andrew Osborn reported in The Wall Street Journal that Panarin has been doing two interviews per day, discussing how “an economic and moral collapse will trigger a civil war and the eventual breakup of the U.S.”  The article explained:

Mr. Panarin posits, in brief, that mass immigration, economic decline, and moral degradation will trigger a civil war next fall and the collapse of the dollar.  Around the end of June 2010, or early July, he says, the U.S. will break into six pieces — with Alaska reverting to Russian control.

Worse yet, the other five parts of the country will supposedly become republics that will be part of or under the influence of Canada, the European Union, Mexico, China or Japan.  Osborn’s article included a picture of Panarin’s map, showing how the various segments of the country would be apportioned.  Panarin’s ideas have brought him quite a bit of publicity  . . . and TheCenterLane.com’s Jackass of the Year Award for 2008!  Congratulations, Jackass!

Another Crisis On Obama’s Crowded Front Burner

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December 29, 2008

Barack Obama’s first day as President is still three weeks away.  Nevertheless, on that first day in the Oval Office, he will be expected to focus his attention on a number of crisis situations.  How many are there now?  First, we have the economic crisis and all of its subplots:  infrastructure spending and job creation, stopping the foreclosures, oversight of the TARP giveaway (which should include bringing the TARP thieves to justice), a new economic stimulus package, getting the Securities and Exchange Commission to start doing its job, responding to cries of help from state governments and deciding on what to do about the American automakers.  As if those economic emergencies weren’t enough, the new President will need to multitask his crisis management skills to take on a number of other issues.  These include health care reform, undoing all of Bush’s “midnight” Executive Orders, winding down the Iraq war, building up troop strength in the neglected Afghanistan war and, speaking of neglect, the age-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has again reared its ugly head.

Jeremy Ben-Ami is the Executive Director of J Street, which he describes as “the political arm of the pro-Israel, pro-peace movement”.  On December 27, Mr. Ben-Ami issued the following plea to the Obama administration from the J Street website:

The need for diplomatic engagement goes beyond a short-term ceasefire.  Eight years of American neglect and ineffective diplomacy have led us directly to a moment when the prospects of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hang in the balance and with them the prospects for Israel’s long-term survival as a Jewish, democratic state.

We urge the incoming Obama administration to lead an early and serious effort to achieve a comprehensive diplomatic resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflicts.

This is a fundamental American interest as we too stand to suffer as the situation spirals, rage in the region is directed at the United States, and our regional allies are further undermined.  Our goals must be a Middle East that moves beyond bloody conflicts, an Israel that is secure and accepted in the region, and an America secured by reducing extremism and enhancing stability.  None of these goals are achieved by further escalation.

The December 27 Israeli air strike on the Gaza Strip was code-named:  “Operation Cast Lead”.  Reaction to the strike from the Israeli media ran the spectrum from support to outrage.  On December 28, The Jerusalem Post ran a favorable editorial approving the attack:

The IDF’s mission is not to bring down the Hamas regime, but to bring quiet to the South.  In a sense we are asking Hamas to stop being Hamas. The Islamists need to decide whether they want to go down in flames or are prepared to take on the responsibilities that come with control over the Strip. T hey may give Israel no choice but to topple their administration.

On the other hand, Gideon Levy wrote a scathing commentary on the incident for the December 29 edition of Haaretz:

Once again the commentators sat in television studios yesterday and hailed the combat jets that bombed police stations, where officers responsible for maintaining order on the streets work.  Once again, they urged against letting up and in favor of continuing the assault.  Once again, the journalists described the pictures of the damaged house in Netivot as “a difficult scene.”  Once again, we had the nerve to complain about how the world was transmitting images from Gaza.  And once again we need to wait a few more days until an alternative voice finally rises from the darkness, the voice of wisdom and morality.

On December 28, Barak Ravid of Haaretz provided an excellent, objective “back-story” on the planning and execution of this air strike.  The article explained that prior to the offensive, Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, went to Cairo to inform Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, of Israel’s decision to strike at Hamas.  Ms. Livni is the candidate from the centrist Kadima party who will oppose Likud party stalwart, Benjamin Netanyahu, in the February 10 election for the office of Prime Minister.  Netanyahu had been ahead in the polls, prior to the execution of Operation Cast Lead.  If Israel can avoid a ground war in Gaza, she may win the support of the more hawkish voters who would have voted for Netanyahu.  A televised broadcast by Haaretz in conjunction with Channel 10 News, reported that   “Palestinians said 180 of those killed were Hamas officials, the rest — civilians.”  As of the present time, the total death toll from the assault is believed to be 280.  If 180 of those individuals really were “Hamas officials”, this could work to Livni’s advantage in the upcoming election.

The Obama administration’s diplomatic initiative on this conflict will redefine America’s role in the Middle East.  A December 28 editorial in The Washington Post concluded that the Gaza incident could prove to be a costly distraction from the effort to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions.  Nevertheless, if Hillary Clinton were to dispatch an envoy to Syria to engage the al-Assad regime in getting control over Hamas’ activities in Gaza:  Could this undermine Iranian hegemony in the area?  Ultimately, everyone in the world is hoping that the Obama administration will provide the aggressive diplomacy that has been lacking in the Middle East for the past eight years.  The pressure for immediate results will be just one more headache waiting for him on Day One.