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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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The Conspiracy Against Conspiracy Theories

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January 18, 2010

Cass Sunstein is a Harvard-educated legal scholar who began his career in the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel and moved on to become a Professor at the University of Chicago Law School.  President Obama appointed Mr. Sunstein to the position of Administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.  In case you’re wondering what that bureaucracy does, a visit to its website will reveal this:

The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) is located within the Office of Management and Budget and was created by Congress with the enactment of the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980 (PRA).  OIRA carries out several important functions, including reducing paperwork burdens, reviewing federal regulations, and overseeing policies relating to privacy, information quality, and statistical programs.

On January 12, Daniel Tencer of The Raw Story website, pointed out that Mr. Sunstein co-authored a paper with Adrian Vermule, published in the Journal of Political Philosophy in 2008 entitled, “Conspiracy Theories: Causes and Cures”.  Here is some of what Mr. Tencer had to say about that paper, while quoting fellow critic, Marc Estrin:

Sunstein argued that “government might undertake (legal) tactics for breaking up the tight cognitive clusters of extremist theories.”  He suggested that “government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises, causal logic or implications for political action.”

“We expect such tactics from undercover cops, or FBI,” Estrin writes at the Rag Blog, expressing surprise that “a high-level presidential advisor” would support such a strategy.

Estrin notes that Sunstein advocates in his article for the infiltration of “extremist” groups so that it undermines the groups’ confidence to the extent that “new recruits will be suspect and participants in the group’s virtual networks will doubt each other’s bona fides.”

At Salon.com, Glenn Greenwald (an attorney who has litigated cases based on Constitutional law issues) expressed outrage that President Obama would be so closely tied to someone with such views:

There’s no evidence that the Obama administration has actually implemented a program exactly of the type advocated by Sunstein, though in light of this paper and the fact that Sunstein’s position would include exactly such policies, that question certainly ought to be asked.  Regardless, Sunstein’s closeness to the President, as well as the highly influential position he occupies, merits an examination of the mentality behind what he wrote.  This isn’t an instance where some government official wrote a bizarre paper in college 30 years ago about matters unrelated to his official powers; this was written 18 months ago, at a time when the ascendancy of Sunstein’s close friend to the Presidency looked likely, in exactly the area he now oversees.

*   *   *

What is most odious and revealing about Sunstein’s worldview is his condescending, self-loving belief that “false conspiracy theories” are largely the province of fringe, ignorant Internet masses and the Muslim world.  That, he claims, is where these conspiracy theories thrive most vibrantly, and he focuses on various 9/11 theories — both domestically and in Muslim countries — as his prime example.

It’s certainly true that one can easily find irrational conspiracy theories in those venues, but some of the most destructive “false conspiracy theories” have emanated from the very entity Sunstein wants to endow with covert propaganda power: namely, the U.S. Government itself, along with its elite media defenders.  Moreover, “crazy conspiracy theorist” has long been the favorite epithet of those same parties to discredit people trying to expose elite wrongdoing and corruption.

Sunstein also advocated the use of  “credible independent experts” to be hired and paid by the government to add a veneer of credibility to government positions.  The relevance of this point to the controversy over Jonathan Gruber (the MIT professor who received undisclosed payments to promote the President’s healthcare plan) resulted in a situation where that issue became the most widely-discussed aspect of Greenwald’s piece.  By taking issue with Greenwald, Paul Krugman took advantage of the opportunity to get a little egg on his own face with a blog posting at his New York Times-based site.  Greenwald had no difficulty exposing the flawed rationale of Krugman’s retort on January 16.

I would like to see the debate refocus on the original point:  the idea that the government should get involved in debunking “conspiracy theories”.  That term is used by all types of pundits to invalidate any point of view contrary to their own.  As Daniel Tencer explained in his Raw Story piece, Sunstein used the term “crippled epistemology” to support the contention that people who believe in conspiracy theories have a limited number of sources of information that they trust.  I believe that Sunstein and his ilk have it backwards.  By their constant attempts to tar “the Internet” as the wellspring of so many “conspiracy theories” – they are acting to limit the number of trustworthy sources of information with their own counterintelligence tactics.

The greater question concerns why it would be so important for the government to get involved in this type of activity.  In the case of the 9/11 conspiracy theories, there is the obvious concern that Al Queda or some similarly-inclined group would want to cultivate an online network of kindred spirits who might potentially be of service to such an organization.  Does that mean that anyone who suspects some degree of cover-up concerning some aspect of that tragedy should be treated as a potential “enemy combatant”?  What other “conspiracy groups” would be targeted by such operations?  Who would determine whether a particular conspiracy theory becomes the focus of such an effort and what would be the criteria for making such a determination?  As Glenn Greenwald’s January 15 essay demonstrates, once the government embarks on such a course, there is unlimited potential for abuse.  Worse yet, the government’s use of such tactics should cause any such government “information control” efforts to self-destruct.  Greenwald put it this way:

The reason conspiracy theories resonate so much is precisely that people have learned — rationally — to distrust government actions and statements.  Sunstein’s proposed covert propaganda scheme is a perfect illustration of why that is.  In other words, people don’t trust the Government and “conspiracy theories” are so pervasive precisely because government is typically filled with people like Cass Sunstein, who think that systematic deceit and government-sponsored manipulation are justified by their own Goodness and Superior Wisdom.

In other words, this is a battle the government has already lost.  A program to conspire against conspiracy groups could serve no other purpose but to validate the claims made by those groups.




Just In Time For Labor Day

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September 7, 2009

Friday’s report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, concerning non-farm payrolls for the month of August, left many people squirming.  The “green shoots” crowd usually has no trouble cherry-picking through the monthly BLS reports for something they can spin into happy-sounding news, utilizing the “not as bad as expected” approach.  Nevertheless, the August BLS report portrayed unpleasant conditions, not only for the unemployed but for those currently working full-time in the labor force, as well.

The current unemployment level is a living nightmare for the unemployed individuals and their families.  It also brings some degree of discomfort (although less significant) to those people with money to invest, who are waiting for signs of a sustainable economic upturn before heading back out from the sidelines and into the equities markets.  Both groups got an unvarnished look at the latest BLS data from Dave Rosenberg, Chief Economist at Gluskin Sheff in Toronto.  His September 4 economic commentary: Lunch with Dave, gave us a thorough analysis of the BLS report:

While the Obama economics team is pulling rabbits out of the hat to revive autos and housing, there is nothing they can really do about employment; barring legislation that would prevent companies from continuing to adjust their staffing requirements to the new world order of credit contraction. While nonfarm payrolls were basically in line with the consensus, declining 216,000 in August, there were downward revisions of 49,000 and the details were simply awful.  The fact that 65% of companies are still in the process of cutting their staff loads is quite disturbing — even manufacturing employment fell 63,000 in August, to its lowest level since April 1941 (!), despite the inventory replenishment in the automotive sector and all the excitement over the recent 50+ print in the ballyhooed ISM index.  The fact that temp agency employment is still declining, albeit at a slower pace, alongside the flat workweek and jobless claims stuck at 570,000, are all foreshadowing continued weakness in the labour market ahead.  Until we see signs of a sustained turnaround in the jobs market all bets are off over the sustainability of any economic recovery.

Looking at the details of the Household Survey, Rosenberg found “a rather alarming picture” of what is happening in the labor market:

First, employment in this survey showed a plunge of 392,000, but that number was flattered by a surge in self-employment (whether these newly minted consultants were making any money is another story) as wage & salary workers (the ones that work at companies, big and small) plunged 637,000 — the largest decline since March (when the stock market was testing its lows for the cycle).  As an aside, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also publishes a number from the Household survey that is comparable to the nonfarm survey (dubbed the population and payroll-adjusted Household number), and on this basis, employment sank — brace yourself — by over 1 million, which is unprecedented.  We shall see if the nattering nabobs of positivity discuss that particular statistic in their post-payroll assessments; we are not exactly holding our breath.

Second, the unemployment rate jumped to 9.7% from 9.4% in July, the highest since June 1983 and at the pace it is rising, it will pierce the post-WWII high of 10.8% in time for next year’s midterm election.  And, this has nothing to do with a swelling labour force, which normally accompanies a turnaround in the jobs market — the ranks of the unemployed surged 466,000 last month.

The language of the BLS report itself on this subject demonstrates how the current unemployment crisis is not an “equal opportunity” phenomenon:

Among the major worker groups, the unemployment rates for adult men (10.1 percent), whites (8.9 percent), and Hispanics (13.0 percent) rose in August.  The jobless rates for adult women (7.6 percent), teenagers (25.5 percent), and blacks (15.1 percent) were little changed over the month.  The unemployment rate for Asians was 7.5 percent, not seasonally adjusted. (See tables A-1, A-2, and A-3.)The civilian labor force participation rate remained at 65.5 percent in August.  The employment population ratio, at 59.2 percent, edged down over the month and has declined by 3.5 percentage points since the recession began in December 2007.

Dave Rosenberg added the painful reminder that the unemployment picture always lags behind the end of a recession.  How far behind?  Look at this:

Jobless claims started off August at 554k and closed the month at 570k.  So it seems as though we enter September with the prospect of yet another month of declining payrolls because claims have to break decisively below 500k before jobs stop vanishing and below 400k before the unemployment rate stops rising.  Remember, in the early 1990s credit crunch the recession ended in March 1991 and yet the unemployment rate did not peak until June 1992; and in the last cycle, which was an asset deflation phase, the recession ended in November 2001 and yet the jobless rate did not peak until June 2003. So in the last two cycles, it took 15-20 months for the unemployment rate to peak even after the economic downturn officially ended.

At least Mr. Rosenberg had some constructive criticism for the current administration’s efforts at job creation.  It’s one thing to just yell:  “FAIL” and yet, quite another to put some thought into what needs to be done:

Our advice to the Obama team would be to create and nurture a fiscal backdrop that tackles this jobs crisis with some permanent solutions rather than recurring populist short-term fiscal goodies that are only inducing households to add to their burdensome debt loads with no long-term multiplier impacts.  The problem is not that we have an insufficient number of vehicles on the road or homes on the market; the problem is that we have insufficient labour demand.

As for those who are still in the labor force, the situation is also deteriorating, rather than improving.  A report by Carlos Torres for Bloomberg News noted that the “real number” for unemployment is 16.8 percent.  Beyond that, the work week for factory employees is currently 39.8 hours.  It will have to reach 41 hours before we even get a chance to see some changes:

The index of total hours worked, which takes into account changes in payrolls and the workweek, fell 0.3 percent last month to the lowest level since 2003.

“It tells us payrolls aren’t turning positive any time soon,” Joseph LaVorgna, chief  U.S.  economist at Deutsche Bank Securities Inc. in New York, said on a conference call yesterday, referring to the workweek figures. “This wasn’t a friendly report.”

A measure of unemployment, which includes the part-time workers who would prefer a full-time position and people who want work but have given up looking, reached 16.8 percent last month, the highest level in data going back to 1994.

The workweek for factory employees, which held at 39.8 hours last month, leads total payrolls by about three months, LaVorgna said.  Once it reaches at least 41 hours and once payrolls for temporary workers stabilize, then an increase in total employment can be expected months later, he said.

Payrolls for temporary workers started turning down in January 2007, 11 months before the recession began.  They dropped by another 6,500 workers in August, the government’s report showed yesterday.

In other words, the decline in temporary worker payrolls preceded the recession by 11 months!  Worse yet, the payrolls for temporary workers must stabilize before an increase in total employment comes along “months later”.

Meanwhile, at the Financial Times, Sarah O’Connor reports that many people who have jobs must still rely on food stamps to survive:

The number of working Americans turning to free government food stamps has surged as their hours and wages erode, in a stark sign that the recession is inflicting pain on the employed as well as the newly jobless.

*   *   *

The food stamp data suggest that “the labour market problems are more significant than you would expect, given just the unemployment rate”, said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo.  “For me it suggests the consumer is not going to rebound or contribute to economic growth for the next year, as the consumer would in a traditional economic recovery.”

Consumer spending has traditionally been the engine of the US economy, making up about two thirds of GDP.  Economists fear that people may be unwilling to resume that role.

That conclusion is exactly what the “green shoots” enthusiasts don’t seem to understand.  Those who are well-off enough to pay for their groceries with real money will be focused on paying down their credit cards and saving money before they go out to buy another television or jet ski.  If these people have little or no “discretionary income”, then the High Frequency Trading computers on Wall Street can talk to each other all they want — but the stock values will not go up.

Happy Labor Day!



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Invoking Thomas Paine

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August 24, 2009

In January of 1776, Thomas Paine wrote a 48-page pamphlet, entitled:  Common Sense, in which he argued the case that the American colonies should be independent from Britain.  He published the pamphlet anonymously, providing only a hint of authorship with the statement:  “Written by an Englishman”.  This aspect of Paine’s pamphlet brings to mind the debate over the issue of anonymity in the blogosphere, which became quite heated-up this past weekend.  As it turned out, a writer for one of Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers, who uses the surname “Whitehouse”, targeted the Zero Hedge website, accusing its publisher (who uses the pseudonym:  Tyler Durden  —  i.e. Brad Pitt’s character from the movie Fight Club) of being a fellow who was “banned from the securities industry” for making $780 on an “insider” trade.  For whatever reason, Naked Capitalism’s Yves Smith (whose real name is Susan Webber) saw fit to write a posting (now removed from the site) critical of the “messianic zeal and strident tone” of the material at Zero Hedge, despite the fact that Tyler Durden has written many guest posts for her own Naked Capitalism site.  She also criticized the use of pseudonyms by bloggers, particularly at financial sites — because the practice “raises questions about credibility”.  She differentiated her own situation with the explanation that her true identity could be ascertained with only “a modicum of digging”.  Making a point more supportive of Zero Hedge, she shared her suspicion about the motive behind the attempt to identify Tyler Durden as a disgraced trader:

. . . this story is appearing now precisely because Durden is getting to close to some even more damaging stories than he has provided thus far.

Ms. Smith (or Webber) believes that “Tyler Durden” is actually a pseudonym used by a number of writers at Zero Hedge.

As a result of that posting, Naked Capitalism lost one of its best contributors:  Leo Kolivakis of Pension Pulse, whose final contribution to Naked Capitalism can be found here.  Mr. Kolivakis then immediately joined the team at Zero Hedge, providing this explanation.  When reading his posting, be sure to read the comments, which are always entertaining at Zero Hedge.

I enjoy both Naked Capitalism and Zero Hedge and I will continue to keep them both on my blogroll, despite this dust-up.  In response to the intrigue concerning the identity of Tyler Durden, his cohort, Marla Singer submitted this proposed op-ed piece to The New York Times, reminding readers of the anonymous writings by Thomas Paine.

This past weekend brought us another invocation of Thomas Paine, with the publication of a piece entitled:  “Common Sense 2009”, which appeared in The Huffington Post.  The author did not conceal his identity, since he has made a point of generating controversy about himself throughout his life.   He was none other than Larry Flynt.  Flynt began with the explanation that last fall’s financial crisis was caused by the fact that “the financial elite had bribed our legislators to roll back the protections enacted after the Stock Market Crash of 1929”.  He rightfully criticized President Obama for attempting to lay part of the blame for this disaster on “Main Street”.  Beyond that, he noted how Obama continues to facilitate the same bad behavior that started this mess:

To date, no serious legislation has been offered by the Obama administration to correct these problems.

Instead, Obama wants to increase the oversight power of the Federal Reserve.  Never mind that it already had significant oversight power before our most recent economic meltdown, yet failed to take action.  Never mind that the Fed is not a government agency but a cartel of private bankers that cannot be held accountable by Washington.  Whatever the Fed does with these supposed new oversight powers will be behind closed doors.

Obama’s failure to act sends one message loud and clear:  He cannot stand up to the powerful Wall Street interests that supplied the bulk of his campaign money for the 2008 election.  Nor, for that matter, can Congress, for much the same reason.

Larry Flynt then offered a bold solution to break the hold of the plutocracy that has been controlling our country for too long:

I’m calling for a national strike, one designed to close the country down for a day.  The intent?  Real campaign-finance reform and strong restrictions on lobbying.  Because nothing will change until we take corporate money out of politics.  Nothing will improve until our politicians are once again answerable to their constituents, not the rich and powerful.

Let’s set a date.  No one goes to work.  No one buys anything.  And if that isn’t effective — if the politicians ignore us — we do it again.  And again.  And again.

This initiative is a much more effective and constructive use of populist rage than what saw at recent “town hall” meetings and “teabagging” events.  Besides:  If anyone knows what can and cannot be accomplished by “teabagging” –  it’s Larry Flint.

Searching For A Port In A Storm Of Bad Behavior

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August 20, 2009

Since I began complaining about manipulation of the stock markets back on December 18, I’ve been comforted by the fact that a number of bloggers have voiced similar concerns.  At such websites as Naked Capitalism, Zero Hedge, The Market Ticker and others too numerous to mention —  a common theme keeps popping up:  some portion of the extraordinary amounts of money disseminated by the Treasury and the Federal Reserve is obviously being used to manipulate the equities markets.  One paper, released by Precision Capital Management, analyzed the correlation between those days when the Federal Reserve bought back Treasury securities from investment banks and “tape painting” during the final minutes of those trading days on the stock markets.

Eliot “Socks” Spitzer recently wrote a piece for Slate, warning the “small investor” about a “rigged” system, as well as the additional hazards encountered due to routine breaches of the fiduciary duties owed by investment firms to their clients:

Recent rebounds notwithstanding, most people now are asking whether the system is fundamentally rigged.  It’s not just that they have an understandable aversion to losing their life savings when the market crashes; it’s that each of the scandals and crises has a common pattern:  The small investor was taken advantage of by the piranhas that hide in the rapidly moving currents. And underlying this pattern is a simple theme: conflicts of interest that violated the duty the market players had to their supposed clients.

The natural reaction of the retail investor to these hazards and scandals often involves seeking refuge in professionally-managed mutual funds.  Nevertheless, as Spitzer pointed out, the mutual fund alternative has dangers of its own:

Mutual funds charge exorbitant fees that investors have to absorb — fees that dramatically reduce any possibility of outperforming the market and that are set by captive boards of captive management companies, not one of which has been replaced for inadequate performance, violating their duty to guard the interests of the fund investors for whom they supposedly work.

Worse yet, is the fact that mutual funds are now increasing their fees and, in effect, punishing their customers for the poor performance of those funds during the past year.  Financial planner Allan Roth, had this to say at CBS MoneyWatch.com:

After one of the most awful years in the history of the mutual fund industry, when the average U.S. stock fund and international fund fell by 39 percent and 46 percent respectively, you might expect fund companies would give investors a break and lower their fees. But just the opposite is true.

An exclusive analysis for MoneyWatch.com by investment research firm Morningstar shows that over the past year, fund fees have risen in nearly every category.  For stock funds, the fees shot up by roughly 5 percent.

*   *   *

Every penny you pay in fees, of course, lowers your return.  In fact, my research indicates that each additional 0.25 percent in annual fees pushes back your financial independence goal by a year.

What’s more, the only factor that is predictive of a fund’s relative performance against similar funds is fees.  A low-cost domestic stock fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund, just as a low-cost bond fund is likely to outperform an equivalent high-cost fund.   . . .  As fund fees increase, performance decreases.  In fact, fees explained nearly 60 percent of the U.S. stock fund family performance ratings given by Morningstar.  Numerous studies done to predict mutual fund performance indicate that neither the Morningstar rating nor the track record of the fund manager were indicative of future performance.

Another questionable practice in the mutual fund industry — the hiring of “rookies” to manage the funds — was recently placed under the spotlight by Ken Kam for the MSN TopStocks blog:

In this market, it’s going to take skill to make back last year’s losses.  After a 40% loss, it takes a 67% gain just to get back to even. You would think that mutual funds would put their most experienced managers and analysts to work right now.  But according to Morningstar, the managers of 28 out of 48 unique healthcare funds, almost 60%, (see data) have less than five years with their fund.  I think you need to see at least a five-year track record before you can even begin to judge a manager’s worth.

I’m willing to pay for good management that will do something to protect me if the market crashes again.  But I want to see some evidence that I am getting a good manager before I trust them with my money.  I want to see at least a five-year track record.  If I paid for good management and I got a rookie manager with no track record instead, I would be more than a little upset.

Beyond that, John Authers of Morningstar recently wrote an article for the Financial Times, explaining that investors will obtain better results investing in a stock index fund, rather than an “actively managed” equity mutual fund, whether or not that manager is a rookie:

For decades, retail savers have invested in stocks via mutual funds that are actively managed to try to beat an index.  The funds hold about 100 stocks, and can raise or lower their cash holdings, but cannot bet on stocks to go down by selling them short.

This model has, it appears, been savaged by a flock of sheep.

Index investing, which cuts costs by replicating an index rather than trying to beat it, has been gaining in popularity.

Active managers argued that they could raise cash, or move to defensive stocks, in a downturn.  Passive funds would track their index over the edge of the cliff.

But active managers, in aggregate, failed to do better than their indices in 2008.

So …  if you have become too frustrated to continue investing in stocks, be mindful of the fact that equity-based mutual funds have problems of their own.

As for other alternatives:  Ian Wyatt recently wrote a favorable piece about the advantages of exchange-traded funds (ETFs) for  SmallCapInvestor.com.  Nevertheless, if the stocks comprising those ETFs (and the ETFs themselves) are being traded in a “rigged” market, you’re back to square one.  Happy investing!

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

Doubts Concerning The Stock Market Rally

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August 6, 2009

As of today (Wednesday night) the current “bear market rally” continues to surprise people with its longevity.  On the other hand, many news outlets, including The Washington Times and CNBC are declaring a “New Bull Market”.  There seems to be no shortage of commentators proclaiming that the market indices will continue to climb forever.

Back on planet earth, there is a good deal of commentary about the suspicious activity behind this rally.  In my last posting, I discussed the “Plunge Protection Team” or PPT.  Rather than repeat all that, for the benefit of those unfamiliar with the PPT, I will quote the handy definition at the Hamzei Analytics website:

Plunge Protection Team has been the “Working Group” established by law in 1988 to buy the markets should declines get out of control.  It is suspected by many market watchers that PPT has become far more interventionist than was originally intended under the law.  There are no minutes of meetings, no recorded phone conversations, no reports of activities, no announcements of intentions.  It is a secret group including the Chairman of the Federal Reserve, the Secretary of the Treasury, the Head of the SEC, and their surrogates which include some of the large Wall Street firms.  The original objective was to prevent disastrous market crashes.  Lately it seems, they buy the markets when they decide the markets need to be bought, including the equity markets.  Their main resource is the money the Fed prints.  The money is injected into markets via the New York Fed’s Repo desk, which easily shows up in the M-3 numbers, warning intervention was near.  As of April 2006, M-3 is longer reported.

Many of us have looked to the PPT as the driving force behind this rally.  News sources have claimed that the rally is the result of money “coming into the markets from the sidelines” — implying that crisis-wary investors had finally thrown caution to the wind and jumped into the equities markets to partake in the orgy of newfound wealth.  The cash accumulating in the investors’ money market accounts was supposedly being invested in stocks.  This propaganda was quickly debunked by the folks at the Zero Hedge website, with the following revelation:

Most interesting is the correlation between Money Market totals and the listed stock value since the March lows:  a $2.7 trillion move in equities was accompanied by a less than $400 billion reduction in Money Market accounts!

Where, may we ask, did the balance of $2.3 trillion in purchasing power come from?  Why the Federal Reserve of course, which directly and indirectly subsidized U.S.banks (and foreign ones through liquidity swaps) for roughly that amount.  Apparently these banks promptly went on a buying spree to raise the all important equity market, so that the U.S. consumer whose net equity was almost negative on March 31, could have some semblance of confidence back and would go ahead and max out his credit card.

Similar skepticism was voiced by Karl Denninger of The Market Ticker website:

So once again we have The Fed blowing bubbles, this time in the equity markets, with (another) wink and a nod from Congress.  This explains why there has been no “great rush” for individual investors to “get back in”, and it explains why the money market accounts aren’t being drained by individuals “hopping on the bus”, despite the screeching of CNBC and others that you better “buy now or be priced out”, with Larry Kudlow’s “New Bull Market” claim being particularly offensive.

Unfortunately the banksters on Wall Street and the NY Fed did their job too well – by engineering a 50% rally off the bottom in March while revenues continue to tank, personal income is in the toilet and tax receipts are in freefall they have exposed the equity markets for what they have (unfortunately) turned into — a computer-trading rigged casino with the grand lever-meister being housed at the NY Fed.

*   *   *

No, real buying is just that – real buying from real retail investors who believe in the forward prospects for the economy and business, not funny-money Treasury and MBS buying by The Fed from “newly created bank reserves” funneled back into the market via high-speed computers.  The latter is nothing more than a manufactured ramp job that will last only until “the boyz” get to the end of their rope (and yes,that rope does have an end) as the fractional creation machine does run just as well in reverse, and as such “the boyz” cannot allow the trade to run the wrong way lest it literally destroy them (10:1 or more leverage is a real bitch when its working against you!)

Is it coming to an end now?  Nobody can be certain when, but what is certain is that over the last week or so there have been signs of heavy distribution – that is, the selling off of big blocks of stock into the market by these very same “boyz.”  This is not proof that the floor is about to disappear, but it is an absolute certainty that these “players” are protecting themselves from the possibility and making sure that if there is to be a bagholder, it will be you.

Many commentators, including Joseph Saluzzi of Themis Trading, have explained how the practice of computer-driven “High-Frequency Trading” has added approximately 70 percent of “volume” to the equities markets.  This is accomplished because the exchanges pay a quarter-of-a-penny rebate to High-Frequency Trading firms for each order they place, waiving all transaction fees.  As a result, the “big boy” firms, such as J.P. Morgan and Goldman Sachs, will make trades with their own money, buying and selling shares at the same price, simply for the rebates.  Those pennies can add up to hundreds of millions of dollars.

I recently came across a very interesting paper (just over eight pages in length) entitled:  A Grand Unified Theory of Market Manipulation, published by Precision Capital Management.  The paper describes a tug of war between Treasury Secretary Ben Bernanke and the New York Fed, that is playing out in the equities and Treasury securities markets.  The authors suggest that if Bernanke’s biggest threat is high long-term Treasury yields (interest rates), the easiest way to prevent or postpone a yield ramp would be to kill the stock market rally and create a “flight to safety in Treasuries” – situation that lowers long-term yields.  The paper describes how the New York Fed facilitates “painting the tape” in the stock markets to keep the rally alive.  For those of you who don’t know what that expression means, here’s a definition:

An illegal action by a group of market manipulators buying and/or selling a security among themselves to create artificial trading activity, which, when reported on the ticker tape, lures in unsuspecting investors as they perceive an unusual volume.

After causing a movement in the security, the manipulators hope to sell at a profit.

Instead of accusations that the PPT is the culprit doing the tape painting during the final minutes of the trading day, we again see a focus on the New York Fed as the facilitator of this practice.  Here’s the explanation given in the paper by Precision Capital Management:

The theory for which we have the greatest supporting evidence of manipulation surrounds the fact that the Federal Reserve Bank of New York (FRNY) began conducting permanent open market operations (POMO) on March 25, 2009 and has conducted 42 to date.  Thanks to Thanassis Strathopoulos and Billy O’Nair for alerting us to the POMO Effect discovery and the development of associated trading edges.  These auctions are conducted from about 10:30 a.m. to 11:00 a.m. on pre-announced days.  In such auctions, the FRNY permanently purchases Treasury securities from selected dealers, with the total purchase amount for a day ranging from about $1.5 B to $7.5 B.  These days are highly correlated with strong paint-the-tape closes, with the theory being that the large institutions that receive the capital interjections are able to leverage this money by 100 to 500 times and then use it to ramp equities.

As for the all-important question of how the authors expect this to play out, they focus on what might happen at the market close on August 5:

And, while it is a bit early to favor one side or the other, we are currently leaning toward a nervous Bernanke and the need to ramp Treasuries at the expense of equities into August 9.  Equities have had more than a nice run and can suffer a bit of a correction.  Key will be watching the close on Wednesday.  A failed POMO paint the tape close could signal that an equities correction of at least a few weeks has gotten underway.

What we saw on Wednesday afternoon was just that.  At approximately 3 p.m. there was an effort to push the S&P 500 index into positive territory for the first time that day, which succeeded for just a few minutes.  The index then dropped back down, closing .29 percent lower than the previous close.  Does this mean that a market correction is underway?  Time will tell.  With the S&P 500 index at 1002 as I write this, many experts consider the market to be “overbought”.  Fund manager Jeremy Grantham, who has been entrusted to invest over $89 billion of his customers’ hard-inherited money, is of the opinion that the current fair value for the S&P 500 should be just below 880.  Thus, there is plenty of room for a correction.  The answer to the question of whether that correction is now underway should be something we will learn rather quickly.

More Windfalls For Wall Street

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August 3, 2009

At a time when states and municipalities are going broke, foreclosures are on the rise and bankruptcies are skyrocketing, it’s nice to know that the Federal Reserve keeps coming up with new and inventive ways to enrich the investment banks on Wall Street.

I’ve often discussed the involvement of the Federal Government in “propping up” (manipulating) the stock markets since the onset of the financial crisis, nearly one year ago.  The so-called “Plunge Protection Team” or PPT was created during the Reagan administration to prevent stock market crashes after the October 19, 1987 event.  Although the PPT has been called an “urban myth” by many skeptics, there is plenty of documentation as to its existence.  Its formal name is the Working Group on Financial Markets.  It was created by Executive Order 12631 on March 18, 1988, which appears at 53 FR 9421, 3 CFR 559, 1988 Comp.  You can read the Executive Order here.  Much has been written about the PPT over the years since 1988.  Brett Fromson wrote an article about it for The Washington Post on February 23, 1997.  Here is a paragraph from that informative piece:

In the event of a financial crisis, each federal agency with a seat at the table of the Working Group has a confidential plan.  At the SEC, for example, the plan is called the “red book” because of the color of its cover.  It is officially known as the Executive Directory for Market Contingencies.  The major U.S.stock markets have copies of the commission’s plan as well as the CFTC’s.

In October of 2006, two years before the financial meltdown, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard wrote an interesting piece about the PPT for the Telegraph.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

The PPT was once the stuff of dark legends, its existence long denied.  But ex-White House strategist George Stephanopoulos admits openly that it was used to support the markets in the Russia/LTCM crisis under Bill Clinton, and almost certainly again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“They have an informal agreement among major banks to come in and start to buy stock if there appears to be a problem,” he said.

“In 1998, there was the Long Term Capital crisis, a global currency crisis.  At the guidance of the Fed, all of the banks got together and propped up the currency markets.  And they have plans in place to consider that if the stock markets start to fall,” he said.

Back on September 13, 2005, The Prudent Investor website featured a comprehensive report on the PPT.  It referenced a paper by John Embry and Andrew Hepburn.  Here is an interesting passage from that essay:

A thorough examination of published information strongly suggests that since the October 1987 crash, the U.S. government has periodically intervened to prevent another destabilizing stock market fall.  And as official rhetoric continues to toe the free market line, manipulation has become increasingly apparent.  Almost every floor trader on the NYSE, NYMEX, CBOT and CME will admit to having seen the PPT in action in one form or another over the years.

The conclusion reached in The Prudent Investor‘s article raises the issue of moral hazard, which continues to be a problem:

But a policy enacted in secret and knowingly withheld from the body politic has created a huge disconnect between those knowledgeable about such activities and the majority of the public who have no clue whatsoever.  There can be no doubt that the firms responsible for implementing government interventions enjoy an enviable position unavailable to other investors.  Whether they have been indemnified against potential losses or simply made privy to non-public government policy, the major Wall Street firms evidently responsible for preventing plunges no longer must compete on anywhere near a level playing field.

That point brings us to the situation revealed in a recent article by Henny Sender for the Financial Times on August 2.  Although, the PPT’s involvement in the equities markets has been quite low-profiled, the involvement one PPT component (the Federal Reserve) in the current market for mortgage-backed securities has been quite the opposite.  In fact, the Fed has invoked “transparency” (I thought the Fed was allergic to that) as its reason for tipping off banks on its decisions to buy such securities.  As Mr. Sender explained:

The Fed has emerged as one of Wall Street’s biggest customers during the financial crisis, buying massive amounts of securities to help stabilise the markets.  In some cases, such as the market for mortgage-backed securities, the Fed buys more bonds than any other party.

However, the Fed is not a typical market player.  In the interests of transparency, it often announces its intention to buy particular securities in advance.  A former Fed official said this strategy enables banks to sell these securities to the Fed at an inflated price.

The resulting profits represent a relatively hidden form of support for banks, and Wall Street has geared up to take advantage.  Barclay’s, for example, e-mails clients with news on the Fed’s balance sheet, detailing the share of the market in particular securities held by the Fed.

“You can make big money trading with the government,” said an executive at one leading investment management firm.  “The government is a huge buyer and seller and Wall Street has all the pricing power.”

A former official of the US Treasury and the Fed said the situation had reached the point that “everyone games them.  Their transparency hurts them.  Everyone picks their pocket.”

*   *   *

Larry Fink, chief executive of money manager BlackRock, has described Wall Street’s trading profits as “luxurious”, reflecting the banks’ ability to take advantage of diminished competition.

So let’s get this straight:  When Republican Congressman Ron Paul introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act (HR 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office authority to audit the Federal Reserve and its member components for a report to Congress, there was widespread opposition to the idea of transparency for the Fed.  However, when Wall Street banks are tipped off about the Fed’s plans to buy particular securities and the public objects to the opportunistic inflation of the pricing of those securities by the tipped-off banks, the Fed emphasizes a need for transparency.

Perhaps Ron Paul might have a little more luck with his bill if he could demonstrate that its enactment would be lucrative for the Wall Street banks.  HR 1207 would find its way to Barack Obama’s desk before the next issue of the President’s Daily Brief.

Fed Up With The Fed

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July 20, 2009

Last week’s news that Goldman Sachs reported $3.44 billion in earnings for the second quarter of 2009 provoked widespread outrage that was rather hard to avoid.  Even Jon Stewart saw fit to provide his viewers with an informative audio-visual presentation concerning the role of Goldman Sachs in our society.  Allan Sloan pointed out that in addition to the $10 billion Goldman received from the TARP program, (which it repaid) Goldman also received another $12.9 billion as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper (which it hasn’t repaid). Beyond that, there was the matter of “the Federal Reserve Board moving with lightning speed last fall to allow Goldman to become a bank holding company”.   Sloan lamented that despite this government largesse, Goldman is still fighting with the Treasury Department over how much it should pay taxpayers to buy back the stock purchase warrants it gave the government as part of the TARP deal.  The Federal Reserve did more than put Goldman on the fast track for status as a bank holding company (which it denied to Lehman Brothers, resulting in that company’s bankruptcy).  As Lisa Lerer reported for Politico, Senator Bernie Sanders questioned whether Goldman received even more assistance from the Federal Reserve.  Because the Fed is not subject to transparency, we don’t know the answer to that question.

A commentator writing for the Seeking Alpha website under the pseudonym:  Cynicus Economicus, expressed the opinion that people need to look more at the government and the Federal Reserve as being “at the root of the appearance of the bumper profits and bonuses at Goldman Sachs.”  He went on to explain:

All of this, hidden in opacity, has led to a point at which insolvent banks are now able to make a ‘profit’.  Exactly why has this massive bleeding of resources into insolvent banks been allowed to take place?  Where exactly is the salvation of the real economy, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow of the financial system?  Like the pot of gold and the rainbow, if we just go a bit further…..we might just find the pot of gold.

In this terrible mess, the point that is forgotten is what a financial system is actually really for.  It only exists to allocate accumulated capital and provision of insurances; the financial system should be a support to the real economy, by efficiently allocating capital.  It is entirely unclear how pouring trillions of dollars into insolvent institutions, capital which will eventually be taken out of the ‘real’ economy, might facilitate this.  The ‘real’ economy is now expensively supporting the financial system, rather than the financial system supporting the real economy.

The opacity of the Federal Reserve has become a focus of populist indignation since the financial crisis hit the meltdown stage last fall.  As I discussed on May 25, Republican Congressman Ron Paul of Texas introduced the Federal Reserve Transparency Act (HR 1207) which would give the Government Accountability Office the authority to audit the Federal Reserve as well as its member components, and require a report to Congress by the end of 2010.  Meanwhile, President Obama has suggested expanding the Fed’s powers to make it the nation’s “systemic risk regulator” overseeing banks such as Goldman Sachs, deemed “too big to fail”.  The suggestion of expanding the Fed’s authority in this way has only added to the cry for more oversight.  On July 17, Willem Buiter wrote a piece for the Financial Times entitled:  “What to do with the Fed”.  He began with this observation:

The desire for stronger Congressional oversight of the Fed is no longer confined to a few libertarian fruitcakes, conspiracy theorists and old lefties.  It is a mainstream view that the Fed has failed to foresee and prevent the crisis, that it has managed it ineffectively since it started, and that it has allowed itself to be used as a quasi-fiscal instrument of the US Treasury, by-passing Congressional control.

Since the introduction of HR 1207, a public debate has ensued over this bill.  This dispute was ratcheted up a notch when a number of economics professors signed a petition, urging Congress and the White House “to reaffirm their support for and defend the independence of the Federal Reserve System as a foundation of U.S. economic stability.”  An interesting analysis of this controversy appears at LewRockwell.com, in an article by economist Robert Higgs.  Here’s how Higgs concluded his argument:

All in all, the economists’ petition reflects the astonishing political naivite and historical myopia that now characterize the top echelon of the mainstream economics profession. Everybody now understands that economic central planning is doomed to fail; the problems of cost calculation and producer incentives intrinsic to such planning are common fodder even for economists in upscale institutions.  Yet, somehow, these same economists seem incapable of understanding that the Fed, which is a central planning body working at the very heart of the economy — its monetary order — cannot produce money and set interest rates better than free-market institutions can do so.  It is high time that they extended their education to understand that central planning does not work — indeed, cannot work — any better in the monetary order than it works in the economy as a whole.

It is also high time that the Fed be not only audited and required to reveal its inner machinations to the people who suffer under its misguided actions, but abolished root and branch before it inflicts further centrally planned disaster on the world’s people.

Close down the Federal Reserve?  It’s not a new idea.  Back on September 29, when the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 was just a baby, Avery Goodman posted a piece at the Seeking Alpha website arguing for closure of the Fed.  The article made a number of good points, although this was my favorite:

The Fed balance sheet shows that it injected a total of about $262 billion, probably into the stock market, over the last two weeks, pumping up prices on Wall Street.  The practical effect will be to allow people in-the-know to sell their equities at inflated prices to people-who-believe-and-trust, but don’t know.  Sending so much liquidity into the U.S.economy will stoke the fires of hyperinflation, regardless of what they do with interest rates.  In a capitalist society, the stock market should not be subject to such manipulation, by the government or anyone else.  It should rise and fall on its own merits.  If it is meant to fall, let it do so, and fast.  It is better to get the economic downturn over with, using shock therapy, than to continue to bleed the American people slowly to death through a billion tiny pinpricks.

So the battle over the Fed continues.  In the mean time, as The Washington Post reports, Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke takes his show on the road, making four appearances over the next six days.  Tuesday and Wednesday will bring his semiannual testimony on monetary policy before House and Senate committees.  Perhaps he will be accompanied by Goldman Sachs CEO, Lloyd Bankfiend, who could show everyone the nice “green shoots” growing in his IRA at taxpayer expense.

More Bad Press For Goldman Sachs

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July 16, 2009

They can’t seem to get away from it, no matter how hard they try.  Goldman Sachs is finding itself confronted with bad publicity on a daily basis.

It all started with Matt Taibbi’s article in Rolling Stone.  As I pointed out on June 25, I liked the article as well as Matt’s other work.  His blog can be found here.  His article on Goldman Sachs employed a good deal of hyperbolic rhetoric which I enjoyed  —  especially the metaphor of Goldman Sachs as a “great vampire squid wrapped around the face of humanity, relentlessly jamming its blood funnel into anything that smells like money”.  Nevertheless, many commentators took issue with the article, especially focusing on the subtitle’s claim that “Goldman Sachs has engineered every major market manipulation since the Great Depression”.  I took that remark as hyperbole, since it would obviously require over 120 megabytes of space to document “every major market manipulation since the Great Depression” — so I wasn’t disappointed about being unable to read all that.  Some of Taibbi’s critics include Megan McArdle from The Atlantic and Joe Weisenthal at Clusterstock.

On the other hand, Taibbi did get a show of support from Eliot “Socks” Spitzer during a July 14 interview on Bloomberg TV.  Mr. Spitzer made some important points about Goldman’s conduct that we are now hearing from a number of other sources.  Spitzer began by emphasizing that because of the bank bailouts “Goldman’s capital was driven to virtually nothing — because we as taxpayers gave them access to capital — they made a bloody fortune” (another vampire squid reference).  Spitzer voiced the concern that Goldman is simply going back to proprietary trading and taking advantage of spreads, following its old business model.  He argued that, a result of the bailouts:

. . . their job should be, from a macroeconomic perspective, to raise capital and put it into sectors that create jobs.  If they’re not getting that done, then why are we supporting them the way we have been?

This sentiment seems to be coming from all directions, in light of the fact that on July 14, Goldman reported second-quarter profits of 3.44 billion dollars — while on the following day, another TARP recipient, CIT Group disclosed that it would likely file for bankruptcy on July 17.  On July 16, The Wall Street Journal ran an editorial entitled:  “A Tale of Two Bailouts” comparing Goldman’s fate with that of CIT.  The article pointed out that since Goldman’s risk is subsidized by the taxpayers, the company might be more appropriately re-branded as “Goldie Mac”:

We like profits as much as the next capitalist.  But when those profits are supported by government guarantees or insured deposits, taxpayers have a special interest in how the companies conduct their business.  Ideally we would shed those implicit guarantees altogether, along with the very notion of too big to fail.  But that is all but impossible now and for the foreseeable future.  Even if the Obama Administration and Fed were to declare with one voice that banks such as Goldman were on their own, no one would believe it.

If there is a lesson in this week’s tale of two banks, it’s that it won’t be enough to give the Federal Reserve a mandate to “monitor” systemic risk.  Last fall’s bailouts are reverberating through the financial system in a way that is already distorting the competition for capital and financial market share.  Banks that want to be successful will also want to be more like Goldman Sachs, creating an incentive for both larger size and more risk-taking on the taxpayer’s dime.

Robert Reich voiced similar concern over the fact that “Goldman’s high-risk business model hasn’t changed one bit from what it was before the implosion of Wall Street.”  He went on to explain:

Value-at-risk — a statistical measure of how much the firm’s trading operations could lose in a day — rose to an average of  $245 million in the second quarter from $240 million in the first quarter. In the second quarter of 2008, VaR averaged $184 million.

Meanwhile, Goldman is still depending on $28 billion in outstanding debt issued cheaply with the backing of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.  Which means you and I are still indirectly funding Goldman’s high-risk operations.

*   *   *

So the fact that Goldman has reverted to its old ways in the market suggests it has every reason to believe it can revert to its old ways in politics, should its market strategies backfire once again — leaving the rest of us once again to pick up the pieces.

At The Huffington Post, Mike Lux reminded Goldman that despite its repayment of $10 billion in TARP funds, we haven’t overlooked the fact that Goldman has not repaid the $13 billion it received for being a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper or the “unrevealed billions” it received from the Federal Reserve.  This raises a serious question as to whether Goldman should be allowed to pay record bonuses to its employees, as planned.  Didn’t we go through this once beforePaul Abrams is mindful of this, having issued a wake-up call to “Turbo” Tim Geithner and Congress.

As long as we keep reading the news, each passing day provides us with yet another reminder to feel outrage over the hubris of the people at Goldman Sachs.

Painting The Tape

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July 2, 2009

Would you be willing to wager your life savings on pro-wrestling matches?  That is basically what you are doing when you invest in the stock market these days.  The game is being rigged.  If you are just a “retail investor” or “little guy”, you run the risk of having your investment in this “bear market rally” significantly diminish in the blink of an eye.  Regular readers of this blog (all four of them) know that this is one of my favorite subjects.  In my posting on May 21, I recalled feeling a little paranoid last December when I wrote this:

Do you care to hazard a guess as to what the next Wall Street scandal might be?  I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock. This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.  I don’t believe that SEC Chairman Christopher Cox would likely uncover such a scam, given his track record.

After my last posting about this subject on May 21, I have continued to read quite a number of opinions by authoritative sources, echoing my belief that the stock market is being manipulated.  Tyler Durden at Zero Hedge has been quite diligent about exposing incidents of “tape painting”.  Some examples appear here and here.  In case you don’t know what is meant by “painting the tape”, here is a definition:

An illegal action by a group of market manipulators buying and/or selling a security among themselves to create artificial trading activity, which, when reported on the ticker tape, lures in unsuspecting investors as they perceive an unusual volume.

After causing a movement in the security, the manipulators hope to sell at a profit.

As one might expect, this activity is more easily accomplished on days when trading volume is low.  On June 11, Craig Brown had this to say about the subject on the Seeking Alpha website:

I have read some posts about some suspicions on perhaps some entities painting the tape. Volume has been light so it is something that could happen. We will see if these conspiracy theories play out.

Regular readers of Zero Hedge (it’s on my blogroll, at the right) had the opportunity to see some televised interviews during the past few days, when professionals have complained about “tape painting” in the equities markets.  On Monday, June 29, we saw on (of all places) CNBC, a discussion with Larry Levin, a futures trader on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.  I would consider CNBC the last place to criticize “pumping” of stock prices, since their commentary often seems designed to do just that.  Nevertheless, watch and listen to what Larry Levin had to say at 2:22 into this video clip.  He explains that “this market continues to be propped up by government intervention and manipulation” and he unequivocally accuses the Obama administration of acting to “prop this market up on a daily basis”.  Again, on Wednesday, July 1, visitors to the Zero Hedge website had the opportunity to see this June 30 clip from Bloomberg TV, wherein Joe Saluzzi of Themis Trading noted that “you’ve got government forecasts that are intentionally misleading us, constantly”.    He went on to emphasize that the trading volume we see every day is “fictitious — it’s not real”.  He explained the potential hazards to retail investors caused by trading programs that “artificially inflate the prices” of stocks, although a “news event” could cause that program trading to abruptly reverse, erasing a valuable portion of the retail investors’ assets.

On June 24, Bret Rosenthal posted an article on the HedgeCo.net website, entitled:  “Coping With Government-Sponsored Market Manipulation”.  Here’s some of what he had to say:

We must not allow the government manipulations to cloud our judgement and sucker us into investments that have no hope of success over time.  Example:  the government-sponsored rally in the financials over the last 3+ months was clearly created to help the banking sector raise capital.  Again, if you wish to argue this point I suggest you go down to the water’s edge and scream at the tide.  Massive amounts of capital were raised through the secondary markets for financial companies in the last 30 days.  This is a simple fact. Now that this manipulation is complete and private capital has been sucked in where will the equity markets go?

The best advice for the retail investor, attempting to navigate through the current “bear market rally” was provided by Graham Summers, Senior Market Strategist at OmniSans Investment Research, in this July 1 posting at the Seeking Alpha website:

This rally has sucker punched the shorts countless times now, particularly when it comes to late-day market manipulation.  In a nutshell, every time stocks begin showing signs of breaking down, someone steps in, usually during the final 30 minutes of trading, to push the market back into positive territory.  So while economic fundamentals indicate we’ve come much too far too fast, it’s hard to make money trading based on this information.

*   *   *

To rephrase the above thoughts, stocks are currently trading where they should be a full year from now assuming that the economy turns around this fall.  This hardly makes a strong case for greater gains or more upward momentum.  But it’s hard to go short with the historic rig that is currently taking place in the market.

So my advice to anyone right now is to stay put.  This week is a wash anyhow due to it being short and due to performance gaming:  portfolio managers and institutional investors pushing stocks higher so they can close out the quarter with gains on their positions.  Indeed, yesterday’s market volume on the NYSE was the lowest we’ve seen since January 5, 2009.

So don’t open any new positions for now.  This week will be exceedingly choppy.  And with volume drying up to a trickle, there is potential for some violent swings as the big boys play around with their end of the quarter shenanigans.  You don’t want to be on the wrong side of one of those swings.

Meanwhile, I’ve been watching my investment in the SRS exchange-traded fund (which inversely tracks the IYR real estate index, at twice the magnitude) unwind during the past few days, erasing the nice profit I made just after getting into it.  Will I bail?  Nawww!  I’m waiting for that “news event” to turn things around.