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Lie-orama

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We have never experienced a Presidential campaign with more fact-checking than what we are seeing during the current cycle.  The well-timed release of a popular new book by Janine Driver entitled, You Can’t Lie to Me might be one of the reasons why this is happening.  Fact-checking websites such as PolitiFact and FactCheck have been overflowing with reports of exaggerations, half-truths and flat-out lies by the candidates and their surrogates.

PolitiFact’s roots at the Tampa Bay Times made it particularly well-situated to expose the false claims made during speeches at the Republican Convention.  One good example was the “Pants on Fire” rating given to a remark by South Dakota Senator John Thune, who claimed that the Obama administration proposed banning farm kids from doing basic chores.

Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech drew instant criticism from a number of news outlets.  I quickly felt vindicated for my last posting, which asserted that Romney made a mistake by selecting Ryan, rather than Ohio Senator Rob Portman, as his running mate.  FactCheck provided this breakdown of the misrepresentations in Ryan’s speech:

Paul Ryan’s acceptance speech at the Republican convention contained several false claims and misleading statements.  Delegates cheered as the vice presidential nominee:

  • Accused President Obama’s health care law of funneling money away from Medicare “at the expense of the elderly.”  In fact, Medicare’s chief actuary says the law “substantially improves” the system’s finances, and Ryan himself has embraced the same savings.
  • Accused Obama of doing “exactly nothing” about recommendations of a bipartisan deficit commission — which Ryan himself helped scuttle.
  • Claimed the American people were “cut out” of stimulus spending.  Actually, more than a quarter of all stimulus dollars went for tax relief for workers.
  • Faulted Obama for failing to deliver a 2008 campaign promise to keep a Wisconsin plant open.  It closed less than a month before Obama took office.
  • Blamed Obama for the loss of a AAA credit rating for the U.S.  Actually, Standard & Poor’s blamed the downgrade on the uncompromising stands of both Republicans and Democrats.

If the widespread criticism of the veracity of Ryan’s speech had not been bad enough, Runner’s World saw fit to bust Ryan for making a false claim that he once ran a marathon in less than three hours.  In reality, it took him just over four hours.

At the conclusion of FoxNewsapalooza, the Media Matters website posted an analysis of how Mitt Romney’s acceptance speech was a smorgasbord of falsehoods concocted by bloviators from the right-wing media.

Glenn Kessler, who writes The Fact Checker blog for The Washington Post, suggested that the Left has been overreacting to the rhetoric from the Republican Convention:

Ultimately, convention speeches are about making the argument for your team.  We should fully expect politicians to make their case using facts and figures that either tilt positive about their accomplishment – or negative about their opponents.  As the fact-checking business has blossomed in the news media, it has been increasingly hard for politicians to get away with such truth-shading without someone noticing.

Both political parties will stretch the truth if they believe it will advance their political interests.  It’s been a rough campaign so far, but the GOP convention that just ended was strictly in the mainstream for such party celebrations.

As the Democratic Convention approaches, a good deal of attention has been focused on PolitiFact’s Obameter, which measures how well Obama has delivered on his campaign promises.  PolitiFact’s most recent status report offered this analysis:

Our scorecard shows Obama kept 37 percent of his promises.  He brought the war in Iraq to a close and finally achieved the Democratic dream of a universal health care program.  When the United States had Osama bin Laden in its sights, Obama issued the order to kill.

Sixteen percent are rated Broken, often because they hit a brick wall in Congress.  Global warming legislation passed the House but died in the Senate.  He didn’t even push for comprehensive immigration reform.  His program to help homeowners facing foreclosure didn’t even meet its own benchmarks. (PolitiFact rates campaign promises based on outcomes, not intentions.)

With four months left in Obama’s term, PolitiFact has rated Obama’s remaining promises Compromise (14 percent), Stalled (10 percent) or In the Works (22 percent).

One of the Obama campaign’s negative ads concerning Romney’s economic record as Governor of Massachusetts drew some criticism from FactCheck:

The ad claims that Romney raised taxes on the middle class.  It’s true that Romney imposed a number of fees, but none of them targeted middle-income persons.  Also, Romney proposed cutting the state income tax three times – a measure that would have resulted in tax cuts for all taxpayers – but he was rebuffed every time by the state’s Democratic Legislature.

I suspect that the Obama campaign has a secret plan in the works to avoid the scrutiny of fact-checkers during their convention.  Their plan to have John Kerry speak is actually part of a plot to cause the fact-checkers to fall asleep.  Once “Operation Snoozeboat” is complete, the speakers who follow Kerry will be able to make the wildest claims imaginable – and get away with it!



 

Banksters Live Up to the Nickname

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Matt Taibbi has done it again.  His latest article in Rolling Stone focused on the case of United States of America v. Carollo, Goldberg and Grimm, in which the Obama Justice Department actually prosecuted some financial crimes.  The three defendants worked for GE Capital (the finance arm of General Electric) and were involved in a bid-rigging conspiracy wherein the prices paid by banks to bond issuers were reduced (to the detriment of the local governments who issued those bonds).

The broker at the center of this case was a firm known as CDR.  CDR would be hired by a state or local government which was planning a bond issue.  Banks would then submit bids which are interest rates paid to the issuer for holding the money until payments became due to the various contractors involved in the project which was the subject of the particular bond.  The brokers would tip off a favored bank about the amounts of competing bids in return for a kickback based on the savings made by avoiding an unnecessarily high bid.  In the Carollo case, the GE Capital employees were supposed to be competing with other banks who would submit bids to CDR.  CDR would then inform the bidders on how to coordinate their bids so that the bid prices could be kept low and the various banks could agree among themselves as to which entity would receive a particular bond issue.  Four of the banks which “competed” against GE Capital in the bidding were UBS, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo.  Those four banks paid a total of $673 million in restitution after agreeing to cooperate in the government’s case.

The brokers would also pay-off politicians who selected their firm to handle a bond issue.  Matt Taibbi gave one example of how former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson received $100,000 in campaign contributions from CDR.  In return, CDR received $1.5 million in public money for services which were actually performed by another broker – at an additional cost.

Needless to say, the mainstream news media had no interest in covering this case.  Matt Taibbi quoted a remark made to the jury at the outset of the case by the trial judge, Harold Baer:  “It is unlikely, I think, that this will generate a lot of media publicity”.  Although the judge’s remark was intended to imply that the subject matter of the case was too technical and lacking in the “sex appeal” of the usual evening news subject, it also underscored the aversion of mainstream news outlets to expose the wrongdoing of their best sponsors:  the big banks.

Beyond that, this case exploded a myth – often used by the Justice Department as an excuse for not prosecuting financial crimes.  As Taibbi explained at the close of the piece:

There are some who think that the government is limited in how many corruption cases it can bring against Wall Street, because juries can’t understand the complexity of the financial schemes involved.  But in USA v. Carollo, that turned out not to be true.  “This verdict is proof of that,” says Hausfeld, the antitrust attorney.  “Juries can and do understand this material.”

One important lesson to be learned from the Carollo case is a simple fact that the mainstream news media would prefer to ignore:  This is but one tiny example of the manner in which business is conducted by the big banks.  As Matt Taibbi explained:

The men and women who run these corrupt banks and brokerages genuinely believe that their relentless lying and cheating, and even their anti-competitive cartel­style scheming, are all legitimate market processes that lead to legitimate price discovery.  In this lunatic worldview, the bid­rigging scheme was a system that created fair returns for everyone.

*   *   *

That, ultimately, is what this case was about.  Capitalism is a system for determining objective value.  What these Wall Street criminals have created is an opposite system of value by fiat. Prices are not objectively determined by collisions of price information from all over the market, but instead are collectively negotiated in secret, then dictated from above

*   *   *

Last year, the two leading recipients of public bond business, clocking in with more than $35 billion in bond issues apiece, were Chase and Bank of America – who combined had just paid more than $365 million in fines for their role in the mass bid rigging. Get busted for welfare fraud even once in America, and good luck getting so much as a food stamp ever again.  Get caught rigging interest rates in 50 states, and the government goes right on handing you billions of dollars in public contracts.

By now we are all familiar with the “revolving door” principle, wherein prosecutors eventually find themselves working for the law firms which represent the same financial institutions which those prosecutors should have dragged into court.  At the Securities and Exchange Commission, the same system is in place.  Worst of all is the fact that our politicians – who are responsible for enacting laws to protect the public from such criminal enterprises as what was exposed in the Carollo case – are in the business of lining their pockets with “campaign contributions” from those entities.  You may have seen Jon Stewart’s coverage of Jamie Dimon’s testimony before the Senate Banking Committee.  How dumb do the voters have to be to reelect those fawning sycophants?

Yet it happens  .  .  .  over and over again.  From the Great Depression to the Savings and Loan scandal to the financial crisis and now this bid-rigging scheme.  The culprits never do the “perp walk”.  Worse yet, they continue on with “business as usual” partly because the voting public is too brain-dead to care and partly because the mainstream news media avoid these stories.  Our political system is incapable of confronting this level of corruption because the politicians from both parties are bought and paid for by the banking cabal.  As  Paul Farrell of MarketWatch explained:

Seriously, folks, the elections are relevant.  Totally.  Oh, both sides pretend it matters.  But it no longer matters who’s president.  Or who’s in Congress.  Money runs America.  And when it comes to the public interest, money is not just greedy, but myopic, narcissistic and deaf.  Money from Wall Street bankers, Corporate CEOs, the Super Rich and their army of 261,000 highly paid mercenary lobbyists.  They hedge, place bets on both sides.  Democracy is dead.

Why would anyone expect America to solve any of its most pressing problems when the officials responsible for addressing those issues have been compromised by the villains who caused those situations?


 

Doomsday Deluxe

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I frequently enjoy watching the Doomsday Preppers program on the National Geographic Channel.  I get a particular kick out of hearing the reason each particular family gives for building a bunker and making plans for Armageddon.  At the end of each story, the producers at Nat Geo usually reference the consensus of expert opinion concerning the particular doomsday scenario discussed by the featured family.  A popular fear is that earth will get knocked off its axis, causing a polar shift.  (You’ve probably heard Matt Damon mention that one on the TD Ameritrade commercial – wherein he credits the Mayans for starting the rumor.)  Although many of the preppers’ fears are far-fetched, there are certainly many legitimate causes for the sort of concern which could lead a perfectly reasonable person to initiate efforts toward the Ultimate Plan B.  My personal favorite threat is Fukushima.

A number of reports have recently been published concerning the efforts made by more upscale preppers to build designer bunkers.  This situation really cries out for a new television program:  Beverly Hills Bunkers or Celebrity Preppers of Palm Beach.

The Raw Story website ran an AFP report describing the efforts by developer Larry Hall to convert abandoned missile silos into luxury bunkers.  At this point, Hall has found four buyers who have plunked down nearly $2 million each for a silo bunker:

“They worry about events ranging from solar flares, to economic collapse, to pandemics to terrorism to food shortages,” Hall told AFP on a tour of the site.

These “doomsday preppers”, as they are called, want a safe place and he will be there with them because Hall, 55, bought one of the condos for himself. He says his fear is that sun flares could wipe out the power grid and cause chaos.

*   *   *

Built to withstand an atomic blast, even the most paranoid can find comfort inside concrete walls that are nine feet thick and stretch 174 feet (53 meters) underground.

Instead of simply setting up shop in the old living quarters provided for missile operators, Hall is building condos right up the missile shaft. Seven of the 14 underground floors will be condo space selling for $2 million a floor or $1 million a half floor. Three and a half units have been sold, two contracts are pending and only two more full units are available, Hall said.

*   *   *

He is also installing an indoor farm to grow enough fish and vegetables to feed 70 people for as long as they need to stay inside and also stockpiling enough dry goods to feed them for five years.

The top floor and an outside building above it will be for elaborate security. Other floors will be for a pool, a movie theater and a library, and when in lockdown mode there will be floors for a medical center and a school.

Complex life support systems provide energy supplies from sources of conventional power, as well as windmill power and generators. Giant underground water tanks will hold water pre-filtered through carbon and sand.

*   *   *

Interested buyers have included an NFL player, a racing car driver, a movie producer and famous politicians, he said, but he now requires all the money up front.

Blake Ellis of CNN Money gave us a peek at how “the one percent” is getting ready for doomsday:

Northwest Shelter Systems, which offers shelters ranging in price from $200,000 to $20 million, has seen sales surge 70% since the uprisings in the Middle East, with the Japanese earthquake only spurring further interest. In hard numbers, that’s 12 shelters already booked when the company normally sells four shelters per year.

Who spent $20 million on a bunker?  Oprah?  Bill Gates?  Lloyd Blankfein?

Inquiring minds want to know how their favorite celebrities will be riding out The Apocalypse.  Which porn stars will Charlie Sheen invite to his Doomsday Den?  How many people within one degree of Kevin Bacon will Kyra Sedgwick allow into his bunker?

There is definitely a television show here – and it’s bound to draw a bigger audience than the number watching Doomsday Preppers.  Any guesses as to which network runs with this?


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Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


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Niall Ferguson Softens His Austerity Stance

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I have previously criticized Niall Ferguson as one of the gurus for those creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks have been preaching the gospel of economic austerity as an excuse for roadblocking any form of stimulus (fiscal or monetary) to rehabilitate the American economy.  Ferguson has now backed away from the position he held two years ago – that the United States has been carrying too much debt

Henry Blodget of The Business Insider justified his trip to Davos, Switzerland last week by conducting an important interview with Niall Ferguson at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.  For the first time, Ferguson conceded that he had been wrong with his previous criticism about the level of America’s sovereign debt load, although he denied ever having been a proponent of “instant austerity” (which is currently advocated by many American politicians).  While discussing the extent of the sovereign debt crisis in Europe, Ferguson re-directed his focus on the United States:

I think we are going to get some defaults one way or the other.  The U.S. is a different story.  First of all I think the debt to GDP ratio can go quite a lot higher before there’s any upward pressure on interest rates.  I think the more I’ve thought about it the more I’ve realized that there are good analogies for super powers having super debts.  You’re in a special position as a super power.  You get, especially, you know, as the issuer of the international reserve currency, you get a lot of leeway.  The U.S. could conceivably grow its way out of the debt.  It could do a mixture of growth and inflation.  It’s not going to default.  It may default on liabilities in Social Security and Medicare, in fact it almost certainly will.  But I think holders of Treasuries can feel a lot more comfortable than anyone who’s holding European bonds right now.

BLODGET: That is a shockingly optimistic view of the United States from you.  Are you conceding to Paul Krugman that over the near-term we shouldn’t worry so much?

FERGUSONI think the issue here got a little confused, because Krugman wanted to portray me as a proponent of instant austerity, which I never was.  My argument was that over ten years you have to have some credible plan to get back to fiscal balance because at some point you lose your credibility because on the present path, Congressional Budget Office figures make it clear, with every year the share of Federal tax revenues going to interest payments rises, there is a point after which it’s no longer credible.  But I didn’t think that point was going to be this year or next year.  I think the trend of nominal rates in the crisis has been the trend that he forecasted.  And you know, I have to concede that. I think the reason that I was off on that was that I hadn’t actually thought hard enough about my own work.  In the “Cash Nexus,” which I published in 2001, I actually made the argument that very large debts are sustainable, if your borrowing costs are low. And super powers – Britain was in this position in the 19th century – can carry a heck of a lot of debt before investors get nervous.  So there really isn’t that risk premium issue. There isn’t that powerful inflation risk to worry about.  My considered and changed view is that the U.S. can carry a higher debt to GDP ratio than I think I had in mind 2 or 3 years ago.  And higher indeed that my colleague and good friend, Ken Rogoff implies, or indeed states, in the “This Time Is Different” book.  I think what we therefore see is that the U.S. has leeway to carry on running deficits and allowing the debt to pile up for quite a few years before we get into the kind of scenario we’ve seen in Europe, where suddenly the markets lose faith.  It’s in that sense a safe haven more than I maybe thought before.

*   *   *

There are various forces in [the United States’] favor. It’s socially not Japan.  It’s demographically not Japan. And I sense also that the Fed is very determined not to be the Bank of Japan. Ben Bernanke’s most recent comments and actions tell you that they are going to do whatever they can to avoid the deflation or zero inflation story.

Niall Ferguson deserves credit for admitting (to the extent that he did so) that he had been wrong.  Unfortunately, most commentators and politicians lack the courage to make such a concession.

Meanwhile, Paul Krugman has been dancing on the grave of the late David Broder of The Washington Post, for having been such a fawning sycophant of British Prime Minister David Cameron and Jean-Claude Trichet (former president of the European Central Bank) who advocated the oxymoronic “expansionary austerity” as a “confidence-inspiring” policy:

Such invocations of the confidence fairy were never plausible; researchers at the International Monetary Fund and elsewhere quickly debunked the supposed evidence that spending cuts create jobs.  Yet influential people on both sides of the Atlantic heaped praise on the prophets of austerity, Mr. Cameron in particular, because the doctrine of expansionary austerity dovetailed with their ideological agendas.

Thus in October 2010 David Broder, who virtually embodied conventional wisdom, praised Mr. Cameron for his boldness, and in particular for “brushing aside the warnings of economists that the sudden, severe medicine could cut short Britain’s economic recovery and throw the nation back into recession.”  He then called on President Obama to “do a Cameron” and pursue “a radical rollback of the welfare state now.”

Strange to say, however, those warnings from economists proved all too accurate.  And we’re quite fortunate that Mr. Obama did not, in fact, do a Cameron.

Nevertheless, you can be sure that many prominent American politicians will ignore the evidence, as well as Niall Ferguson’s course correction, and continue to preach the gospel of immediate economic austerity – at least until the time comes to vote on one of their own pet (pork) projects.

American voters continue to place an increasing premium on authenticity when evaluating political candidates.  It would be nice if this trend would motivate voters to reject the “deficit chicken haws” for the hypocrisy they exhibit and the ignorance which motivates their policy decisions.


 

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Congress Under The Microscope

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The November 13 broadcast of 60 Minutes, which featured a piece by Steve Kroft about Congressional insider trading, gave some needed momentum to the effort seeking a ban on the practice.  I originally wrote about this activity in September of 2009:

A recent report by American Public Media’s Steve Henn revealed how the law prohibiting “insider trading” (i.e. acting on confidential corporate information when making a transaction involving that company’s publicly-traded stock) does not apply to members of Congress.  Remember how Martha Stewart went to prison?  Well, if she had been representing Connecticut in Congress, she might have been able to interpose the defense that she was inspired to sell her ImClone stock based on information she acquired in the exercise of her official duties.

*   *   *

Mr. Henn’s report went on to raise concern over the fact that there is nothing to stop members of Congress from acting on such information to the detriment of their constituents in favor of their own portfolios.

In February of 2011, I discussed the subject again, including the history of Congressman Brian Baird’s introduction of  H.R.682, the “Stop Trading on Congressional Knowledge Act” (STOCK Act) in January of 2009.  On November 14, I was pleased to report that a conservative pundit – Peter Schweizer – a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution – had joined the battle against Congressional insider trading:

A new book by Peter Schweizer – Throw Them All Out – deals with this very subject.  The book’s subtitle is reminiscent of the point I tried to make in my February posting:  “How politicians and their friends get rich off insider stock tips, land deals and cronyism that would send the rest of us to prison”.

On December 28, J.R. Dunn – consulting editor of the conservative American Thinker, enthusiastically weighed-in with a supportive review of Peter Schweizer’s book.  Beyond that, Dunn’s opening remarks addressed the greater problem:

Crony capitalism is the most serious current danger to the American community, a threat not simply to government or the economy, but to our very way of life.  It is the worst such threat since the trusts and monopolies of the early 20th century, and in much the same way. Cronyism is one of the major forces behind the establishment of the corrupt pseudo-aristocracy that has been taking shape in this country over the past two decades, a synthetic privileged class made up in large part of politicians, hustlers, and hangers-on who have become expert in exploiting the rest of us.

Fortunately, we have now reached a point where greater scrutiny is being used to investigate the manner in which Congress-cretins enrich themselves while in office.  David Richards wrote a great piece for the Daily Mail, which focused on the fact that over the past 25 years, the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen:

Against a backdrop of a vast budget deficit and fears of the fragility of the economy, analysis by the Washington Post shows that the median net worth of a member of Congress has nearly tripled over 25 years while the income of an average U.S. family has actually fallen.

It calculated that their median net worth, between 1984 and 2009 and excluding home equity, rose from $280,000 to $725,000.

Over those same 25 years the wealth of the average U.S. family slipped from $20,500 from $20,600, a University of Michigan study shows.

The Daily Mail article went on to point out that members of Congress are actually doing significantly better than America’s most wealthy citizens – who are so zealously defended by critics of the Occupy Wall Street movement:

The New York Times’ report into the wealth of members of Congress found that they were also getting rich compared with affluent Americans.

It found that the median net worth of members of Congress rose 15 per cent from 2004 to 2010 as the net worth of the richest 10 per cent of the country remained for the most part flat.

This disparity between those they represent also translated into a wider gap in their experiences of the economy, the Post found.

It interviewed Gary Myers, the son of a bricklayer, a Republican who entered Congress in 1975. He said his experience of having worked as a foreman in a steel mill shaped his outlook and led him to vote in favour of raising the minimum wage and helped him to understand the need for workers to have a safety net.

‘It would be hard to argue that the work in the steel mill didn’t give me a different perspective,’ he told the Post. ‘I think everybody’s history has an impact on them.’

The same area is now represented by Republican Mike Kelly who was elected last year. After graduating he married the heiress to an oil fortune and took over his father’s car dealership where he had worked as a youngster.

He told the paper he believed he was overtaxed already and that unemployment benefits made some people less willing to look for employment.

On the other hand, there is one Congressman’s investment portfolio, which is being criticized for other reasons.  In fact, I’m sure that many investment analysts are having a good laugh as they read Jason Zweig’s recent posting for his new Total Return blog at The Wall Street Journal:

Yes, about 21% of Rep. Paul’s holdings are in real estate and roughly 14% in cash.  But he owns no bonds or bond funds and has only 0.1% in stock funds.  Furthermore, the stock funds that Rep. Paul does own are all “short,” or make bets against, U.S. stocks. One is a “double inverse” fund that, on a daily basis, goes up twice as much as its stock benchmark goes down.

The remainder of Rep. Paul’s portfolio – fully 64% of his assets – is entirely in gold and silver mining stocks.  He owns no Apple, no ExxonMobil, no Procter & Gamble, no General Electric, no Johnson & Johnson, not even a diversified mutual fund that holds a broad basket of stocks.  Rep. Paul doesn’t own stock in any major companies at all except big precious-metals stocks like Barrick Gold, Goldcorp and Newmont Mining.

*   *   *

Rep. Paul appears to be a strict buy-and-hold investor who rarely trades; he has held many of his mining stocks since at least 2002. But, as gold and silver prices have fallen sharply since September, precious-metals equities have also taken a pounding, with many dropping 20% or more.  That exposes the risk in making a big bet on one narrow sector.

At our request, William Bernstein, an investment manager at Efficient Portfolio Advisors in Eastford, Conn., reviewed Rep. Paul’s portfolio as set out in the annual disclosure statement.  Mr. Bernstein says he has never seen such an extreme bet on economic catastrophe.  “This portfolio is a half-step away from a cellar-full of canned goods and nine-millimeter rounds,” he says.

There are many possible doomsday scenarios for the U.S. economy and financial markets, explains Mr. Bernstein, and Rep. Paul’s portfolio protects against only one of them:  unexpected inflation accompanied by a collapse in the value of the dollar.  If deflation (to name one other possibility) occurs instead, “this portfolio is at great risk” because of its lack of bonds and high exposure to gold.

At least Congressman Ron Paul is authentic enough to “place his money where his mouth is” when criticizing Federal Reserve monetary policy.

As election year progresses, the current trend of “turning over rocks” to investigate the financial dealings of those in Congress could make things quite interesting.


 

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More Scrutiny For An Organization Called Americans Elect

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On July 25, I explained that the Republi-Cratic Corporatist Party was being threatened by a new, Internet-based effort to nominate a presidential ticket, which would be placed on the 2012 ballot in all fifty states.  Last summer, that organization – Americans Elect – described itself in the following terms:

Americans Elect is the first-ever open nominating process.  We’re using the Internet to give every single voter – Democrat, Republican or independent – the power to nominate a presidential ticket in 2012.  The people will choose the issues. The people will choose the candidates.  And in a secure, online convention next June, the people will make history by putting their choice on the ballot in every state.

*   *   *

We have no ties to any political group – left, right, or center.  We don’t promote any issues, ideology or candidates.  None of our funding comes from special interests or lobbyists.  Our only goal is to put a directly-nominated ticket on the ballot in 2012.

*   *   *

The goal of Americans Elect is to nominate a presidential ticket that answers to the people – not the political system.  Like millions of American voters, we simply want leadership that will work together to tackle the challenges facing our country.  And we believe a direct nominating process will prove that America is ready for a competitive, nonpartisan ticket.

Since that time, there has been a good deal of scrutiny focused on Americans Elect.  Justin Elliott recently wrote a comprehensive piece for Salon, highlighting the numerous sources of criticism targeting Americans Elect.  Mr. Elliott provided this summary of the controversies surrounding the organization:

The group is hoping to raise $30 million for its effort. It has already raised an impressive $22 million as of last month.  So where is all that money coming from?  Americans Elect won’t say. In fact, the group changed how it is organized under the tax code last year in order to shield the identity of donors.  It is now a 501(c)(4) “social welfare” group whose contributors are not reported publicly.

What we do know about the donors, largely through news reports citing anonymous sources, suggests they are a handful of super-rich Americans who made fortunes in the finance industry. (More on this below.)  But it’s impossible to fully assess the donors’ motives and examine their backgrounds and entanglements – important parts of the democratic process – while their identities and the size of their donations remain secret.

*   *   *

Americans Elect officials often tout their “revolutionary” online nominating convention, which will be open to any registered voter. But there’s a big catch.  Any ticket picked by participants will have to be approved by a Candidate Certification Committee, according to the group’s bylaws.

Among other things this committee will need to certify a “balanced ticket obligation”  – that the ticket consists of persons who are “responsive to the vast majority of citizens while remaining independent of special interests and the partisan interests of either major political party,” according to the current draft of Americans Elect rules.  Making these sorts of assessments is, of course, purely subjective.

Jim Cook of Irregular Times has been keeping a steady watch over Americans Elect, with almost-daily postings concerning the strange twists and turns that organization has taken since its inception (and incorporation).  Mr. Cook’s December 11 update provided this revelation:

The 501c4 corporation Americans Elect is arranging for the nation’s first-ever privately-run online nomination of candidates for President and Vice President of the United States in 2012.  As with any other corporation in the United States, it has a set of bylaws.  On November 18, 2011 the Americans Elect corporation held an unannounced meeting at which it amended its previous bylaws.

A month later, Americans Elect has not posted changes to the bylaws, or posted any notice of the changes, on its website for public review.  Furthermore, Americans Elect has generally made it a practice to post its documents as images that cannot be indexed by search engines or searched by keyword.  For these reasons, Irregular Times has retyped the bylaws into an easily searchable text format, based on a pdf file submitted to the Florida Secretary of State on November 22, 2011.  You can read the full text of the amended bylaws here.

Just a day earlier (on December 10) Jim Cook had been highlighting one of the many transparency controversies experienced by the group:

On the Americans Elect’s “Candidates” web page it rolled out last month, various numbers were tossed up without explanation.  A reference to a wildly error-prone slate of candidates’ supposed policies drawn up by Americans Elect contractor “On the Issues” appeared next to various politicians’ names, but the actual calculation by which Americans Elect came up with its “National Match” for each politician has never actually been published.  I’ll repeat that in bold:  Americans Elect’s system for calculating its numerical rankings of politicians was never shared with the public.

Another problem for Americans Elect concerns compliance with its bylaws by individual directors, and the lack of enforcement of those bylaws, as Cook’s December 9 posting demonstrates:

She’s done it five times before; this is the sixth.

The Americans Elect bylaws are very specific, as an Americans Elect Director, Christine Todd Whitman is not supposed to “communicate or act in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for President or Vice President at any time before the adjournment of the online nominating convention of Americans Elect.”

But here she is this week nevertheless, appearing on national television via FOX News to communicate in favor of presidential candidate Jon Huntsman   .   .   .

*   *   *

The bylaws say that when the neutrality provision is violated, there must be some sort of sanction.  But Christine Todd Whitman is getting away with it again and again and again where the whole country can see it.  Is the Americans Elect corporation inclined to follow its own rules?  If not, how much trust should we place in it as it gets ready to run its own private presidential nomination in less than five months’ time?

Richard Hansen, a professor at the University of California at Irvine Law School, wrote an essay for Politico, which was harshly critical of Americans Elect.  He concluded the piece with these observations:

But the biggest problem with Americans Elect is neither its secrecy nor the security of its election.  It is the problems with internal fairness and democracy.  To begin with, according to its draft rules, only those who can provide sufficient voter identification that will satisfy the organization – and, of course, who have Internet access – will be allowed to choose the candidate.  These will hardly be a cross section of American voters.

In addition, an unelected committee appointed by the board, the Candidates Certification Committee, will be able to veto a presidential/vice presidential ticket deemed not “balanced” – subject only to a two-thirds override by delegates.

It gets worse.  Under the group’s bylaws, that committee, along with the three other standing committees, serves at the pleasure of the board – and committee members can be removed without cause by the board.  The board members were not elected by delegates; they chose themselves in the organization’s articles of incorporation.

The bottom line:  If Americans Elect is successful, millions of people will have united to provide ballot access not for a candidate they necessarily believe in – like a Ross Perot or Ralph Nader – but for a candidate whose choice could be shaped largely by a handful of self-appointed leaders.

Despite the veneer of democracy created by having “delegates” choose a presidential candidate through a series of Internet votes, the unelected, unaccountable board of Americans Elect, funded by secret money, will control the process for choosing a presidential and vice presidential candidate – who could well appear on the ballot in all 50 states.

Forget about Tom Friedman’s breathlessly-enthusiastic New York Times commentary from last summer, gushing praise on Americans Elect.  It’s beginning to appear as though this movement is about to go off the rails, following the Cain Train into oblivion.


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Harsh Reality

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Several years ago, at one of the seven Laurie Anderson performances I have attended, Ms. Anderson (now Mrs. Lou Reed – although I seriously doubt whether she uses that moniker) described her first meeting with Philip Glass.  Immediately after meeting Glass, she anxiously asked him:  “Are things getting better or are things getting worse?”

These days, that same question is on everyone’s mind.  It appears as though the mainstream news media are hell-bent on convincing us that everything is just fine.  Nevertheless, many of us remember hearing the same thing from Ben Bernanke and Hank Paulson during the summer of 2008.  As a result, we ponder the onslaught of rosy prognostications about the future of our economy with a good degree of skepticism.  Regardless of whether there might be some sort of conspiracy to convince the public to go out and spend money because everything is all right  . . . consider these remarks by Steve Randy Waldman from a discussion about market monetarist theory:

Self-fulfilling expectations lie at the heart of the market monetarist theory.  A depression occurs when people come to believe that income will be scarce relative to prior expectations and debts.  They nervously scale back expenditures and hoard cash, fulfilling their expectations of income scarcity.  However, if everybody could suddenly be made to believe that income would be plentiful, everyone would spend freely and fulfill the expectations of plenty.  The world is a much more pleasant place under the second set of expectations than the first.  And to switch between the two scenarios, all that is required is persuasion.  The market-monetarist central bank is nothing more than a great persuader:  when “shocks happen”, it persuades us all to maintain our optimism about the path of nominal income.  As long as we all keep the faith, our faith will be rewarded.  This is not a religion, but a Nash equilibrium.

The persuasion described by Steve Waldman has been drowning out objective analysis lately.  Obviously, the sovereign debt crisis in Europe has created quite a bit of anxiety in the United States.  The mainstream media focus is apparently targeting that consensual anxiety with heavy doses of “feel good” material.  One must search around a bit before finding any commentary which runs against that current.  I found some and I would like to share it with you.  The first item appeared in Bloomberg BusinessWeek on November 22:

Pacific Investment Management Co.’s Chief Executive Officer Mohamed A. El-Erian said U.S. economic conditions are “terrifying” as the nation struggles to recover from recession.

The odds of the U.S. returning to recession are as much as 50 percent, El-Erian said during an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “In the Loop” with Betty Liu.  U.S. economic growth was worse than expected and congressional policy makers are gridlocked over what to do about the economy and the deficit, which risk exacerbating an already weak recovery, he said.

“We have less economic momentum than we thought we had and we have no policy momentum,” said El-Erian, who also serves as co-chief investment officer with Pimco founder Bill Gross at the world’s largest manager of bond funds.

“What’s most terrifying,” he said, “we are having this discussion about the risk of recession at a time when unemployment is already too high, at a time when a quarter of homeowners are underwater on their mortgages, at a time then the fiscal deficit is at 9 percent and at a time when interest rates are at zero.”

Let’s not forget that all of this is happening at a time when we are plagued by the most dysfunctional, stupid and corrupt Congress in our nation’s history.  President Obama is currently preoccupied with his re-election campaign.  His own leadership failures are conveniently re-packaged as products of that feckless Congress.  As a result, Americans have plenty of justification for being worried about the future.

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently shared some information with us, which he acquired by attending an InvestmentNews Round Table, as well as from reading Gary Shilling’s expensive newsletter:

Get it? Main Street America, you should “expect very slow growth” in 2012.  That was the response when asked what “scenarios are you painting for your clients?”  The panelist at a recent InvestmentNews Round Table then added:  “It’s going to be ugly and violent.”  Why?  Because the politicians “are driving things” and they are “capricious, which leads to volatility.”  And clients are “not really happy,” but “they lived through ‘08 and ’09,” so 2012 will be “just a little bump in the road.”

*   *   *

So don’t kid yourself folks, recent economic and market “ugliness and violence” not only won’t end soon, it’ll get meaner and meaner for years after 2012 elections … no matter who wins.  Only a fool would believe that a new bull market will take off in 2013.  Ain’t going to happen.  That’s a Wall Street fantasy.  Fall for that, and you’re delusional.

In fact, you better plan on a very long secular bear the next decade through 2020.  With the European banks, credit and currency on the edge of a global financial meltdown, there’s a high probability that a black swan virus, a contagion will sweep the world, making all investing “uglier” and more “violent” for Americans in 2013, indeed for the rest of the decade.

*   *   *

Shilling sees “a secular bear market really started in 2000 and may persist for a decade as a result of slower GDP growth,” yes, persist till 2020 “with 2% to 3% deflation.”  He warns:  “Nominal GDP might not gain at all,” like recent flat-lining.  Which coincides with the expectations of America’s professional financial advisers.

Are you still feeling optimistic?  Consider the closing thoughts from a piece by Karl Denninger entitled, “The Game Is About Done”:

30+ years of lawless behavior has now devolved down to blatant, in-your-face theft.  They don’t even bother trying to hide it any more, and Eric “Place” Holder is too busy supervising the running of guns into Mexico so the drug cartels can shoot both Mexican and American citizens.

What am I, or anyone else, supposed to do in this sort of “market” environment?  Invest in…. what?  Land titles are worthless as they’ve been corrupted by robosigning, margin deposits have been stolen, Madoff’s clients had confirmations of trades that never happend and proved to worthless pieces of paper instead of valuable securities and while Madoff went to prison nobody else has and the money is still gone!

Without enforcement of the law — swift and certain — there is no deterrent against this behavior.

There has been no enforcement and there is no indication that this will change.

It will take just one — or maybe two — more events like MF Global and Greek CDS “determinations” before the entire market — all of it — goes “no bid” as participants simply stuff their hands in their pockets and say “screw this.”

It’s coming folks, and I guarantee you this:  Whatever your “nightmare” scenario is for such an event, it’s not bearish enough.

Keep all of this in mind as you plan for the future.  I would not expect that you might hear any of this on CNBC.


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Nasty Cover-Up Gets Exposed

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Ever since the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster occurred on that horrible, twentieth day of April 2010, I have been criticizing the cover-up concerning the true extent of this tragedy.  Sitting here in my tinfoil hat, I felt frustrated that the mainstream media had been facilitating the obfuscation by British Petroleum and the Obama administration in their joint efforts to conceal an ongoing environmental disaster in the Gulf of Corexit.  On July 22 of that year, I wrote a piece entitled, “BP Buys Silence of Expert Witnesses”.  On August 26 of 2010, I expressed my cynicism in a piece entitled “Keeping Americans Dumb”:

As time drags on, it is becoming more apparent that both BP and the federal government are deliberately trying to conceal the extent of the damage caused by the Deepwater Horizon blowout.

I got some good news this week when I learned that the mainstream media are finally beginning to acknowledge the extent of this cover-up.  While reading an essay by Gerri Miller for Forbes, I learned about a new documentary concerning the untold story of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster:  The Big Fix.

Once my enthusiasm was sparked, I began reading all I could find about this new documentary, which was co-produced by Peter Fonda.  The Guardian (at its Environment Blog) provided this useful analysis of the movie:

The Big Fix, by Josh and Rebecca Tickell, re-opens some of the most persistent questions about last year’s oil spill.  How BP was able to exert so much control over the crisis as it unfolded?  What were the long-term health consequences of using a toxic chemical, Corexit, to break up the oil and drive it underwater?

Rebecca Tickell herself had a serious reaction to the chemical after being out on the open water – and as it turned out so did the doctor she consulted in an Alabama beach town.  She still has health problems.

Josh Tickell, who grew up in Louisiana, said the Obama administration’s decision to allow the use of Corexit, which is banned in Britain, was the biggest surprise in the making of the film.

“The most shocking thing to me was the disregard with which the people of the Gulf region were dealt,” Tickell said.

“Specifically I think that there was sort of a turn-a-blind-eye attitude towards the spraying of dispersants to clean up the spill. I don’t think anyone wanted to look too deeply at the consequences.”

Gerri Miller’s article for Forbes provided more insight on what the film revealed about the injuries sustained by people in the local shrimping communities:

Dean Blanchard, whose shrimp processing company was once the largest in the U.S., has seen his supply dwindle to “less than 1 percent of the shrimp we produced before.  We get shrimp with oil in the gills and shrimp with no eyes.  The fish are dead and there are no dolphins swimming around my house.”  He knows five people who worked on cleanup crews who have died, and he suffers from sinus and throat problems.  Former shrimper Margaret Curole‘s healthy 31-year-old son worked two months on the cleanup and became so sick from dispersant exposure that he lost 52 pounds and is now unable to walk without a cane. “Most of the seafood is dead or toxic.  I wouldn’t feed it to my cat,” said her husband Kevin Curole, a fifth-generation shrimper who, like Blanchard, had friends who died from Corexit exposure.  “I used to be a surfer but I won’t go in the water anymore,” he said.  “The last time I did my eyes and lips were burning.”

EcoWatch warned us that the movie can be emotionally upsetting:

When you watch how the the Gulf residents captured in The Big Fix have been affected by Corexit and the spill, beware, it is both heart wrenching and frightening.  When you see Gulf residents driven to tears by this environmental tragedy, you want to cry with them. Rebecca, herself, was seriously sickened by Corexit during their filming in the Gulf.

When you listen to eco-activist, Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of champion of the seas Jacques-Yves Cousteau, state so emotionally in the film, “We’re being lied to,” you realize the truth about the Gulf oil spill is being covered up.

The most informative essay about The Big Fix was written by Jerry Cope for The Huffington Post.  The “official trailer” for the film can be seen here.

Ernest Hardy of LA Weekly emphasized how the film hammered away at the mainstream media complicity in the cover-up:

Josh Tickell, a Louisiana native, had two questions he wanted answered when he set out to make his documentary:  What were we not told by the media in the days and weeks immediately following the April 2010 British Petroleum oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and what haven’t we been told since the story faded from the news cycle?  If The Big Fix had simply tackled those questions, the story uncovered would be maddening:  BP’s repeated flaunting of safety codes; their blatant disregard for the lives of individuals and communities devastated by the spill; collusion among the U.S. government (from local to the White House), the media, and BP to hide the damage and avoid holding anyone accountable.  The film’s scope is staggering, including its detailed outlining of BP’s origins and fingerprints across decades of unrest in Iran.  By doing smart, covert reporting that shames our news media, by interviewing uncensored journalists, by speaking with locals whose health has been destroyed, and by interviewing scientists who haven’t been bought by BP (many have, as the film illustrates), Fix stretches into a mandatory-viewing critique of widespread government corruption, with one of the film’s talking heads remarking, “I don’t have any long-term hope for us [as a country] unless we find a way to control campaign financing.”  And yes, the Koch brothers are major players in the fuckery.

The theme of regulatory capture played a role in Anthony Kaufman’s critique of The Big Fix for The Wall Street Journal’s “online magazine” – Speakeasy:

Tickell says that U.S. politicians, both in the Democratic and Republican parties, are too closely tied to the oil and gas industries to regulate them effectively.  “Even if these people come in with good intentions, and what to do good for their community, in order to achieve that level of leadership, they have to seek money from oil and gas,” he says.

While the film promises to take a crack at BP, Tickell says the company is more held up as a “universal example, in the way that resource extraction companies have a certain set of operating paradigms which have lead us to a situation where we have Gulf oil spills and tar sands.”

I felt that my conspiracy theory concerning this tragedy was validated after reading a review of the movie in AZGreen Magazine:

The Big Fix makes clear that the Deepwater Horizon disaster is far from over.  Filmmakers Josh and Rebecca Tickell (makers of groundbreaking films Fuel and Freedom) courageously shine the spotlight on serious aspects of the BP oil spill that were never addressed by mainstream media.  Central to the story is the corporate deception that guided both media coverage and political action on the environmental damage (and ongoing human health consequences) caused by long-term exposure to Corexit, the highly toxic dispersant that was spewed into the Gulf of Mexico by millions of gallons.   The Big Fix drills deeply beyond media reports to demystify the massive corporate cover-up surrounding the Gulf oil spill, and BP’s egregious disregard for human and environmental health.  The film exposes collusion of oil producers, chemical manufacturers, politicians and their campaign funders that resulted in excessive use of Corexit to mask the significance of the oil, and thereby reduce the penalties paid by BP.

Reading all of this makes me wonder what happened to the people, who were discussed in my July 2010 posting, “NOAA Uses Human Canaries to Test Gulf Fish”.

The movie received a standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, as it did in its initial screenings in the United States.  Once audiences have a deeper look at the venal nature of the Obama Administration, it will be interesting to watch for any impact on the President’s approval ratings.


 

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Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

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The European sovereign debt crisis has generated an enormous amount of nonsensical coverage by the news media.  Most of this coverage appears targeted at American investors, who are regularly assured that a Grand Solution to all of Europe’s financial problems is “just around the corner” thanks to the heroic work of European finance ministers.

Fortunately, a number of commentators have raised some significant objections about all of the misleading “spin” on this subject.  Some pointed criticism has come from Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) who recently posted this complaint:

I am tired of nonsensical headlines that have a zero percent chance of happening.

In a subsequent piece, Mish targeted a report from Bloomberg News which bore what he described as a misleading headline:  “EU Sees Progress on Banks”.  Not surprisingly, clicking on the Bloomberg link will reveal that the story now has a different headline.

For those in search of an easy-to-read explanation of the European financial situation, I recommend an essay by Robert Kuttner, appearing at the Huffington Post.  Here are a few highlights:

The deepening European financial crisis is the direct result of the failure of Western leaders to fix the banking system during the first crisis that began in 2007.  Barring a miracle of statesmanship, we are in for Financial Crisis II, and it will look more like a depression than a recession.

*   *   *

Beginning in 2008, the collapse of Bear Stearns revealed the extent of pyramid schemes and interlocking risks that had come to characterize the global banking system.  But Western leaders have stuck to the same pro-Wall-Street strategy:  throw money at the problem, disguise the true extent of the vulnerability, provide flimsy reassurances to money markets, and don’t require any fundamental changes in the business models of the world’s banks to bring greater simplicity, transparency or insulation from contagion.

As a consequence, we face a repeat of 2008.  Precisely the same kinds of off-balance sheet pyramids of debts and interlocking risks that caused Bear Stearns, then AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch to blow up are still in place.

Following Tim Geithner’s playbook, the European authorities conducted “stress tests” and reported in June that the shortfall in the capital of Europe’s banks was only about $100 billion.  But nobody believes that rosy scenario.

*   *   *

But to solely blame Europe and its institutions is to excuse the source of the storms.  That is the political power of the banks to block fundamental reform.

The financial system has mutated into a doomsday machine where banks make their money by originating securities and sticking someone else with the risk.  None of the reforms, beginning with Dodd-Frank and its European counterparts, has changed that fundamental business model.

As usual, the best analysis of the European financial situation comes from economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Dr. Hussman’s essay explores several dimensions of the European crisis in addition to noting some of the ongoing “shenanigans” employed by American financial institutions.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from Hussman’s latest Weekly Market Comment:

Incomprehensibly large bailout figures now get tossed around unexamined in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis (blessed, of course, by Wall Street), while funding toward NIH, NSF and other essential purposes has been increasingly squeezed.  At the urging of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Europe has been encouraged to follow the “big bazooka” approach to the banking system.  That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we’ve become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner’s triumph and humanity’s collective loss.

*   *   *

A clean solution to the European debt problem does not exist. The road ahead will likely be tortuous.

The way that Europe can be expected to deal with this is as follows.  First, European banks will not have their losses limited to the optimistic but unrealistic 21% haircut that they were hoping to sustain.  In order to avoid the European Financial Stability Fund from being swallowed whole by a Greek default, leaving next-to-nothing to prevent broader contagion, the probable Greek default will be around 50%-60%.  Note that Greek obligations of all maturities, including 1-year notes, are trading at prices about 40 or below, so a 50% haircut would actually be an upgrade.  Given the likely time needed to sustainably narrow Greek deficits, a default of that size is also the only way that another later crisis would be prevented (at least for a decade, and hopefully much longer).

*   *   *

Of course, Europe wouldn’t need to blow all of these public resources or impose depression on Greek citizens if bank stockholders and bondholders were required to absorb the losses that result from the mind-boggling leverage taken by European banks.  It’s that leverage (born of inadequate capital requirements and regulation), not simply bad investments or even Greek default per se, that is at the core of the crisis.

Given the fact that the European crisis appears to be reaching an important crossroads, the Occupy Wall Street protest seems well-timed.  The need for significant financial reform is frequently highlighted in most commentaries concerning the European situation.  Whether our venal politicians will seriously address this situation remains to be seen.  I’m not holding my breath.


 

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