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Get Ready for the Next Financial Crisis

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It was almost one year ago when Bloomberg News reported on these remarks by Mark Mobius, executive chairman of Templeton Asset Management’s emerging markets group:

“There is definitely going to be another financial crisis around the corner because we haven’t solved any of the things that caused the previous crisis,” Mobius said at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan inTokyotoday in response to a question about price swings. “Are the derivatives regulated?  No.  Are you still getting growth in derivatives?  Yes.”

I have frequently complained about the failed attempt at financial reform, known as the Dodd-Frank Act.  Two years ago, I wrote a piece entitled, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax” wherein I expressed my outrage that the financial reform effort had become a charade.  The final product resulting from all of the grandstanding and backroom deals – the Dodd–Frank Act – had become nothing more than a hoax on the American public.  My essay included the reactions of five commentators, who were similarly dismayed.  I concluded the posting with this remark:

The bill that is supposed to save us from another financial crisis does nothing to accomplish that objective.  Once this 2,000-page farce is signed into law, watch for the reactions.  It will be interesting to sort out the clear-thinkers from the Kool-Aid drinkers.

During the past few days, there has been a chorus of commentary calling for a renewed effort toward financial reform.  We have seen a torrent of reports on the misadventures of The London Whale at JP Morgan Chase, whose outrageous derivatives wager has cost the firm uncounted billions.  By the time this deal is unwound, the originally-reported loss of $2 billion will likely be dwarfed.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, has made a hobby of writing blog postings about “what President Obama needs to do”.  Of course, President Obama never follows Professor Reich’s recommendations, which might explain why Mitt Romney has been overtaking Obama in the opinion polls.  On May 16, Professor Reich was downright critical of the President, comparing him to the dog in a short story by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle involving Sherlock Holmes, Silver Blaze.  The President’s feeble remarks about JPMorgan’s latest derivatives fiasco overlooked the responsibility of Jamie Dimon – obviously annoying Professor Reich, who shared this reaction:

Not a word about Jamie Dimon’s tireless campaign to eviscerate the Dodd-Frank financial reform bill; his loud and repeated charge that the Street’s near meltdown in 2008 didn’t warrant more financial regulation; his leadership of Wall Street’s brazen lobbying campaign to delay the Volcker Rule under Dodd-Frank, which is still delayed; and his efforts to make that rule meaningless by widening a loophole allowing banks to use commercial deposits to “hedge” (that is, make offsetting bets) their derivative trades.

Nor any mention Dimon’s outrageous flaunting of Dodd-Frank and of the Volcker Rule by setting up a special division in the bank to make huge (and hugely profitable, when the bets paid off) derivative trades disguised as hedges.

Nor Dimon’s dual role as both chairman and CEO of JPMorgan (frowned on my experts in corporate governance) for which he collected a whopping $23 million this year, and $23 million in 2010 and 2011 in addition to a $17 million bonus.

Even if Obama didn’t want to criticize Dimon, at the very least he could have used the occasion to come out squarely in favor of tougher financial regulation.  It’s the perfect time for him to call for resurrecting the Glass-Steagall Act, of which the Volcker Rule – with its giant loophole for hedges – is a pale and inadequate substitute.

And for breaking up the biggest banks and setting a cap on their size, as the Dallas branch of the Federal Reserve recommended several weeks ago.

This was Professor Reich’s second consecutive reference within a week to The Dallas Fed’s Annual Report, which featured an essay by Harvey Rosenblum, the head of the Dallas Fed’s Research Department and the former president of the National Association for Business Economics.  Rosenblum’s essay provided an historical analysis of the events leading up to the 2008 financial crisis and the regulatory efforts which resulted from that catastrophe – particularly the Dodd-Frank Act.  Beyond that, Rosenblum emphasized why those “too-big-to-fail” (TBTF) banks have actually grown since the enactment of Dodd-Frank:

The TBTF survivors of the financial crisis look a lot like they did in 2008.  They maintain corporate cultures based on the short-term incentives of fees and bonuses derived from increased oligopoly power.  They remain difficult to control because they have the lawyers and the money to resist the pressures of federal regulation.  Just as important, their significant presence in dozens of states confers enormous political clout in their quest to refocus banking statutes and regulatory enforcement to their advantage.

Last year, former Kansas City Fed-head, Thomas Hoenig discussed the problems created by the TBTFs, which he characterized as “systemically important financial institutions” – or “SIFIs”:

…  I suggest that the problem with SIFIs is they are fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism.  They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth.  So long as the concept of a SIFI exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.

Although the huge derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase has motivated a number of commentators to issue warnings about the risk of another financial crisis, there had been plenty of admonitions emphasizing the risks of the next financial meltdown, which were published long before the London Whale was beached.  Back in January, G. Timothy Haight wrote an inspiring piece for the pro-Republican Orange County Register, criticizing the failure of our government to address the systemic risk which brought about the catastrophe of 2008:

In response to widespread criticism associated with the financial collapse, Congress has enacted a number of reforms aimed at curbing abuses at financial institutions.  Legislation, such as the Dodd-Frank and Consumer Protection Act, was trumpeted as ensuring that another financial meltdown would be avoided.  Such reactionary regulation was certain to pacify U.S. taxpayers.

Unfortunately, legislation enacted does not solve the fundamental problem.  It simply provides cover for those who were asleep at the wheel, while ignoring the underlying cause of the crisis.

More than three years after the calamity, have we solved the dilemma we found ourselves in late 2008?  Can we rest assured that a future bailout will not occur?  Are financial institutions no longer “too big to fail?”

Regrettably, the answer, in each case, is a resounding no.

Last month, Michael T. Snyder of The Economic Collapse blog wrote an essay for the Seeking Alpha website, enumerating the 22 Red Flags Indicating Serious Doom Is Coming for Global Financial Markets.  Of particular interest was red flag #22:

The 9 largest U.S. banks have a total of 228.72 trillion dollars of exposure to derivatives.  That is approximately 3 times the size of the entire global economy.  It is a financial bubble so immense in size that it is nearly impossible to fully comprehend how large it is.

The multi-billion dollar derivatives loss by JPMorgan Chase demonstrates that the sham “financial reform” cannot prevent another financial crisis.  The banks assume that there will be more taxpayer-funded bailouts available, when the inevitable train wreck occurs.  The Federal Reserve will be expected to provide another round of quantitative easing to keep everyone happy.  As a result, nothing will be done to strengthen financial reform as a result of this episode.  The megabanks were able to survive the storm of indignation in the wake of the 2008 crisis and they will be able ride-out the current wave of public outrage.

As Election Day approaches, Team Obama is afraid that the voters will wake up to the fact that the administration itself  is to blame for sabotaging financial reform.  They are hoping that the public won’t be reminded that two years ago, Simon Johnson (former chief economist of the IMF) wrote an essay entitled, “Creating the Next Crisis” in which he provided this warning:

On the critical dimension of excessive bank size and what it implies for systemic risk, there was a concerted effort by Senators Ted Kaufman and Sherrod Brown to impose a size cap on the largest banks – very much in accordance with the spirit of the original “Volcker Rule” proposed in January 2010 by Obama himself.

In an almost unbelievable volte face, for reasons that remain somewhat mysterious, Obama’s administration itself shot down this approach.  “If enacted, Brown-Kaufman would have broken up the six biggest banks inAmerica,” a senior Treasury official said.  “If we’d been for it, it probably would have happened.  But we weren’t, so it didn’t.”

Whether the world economy grows now at 4% or 5% matters, but it does not much affect our medium-term prospects. The US financial sector received an unconditional bailout – and is not now facing any kind of meaningful re-regulation.  We are setting ourselves up, without question, for another boom based on excessive and reckless risk-taking at the heart of the world’s financial system.  This can end only one way:  badly.

The public can forget a good deal of information in two years.  They need to be reminded about those early reactions to the Obama administration’s subversion of financial reform.  At her Naked Capitalism website, Yves Smith served up some negative opinions concerning the bill, along with her own cutting commentary in June of 2010:

I want the word “reform” back.  Between health care “reform” and financial services “reform,” Obama, his operatives, and media cheerleaders are trying to depict both initiatives as being far more salutary and far-reaching than they are.  This abuse of language is yet another case of the Obama Administration using branding to cover up substantive shortcomings.  In the short run it might fool quite a few people, just as BP’s efforts to position itself as an environmentally responsible company did.

*   *   *

So what does the bill accomplish?  It inconveniences banks around the margin while failing to reduce the odds of a recurrence of a major financial crisis.

On May 17, Noam Scheiber explained why the White House is ”sweating” the JPMorgan controversy:

In particular, the transaction appears to have been a type of proprietary trade – which is to say, a trade that a bank undertakes to make money for itself, not its clients.  And these trades were supposed to have been outlawed by the “Volcker Rule” provision of Obama’s financial reform law, at least at federally-backed banks like JP Morgan.  The administration is naturally worried that, having touted the law as an end to the financial shenanigans that brought us the 2008 crisis, it will look feckless instead.

*   *   *

But it turns out that there’s an additional twist here.  The concern for the White House isn’t just that the law could look weak, making it a less than compelling selling point for Obama’s re-election campaign.  It’s that the administration could be blamed for the weakness.  It’s one thing if you fought for a tough law and didn’t entirely succeed.  It’s quite another thing if it starts to look like you undermined the law behind the scenes.  In that case, the administration could look duplicitous, not merely ineffectual.  And that’s the narrative you see the administration trying to preempt   .   .   .

When the next financial crisis begins, be sure to credit President Obama as the Facilitator-In-Chief.


 

Why Au-scare-ity Still Has Traction

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Many economists have been watching Britain’s experiment with austerity for quite a while.  Britain has been following a course of using cuts in government programs along with mass layoffs of public sector workers in attempt to stimulate economic growth.  Back in February, economist Dean Baker made this observation:

Three months ago, I noted that the United States might benefit from the pain being suffered by the citizens of the United Kingdom.  The reason was the new coalition government’s commitment to prosperity through austerity.  As predicted, this looks very much like a path to pain and stagnation, not healthy growth.

That’s bad news for the citizens of the United Kingdom.  They will be forced to suffer through years of unnecessarily high unemployment.  They will also have to endure cutbacks in support for important public services like healthcare and education.

But the pain for the people in England could provide a useful example for the United States.

*   *   *

Prior to this episode, there was already a solid economic case that large public deficits were necessary to support the economy in the period following the collapse of an asset bubble. The point is simply that the private sector is not prepared to make up the demand gap, at least in the short term.  Both short-term and long-term interest rates are pretty much as low as they can be.

*   *   *

From this side of the pond, though, the goal is simply to encourage people to pay attention.  The UK might be home to 60 million people, but from the standpoint of US economic policy, it is simply exhibit A:  it is the country that did what our deficit hawks want to do in the US.

The takeaway lesson should be “austerity does not work; don’t go there.”  Unfortunately, in the land of faith-based economics, evidence does not count for much.  The UK may pursue a disastrous austerity path and those of us in the United States may still have to follow the same road anyhow.

After discussing the above-quoted commentary by Dean Baker, economist Mark Thoma added this:

Yes — it’s not about evidence, it’s about finding an excuse to implement an ideology.  The recession got in the way of those efforts until the idea that austerity is stimulative came along. Thus, “austerity is stimulative” is being used very much like “tax cuts increase revenues.”  It’s a means of claiming that ideological goals are good for the economy so that supporters in Congress and elsewhere have a means of rationalizing the policies they want to put in place.  It’s the idea that matters, and contrary evidence is brushed aside.

There seems to be an effort in many quarters to deny that the financial crisis ever happened.  Although it will eventually become absolutely imperative to get deficits under control, most sober economists emphasize that attempting to do so before the economy begins to recover and before the unemployment crisis is even addressed – would destroy any chance of economic recovery.  Barack Obama’s opponents know that the easiest route toward subverting the success of his re-election campaign involves undermining any efforts toward improving the economy to any degree by November of 2012.  Beyond that, the fast-track implementation of a British-style austerity program could guarantee a double-dip recession, which could prove disastrous to Obama’s re-election hopes.  As a result, the pressure is on to initiate some significant austerity measures as quickly as possible.  The propaganda employed to expedite this effort involves scaring the sheeple into believing that the horrifying budget deficit is about to bite them in the ass right now.  There is a rapidly increasing drumbeat to crank-up the scare factor.

Of course, the existence of this situation is the result of Obama’s own blunder.  Although he did manage to defeat Osama bin Laden, President Obama’s February, 2009 decision to “punt” on the economic stimulus program – by holding it at $862 billion and relying on the Federal Reserve to “play defense” with quantitative easing programs – was a mistake, similar in magnitude to that of allowing Bin Laden to escape at Tora Bora.  In his own “Tora Bora moment”, President Obama decided to rely on the advice of the very people who helped cause the financial crisis, by doing more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  In April of 2009, Obama chose to parrot the discredited “money multiplier” myth, fed to him by Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner, in order to justify continuous corporate welfare for the megabanks.  If Obama had followed the right course, by pushing a stronger, more infrastructure-based stimulus program through the Democrat-controlled Senate and House, we would be enjoying a more healthy economy right now.  A significant number of the nearly fifteen million people currently unemployed could have found jobs from which they would now be paying income taxes, which reduce the deficit.  But that didn’t happen.  President Obama has no one else to blame for that error.  His opponents are now attempting to “snowball” that mistake into a disaster that could make him a one-term President.

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich saw this coming back in March:

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor recently stated the Republican view succinctly:  “Less government spending equals more private sector jobs.”

In the past I’ve often wondered whether they’re knaves or fools.  Now I’m sure.  Republicans wouldn’t mind a double-dip recession between now and Election Day 2012.

They figure it’s the one sure way to unseat Obama.  They know that when the economy is heading downward, voters always fire the boss.  Call them knaves.

What about the Democrats?  Most know how fragile the economy is but they’re afraid to say it because the White House wants to paint a more positive picture.

And most of them are afraid of calling for what must be done because it runs so counter to the dominant deficit-cutting theme in our nation’s capital that they fear being marginalized.  So they’re reduced to mumbling “don’t cut so much.”  Call them fools.

Professor Simon Johnson, former Chief Economist of the International Monetary Fund, recently brought the focus of the current economic debate back to where it belongs:

In the nation’s latest fiscal mood swing, the mainstream consensus has swung from “we must extend the Bush tax cuts” (in December 2010) towards “we must immediately cut the budget deficit.”  The prevailing assumption, increasingly heard from both left and right, is that we already have far too much government debt – and any further significant increase will likely ruin us all.

This way of framing the debate is misleading – and very much at odds with US fiscal history.  It masks the deeper and important issues here, which are much more about distribution, in particular how much are relatively wealthy Americans willing to transfer to relatively poor Americans?

*   *   *

The real budget debate is not about a few billion here or there – for example in the context of when the government’s “debt ceiling” will be raised.  And it is not particularly about the last decade’s jump in government debt level – although this has grabbed the headlines, this is something that we can grow out of (unless the political elite decides to keep cutting taxes).

The real issue is how much relatively rich people are willing to pay and on what basis in the form of transfers to relatively poor people – and how rising healthcare costs should affect those transfers.

As the Tea Partiers flock to movie theaters to watch Atlas Shrugged, perhaps it’s time for a porno send-up, based on a steamy encounter between Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko called, Greed Feels Good.


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