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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.


 

Crazy Like Fox

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Donald Trump has enjoyed a good deal of publicity during the past few weeks, since he jumped on the “birther” bandwagon, voicing skepticism as to whether Barack Obama was really born in the United States.  Many of Trump’s critics insist that The Donald is not a serious Presidential candidate and that his newfound “birther” agenda demonstrates that his Presidential campaign is nothing more than a flimflam publicity stunt.

I have a different theory.  I believe that Trump is running a “decoy” campaign.  Keep in mind that Trump is currently the #2 contender for the Republican nomination.  Remember also that the Republican Presidential primaries for 11 states (and the District of Columbia) are conducted on a “winner-take-all” basis – meaning that when a candidate wins a state primary, that candidate wins all of the delegates who will represent that state at the Republican National Convention.  If Trump can win a few of those states, he could amass an impressive amount of “pledged” delegates.  I suspect that Trump’s goal is to win the support from the extreme right wing of the Republican Party and “hijack” those delegates who would have been otherwise pledged to candidates acceptable to the Tea Party.  Bill O’Reilly’s intervention to defuse the “birther” controversy (at which point he insisted that Trump has not been seriously seeking the nomination) was apparently motivated by the fact that the candidates most likely to be eliminated from contention because of Trump’s presence – Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin – are both darlings of Fox News.  In fact, Palin is a Fox News contributor.

At the 2012 Republican Convention in Tampa, Trump could step aside and support Willard Romney, who is despised my many Tea Party activists for having created what is now known as “Obamacare”.  Trump’s elimination of the Tea Party favorites before the convention would solve Romney’s problem with that voting bloc.  Romney can be expected to have an equally difficult time winning the support of dog lovers, as a result of his decision to strap the family dog, Seamus, to the car roof for a 12-hour family vacation drive to Ontario.  Despite his “Presidential” appearance, this Homer Simpson-esque episode from Romney’s life has already impaired efforts to portray him as a potentially effective Commander-In-Chief.

Meanwhile, President Obama is busy trumpeting his newly-minted, false campaign promises.  Gallup reported that on April 15, Obama’s approval rating had tied its all-time low of 41%.  More interestingly, his approval rating among African-American and Hispanic voters is beginning to slip from its enormously-high levels:

Though majorities of blacks (85%) and Hispanics (54%) continue to approve of the job Barack Obama is doing as president, his ratings among these groups slipped in March and have set or tied new lows.

*   *   *

Obama, elected to office with strong support from minority voters, has averaged better than 90% approval among blacks, and 65% among Hispanics, during his term.  Prior to March, Obama’s lowest monthly average among blacks was 88% in July 2010 and December 2010.  The president’s 54% March job approval rating among Hispanics ties the low from July and August 2010.

Despite the efforts of Republican commentators, such as Peggy Noonan, to create a narrative to the effect that Obama’s waning popularity – as well as the losses sustained by the Democrats in the 2010 elections – resulted from voter concern about government spending and the deficit, I suspect that Americans have simply become alienated by the failure of Obama and his party to deliver on their 2008 promises.  Worse yet, the capitulation to the interests of Wall Street by Democrats who promised “reform” has reinforced voter apathy – the real factor in the 2010 Democratic setbacks.

Cord Jefferson of Good provided this graphic of what Congress would look like if it truly represented America.  The failure of Democrats to win the support of Independent and centrist voters is readily apparent.  You can blame gerrymandering all you want, but as long as the Democrats fail to provide alternatives to Republican policies, they will continue to lose.  I believe it was William Black who said:

Under America’s two-party system, we have one party that is owned by big business and another party that sells out to big business.

I was pleased to see my own sentiments shared and articulated quite well by Mike Kimel of the Presimetrics Blog, in his recent posting entitled, “Why I Will Not be Voting for Obama in 2012”.  Although Mr. Kimel doesn’t have an alternative candidate in mind, the very reason for his disillusionment with Obama is that – with respect to the nation’s most significant problems – our current President has proposed no alternative policies to those of his predecessor:

And yes, there are a handful of things Obama did that GW might not do, but let’s be realistic – this has looked from the very beginning like GW’s third term.

Which leaves just one question – if the policies of the Republicans are even worse than Obama’s – and they tend to support anti-growth tax policies (calling them pro-growth doesn’t change the data), what should a rational person do?  I don’t know.  But I think if I’m going to see Republican policies enacted, I’d prefer to see them run under a Republican label.  See, Democratic policies may not be very good, but historically they have tended to produce better results than Republican policies.  (BTW – Michael Kanell and I have an entire book called Presimetrics looking at how Presidents performed on a wide range of topics.)  Another four years spent bringing the feeble Democratic brand down to the levels of the even more feeble Republican brand will cause lasting damage.

Obama will never re-ignite the enthusiasm of 2008 by presenting himself to the voters as “the devil you know” or “the lesser of two evils”.  What America’s middle class really needs is an honest, Independent candidate to make a run for The White House in 2012.


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Absence Of Anger

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I’ve been reading quite a number of articles written in anticipation of a revolutionary uprising by outraged citizens in response to the fallout from Wall Street’s giant Ponzi scheme.  The writers of these items are talking about a more significant uprising than anything we have seen from the Tea Party demonstrators.  Some are expecting riots in the streets.  Since widespread civil unrest has recently taken place in Europe, much attention has been focused on the issue of whether anything like that could happen in the United States.  From my own perspective, I just don’t see it happening.  Nevertheless, I can’t understand what keeps the American public from getting really mad at this point.  It could be due to an epidemic of Attention Deficit Disorder or excessive preoccupation with other distractions.  Perhaps some sort of far-flung conspiratorial effort is under way, involving mass hypnosis via television or drugged drinking water.

On the other hand, I do agree with those commentators on the point that the predicted insurgent reactions are entirely foreseeable.  Are they likely?  Consider what these pundits have said and decide for yourself   .  .  .

One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, discussed an inevitable backlash against the super-rich, who are waging class warfare by victimizing those of us down the food chain.  Nevertheless, he doesn’t really make it clear how this revolution will manifest itself.  Will there be actual physical violence  . . .  or just a “bloodbath” in the stock market?  Here is how he described it:

Yes, it’s called the Doomsday Capitalism revolution.  And I’m betting you’ll be able to track it on Twitter.

*   *   *

This new preemptive war is already in progress, and America’s billionaires are the aggressors:  Buffett’s billionaire buddies on the Forbes lists, his Wall Street banker buddies, his exporter buddies in China, all of Buffett’s buddies in this “rich class” are already engaged in a hostile takeover war against the American middle class, against the working class and the poor, against all Americans not on the Forbes lists of billionaires.

*   *   *

Here’s how I imagine this revolution unfolding as a series of rapid-fire tweets, as citizen-warriors pass along this collection of earlier warnings to reenergize and drive the rest of America to rebel against Buffett’s “rich class,” tweets that will trigger an anti-capitalist revolution.

Warning to all investors:  Prepare now, play defense.  Expect an economic upheaval rivaling the 1929 crash, creating a climate for true reform that will make the 1930s look like a real tea party.

At The Curious Capitalist blog, Stephen Gandel pondered what would result from all the fear and loathing about whether the Federal Reserve would begin another round of quantitative easing.  His essay was entitled, “Will the Federal Reserve Cause a Civil War?”  Mr. Gandel focused on a recent posting at the Zero Hedge website, which quoted this observation by Karl Denninger:

In a very real sense, Bernanke is throwing Granny and Grandpa down the stairs – on purpose.  He is literally threatening those at the lower end of the economic strata, along with all who are retired, with starvation and death, and in a just nation where the rule of law controlled instead of being abused by the kleptocrats he would be facing charges of Seditious Conspiracy, as his policies will inevitably lead to the destruction of our republic.

Stephen Gandel analyzed the potential for civil war as a consequence of more quantitative easing with this logic:

Lower rates do tend to favor borrowers over savers.  And the largest borrowers in the country are banks, speculators and large corporations.  The largest spenders in our country though tend to be individuals.  Consumer spending makes up 70% of the economy.  And the vast majority of consumers are on the low-end of the income scale.  So I think it is a valid question to ask whether the Fed’s desire to drive down interest rates at all costs policy is working.  Companies are already borrowing at low rates. They are just not spending.        .   .   .

That being said, civil war, probably not.  “It is a gross exaggeration,” says Allan Meltzer, who is a top Fed historian at Carnegie Mellon.  “I cannot recall ever learning about riots or civil war even when the Fed made other mistakes.”

Meanwhile, the prognostications of a gentleman named Gerald Celente appear to be gaining a good deal of traction.  Here are some of Celente’s thoughts as they appeared in his own Trend Alert newsletter, back in April of 2009:

“Nothing short of total repudiation of our entrenched systems can rescue America,” said Celente.  “We are under the control of a two-headed, one party political system.  Wall Street controls our financial lives; the media manipulates our minds.  These systems cannot be changed from within. There is no alternative.  Without a revolution, these institutions will bankrupt the country, keep fighting failed wars, start new ones, and hold us in perpetual intellectual subjugation.”

*   *   *

“I am calling for an ‘Intellectual Revolution’.  I ask American citizens to free their minds from the tyranny of ‘Dumb Think.’  This is a revolution about thinking – not manning the barricades.  It’s about brain power – not brute force.”

It would seem that some degree of anger would be required to incite an “Intellectual Revolution” —  even one without any acts of insurrection.  At this point, it just doesn’t appear as though the American taxpayers are really there yet – Tea Party or not.  People who “want their country back” aren’t the people who will lead this charge.  Watch out for the people who want their jobs, homes and money back.  They will be the ones with the requisite anger to seek real change – as opposed to the “change you can believe in”.


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