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Dubious Reassurances

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There appears to be an increasing number of commentaries presented in the mainstream media lately, assuring us that “everything is just fine” or – beyond that – “things are getting better” because the Great Recession is “over”.  Anyone who feels inclined to believe those comforting commentaries should take a look at the Financial Armageddon blog and peruse some truly grim reports about how bad things really are.

On a daily basis, we are being told not to worry about Europe’s sovereign debt crisis because of the heroic efforts to keep it under control.  On the other hand, I was more impressed by the newest Weekly Market Comment by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Be sure to read the entire essay.  Here are some of Dr. Hussman’s key points:

From my perspective, Wall Street’s “relief” about the economy, and its willingness to set aside recession concerns, is a mistake born of confusion between leading indicators and lagging ones.  Leading evidence is not only clear, but on a statistical basis is essentially certain that the U.S. economy, and indeed, the global economy, faces an oncoming recession.  As Lakshman Achuthan notes on the basis of ECRI’s own (and historically reliable) set of indicators, “We’ve entered a vicious cycle, and it’s too late: a recession can’t be averted.”  Likewise, lagging evidence is largely clear that the economy was not yet in a recession as of, say, August or September. The error that investors are inviting here is to treat lagging indicators as if they are leading ones.

The simple fact is that the measures that we use to identify recession risk tend to operate with a lead of a few months.  Those few months are often critical, in the sense that the markets can often suffer deep and abrupt losses before coincident and lagging evidence demonstrates actual economic weakness.  As a result, there is sometimes a “denial” phase between the point where the leading evidence locks onto a recession track, and the point where the coincident evidence confirms it. We saw exactly that sort of pattern prior to the last recession. While the recession evidence was in by November 2007 (see Expecting A Recession ), the economy enjoyed two additional months of payroll job growth, and new claims for unemployment trended higher in a choppy and indecisive way until well into 2008. Even after Bear Stearns failed in March 2008, the market briefly staged a rally that put it within about 10% of its bull market high.

At present, the S&P 500 is again just 10% below the high it set before the recent market downturn began. In my view, the likelihood is very thin that the economy will avoid a recession, that Greece will avoid default, or that Europe will deal seamlessly with the financial strains of a banking system that is more than twice as leveraged as the U.S. banking system was before the 2008-2009 crisis.

*   *   *

A few weeks ago, I noted that Greece was likely to be promised a small amount of relief funding, essentially to buy Europe more time to prepare its banking system for a Greek default, and observed “While it’s possible that the equity markets will mount a relief rally in the event of new funding to Greece, it will be important to recognize that handing out a bit more relief would be preparatory to a default, and that would probably be reflected in a failure of Greek yields to retreat significantly on that news.”

As of Friday, the yield on 1-year Greek debt has soared to 169%. Greece will default. Europe is buying time to reduce the fallout.

As of this writing, the yield on 1-year Greek debt is now 189.82%.  How could it be possible to pay almost 200% interest on a one-year loan?

Despite all of the “good news” about America’s zombie megabanks, which were bailed out during the financial crisis (and for a while afterward) Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism has been keeping an ongoing “Bank of America Deathwatch”.  The story has gone from grim to downright creepy:

If you have any doubt that Bank of America is in trouble, this development should settle it.  I’m late to this important story broken this morning by Bob Ivry of Bloomberg, but both Bill Black (who I interviewed just now) and I see this as a desperate (or at the very best, remarkably inept) move by Bank of America’s management.

The short form via Bloomberg:

Bank of America Corp. (BAC), hit by a credit downgrade last month, has moved derivatives from its Merrill Lynch unit to a subsidiary flush with insured deposits, according to people with direct knowledge of the situation…

Bank of America’s holding company — the parent of both the retail bank and the Merrill Lynch securities unit — held almost $75 trillion of derivatives at the end of June, according to data compiled by the OCC.  About $53 trillion, or 71 percent, were within Bank of America NA, according to the data, which represent the notional values of the trades.

*   *   *

This move reflects either criminal incompetence or abject corruption by the Fed.  Even though I’ve expressed my doubts as to whether Dodd Frank resolutions will work, dumping derivatives into depositaries pretty much guarantees a Dodd Frank resolution will fail.  Remember the effect of the 2005 bankruptcy law revisions:  derivatives counterparties are first in line, they get to grab assets first and leave everyone else to scramble for crumbs.  So this move amounts to a direct transfer from derivatives counterparties of Merrill to the taxpayer, via the FDIC, which would have to make depositors whole after derivatives counterparties grabbed collateral.  It’s well nigh impossible to have an orderly wind down in this scenario.  You have a derivatives counterparty land grab and an abrupt insolvency.  Lehman failed over a weekend after JP Morgan grabbed collateral.

But it’s even worse than that.  During the savings & loan crisis, the FDIC did not have enough in deposit insurance receipts to pay for the Resolution Trust Corporation wind-down vehicle.  It had to get more funding from Congress.  This move paves the way for another TARP-style shakedown of taxpayers, this time to save depositors.  No Congressman would dare vote against that.  This move is Machiavellian, and just plain evil.

It is the aggregate outrage caused by the rampant malefaction throughout American finance, which has motivated the protesters involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Those demonstrators have found it difficult to articulate their demands because any comprehensive list of grievances they could assemble would be unwieldy.  Most important among their complaints is the notion that the failure to enforce prohibitions against financial wrongdoing will prevent restoration of a healthy economy.  The best example of this is the fact that our government continues to allow financial institutions to remain “too big to fail” – since their potential failure would be remedied by a taxpayer-funded bailout.

Hedge fund manager Barry Ritholtz articulated those objections quite well, in a recent piece supporting the State Attorneys General who are resisting the efforts by the Justice Department to coerce settlement of the States’ “fraudclosure” cases against Bank of America and others – on very generous terms:

The Rule of Law is yet another bedrock foundation of this nation.  It seems to get ignored when the criminals involved received billions in bipartisan bailout monies.

The line of bullshit being used on State AGs is that we risk an economic crisis if we prosecute these folks.

The people who claim that fail to realize that the opposite is true – the protest at Occupy Wall Street, the negative sentiment, the general economic angst – traces itself to the belief that there is no justice, that senior bankers have gotten away with economic murder, and that we have a two-tiered criminal system, one for the rich and one for the poor.

Today’s NYT notes the gloom that has descended over consumers, and they suggest it may be home prices. I think they are wrong – in my experience, the sort of generalized rage and frustration comes about when people realize the institutions they have trusted have betrayed them.  Humans deal with financial losses in a very specific way – and it’s not fury.  This is about a fundamental breakdown of the role of government, courts, and leadership in the nation.  And it all traces back to the bailouts of reckless bankers, and the refusal to hold them in any way accountable.

There will not be a fundamental economic recovery until that is recognized.

In the mean time, the quality of life for the American middle class continues to deteriorate.  We need to do more than simply hope that the misery will “trickle” upward.


 

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The “Bad Bank” Debate

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January 29, 2009

The $700 billion Troubled Assets Relief Program (TARP) doesn’t seem to have accomplished much in the way of relieving banks from the ownership of “troubled assets”.  In fact, nobody seems to know exactly what was done with the first $350 billion in TARP funds, and those who do know are not talking.  Meanwhile, the nation’s banks have continued to flounder.  As David Cho reported in The Washington Post on Wednesday, January 28:

The health of many banks is getting worse, not better, as the downturn makes it difficult for all kinds of consumers and businesses to pay back money they borrowed from these financial firms.  Conservative estimates put bank losses yet to be declared at $1 trillion.

The continuing need for banks to unload their toxic assets has brought attention to the idea of creating a “bad bank” to buy mortgage-backed securities and other toxic assets, thus freeing-up banks to get back into the lending business.  Bloomberg News and other sources reported on Wednesday that FDIC chair, Sheila Bair, is pushing for her agency to run such a “bad bank”.  Our new Treasury Secretary, Tim Geithner, has also discussed the idea of such a bank (often referred to as an “aggregator bank”) as reported on Wednesday by Reuters:

Geithner said last week the administration was reviewing the option of setting up a bad bank, but that it is “enormously complicated to get right.”

The idea of creating such a bank has drawn quite a bit of criticism.  Back on January 18, Paul Krugman (recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics) characterized this approach, without first “nationalizing” the banks on a temporary basis, as “Wall Street Voodoo”:

A better approach would be to do what the government did with zombie savings and loans at the end of the 1980s:  it seized the defunct banks, cleaning out the shareholders.  Then it transferred their bad assets to a special institution, the Resolution Trust Corporation; paid off enough of the banks’ debts to make them solvent; and sold the fixed-up banks to new owners.

The current buzz suggests, however, that policy makers aren’t willing to take either of these approaches.  Instead, they’re reportedly gravitating toward a compromise approach:  moving toxic waste from private banks’ balance sheets to a publicly owned “bad bank” or “aggregator bank” that would resemble the Resolution Trust Corporation, but without seizing the banks first.

Krugman scrutinized Sheila Bair’s earlier explanation that the aggregator bank would buy the toxic assets at “fair value”, by questioning how we define what “fair value” really means.  He concluded that this entire endeavor (as it is currently being discussed) is a bad idea for all concerned:

Unfortunately, the price of this retreat into superstition may be high.  I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that taxpayers are about to get another raw deal — and that we’re about to get another financial rescue plan that fails to do the job.

Krugman is not alone in his skepticism concerning this plan.  As Annelena Lobb and Rob Curran  reported in Wednesday’s Wall Street Journal, this idea is facing some criticism from those in the financial planning business:

“I don’t see how this increases liquidity,” says Paul Sutherland, chief investment officer at FIM Group in Traverse City, Mich.  “This idea that we should burn million-dollar bills from taxpayers to take bad assets isn’t the best path.”

Billionaire financier Geroge Soros told CNBC that he disagrees with the “bad bank” strategy, explaining that the proposal “will help relieve the situation, but it will not be sufficient to turn it around”.  He then took advantage of the opportunity to criticize the execution of the first stage of the TARP bailout:

As to Paulson’s handling of the first half of the $700 billion Wall Street bailout fund known as TARP, Soros said the money was used “capriciously and haphazardly.”  He said half of it has now been wasted, and the rest will need to be used to plug holes.

Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, anticipates that a “big chunk” of the remaining TARP funds will be used to create this aggregator bank.  Accordingly, he has suggested application of the type of standards that were absent during the first TARP phase:

Until the taxpayer-financed Bad Bank has recouped the costs of these purchases through selling the toxic assets in the open market, private-sector banks that benefit from this form of taxpayer relief must (1) refrain from issuing dividends, purchasing other companies, or paying off creditors; (2) compensate their executives, traders, or directors no more than 10 percent of what they received in 2007; (3) be reimbursed by their executives, traders, and directors 50 percent of whatever amounts they were compensated in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 — compensation which was, after all, based on false premises and fraudulent assertions, and on balance sheets that hid the true extent of these banks’ risks and liabilities; and (4) commit at least 90 percent of their remaining capital to new bank loans.

However, Reich’s precondition:  “Until the taxpayer-financed Bad Bank has recouped the costs of these purchases through selling the toxic assets in the open market” is exactly what makes his approach unworkable.  The cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market.  This point was emphasized by none other than “Doctor Doom” himself (Dr. Nouriel Roubini) during an interview with CNBC at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Dr. Roubini pointed out:

At which price do you buy the assets?  If you buy them at a high price, you are having a huge fiscal cost.  If you buy them at the right market price, the banks are insolvent and you have to take them over.  So I think it’s a bad idea.  It’s another form of moral hazard and putting on the taxpayers, the cost of the bailout of the financial system.

What is Dr. Roubini’s solution?  Face up to the reality that the banks are insolvent and “do what Sweden did”:  take over the banks, clean them up by selling off the bad assets and sell them back to the private sector.

Nevertheless, you can’t always count on the federal government to do the right thing.  In this case, I doubt that they will.  As David Cho pointed out at the end of his Washington Post article:

The bailout program “is a public relations nightmare,” one government official said.  He added that Obama officials are sure to face criticism for whatever course they take.