TheCenterLane.com

© 2008 – 2019 John T. Burke, Jr.

Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

Comments Off on Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

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.


 

wordpress stats

Wading In Quicksand

Comments Off on Wading In Quicksand

July 12, 2010

The recent Gallup Poll, revealing that President Obama’s approval rating has dropped to 38% among independent voters, has resulted in an outpouring of (unsolicited) advice offered to the President by numerous commentators.  As I pointed out in my last posting, Matt Miller’s July 8 Washington Post article set out a really great plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.   Nevertheless, Mr. Miller’s piece was not written as advice to the President, as some of the more recent articles have been.  I recently read one of those “advice to Obama” pieces that the President would do well to ignore.  It was written by a former Bill Clinton pollster named Douglas Schoen for the New York Daily News Schoen’s plan focused on this premise:

The independent swing voters who hold the fate of the Democratic Party in their hands are looking for candidates and parties that champion fiscal discipline, limited government, deficit reduction and a free market, pro-growth agenda.

Not true.  The independent swing voters are disappointed with Obama because the candidate’s promise of “hope and change” turned out to be a “bait and switch” scam to sell the public more cronyism.  At this point, it appears as though the entire Democratic Party will suffer the consequences in the 2010 elections.

The shortcomings of the Obama administration were more accurately summed up by Robert Kuttner for The Huffington Post:

But even a dire economic crisis and a Republican blockade of needed remedies have not fundamentally altered the temperament, trajectory, or tactical instincts of this surprisingly aloof  president.  He has not been willing or able to use his office to move public opinion in a direction that favors more activism.  Nor has Obama, for the most part, seized partisan and ideological opportunities that hapless Republicans and clueless corporate executives keep lobbing him like so many high, hanging curve balls.

*   *   *

But despite our hopes, Barack Obama is unlikely to offer bolder policies or give tougher speeches any time soon, even as threats of a double-dip recession and an electoral blowout in November loom.  This is just not who he is.  If the worst economic crisis in eight decades were going to change his assumptions about how to govern and how to lead, it would have done so by now.

*   *   *

I have also watched Obama’s loyal opposition –people like Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Elizabeth Warren, Sheila Bair — be proven right by events, again and again.  So there are alternative paths, as there always are.  But the White House has disdained them.

And I’ve noticed that it is the populists among Democratic elected officials who are best defended against defeat in November.  That tells you something, too.  Why should the project of rallying the common people against elites in Washington, on Wall Street, and in the media, be ceded to the far right?  But that is what this White House is doing.

E. J. Dionne of The Washington Post demonstrated a good understanding of why independent voters have become fed up with Obama and how this has ballooned into a larger issue of anti-Democrat sentiment:

On the one hand, independent voters are turning on them.  Democratic House candidates enjoyed a 51 percent to 43 percent advantage over Republicans in 2008.  This time, the polls show independents tilting Republican by substantial margins.

But Democrats are also suffering from a lack of enthusiasm among their own supporters.  Poll after poll has shown that while Republicans are eager to cast ballots, many Democrats seem inclined to sit out this election.

The apathy of the rank-and-file Democrats and the alienation of the independents is best explained by the Administration’s faux-reform agenda.  The so-called healthcare “reform” bill turned out to be a giveaway to big pharma and the health insurance industry.  Worse yet, the financial “reform” bill not only turned out to be a hoax – it did nothing to address systemic risk.  In other words, if one of those five “untouchable” Wall Street banks fails, it will take the entire financial system down with it — in the absence of another huge, trillion-dollar bailout from the taxpayers.

Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step:

Examples?  Off the top of my head, ones with a paper trail:  They fought the Collins amendment for quality of bank capital, fought leverage requirements like a 15-to-1 cap, fought prefunding the resolution mechanism, fought Section 716removed foreign exchange swaps and introduced end user exemption from derivative language between the Obama white paper and the House Bill, believed they could have gotten the SAFE Banking Amendment to break up the banks but didn’t try, pushed against the full Audit the Fed and encouraged the Scott Brown deal. spinning out swap desks,

You can agree or disagree with any number of those items, think they are brilliant or dumb, reasonable or a pipe dream.  But what is worth noting is that they always end up leaving their fingerprints on the side of less structural reform and in favor of the status quo on Wall Street.

The Obama administration is apparently operating from the mistaken perspective that the voters are too stupid to see through their antics.  Sending Joe Biden to appear on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show to dissuade the public from considering the motives of politicians will not solve the administration’s problem of sinking approval ratings.




Summers Solstice

Comments Off on Summers Solstice

November 27, 2008

We are now approaching the winter solstice (December 21 – the time at which the sun is at its most southern distance from the equator during the year – a/k/a:  “the shortest day of the year” for those of us in the northern hemisphere).  President-elect Obama’s appointment of Larry Summers as Director of the National Economic Council reminds me of another definition of the word “solstice”:  a turning point.  For all his faults (most notably, his infamous remarks as President of Harvard University, about the involvement of women in the study of science) he is no longer considered so much of a “supply sider” as a centrist in the world of economics.  Summers has apparently passed a turning point in his economic philosophy.

For those unfamiliar with Larry Summers, David Leonhardt’s article, “The Return of Larry Summers” in the November 25 New York Times is worth reading. I’ve been hearing reverberations of Leonhardt’s commentary throughout the mainstream media lately.  Here is an important observation from Mr. Leonhardt’s piece:

He (Summers) is also the centrist who has made it safe for other centrist Democrats to move to the left.  Both times I’ve interviewed Mr. Obama this year, he has brought up Mr. Summers, unbidden, and pointed out that Mr. Summers was now writing a lot more about the plight of the middle class than about budget deficits.  At Monday’s news conference, Mr. Obama called him “a thought leader.”

The “thought leader” remark came up in the following context when Barack Obama announced his appointment of Summers to the National Economic Council post on November 24.

As a thought leader, Larry has urged us to confront the problems of income inequality and the middle class squeeze, consistently arguing that the key to a strong economy is a strong, vibrant, growing middle class.

This idea is at the core of my own economic philosophy and will be the foundation of all of my economic policies. And as one of the great economic minds of our time, Larry has earned a global reputation for being able to cut to the heart of the most complex and novel policy challenges.

Looking back to June 10, 2007, we find another article in the New York Times written by David Leonhardt, entitled:  “Larry Summers’s Evolution”.  As we revisit this commentary in light of our current economic crisis, the pronouncements made by Summers seem almost prophetic:

The model that most appeals to Summers is, in fact, the United States — in the decades after World War II.  At the time, this country was opening itself to more global competition, by rebuilding Europe and signing financial agreements like Bretton Woods.  But it was also taking concrete steps to build the modern middle class.  In addition to the G.I. Bill, there were the Federal Housing Administration, the Interstate Highway System and a very different tax code.  The history of progressivism “has been one of the market being protected from its own excesses,” Summers says.  “And I think now the challenge is, again, to protect a basic market system based on open trade and globalization, to make it one that works for everyone or for almost everyone, at a time when market forces are often producing outcomes that seem increasingly problematic to middle-class families.”

That essay inspired The Economist to post a piece on its Free Exchange blog on the following day, entitled “Has Larry Summers Gone Soft?”

Nevertheless, conservative writers such as Kevin Hassett of Forbes still think of Summers as an opponent to increased capital gains taxation and hence, an advocate of “supply side” economics.   Conservative writer, David Harsanyi of the Denver Post exhibited similar enthusiasm about the appointment of Summers.  However, in the November 24 National Review, Larry Kudlow saw Obama’s appointment of Summers as a move to the center:

As for Summers, while he has been mau-maued by Democratic feminists and some of the unions, he is a tough, clear-headed thinker who has for years tried to merge Keynesian and supply-side policies.  No mean feat.

At this point, many pundits are attempting to “read the tea leaves” for hints as to whether President Obama will act to reverse the Bush tax cuts or let them expire in 2011.  The consensus suggests that he may simply let them expire.  This has drawn some anxious criticism from the left.  On the November 25 broadcast of the program, Democracy Now, author Naomi Klein made the following remark about Obama’s appointment of Summers:  “I think this is really troubling.”  However, on that same program, economics professor Robert Kuttner (the chief economics adviser to Rep. Dennis Kucinich) explained that he was “less pessimistic” than Ms. Klein about the Summers appointment:

I think even Larry Summers, because he is such an opportunist, has lately been calling for very large stimulus package, has been calling for tighter regulation of banks.

The influence of Larry Summers on the Obama Administration’s economic policy will be a continuing saga for the next few years.  At this point, the “change you can believe in” seems to absorb more than a little input from the center.

Here We Go Again

Comments Off on Here We Go Again

September 22, 2008

Exactly one year ago, we saw the release of Naomi Klein’s book, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.  Klein’s book explained how unpopular laws were enacted in a number of countries around the world, as a result of shock from disasters or upheavals.  She went on to suggest that some of these events were deliberately orchestrated with the intent of passing repugnant laws in the wake of crisis.  She made an analogy to shock therapy, wherein the patient’s mind is electrically reformatted to become a “blank slate”.  Klein described how advocates of “the shock doctrine” seek a cataclysmic destruction of economic order to create their own “blank slate” upon which to create their vision of a “free market economy”.   She described the 2003 Iraq war as the most thorough utilization of the shock doctrine in history.  Remember that this book was released a year before the crisis we are going through now.

You may recall former Senator Phil Gramm’s recent appearance in the news for calling the United States a “nation of whiners” and positing that the only recession going on in the United States these days is a “mental recession”.  Gramm is a longtime buddy and mentor to a certain individual named John McCain.  Gramm is the architect of the so called “Enron Loophole” allowing speculators to drive the price of oil to absurd heights.  (Gramm’s wife, Wendy, was a former member of Enron’s Board of Directors.)  Gramm was most notorious for his successes in the deregulation of Wall Street (with the help of McCain) that facilitated the “mortgage crisis” as well as the current economic meltdown.  He sponsored the 1999 bill that repealed the Glass-Steagall Act.  The repeal of that law allowed “commercial” and “investment” banks to consolidate.  Gramm’s face appears in many campaign videos with McCain, taken earlier this year.  As a result of the outrage generated by Gramm’s remarks, McCain formally dismissed Gramm as his campaign’s economic advisor.  Despite the fact that Gramm no longer has a formal role in the McCain campaign, many believe that he would be McCain’s choice for Secretary of the Treasury in the event that McCain should win the Presidential election.  On September 21, MSNBC’s David Shuster grilled McCain campaign spokesman, Tucker Bounds, about the possibility that McCain is planning to appoint Phil Gramm as his Secretary of the Treasury, should McCain win.  Tucker Bounds squirmed all over the place, employing his usual tactic of deflecting the subject of the current economic crisis back to the Obama campaign.  Most noticeably, Mr. Bounds never made any attempt to deny that McCain plans to put Gramm in charge of the Treasury.

Our current Treasury Secretary, Henry Paulson, is on the covers of this week’s newsmagazines, pushing for uncritical acceptance of his (and hence, the Bush Administration’s) solution to the current economic crisis.  This basically amounts to a three-page “bailout” plan for banks and other financial intuitions holding mortgages of questionable value, at a price to the taxpayers of anywhere from $700 billion to One Trillion Dollars.  The Democrats are providing some “pushback” to this plan.  Barack Obama was quoted by Carrie Brown of Politico.com as saying that the Bush Administration has “offered a concept with a staggering price tag, not a plan”.  Obama went on to insist that the “American people must be assured that the deal reflects the basic principles of transparency, fairness and reform”.

As reported by Stephen Labaton in the September 21 New York Times, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi complained that:

… the administration’s proposal did “not include the necessary safeguards. Democrats believe a responsible solution should include independent oversight, protections for homeowners and constraints on excessive executive compensation.

Senator Chris Dodd of Connecticut was quoted in that article as saying:  “We need to offer some assurance to the American taxpayer that Congress is watching.”  Dodd went on to explain:

One of the things that got us into this mess was the lack of accountability and the lack of oversight that was occurring, and I don’t think we want to repeat those mistakes with a program of this magnitude.

The Times article then focused on the point emphasized by Republican Senator Arlen Specter:

I realize there is considerable pressure for the Congress to adjourn by the end of next week  . . .   But I think we must take the necessary time to conduct hearings, analyze the administration’s proposed legislation, and demonstrate to the American people that any response is thoughtful, thoroughly considered and appropriate.

Nevertheless, Treasury Secretary Paulson made the rounds of the Sunday talk shows to advocate pushing this bailout through quickly, without the safeguards and deliberation suggested by the Democrats and Senator Specter.  As Zachary Goldfarb reported in the September 21 Washington Post:

Paulson urged Congress not to load up the legislation with controversial provisions. “We need this to be clean and quick,” he said.

“Clean and quick”  . . .   Is that anything like “Shock and Awe”?  As usual, there is concern about whether Congressional Democrats will have the spine to resist the “full court press” by the Bush Administration to get this plan approved by Congress and on the President’s desk for signature.  As Robert Kuttner reported in The Huffington Post:

One senior Congressional Democrat told me, “They have a gun to our heads.” Paulson behaved as if he held all the cards, but in fact the Democrats have a lot of cards, too. The question is whether they have the nerve to challenge major flaws in Paulson’s plan as a condition of enacting it.

Here we go again.  Will the Democrats “grow a pair” in time to prevent “the shock doctrine” from being implemented once again?  If not, will we eventually see the day when Treasury Secretary Phil Gramm basks in glory, while presiding over his own manifestation of economic utopia?