TheCenterLane.com

© 2008 – 2017 John T. Burke, Jr.

Preparing For The Worst

Comments Off on Preparing For The Worst

November 19, 2009

In the November 18 edition of The Telegraph, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard revealed that the French investment bank, Societe Generale “has advised its clients to be ready for a possible ‘global economic collapse’ over the next two years, mapping a strategy of defensive investments to avoid wealth destruction”.   That gloomy outlook was the theme of a report entitled:  “Worst-case Debt Scenario” in which the bank warned that a new set of problems had been created by government rescue programs, which simply transferred private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders”:

“As yet, nobody can say with any certainty whether we have in fact escaped the prospect of a global economic collapse,” said the 68-page report, headed by asset chief Daniel Fermon.  It is an exploration of the dangers, not a forecast.

Under the French bank’s “Bear Case” scenario, the dollar would slide further and global equities would retest the March lows.  Property prices would tumble again.  Oil would fall back to $50 in 2010.

*   *   *

The underlying debt burden is greater than it was after the Second World War, when nominal levels looked similar.  Ageing populations will make it harder to erode debt through growth.  “High public debt looks entirely unsustainable in the long run.  We have almost reached a point of no return for government debt,” it said.

Inflating debt away might be seen by some governments as a lesser of evils.

If so, gold would go “up, and up, and up” as the only safe haven from fiat paper money.  Private debt is also crippling.  Even if the US savings rate stabilises at 7pc, and all of it is used to pay down debt, it will still take nine years for households to reduce debt/income ratios to the safe levels of the 1980s.

To make matters worse, America still has an unemployment problem that just won’t abate.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith for The Business Insider took a view beyond the “happy talk” propaganda to the actual unpleasant statistics.  Mr. Smith also called our attention to what can be seen by anyone willing to face reality, while walking around in any urban area or airport:

The divergence between the reality easily observed in the real world and the heavily touted hype that “the recession is over because GDP rose 3.5%” is growing.  It’s obvious that another 7 million jobs which are currently hanging by threads will be slashed in the next year or two.

By this point, most Americans are painfully aware of the massive bailouts afforded to those financial institutions considered “too big to fail”.  The thought of transferring private debt liabilities onto already “sagging sovereign shoulders” immediately reminds people of TARP and the as-yet-undisclosed assistance provided by the Federal Reserve to some of those same, TARP-enabled institutions.

As Kevin Drawbaugh reported for Reuters, the European Union has already taken action to break up those institutions whose failure could create a risk to the entire financial system:

EU regulators are set to turn the spotlight on 28 European banks bailed out by governments for possible mandated divestitures, officials said on Wednesday.

The EU executive has already approved restructuring plans for British lender Lloyds Banking (LLOY.L), Dutch financial group ING Groep NV (ING.AS) and Belgian group KBC (KBC.BR).

Giving break-up power to regulators would be “a good thing,” said Paul Miller, a policy analyst at investment firm FBR Capital Markets, on Wednesday.

Big banks in general are bad for the economy because they do not allocate credit well, especially to small businesses, he said. “Eventually the big banks get broken up in one way or another,” Miller said at the Reuters Global Finance Summit.

Meanwhile in the United States, the House Financial Services Committee approved a measure that would grant federal regulators the authority to break up financial institutions that would threaten the entire system if they were to fail.  Needless to say, this proposal does have its opponents, as the Reuters article pointed out:

In both the House and the Senate, “financial lobbyists will continue to try to water down this new and intrusive federal regulatory power,” said Joseph Engelhard, policy analyst at investment firm Capital Alpha Partners.

If a new break-up power does survive the legislative process, Engelhard said, it is unlikely a “council of numerous financial regulators would be able to agree on such a radical step as breaking up a large bank, except in the most unusual circumstances, and that the Treasury Secretary … would have the ability to veto any imprudent use of such power.”

When I first read this, I immediately realized that Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner would consider any use of such power as imprudent and he would likely veto any attempt to break up a large bank.  Nevertheless, my concerns about the “Geithner factor” began to fade after I read some other encouraging news stories.  In The Huffington Post, Sam Stein disclosed that Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio (a Democrat) had called for the firing of White House economic advisor Larry Summers and Treasury Secretary “Timmy Geithner” during an interview with MSNBC’s Ed Schultz.  Mr. Stein provided the following recap of that discussion:

“We think it is time, maybe, that we turn our focus to Main Street — we reclaim some of the unspent [TARP] funds, we reclaim some of the funds that are being paid back, which will not be paid back in full, and we use it to put people back to work.  Rebuilding America’s infrastructure is a tried and true way to put people back to work,” said DeFazio.

“Unfortunately, the President has an adviser from Wall Street, Larry Summers, and a Treasury Secretary from Wall Street, Timmy Geithner, who don’t like that idea,” he added.  “They want to keep the TARP money either to continue to bail out Wall Street  … or to pay down the deficit.  That’s absurd.”

Asked specifically whether Geithner should stay in his job, DeFazio replied:  “No.”

“Especially if you look back at the AIG scandal,” he added, “and Goldman and others who got their bets paid off in full … with taxpayer money through AIG.  We channeled the money through them.  Geithner would not answer my question when I said, ‘Were those naked credit default swaps by Goldman or were they a counter-party?’  He would not answer that question.”

DeFazio said that among he and others in the Congressional Progressive Caucus, there was a growing consensus that Geithner needed to be removed.  He added that some lawmakers were “considering questions regarding him and other economic advisers” — though a petition calling for the Treasury Secretary’s removal had not been drafted, he said.

Another glimmer of hope for the possible removal of Turbo Tim came from Jeff Madrick at The Daily Beast.  Madrick’s piece provided us with a brief history of Geithner’s unusually fast rise to power (he was 42 when he was appointed president of the New York Federal Reserve) along with a reference to the fantastic discourse about Geithner by Jo Becker and Gretchen Morgenson, which appeared in The New York Times last April.  Mr. Madrick demonstrated that what we have learned about Geithner since April, has affirmed those early doubts:

Recall that few thought Geithner was seasoned enough to be Treasury secretary when Obama picked him.  Rubin wasn’t ready to be Treasury secretary when Clinton was elected and he had run Goldman Sachs.  Was Geithner’s main attraction that he could easily be controlled by Summers and the White House political advisers?  It’s a good bet.  A better strategy, some argued, would have been to name Paul Volcker, the former Fed chairman, for a year’s worth of service and give Geithner as his deputy time to grow.  But Volcker would have been far harder to control by the White House.

But now the president needs a Treasury Secretary who is respected enough to stand up to Wall Street, restabilize the world’s trade flows and currencies, and persuade Congress to join a battle to get the economic recovery on a strong path.  He also needs someone with enough economic understanding to be a counterweight to the White House advisers, led by Summers, who have consistently been behind the curve, except for the $800 billion stimulus.  And now that is looking like it was too little.  The best guess is that Geithner is not telling the president anything that the president does not know or doesn’t hear from someone down the hall.

The problem for Geithner and his boss, is that the stakes if anything are higher than ever.

As the rest of the world prepares for worsening economic conditions, the United States should do the same.  Keeping Tim Geithner in charge of the Treasury makes less sense than it did last April.



wordpress visitor


Just Keep Walking

Comments Off on Just Keep Walking

April 23, 2009

Peggy Noonan had an esteemed career as speechwriter to former Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.  She now writes a weekly column for The Wall Street Journal and she frequently appears as a panelist on many television news programs.  She has been on the blogroll of this website since its inception.

On Sunday, April 19, she appeared as a panelist on ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos.  During that program’s Roundtable discussion, the subject eventually turned to President Obama’s decision not to prosecute the CIA operatives involved in the torture of detainees in the “War on Terror” as well as the decision to release the so-called “torture memos”.  Those memos were prepared by the Office of Legal Counsel during the Bush administration.  They described the permissible use of such techniques as waterboarding, sleep deprivation, confinement in a box with insects and other sadistic acts, intended to get detainees to provide valuable information.  Roundtable panelist Sam Donaldson expressed his opinion that the operatives who administered these interrogation techniques were not “just following orders”; they believed they were following the law because they were relying on the legal opinions expressed in those memos.  However, as Donaldson explained, if the people who devised those methods and wrote the legal memos condoning their use were “just trying to find cover” and just trying to find a way to get around American law and the Constitution, they should be held accountable in a court of law.  Donaldson added that if the President wanted to pardon those people, he should do so, although it would be important for those individuals to be held accountable before a court.

Peggy Noonan then remarked:

Oh, I have reservations about all of this.  It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking:  “Oh, much good will come of that?”  Sometimes in life you wanna’ just keep walkin’.

Sam Donaldson then interrupted with the question as to whether it was right “to let people walk who may have committed a crime”.  Noonan then replied:  “Some of life has to be mysterious”.

Noonan’s remarks drew immediate outrage from Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin.  As Sam Stein reported for The Huffington Post, Feingold was harshly critical of the rationalizations for avoiding prosecution of these people, as expressed by government officials as well as those in the news media.  Stein quoted the Senator’s expressed indignation:

“If you want to see just how outrageous this is, I refer you to the remarks made by Peggy Noonan this Sunday” …  “I frankly have never heard anything quite as disturbing as her remark that was something to the affect of:   ‘well sometimes you just have to move on’.”

Noonan’s opinion is emblematic of the mainstream media’s all-too-frequent response to scandalous events and it demonstrates why so many people have turned to the Internet to get the news.  If you overhear someone in a restaurant arranging a bribe with a politician:  Just keep walking.  If you discover information about illegal toxic dumping by one of your publication’s sponsors:  Just keep walking.  If Harry Markopolos approaches you and tries to explain how Bernie Madoff is running a Ponzi scheme:  Just keep walking.

Peggy Noonan’s statement wasn’t just a situation where she “misspoke”.  It was the expression of an arrogant attitude held by too many in the media who decide it is up to them to determine when the public deserves to know something and when it doesn’t.  After all:  “Some of life has to be mysterious”.

Shame on you, Peggy Noonan!  Shame on you!

Disappointer-In-Chief

Comments Off on Disappointer-In-Chief

April 9, 2009

President Obama must feel relieved by the cartoonish attacks against him by the likes of Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Fox News character, Sean Hannity.  Bachmann’s accusations that Obama is planning “re-education camps” for young people surely brought some comic relief to the new President.  Hannity must have caused some thunderous laughter in the White House with his claim that during a speech the President gave in Strasbourg, France, we saw examples of how “Obama attacks America”.  These denigration attempts were likely received as a welcome break from criticism being voiced by commentators who are usually supportive of the Obama administration.  Take Keith Olbermann for example.  He has not been holding back on expressing outrage over the Obama administration’s claim that the Patriot Act provides sovereign immunity to the federal government in civil lawsuits brought by victims of illegal wiretapping conducted by the Bush administration.  Another example of a disillusioned Obama supporter is MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow, who has been fretting over the President’s plan to up the stakes for success in Afghanistan by increasing our troop commitment there and settling in to fight the good fight for as long as it takes.

Nothing has broken the spirits of Obama supporters more than his administration’s latest bank bailout scheme —  a/k/a  the Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP or “pee-pip”).  Although Treasury Secretary “Turbo” Tim Geithner has been the guy selling this plan to Congress and the public, the “man behind the curtain” who likely hatched this scam is Larry Summers.  Summers is the economist whom Obama named director of the National Economic Council.  At the time of that appointment, many commentators expressed dismay, since Summers, as Bill Clinton’s Treasury Secretary, supported repeal of the 1933 Glass-Steagall Act.  It is widely accepted that the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act helped bring about the subprime mortgage crisis and our current economic meltdown.  On the November 25, 2008 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.”  She was right.  It was recently reported by Jeff Zeleny of The New York Times that Summers earned more than $5 million last year from the hedge fund, D. E. Shaw and collected $2.7 million in speaking fees from Wall Street companies that received government bailout money.  Many economists are now voicing opinions that the Geithner-Summers Public-Private Investment Program (PPIP) is “really troubling”, as well.  Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have been vocal critics of this plan.  As James Quinn reported for London’s Telegraph:  Professor Stiglitz said that the plan is “very flawed” and “amounts to robbery of the American people.”

Obama supporter George Soros, the billionaire financier and hedge fund manager, had this to say to Saijel Kishan and Kathleen Hays of Bloomberg News about Obama’s performance so far:

“He’s done very well in every area, except in dealing with the recapitalization of the banks and the restructuring of the mortgage market,” said Soros, who has published an updated paperback version of his book “The New Paradigm for Financial Markets:  The Credit Crisis of 2008 and What It Means” (Scribe Publications, 2009).  “Unfortunately, there’s just a little bit too much continuity with the previous administration.”

The usually Obama-friendly Huffington Post has run a number of critical pieces addressing the Geithner – Summers plan.  Sam Stein pointed out how the plan is “facing a new round of withering criticism from economists”:

These critiques have produced a Washington rarity:  the re-sparking of a debate that, in the wake of positive reviews from Wall Street, had largely subsided.  Just as Geithner seemed to be finding his political footing, the spotlight has been placed right back on his cornerstone proposal, with critics calling into question both his projections and past testimony on the matter.

Jeffrey Sachs, an Economics professor at Columbia University, wrote a follow-up article for The Huffington Post on April 8, affirming earlier criticisms leveled against the bailout proposal with the added realization that “the situation is even potentially more disastrous” than previously described:

Insiders can easily game the system created by Geithner and Summers to cost up to a trillion dollars or more to the taxpayers.

Zachary Goldfarb of The Washington Post took a closer look at Treasury Secretary Geithner’s testimony before Congress last month, to ascertain the viability of some of the proposals Geithner mentioned at that hearing:

The Obama administration’s plan for a sweeping expansion of financial regulations could have unintended consequences that increase the very hazards that these changes are meant to prevent.

Financial experts say the perception that the government will backstop certain losses will actually encourage some firms to take on even greater risks and grow perilously large.  While some financial instruments will come under tighter control, others will remain only loosely regulated, creating what some experts say are new loopholes.  Still others say the regulation could drive money into questionable investments, shadowy new markets and lightly regulated corners of the globe.

If President Obama does not change course and deviate from the Geithner-Summers plan before it’s too late, his legacy will be a ten-year recession rather than a two year recession without the PPIP.  Worse yet, the toughest criticism and the most pressure against his administration are coming from people he has considered his supporters.  At least he has the people at Fox News to provide some laughable “decoy” reports to keep his hard-core adversaries otherwise occupied.

A Page From The Jimmy Carter Playbook

Comments Off on A Page From The Jimmy Carter Playbook

March 30, 2009

When Barack Obama began his Presidential campaign, I was initially skeptical.  Here was another guy from “out of the blue” pursuing a bid for the White House.  I was reminded of Jimmy Carter:  a man who had served a term as Governor of Georgia, who began his Presidential campaign with little name recognition.  Carter’s Presidency was marked by rampant inflation and an ill-advised decision to allow Iran’s ailing, deposed Shah into the United States (from exile in Mexico) to die here.  That move resulted in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Iran, and the holding of 52 American diplomats as hostages until the end of Carter’s term in office.  Teddy Kennedy unsuccessfully challenged Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980, knowing that Carter had little chance of re-election.   After serving only one term as President, Carter was voted out of office.

At the outset, Carter’s Presidential campaign got a lot of traction from the widespread belief among young voters that Carter would do something to change our nation’s marijuana laws.  Not only did Carter lack the political courage to take such a stand once he became President, he did the opposite.  Carter authorized the use of an herbicide called Paraquat, to be sprayed on marijuana fields in Colombia and Mexico.  Upon realizing that their crops were sprayed with this substance, the sleazy pot farmers quickly harvested the contaminated weed and sent it to market in the United States.  As a result, many Americans developed permanent respiratory problems.

Now that the Obama Administration has taken a “States’ rights” position on medical marijuana laws (by refusing to continue the Bush administration’s tactic of prosecuting medical marijuana facilities) proponents for repeal of pot prohibition, have stepped up their campaign.  Given the current economic crisis, now might be the time for the government to consider legalizing marijuana and taxing it, as is done with the more dangerous ethyl alcohol.

On Thursday, March 26, President Obama held a “town hall” meeting in the East Room of the White House.  Although there were only 100 audience members in the East Room, viewers were invited to submit questions over the Internet.  Nearly 100,000 questions were submitted on-line in response to this invitation.  As John Ward Anderson reported for Politico:

In this moment of national economic crisis, the top four questions under the heading of “Financial security” concerned marijuana; on the budget, people voted up questions about marijuana to positions 1-4; marijuana was in the first and third positions under “jobs”; people boosted a plug for legalizing marijuana to No. 2 under “health care reform.”  And questions about decriminalizing pot occupied spots 1 and 2 under “green jobs and energy.”

After taking questions lower on the list, Obama addressed the pot issue head-on, noting the huge number of questions about marijuana legalization and remarking with a chuckle, “I don’t know what that says about the online audience.”

“The answer is no, I don’t think that is a good strategy to grow our economy,” he said, as the audience in the room applauded and joined him in a laugh.

Although the enthusiastic sycophants in the audience shared a chuckle with the President, many commentators took a dim view of Obama’s discourteous response.  Conservative pundit Andrew Sullivan was particularly incensed by the President’s affront to “the online audience”:

The chuckle suggests a man of his generation.  The dismissiveness toward the question of ending Prohibition as both a good in itself and a form of tax revenue is, however, depressing.  His answer was a non-answer.  I’m tired of having the Prohibition issue treated as if it’s trivial or a joke.  It is neither.  It is about freedom and it’s deadly serious.  As for your online audience, Mr president, have you forgotten who got you elected?

On his blog at Salon.com, Pete Guither took stock of reactions to the President’s superciliousness from across the blogosphere.  Many of the rejoinders he quoted came from people at The Huffington Post.  I will include some of them here.

Jim Gilliam said:

Pot saved my life. It’s a miracle drug, even the crappy non-organic kind made in a lab.

The President will be asked this question again, and maybe next time he won’t laugh at us.

Sam Stein’s retort included the reaction of a law enforcement professional:

Jack Cole, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition (LEAP), said in response:

“Despite the president’s flippant comments today, the grievous harms of marijuana prohibition are no laughing matter. Certainly, the 800,000 people arrested last year on marijuana charges find nothing funny about it, nor do the millions of Americans struggling in this sluggish economy.  It would be an enormous economic stimulus if we stopped wasting so much money arresting and locking people up for nonviolent drug offenses and instead brought in new tax revenue from legal sales, just as we did when ended alcohol prohibition 75 years ago during the Great Depression.”

Dan Sweeney had this to say:

According to Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard fully 75 percent of Mexican drug cartels’ cash comes from the sale of marijuana.  Legalizing marijuana would, of course, take away that massive source of income for the cartels, just as ending prohibition cut bootlegging as a source of revenue for La Cosa Nostra.

Combining all of the above effects, the legalization of marijuana means billions of dollars saved or made, the creation of jobs and the curbing of violence along the Mexican border, which in turn means saving thousands of lives.

Barack Obama can certainly be against legalization, but he owes it to nonviolent drug offenders caught in the horror show that is the U.S. prison system, the families of innocent victims of the Mexican drug wars and economically bloodied U.S. taxpayers to explain why. Ganja may cause the giggles, but legalization shouldn’t be a laughing matter.  And it certainly shouldn’t be treated as cavalierly as it has by the current administration, especially when it has been proven to be a popular issue every time Obama has tried to go straight to the people.

President Obama’s expressed position on the marijuana issue demonstrates the same political cowardice America witnessed in Jimmy Carter.  If you want to read an uplifting story about political courage, Constitutional law and civil rights attorney, Glenn Greenwald, wrote an excellent piece concerning Virginia Senator Jim Webb’s political courage for Salon.com.  Not surprisingly, the example Mr. Greenwald chose to contrast with Jim Webb’s political bravery was President Obama’s “adolescent, condescending snickering when asked about marijuana legalization”.  The marijuana controversy presents our new President with the opportunity to demonstrate the same degree of political courage exhibited by Jim Webb.  He ought to give it a try.