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Leadership Void

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In my last posting, I re-ran a passage from what I wrote on December 2, which was supported by Robert Reich’s observation that, unlike Bill Clinton, Barack Obama is not at the helm of a country with an expanding economy.  As I said on December 2:

After establishing an economic advisory team consisting of retreads from the Clinton White House, President Obama has persisted in approaching the 2010 economy as though it were the 1996 economy.

After I posted my April 7 piece, I felt a bit remorseful about repeating a stale theme.  Nevertheless, a few days later, Ezra Klein’s widely-acclaimed Washington Post critique of President Obama’s misadventure in “negotiating” the 2011 budget was entitled, “2011 is not 1995”.  Ezra Klein validated the point I was trying to make:

Clinton’s success was a function of a roaring economy.  The late ‘90s were a boom time like few others — and not just in America.  The unemployment rate was less than 6 percent in 1995, and fell to under 5 percent in 1996. Cutting deficits was the right thing to do at that time.  Deficits should be low to nonexistent when the economy is strong, and larger when it is weak.  The Obama administration’s economists know that full well.  They are, after all, the very people who worked to balance the budget in the 1990s, and who fought to expand the deficit in response to the recession.

Right now, the economy is weak.  Giving into austerity will weaken it further, or at least delay recovery for longer.  And if Obama does not get a recovery, then he will not be a successful president, no matter how hard he works to claim Boehner’s successes as his own.

President Obama’s attempt at spin control with a claim of “bragging rights” for ending the budget stalemate brought similar criticism from economist Brad DeLong:

To reduce federal government spending by $38 billion in the second and third quarters of 2011 when the unemployment rate is 8.9% and the U.S. Treasury can borrow on terms that make pulling spending forward from the future into the present essentially free is not an accomplishment.

It will knock between 0.5% and 1.0% off the growth rate of real GDP in the second half of 2011, and leave us at the start of 2012 with an unemployment rate a couple of tenths of a percent higher than it would have been otherwise.

Robert Reich expressed his disappointment with the President’s handling of the 2011 budget deal by highlighting Mr. Obama’s failure to put the interests of the middle class ahead of the goals of the plutocracy:

He is losing the war of ideas because he won’t tell the American public the truth:  That we need more government spending now – not less – in order to get out of the gravitational pull of the Great Recession.

That we got into the Great Recession because Wall Street went bonkers and government failed to do its job at regulating financial markets.  And that much of the current deficit comes from the necessary response to that financial crisis.

That the only ways to deal with the long-term budget problem is to demand that the rich pay their fair share of taxes, and to slow down soaring health-care costs.

And that, at a deeper level, the increasingly lopsided distribution of income and wealth has robbed the vast working middle class of the purchasing power they need to keep the economy going at full capacity.

“We preserved the investments we need to win the future,” he said last night.  That’s not true.

The idea that a huge portion of our current deficit comes from the response to the financial crisis created by Wall Street banks was explored in more detail by Cullen Roche of Pragmatic Capitalism.  The approach of saving the banks, under the misguided notion that relief would “trickle down” to Main Street didn’t work.  The second round of quantitative easing (QE 2) has proven to be nothing more than an imprudent decision to follow Japan’s ineffective playbook:

And in 2008 our government was convinced by Timothy Geithner, Hank Paulson and Ben Bernanke that if we just saved the banks we would fix the economy.  So we embarked on the “recovery” plan that has led us to one of the weakest recoveries in US economic history.  Because of the keen focus on the banking system there is a clear two tier recovery.  Wall Street is thriving again and Main Street is still struggling.

Thus far, we have run budget deficits that have been large enough to offset much of the deleveraging of the private sector.  And though the spending was poorly targeted it has been persistent enough that we are not repeating the mistakes of Japan – YET.  By my estimates the balance sheet recession is likely to persist well into 2013.

*   *   *

QE2 has truly been a “monetary non-event”.  As many of us predicted at its onset, this program has shown absolutely no impact on the US money supply (much to the dismay of the hyperinflationists).  And now its damaging psychological impact (via rampant speculation) has altered the options available to combat the continuing balance sheet recession.  While more stimulus is almost certainly off the table given the Fed’s misguided QE2 policy, it would be equally misguided to begin cutting the current budget deficit.  Sizable cuts before the end of the balance sheet recession will almost guarantee that the US economy suffers a Japan-like relapse.  It’s not too late to learn from the mistakes of Japan.

So where is the leader who is going to save us from a Japanese-style “lost decade” recession?  It was over two years ago when I posed this question:

Will the Obama administration’s “failure of nerve” – by avoiding bank nationalization – send us into a ten-year, “Japan-style” recession?  It’s beginning to look that way.

Two years down – eight years to go.


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Stock Market Bears Have Not Yet Left The Building

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The new year has brought an onslaught of optimistic forecasts about the stock market and the economy.  I suspect that much of this enthusiasm is the result of the return of stock market indices to “pre-Lehman levels” (with the S&P 500 above 1,250).  The “Lehman benchmark” is based on conditions as they existed on September 12, 2008 – the date on which Lehman Brothers collapsed.  The importance of the Lehman benchmark is primarily psychological — often a goal to be reached in this era of “less bad” economic conditions.  The focus on the return of market and economic indicators to pre-Lehman levels is something I refer to as “pre-Lehmanism”.  You can find examples of  pre-Lehmanism in discussions of such diverse subjects as:  the plastic molding press industry in Japan, copper consumption, home sales, bank dividends (hopeless) and economic growth.  Sometimes, pre-Lehmanism will drive a discussion to prognostication based on the premise that since we have surpassed the Lehman benchmark, we could be on our way back to good times.  Here’s a recent example from Bloomberg News:

“Lehman is the poster child for the demise of the banking industry,” said Michael Mullaney, who helps manage $9.5 billion at Fiduciary Trust Co. in Boston.  “We’ve recovered from that.  We’re comfortable with equities. If we do get a continuation of the strength in the economy and corporate earnings, we could get a reasonably good year for stocks in 2011.”

Despite all of this enthusiasm, some commentators are looking behind the rosy headlines to examine the substantive facts underlying the claims.  Consider this recent discussion by Michael Panzner, publisher of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall:

Yes, there are some developments that look, superficially at least, like good news.  But if you dig even a little bit deeper, it seems that more often than not nowadays there is less there than meets the eye.

The optimists have talked, for example, about the recovery in corporate profits, but they downplay the layoffs and cut-backs in investment that contributed to those gains.  They note the recovery in the banking sector, but forget to mention all of the financial and political assistance those firms have received — and are still receiving.  They highlight signs of stability in the housing market, but ignore lopsidedly bearish supply-and-demand fundamentals that are impossible to miss.

In an earlier posting, Michael Panzner questioned the enthusiasm about a report that 24 percent of employers participating in a survey expressed plans to boost hiring of full-time employees during 2011, compared to last year’s 20 percent of surveyed employers:

Call me a cynic (for the umpteenth time), but the fact that less that less than a quarter of employers plan to boost full-time hiring this year — a measly four percentage-point increase from last year — doesn’t sound especially “healthy” to me.

No matter how you slice it, the so-called recovery still seems to be largely a figment of the bulls’ imagination.

As for specific expectations about stock market performance during 2011, Jessie of Jesse’s Café Américain provided us with the outlook of someone on the trading floor of an exchange:

I had the opportunity to speak with a pit trader the other day, and he described the mood amongst traders as cautious.  They see the stock market rising and cannot get in front of it, as the buying is too well backed.  But the volumes are so thin and the action so phony that they cannot get comfortable on the long side either, so are buying insurance against a correction even while riding the rally higher.

This is a market setup for a flash crash.

Last May’s “flash crash” and the suspicious “late day rallies” on thin volume aren’t the only events causing individual investors to feel as though they’re being scammed.  A recent essay by Charles Hugh Smith noted the consequences of driving “the little guy” out of the market:

Small investors (so-called retail investors) have been exiting the U.S. stock market for 34 straight weeks, pulling almost $100 billion out of the market. They are voting with their feet based on their situational awareness that the game is rigged, and that the rigging alone greatly increases the risks of another meltdown.

John Hussman of the Hussman Funds recently provided a technical analysis demonstrating that – at least for now – the risk/reward ratio is just not that favorable:

As of last week, the stock market remained characterized by an overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields condition that has historically produced poor average market returns, and consistently so across historical time frames.  However, this condition is also associated with what I’ve called “unpleasant skew” – the most probable market movement is actually a small advance to marginal new highs, but the right tail is truncated and the left tail is fat, meaning that there is a lower than normal likelihood of large gains, and a much larger than normal potential for sharp and abrupt market losses.

The notoriously bearish Doug Kass is actually restrained with his pessimism for 2011, expecting the market to go “sideways” or “flat” (meaning no significant rise or fall).  Nevertheless, Kass saw fit to express his displeasure over the degree of cheerleading that can be seen in the mass media:

The recent market advance has spurred an accumulation of optimism.  S&P price targets are being lifted by many whose memories are short and who had blinders on as the equity market and economy entered the last downturn.  Bullish sentiment, coincident with rising share prices, is approaching an extreme, and the chorus of bullish talking heads grows ever louder on CNBC and elsewhere.

Speculation has entered the market.  The Iomegans of the late 1990s tech bubble have been replaced by the Shen Zhous, who worship at the altar of rare earths.

Not only are trends in the market being too easily extrapolated, the same might be true for the health of the domestic economy.

On New Year’s Eve, Kelly Evans of The Wall Street Journal wrote a great little article, summing-up the year-end data, which has fueled the market bullishness.  Beyond that, Ms. Evans provided a caveat that would never cross the minds of most commentators:

Still, Wall Street’s exuberance should send shudders down any contrarian’s spine.  To the extent the stock market anticipates growth, the economy will have to fire on all cylinders next year and then some.  At least one cylinder, the housing market, still is sputtering.  Upward pressure on food and gas prices also threatens to keep a lid on consumer confidence and rob from spending power even as the labor market continues its gradual and choppy recovery.

The coming year could turn out to be the reverse of 2010:  decent economic growth, but a disappointing showing by the stock market.  That’s the last thing most people expect right now, precisely why investors should be worried about it happening.

The new year may be off to a great start  . . .  but the stock market bears have not yet left the building.  Ignore their warnings at your own peril.


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Well-Deserved Scrutiny For The Fed

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In the wake of the 2010 elections, it’s difficult to find a pundit who doesn’t mention the Tea Party at least once while discussing the results.  This got me thinking about whether the man referred to as “The Godfather” of the Tea Party movement, Congressman Ron Paul (father of Tea Party candidate, Senator-elect Rand Paul) will become more influential in the next Congress.  More important is the question of whether Ron Paul’s book, End The Fed will be taken more seriously – particularly in the aftermath of the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).

The announcement by the Federal Open Market Committee to proceed with QE2 drew immediate criticism.  The best rebuke against QE 2 came from economist John Hussman, whose Weekly Market Comment – entitled, “Bubble, Crash, Bubble, Crash, Bubble …” was based on this theme:

We will continue this cycle until we catch on.  The problem isn’t only that the Fed is treating the symptoms instead of the disease.  Rather, by irresponsibly promoting reckless speculation, misallocation of capital, moral hazard (careless lending without repercussions), and illusory “wealth effects,” the Fed has become the disease.

One issue raised by Mr. Hussman – which should resonate well with supporters of the Tea Party – concerns the fact that the Fed is undertaking an unconstitutional exercise of fiscal policy (rather than monetary policy) most notably by its purchase of mortgage-backed securities:

In this example, the central bank is not engaging in monetary policy, but fiscal policy.  Creating government liabilities to acquire goods and assets, unless those assets are other government liabilities, is fiscal policy, pure and simple.

Hussman’s analysis of how the “the economic impact of QE2 is likely to be weak or even counterproductive” was best expressed in this passage:

We are betting on the wrong horse.  When the Fed acts outside of the role of liquidity provision, it does more harm than good. Worse, we have somehow accepted a situation where the Fed’s actions are increasingly independent of our democratically elected government.  Bernanke’s unsound leadership has placed the nation’s economic stability on two pillars:  inflated asset prices, and actions that – in Bernanke’s own words – should be “correctly viewed as an end run around the authority of the legislature” (see below).

The right horse is ourselves, and the ability of our elected representatives to create an economic environment that encourages productive investment, research, development, infrastructure, and education, while avoiding policies that promote speculation, discourage work, or defend reckless lenders from experiencing losses on bad investments.

On November 6, another brilliant critique of the Fed came from Ashvin Pandurangi (a/k/a “Ash”) of the Simple Planet website.  His essay began with a reminder of what the Fed really is:

The most powerful, influential economic policy-making institution in the country, the Federal Reserve (“Fed”), is an unelected body that is completely unaccountable to the people.

*   *   *

The Fed, by its own admission, is an independent entity within the government “having both public purposes, and private aspects”.  By “private aspects”, they mean the entire operation is wholly-owned by private member banks, who are paid dividends of 6% each year on their stock.  Furthermore, the Fed’s decisions “do not have to be ratified by the President or anyone else in the executive or legislative branch of government” and the Fed “does not receive funding appropriated by Congress”.  In 1982, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals confirmed this view when it held that “federal reserve banks are not federal instrumentalities … but are independent, privately owned and locally controlled corporations”.

As we all know:  “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  At the end of his essay, Ash connected the dots for those either unable to do so or unwilling to face an ugly reality:

In the last two years, the almighty Fed has printed trillions of dollars in our name to buy worthless mortgage assets from “too big to fail” banks.  It has lent these banks our hard-earned money at about 0% interest, so they could lend our own money back to us at 3%+.  These banks also used our free money to ramp equity and commodity markets, which mostly benefited the top 1% of our population who owns 43% of financial wealth [2], and conveniently, also owns the Fed.  The latter has kept interest rates at next to nothing to punish savers and encourage speculation, making everything less affordable for average Americans who have seen their wages stay the same, decrease or disappear.  What’s left standing is the perniciously powerful, highly secretive and entirely unaccountable Fed, who now epitomizes the state of American democracy.

At least we still have freedom of speech!  As part of the Fed’s roll-out of QE2, Chairman Ben Bernanke found it necessary to write a public relations piece for The Washington Post – perhaps as an apology.  Stock market commentator Bill Fleckenstein had no trouble ripping Bernanke’s article to shreds:

Bernanke goes on to say:  “Although low inflation is generally good, inflation that is too low can pose risks to the economy — especially when the economy is struggling.  In the most extreme case, very low inflation can morph into deflation.”

Oh, yeah?  Says who?  I have not seen any instance where a “too low” inflation rate led to deflation.  When deflation is caused by new inventions or increased productivity (or in the old days, bumper crops), which we might term “good” deflation, it was not a consequence of too little inflation; it was due to progress.  Similarly, the “bad” deflation isn’t created via inflation that is too low; it tends to come from burst bubbles.  In other words, misguided policies, not low inflation, are the cause of deflation.

Because the timing of the Fed’s controversial move to proceed with QE2 dovetails so well with the “energizing” of the Tea Party movement, it will be interesting to observe whether life will become more uncomfortable for Chairman Bernanke.  A recent article by Joshua Zumbrun of Bloomberg News gave us this hint:

Six out of 10 self-identified Tea Party supporters who said they were likely to vote supported overhauling or abolishing the Fed, according to a Bloomberg News national poll conducted Oct. 7-10.

The article made note of the fact that Ron Paul’s ill-fated effort to Audit the Fed (HR 1207) received bipartisan support:

“You had a really strange alliance last year that supported the audit of the Fed and that may come back into play,” said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington.

Here’s to bipartisanship!


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