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Two Years Too Late

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October 11, 2010

Greg Gordon recently wrote a fantastic article for the McClatchy Newspapers, in which he discussed how former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson failed to take any action to curb risky mortgage lending.  It should come as no surprise that Paulson’s nonfeasance in this area worked to the benefit of Goldman Sachs, where Paulson had presided as CEO for the eight years prior to his taking office as Treasury Secretary on July 10, 2006.  Greg Gordon’s article provided an interesting timeline to illustrate Paulson’s role in facilitating the subprime mortgage crisis:

In his eight years as Goldman’s chief executive, Paulson had presided over the firm’s plunge into the business of buying up subprime mortgages to marginal borrowers and then repackaging them into securities, overseeing the firm’s huge positions in what became a fraud-infested market.

During Paulson’s first 15 months as the treasury secretary and chief presidential economic adviser, Goldman unloaded more than $30 billion in dicey residential mortgage securities to pension funds, foreign banks and other investors and became the only major Wall Street firm to dramatically cut its losses and exit the housing market safely.  Goldman also racked up billions of dollars in profits by secretly betting on a downturn in home mortgage securities.

By now, the rest of that painful story has become a burden for everyone in America and beyond.  Paulson tried to undo the damage to Goldman and the other insolvent, “too big to fail” banks at taxpayer expense with the TARP bailouts.  When President Obama assumed office in January of 2009, his first order of business was to ignore the advice of Adam Posen (“Temporary Nationalization Is Needed to Save the U.S. Banking System”) and Professor Matthew Richardson.  The consequences of Obama’s failure to put those “zombie banks” through temporary receivership were explained by Karen Maley of the Business Spectator website:

Ireland has at least faced up to the consequences of the reckless lending, unlike the United States.  The Obama administration has adopted a muddle-through approach, hoping that a recovery in housing prices might mean that the big US banks can avoid recognising crippling property losses.

*   *   *

Leading US bank analyst, Chris Whalen, co-founder of Institutional Risk Analytics, has warned that the banks are struggling to cope with the mountain of problem home loans and delinquent commercial property loans.  Whalen estimates that the big US banks have restructured less than a quarter of their delinquent commercial and residential real estate loans, and the backlog of problem loans is growing.

This is eroding bank profitability, because they are no longer collecting interest on a huge chunk of their loan book.  At the same time, they also face higher administration and legal costs as they deal with the problem property loans.

Banks nursing huge portfolios of problem loans become reluctant to make new loans, which chokes off economic activity.

Ultimately, Whalen warns, the US government will have to bow to the inevitable and restructure some of the major US banks.  At that point the US banking system will have to recognise hundreds of billions of dollars in losses from the deflation of the US mortgage bubble.

If Whalen is right, Ireland is a template of what lies ahead for the US.

Chris Whalen’s recent presentation, “Pictures of Deflation” is downright scary and I’m amazed that it has not been receiving the attention it deserves.  Surprisingly — and ironically – one of the only news sources discussing Whalen’s outlook has been that peerless font of stock market bullishness:  CNBC.   Whalen was interviewed on CNBC’s Fast Money program on October 8.  You can see the video here.  The Whalen interview begins at 7 minutes into the clip.  John Carney (formerly of The Business Insider website) now runs the NetNet blog for CNBC, which featured this interview by Lori Ann LoRocco with Chris Whalen and Jim Rickards, Senior Managing Director of Market Intelligence at Omnis, Inc.  Here are some tidbits from this must-read interview:

LL:  Chris, when are you expecting the storm to hit?

CW:  When the too big to fail banks can no longer fudge the cost of restructuring their real estate exposures, on and off balance sheet. Q3 earnings may be the catalyst

LL:  What banks are most exposed to this tsunami?

CW:  Bank of America, Wells Fargo, JPMorgan, Citigroup among the top four.  GMAC.  Why do we still refer to the ugly girls — Bank of America, JPMorgan and Wells Fargo in particular — as zombies?  Because the avalanche of foreclosures and claims against the too-big-too-fail banks has not even crested.

*   *   *

LL:  How many banks to expect to fail next year because of this?

CW:  The better question is how we will deal with the process of restructuring.  My view is that the government/FDIC can act as receiver in a government led restructuring of top-four banks.  It is time for PIMCO, BlackRock and their bond holder clients to contribute to the restructuring process.

Of course, this restructuring could have and should have been done two years earlier — in February of 2009.  Once the dust settles, you can be sure that someone will calculate the cost of kicking this can down the road — especially if it involves another round of bank bailouts.  As the saying goes:  “He who hesitates is lost.”  In this case, President Obama hesitated and we lost.  We lost big.



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We Took The Wrong Turn

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October 7, 2010

The ugly truth has raised its head once again.  We did it wrong and Australia did it right.  It was just over a year ago – on September 21, 2009 – when I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”.  I concluded that posting with this statement:

If only Mr. Obama had stuck with his campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”, we wouldn’t have so many people wishing they lived in Australia.

I focused that piece on a fantastic report by Australian economist Steve Keen, who explained how the “money multiplier” myth, fed to Obama by the very people who caused the financial crisis, was the wrong paradigm to be starting from in attempting to save the economy.

The trouble began immediately after President Obama assumed office.  I wasn’t the only one pulling out my hair in February of 2009, when our new President decided to follow the advice of Larry Summers and “Turbo” Tim Geithner.  That decision resulted in a breach of Obama’s now-infamous campaign promise of “no more trickle-down economics”.  Obama decided to do more for the zombie banks of Wall Street and less for Main Street – by sparing the banks from temporary receivership (also referred to as “temporary nationalization”) while spending less on financial stimulus.  Obama ignored the 50 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News, who warned that an $800 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  At the Calculated Risk website, Bill McBride lamented Obama’s strident posturing in an interview conducted by Terry Moran of ABC News, when the President actually laughed off the idea of implementing the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership.

With the passing of time, it has become painfully obvious that President Obama took the country down the wrong path.  The Australian professor (Steve Keen) was right and Team Obama was wrong.  Economist Joseph Stiglitz made this observation on August 5, 2010:

Kevin Rudd, who was prime minister when the crisis struck, put in place one of the best-designed Keynesian stimulus packages of any country in the world.  He realized that it was important to act early, with money that would be spent quickly, but that there was a risk that the crisis would not be over soon.  So the first part of the stimulus was cash grants, followed by investments, which would take longer to put into place.

Rudd’s stimulus worked:  Australia had the shortest and shallowest of recessions of the advanced industrial countries.

Fast-forward to October 6, 2010.  Michael Heath of Bloomberg BusinessWeek provided the latest chapter in the story of how America did it wrong while Australia did it right:

Australian Employers Added 49,500 Jobs in September

Australian employers in September added the most workers in eight months, driving the country’s currency toward a record and bolstering the case for the central bank to resume raising interest rates.

The number of people employed rose 49,500 from August, the seventh straight gain, the statistics bureau said in Sydney today.  The figure was more than double the median estimate of a 20,000 increase in a Bloomberg News survey of 25 economists.  The jobless rate held at 5.1 percent.

Meanwhile — back in the States — on October 6, ADP released its National Employment Report for September, 2010.  It should come as no surprise that our fate is 180 degrees away from that of Australia:  Private sector employment in the U.S. decreased by 39,000 from August to September on a seasonally adjusted basis, according to the ADP report.   Beyond that, October 6 brought us a gloomy forecast from Jan Hatzius, chief U.S. economist for the ever-popular Goldman Sachs Group.  Wes Goodman of Bloomberg News quoted Hatzius as predicting that the United States’ economy will be “fairly bad” or “very bad” over the next six to nine months:

“We see two main scenarios,” analysts led by Jan Hatzius, the New York-based chief U.S. economist at the company, wrote in an e-mail to clients.  “A fairly bad one in which the economy grows at a 1 1/2 percent to 2 percent rate through the middle of next year and the unemployment rate rises moderately to 10 percent, and a very bad one in which the economy returns to an outright recession.”

Aren’t we lucky!  How wise of President Obama to rely on Larry Summers to the exclusion of most other economists!

Charles Ferguson, director of the new documentary film, Inside Job, recently offered this analysis of the milieu that facilitated the opportunity for Larry Summers to inflict his painful legacy upon us:

Then, after the 2008 financial crisis and its consequent recession, Summers was placed in charge of coordinating U.S. economic policy, deftly marginalizing others who challenged him.  Under the stewardship of Summers, Geithner, and Bernanke, the Obama administration adopted policies as favorable toward the financial sector as those of the Clinton and Bush administrations — quite a feat.  Never once has Summers publicly apologized or admitted any responsibility for causing the crisis.  And now Harvard is welcoming him back.

Summers is unique but not alone.  By now we are all familiar with the role of lobbying and campaign contributions, and with the revolving door between industry and government.  What few Americans realize is that the revolving door is now a three-way intersection.  Summers’ career is the result of an extraordinary and underappreciated scandal in American society:  the convergence of academic economics, Wall Street, and political power.

*     *     *

Now, however, as the national recovery is faltering, Summers is being eased out while Harvard is welcoming him back.  How will the academic world receive him?  The simple answer:  Better than he deserves.

Australia is looking better than ever  —  especially when you consider that their spring season is just beginning right now     .   .   .




A Shocking Decision

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September 23, 2010

Nobody seems too surprised about the resignation of Larry Summers from his position as Director of the National Economic Council.  Although each commentator seems to have a unique theory for Summers’ departure, the event is unanimously described as “expected”.

When Peter Orszag resigned from his post as Director of the Office of Management and Budget, the gossip mill focused on his rather complicated love life.  According to The New York Post, the nerdy-looking number cruncher announced his engagement to Bianna Golodryga of ABC News just six weeks after his ex-girlfriend, shipping heiress Claire Milonas, gave birth to their love child, Tatiana.  That news was so surprising, few publications could resist having some fun with it.  Politics Daily ran a story entitled, “Peter Orszag:  Good with Budgets, Good with Babes”.  Mark Leibovich of The New York Times pointed out that the event “gave birth” to a fan blog called Orszagasm.com.  Mr. Leibovich posed a rhetorical question at the end of the piece that was apparently answered with Orszag’s resignation:

This goes to another obvious — and recurring — question:  whether someone whose personal life has become so complicated is really fit to tackle one of the most demanding, important and stressful jobs in the universe. “Frankly I don’t see how Orszag can balance three families and the national budget,” wrote Joel Achenbach of The Washington Post.

The shocking nature of the Orszag love triangle was dwarfed by President Obama’s nomination of Orszag’s replacement:  Jacob “Jack” Lew.  Lew is a retread from the Clinton administration, at which point (May 1998 – January 2001) he held that same position:  OMB Director.  That crucial time frame brought us two important laws that deregulated the financial industry:  the Financial Services Modernization Act of 1999 (which legalized proprietary trading by the Wall Street banks) and the Commodity Futures Modernization Act of 2000, which completely deregulated derivatives trading, eventually giving rise to such “financial weapons of mass destruction” as naked credit default swaps.  Accordingly, it should come as no surprise that Lew does not believe that deregulation of the financial industry was a proximate cause of  the 2008 financial crisis.  Lew’s testimony at his September 16 confirmation hearing before the Senate Budget Committee was discussed by Shahien Nasiripour  of The Huffington Post:

Lew, a former OMB chief for President Bill Clinton, told the panel that “the problems in the financial industry preceded deregulation,” and after discussing those issues, added that he didn’t “personally know the extent to which deregulation drove it, but I don’t believe that deregulation was the proximate cause.”

Experts and policymakers, including U.S. Senators, commissioners at the Securities and Exchange Commission, top leaders in Congress, former financial regulators and even Obama himself have pointed to the deregulatory zeal of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations as a major cause of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

During 2009, Lew was working for Citigroup, a TARP beneficiary.  Between the TARP bailout and the Federal Reserve’s purchase of mortgage-backed securities from that zombie bank, Citi was able to give Mr. Lew a fat bonus of $950,000 – in addition to the other millions he made there from 2006 until January of 2009 (at which point Hillary Clinton found a place for him in her State Department).

The sabotage capabilities Lew will enjoy as OMB Director become apparent when revisiting my June 28 piece, “Financial Reform Bill Exposed As Hoax”:

Another victory for the lobbyists came in their sabotage of the prohibition on proprietary trading (when banks trade with their own money, for their own benefit).  The bill provides that federal financial regulators shall study the measure, then issue rules implementing it, based on the results of that study.  The rules might ultimately ban proprietary trading or they may allow for what Jim Jubak of MSN calls the “de minimus” (trading with minimal amounts) exemption to the ban.  Jubak considers the use of the de minimus exemption to the so-called ban as the likely outcome.  Many commentators failed to realize how the lobbyists worked their magic here, reporting that the prop trading ban (referred to as the “Volcker rule”) survived reconciliation intact.  Jim Jubak exposed the strategy employed by the lobbyists:

But lobbying Congress is only part of the game.  Congress writes the laws, but it leaves it up to regulators to write the rules.  In a mid-June review of the text of the financial-reform legislation, the Chamber of Commerce counted 399 rule-makings and 47 studies required by lawmakers.

Each one of these, like the proposed de minimus exemption of the Volcker rule, would be settled by regulators operating by and large out of the public eye and with minimal public input.  But the financial-industry lobbyists who once worked at the Federal Reserve, the Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission or the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. know how to put in a word with those writing the rules.  Need help understanding a complex issue?  A regulator has the name of a former colleague now working as a lobbyist in an e-mail address book.  Want to share an industry point of view with a rule-maker?  Odds are a lobbyist knows whom to call to get a few minutes of face time.

You have one guess as to what agency will be authorized to make sure those new rules comport with the intent of the financial “reform” bill   .   .   .   Yep:  the OMB (see OIRA).

President Obama’s nomination of Jacob Lew is just the latest example of a decision-making process that seems incomprehensible to his former supporters as well as his critics.  Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism refuses to let Obama’s antics go unnoticed:

The Obama Administration, again and again, has taken the side of the financial services industry, with the occasional sops to unhappy taxpayers and some infrequent scolding of the industry to improve the optics.

Ms. Smith has developed some keen insight about the leadership style of our President:

The last thing Obama, who has been astonishingly accommodating to corporate interests, needs to do is signal weakness.  But he has made the cardinal mistake of trying to please everyone and has succeeded in having no one happy with his policies.  Past Presidents whose policies rankled special interests, such as Roosevelt, Johnson, and Reagan, were tenacious and not ruffled by noise.  Obama, by contrast, announces bold-sounding initiatives, and any real change will break eggs and alienate some parties, then retreats.  So he creates opponents, yet fails to deliver for his allies.

Yes, the Disappointer-In-Chief has failed to deliver for his allies once again – reinforcing my belief that he has no intention of running for a second term.




Voters Got Fooled Again

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September 13, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, the articles are turning up all over the place.  Newsweek’s Howard Fineman calls them pre-mortems:  advance analyses of why the Democrats will lose power in November.  Some of us saw the handwriting on the wall quite a while ago.  Before President Obama had completed his first year in office, it was becoming clear that his campaign theme of “hope” and “change” was just a ruse to con the electorate.   On September 21, 2009, I wrote a piece entitled, “The Broken Promise”, based on this theme:

Back on July 15, 2008 and throughout the Presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised the voters that if he were elected, there would be “no more trickle-down economics”.  Nevertheless, his administration’s continuing bailouts of the banking sector have become the worst examples of trickle-down economics in American history — not just because of their massive size and scope, but because they will probably fail to achieve their intended result.  Although the Treasury Department is starting to “come clean” to Congressional Oversight chair Elizabeth Warren, we can’t even be sure about the amount of money infused into the financial sector by one means or another because of the lack of transparency and accountability at the Federal Reserve.

In November of 2009, Matt Taibbi wrote an article for Rolling Stone entitled,“Obama’s Big Sellout”.  Taibbi’s essay inspired Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write his own critique of Obama’s first eleven months in office.  Beyond that, Mr. Harrison’s assessment of the fate of proposed financial reform legislation turned out to be prescient.  Remember – Ed Harrison wrote this on December 11, 2009:

As you probably know, I have been quite disappointed with this Administration’s leadership on financial reform.  While I think they ‘get it,’ it is plain they lack either the courage or conviction to put forward a set of ideas that gets at the heart of what caused this crisis.

It was clear to many by this time last year that the President may not have been serious about reform when he picked Tim Geithner and Larry Summers as the leaders of his economic team.  As smart and qualified as these two are, they are rightfully seen as allied with Wall Street and the anti-regulatory movement.

At a minimum, the picks of Geithner and Summers were a signal to Wall Street that the Obama Administration would be friendly to their interests.  It is sort of like Ronald Reagan going to Philadelphia, Mississippi as a first stop in the 1980 election campaign to let southerners know that he was friendly to their interests.

I reserved judgment because one has to judge based on actions.  But last November I did ask Is Obama really “Change we can believe in?” because his Administration was being stacked with Washington insiders and agents of the status quo.

Since that time it is obvious that two things have occurred as a result of this ‘Washington insider’ bias.  First, there has been no real reform.  Insiders are likely to defend the status quo for the simple reason that they and those with whom they associate are the ones who represent the status quo in the first place.  What happens when a company is nationalized or declared bankrupt is instructive; here, new management must be installed to prevent the old management from covering up past mistakes or perpetuating errors that led to the firm’s demise.  The same is true in government.

That no ‘real’ reform was coming was obvious, even by June when I wrote a brief note on the fake reform agenda.  It is even more obvious with the passage of time and the lack of any substantive reform in health care.

Second, Obama’s stacking his administration with insiders has been very detrimental to his party.  I imagine he did this as a way to overcome any worries about his own inexperience and to break with what was seen as a major factor in Bill Clinton’s initial failings.  While I am an independent, I still have enough political antennae to know that taking established politicians out of incumbent positions (Joe Biden, Janet Napolitano, Hillary Clinton, Rahm Emanuel, Kathleen Sebelius or Tim Kaine) jeopardizes their seat.  So, the strategy of stacking his administration has not only created a status quo bias, but it has also weakened his party.

Mr. Harrison’s point about those incumbencies is now being echoed by many commentators – most frequently to point out that Janet Napolitano was replaced as Governor of Arizona by Jan Brewer.  Brewer is expected to win in November despite her inability to debate or form a coherent sentence before a live audience.

Bob Herbert of The New York Times recently wrote a great piece, in which he blasted the Democrats for failing to “respond adequately to their constituents’ most dire needs”:

The Democrats are in deep, deep trouble because they have not effectively addressed the overwhelming concern of working men and women:  an economy that is too weak to provide the jobs they need to support themselves and their families.  And that failure is rooted in the Democrats’ continued fascination with the self-serving conservative belief that the way to help ordinary people is to shower money on the rich and wait for the blessings to trickle down to the great unwashed below.

It was a bogus concept when George H.W. Bush denounced it as “voodoo economics” in 1980, and it remains bogus today, no matter how hard the Democrats try to dress it up in a donkey costume.

I was surprised to see that Howard Fineman focused his campaign pre-mortem on President Obama himself, rather than critiquing the Democratic Party as a whole.  At a time when mainstream media pundits are frequently criticized for going soft on those in power in order to retain “access”, it was refreshing to see Fineman point out some of Obama’s leadership flaws:

The president is an agreeable guy, but aloof, and not one who likes to come face to face with the enemy. Sure, GOP leaders were laying traps for him from the start.  And it was foolish to assume Mitch McConnell or John Boehner would play ball.  But Obama doesn’t really know Republicans, and he doesn’t seem to want to take their measure.  (Nor has he seemed all that curious about what makes Democratic insiders tick.)  It’s the task of the presidency to cajole people, including your enemies, into doing what they don’t want to do if it is good for the country.  Did Obama think he could eschew the rituals of politics — that all he had to do was invoke His Hopeness to bring people aboard?

Well, people aren’t on board and that’s the problem.  The voters were taken for chumps and they were fooled by some good campaign propaganda.  Nevertheless, as President George W. Bush once said:

Fool me once – shame on – shame on you.  Fool me – You can’t get fooled again!

At this point, it does not appear as though the voters who supported President Obama and company in 2008 are willing to let themselves get fooled again.  At least the Republicans admit that their primary mission is to make life easier for rich people at everyone else’s expense.  The fact that the voters hate being lied to – more than anything else – may be the one lesson the Democrats learn from this election cycle.




Those First Steps Have Destroyed Mid-term Democrat Campaigns

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September 6, 2010

The steps taken by the Obama administration during its first few months have released massive, long-lasting fallout, destroying the re-election hopes of Democrats in the Senate and House.  Let’s take a look back at Obama’s missteps during that crucial period.

During the first two weeks of February, 2009 — while the debate was raging as to what should be done about the financial stimulus proposal — the new administration was also faced with making a decision on what should be done about the “zombie” Wall Street banks.  Treasury Secretary Geithner had just rolled out his now-defunct “financial stability plan” in a disastrous press conference.  Most level-headed people, including Joe Nocera of The New York Times, had been arguing in favor of putting those insolvent banks through temporary receivership – or temporary nationalization – until they could be restored to healthy, functional status.  Nevertheless, at this critical time, Obama, Geithner and Fed chair Ben Bernanke had decided to circle their wagons around the Wall Street banks.  Here’s how I discussed the situation on February 16, 2009:

Geithner’s resistance to nationalization of insolvent banks represents a stark departure from the recommendations of many economists.  While attending the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland last month, Dr. Nouriel Roubini explained (during an interview on CNBC) that the cost of purchasing the toxic assets from banks will never be recouped by selling them in the open market:

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.

Dr. Roubini’s solution is to 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.  On February 15, Dr. Roubini repeated this theme in a Washington Post article he co-wrote with fellow New York University economics professor, Matthew Richardson.

Even after Geithner’s disastrous press conference, President Obama voiced a negative reaction to the Swedish approach during an interview with Terry Moran of ABC News.

Nearly a month later, on March 12, 2009 —  I discussed how the administration was still pushing back against common sense on this subject, while attempting to move forward with its grandiose, “big bang” agenda.  The administration’s unwillingness to force those zombie banks to face the consequences of their recklessness was still being discussed —  yet another month later by Bill Black and Robert Reich.  Three months into his Presidency, Obama had established himself as a guardian of the Wall Street status quo.

Even before the stimulus bill was signed into law, the administration had been warned, by way of an article in Bloomberg News, that a survey of fifty economists revealed that the proposed $787 billion stimulus package would be inadequate.  Before Obama took office, Nobel laureate, Joseph Stiglitz, pointed out for Bloomberg Television back on January 8, 2009, that the President-elect’s proposed stimulus would be inadequate to heal the ailing economy:

“It will boost it,” Stiglitz said.  “The real question is — is it large enough and is it designed to address all the problems.  The answer is almost surely it is not enough, particularly as he’s had to compromise with the Republicans.”

On January 19, 2009, financier George Soros contended that even an $850 billion stimulus would not be enough:

“The economies of the world are falling off a cliff.  This is a situation that is comparable to the1930s.  And once you recognize it, you have to recognize the size of the problem is much bigger,” he said.

On February 26, 2009, Economics Professor James Galbarith pointed out in an interview that the stimulus plan was inadequate.  Two months earlier, Paul Krugman had pointed out on Face the Nation, that the proposed stimulus package of $775 billion would fall short.

More recently, on September 5, 2010, a CNN poll revealed that only 40 percent of those surveyed voiced approval of the way President Obama has handled the economy.  Meanwhile, economist Richard Duncan is making the case for another stimulus package “to back forward-looking technologies that will help the U.S. compete and to shift away from the nation’s dependency on industries vulnerable to being outsourced to low-wage centers abroad”.  Chris Oliver of MarketWatch provided us with this glimpse into Duncan’s thinking:

The U.S. is already on track to run up trillion-dollar-plus annual deficits through the next decade, according to estimates by the Congressional Budget Office.

“If the government doesn’t spend this money, we are going to collapse into a depression,” Duncan says.  “They are probably going to spend it.   . . . It would be much wiser to realize the opportunities that exist to spend the money in a concerted way to advance the goals of our civilization.”

Making the case for more stimulus, Paul Krugman took a look back at the debate concerning Obama’s first stimulus package, to address the inevitable objections against any further stimulus plans:

Those who said the stimulus was too big predicted sharply rising (interest) rates.  When rates rose in early 2009, The Wall Street Journal published an editorial titled “The Bond Vigilantes:  The disciplinarians of U.S. policy makers return.”   The editorial declared that it was all about fear of deficits, and concluded, “When in doubt, bet on the markets.”

But those who said the stimulus was too small argued that temporary deficits weren’t a problem as long as the economy remained depressed; we were awash in savings with nowhere to go.  Interest rates, we said, would fluctuate with optimism or pessimism about future growth, not with government borrowing.

When in doubt, bet on the markets.  The 10-year bond rate was over 3.7 percent when The Journal published that editorial;  it’s under 2.7 percent now.

What about inflation?  Amid the inflation hysteria of early 2009, the inadequate-stimulus critics pointed out that inflation always falls during sustained periods of high unemployment, and that this time should be no different.  Sure enough, key measures of inflation have fallen from more than 2 percent before the economic crisis to 1 percent or less now, and Japanese-style deflation is looking like a real possibility.

Meanwhile, the timing of recent economic growth strongly supports the notion that stimulus does, indeed, boost the economy:  growth accelerated last year, as the stimulus reached its predicted peak impact, but has fallen off  — just as some of us feared — as the stimulus has faded.

I believe that Professor Krugman would agree with my contention that if President Obama had done the stimulus right the first time – not only would any further such proposals be unnecessary – but we would likely be enjoying a healthy economy with significant job growth.  Nevertheless, the important thing to remember is that President Obama didn’t do the stimulus adequately in early 2009.  As a result, his fellow Democrats will be paying the price in November.




The Invisible Bank Bailout

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August 23, 2010

By now, you are probably more than familiar with the “backdoor bailouts” of the Wall Street Banks – the most infamous of which, Maiden Lane III, included a $13 billion gift to Goldman Sachs as a counterparty to AIG’s bad paper.  Despite Goldman’s claims of having repaid the money it received from TARP, the $13 billion obtained via Maiden Lane III was never repaid.  Goldman needed it for bonuses.

On August 21, my favorite reporter for The New York Times, Gretchen Morgenson, discussed another “bank bailout”:  a “secret tax” that diverts money to banks at a cost of approximately $350 billion per year to investors and savers.  Here’s how it works:

Sharply cutting interest rates vastly increases banks’ profits by widening the spread between what they pay to depositors and what they receive from borrowers.  As such, the Fed’s zero-interest-rate policy is yet another government bailout for the very industry that drove the economy to the brink.

Todd E. Petzel, chief investment officer at Offit Capital Advisors, a private wealth management concern, characterizes the Fed’s interest rate policy as an invisible tax that costs savers and investors roughly $350 billion a year.  This tax is stifling consumption, Mr. Petzel argues, and is pushing investors to reach for yields in riskier securities that they wouldn’t otherwise go near.

*   *   *

“If we thought this zero-interest-rate policy was lowering people’s credit card bills it would be one thing but it doesn’t,” he said.  Neither does it seem to be resulting in increased lending by the banks.  “It’s a policy matter that people are not focusing on,” Mr. Petzel added.

One reason it’s not a priority is that savers and people living on fixed incomes have no voice in Washington.  The banks, meanwhile, waltz around town with megaphones.

Savers aren’t the only losers in this situation; underfunded pensions and crippled endowments are as well.

Many commentators have pointed out that zero-interest-rate-policy (often referred to as “ZIRP”) was responsible for the stock market rally that began in the Spring of 2009.  Bert Dohmen made this observation for Forbes back on October 30, 2009:

There is very little, if any, investment buying.  In my view, we are seeing a mini-bubble in the stock market, fueled by ZIRP, the “zero interest rate policy” of the Fed.

At this point, retail investors (the “mom and pop” customers of discount brokerage firms) are no longer impressed.  After the “flash crash” of May 6 and the revelations about stock market manipulation by high-frequency trading (HFT), retail investors are now avoiding mutual funds.  Graham Bowley’s recent report for The New York Times has been quoted and re-published by a number of news outlets.   Here is the ugly truth:

Investors withdrew a staggering $33.12 billion from domestic stock market mutual funds in the first seven months of this year, according to the Investment Company Institute, the mutual fund industry trade group.  Now many are choosing investments they deem safer, like bonds.

The pretext of providing “liquidity” to the stock markets is no longer viable.  The only remaining reasons for continuing ZIRP are to mitigate escalating deficits and stopping the spiral of deflation.  Whether or not that strategy works, one thing is for certain:  ZIRP is enriching the banks —  at the public’s expense.



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Geithner Watch

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August 19, 2010

It’s that time once again.  The Treasury Department has launched another “charm offensive” – and not a moment too soon.  “Turbo” Tim Geithner got some really bad publicity at the Daily Beast website by way of a piece by Philip Shenon.  The story concerned the fact that a man named Daniel Zelikow — while in between revolving door spins at JP Morgan Chase — let Geithner live rent-free in Zelikow’s $3.5 million Washington townhouse, during Geithner’s first eight months as Treasury Secretary.  Zelikow (who had previously worked for JP Morgan Chase from 1999 until 2007) was working at the Inter-American Development Bank at the time.  The Daily Beast described the situation this way:

At that time, Geithner was overseeing the bailout of several huge Wall Street banks, including JPMorgan, which received $25 billion in federal rescue funds from the TARP program.

Zelikow, a friend of Geithner’s since they were classmates at Dartmouth College in the early 1980s, begins work this month running JPMorgan’s new 12-member International Public Sector Group, which will develop foreign governments as clients.

*   *   *

Stephen Gillers, a law professor at New York University who is a specialist in government ethics and author of a leading textbook on legal ethics, described Geithner’s original decision to move in with Zelikow last year as “just awful” —  given the conflict-of-interest problems it seemed to create.

He tells The Daily Beast that Geithner now needs to avoid even the appearance of assisting JPMorgan in any way that suggested a “thank-you note” to Zelikow in exchange for last year’s free rent.

“He needs to be purer than Caesar’s wife — purer than Caesar’s whole family,” Gillers said of the Treasury secretary.

The Daily Beast story came right on the heels of Matt Taibbi’s superlative article in Rolling Stone, exposing the skullduggery involved in removing all the teeth from the financial “reform” bill.  Taibbi did not speak kindly of Geithner:

If Obama’s team had had their way, last month’s debate over the Volcker rule would never have happened.  When the original version of the finance-­reform bill passed the House last fall  – heavily influenced by treasury secretary and noted pencil-necked Wall Street stooge Timothy Geithner – it contained no attempt to ban banks with federally insured deposits from engaging in prop trading.

Just when it became clear that Geithner needed to make some new friends in the blogosphere, another conclave with financial bloggers took place on Monday, August 16.  The first such event took place last November.  I reviewed several accounts of the November meeting in a piece entitled “Avoiding The Kool -Aid”.  Since that time, Treasury has decided to conduct such meetings 4 – 6 times per year.  The conferences follow an “open discussion” format, led by individual senior Treasury officials (including Turbo Tim himself) with three presenters, each leading a 45-minute session.  A small number of financial bloggers are invited to attend.  Some of the bloggers who were unable to attend last November’s session were sorry they missed it.  The August 16 meeting was the first one I’d heard about since the November event.  The following bloggers attended the August 16 session:  Phil Davis of Phil’s Stock World, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, John Lounsbury for Ed Harrison’s Credit Writedowns, Michael Konczal of Rortybomb, Steve Waldman of Interfluidity, as well as Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabarrok of Marginal Revolution.  As of this writing, Alex Tabarrok and John Lounsbury were the only attendees to have written about the event.  You can expect to see something soon from Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism.

At this juncture, the effort appears to have worked to Geithner’s advantage, since he made a favorable impression on Alex Tabarrok, just as he had done last November with Tabarrok’s partner at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen:

As Tyler said after an earlier visit, Geithner is smart and deep.  Geithner took questions on any topic.  Bear in mind that taking questions from people like Mike Konczal, Tyler, or Interfluidity is not like taking questions from the press.  Geithner quickly identified the heart of every question and responded in a way that showed a command of both theory and fact.  We went way over scheduled time.  He seemed to be having fun.

It will be interesting to see whether the upcoming accounts of the meeting continue to provide Geithner with the image makeover he so desperately needs.


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Getting Rolled By Wall Street

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August 5, 2010

For the past few years, investors have been flocking to exchange-traded funds (ETFs) as an alternative to mutual funds, which often penalize investors for bailing out less than 90 days after buying in.  The ETFs are traded on exchanges in the same manner as individual stocks.  Investors can buy however many shares of an ETF as they desire, rather than being faced with a minimum investment as required by many mutual funds.  Other investors see ETFs as a less-risky alternative than buying individual stocks, since some funds consist of an assortment of stocks from a given sector.

The most recent essay by one of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, is focused on the ETFs that are based on commodities, rather than stocks.  As it turns out, the commodity ETFs have turned out to be yet another one of Wall Street’s weapons of mass financial destruction.  Paul Farrell brings the reader’s attention to a number of articles written on this subject – all of which bear a theme similar to the title of Mr. Farrell’s piece:  “Commodity ETFs: Toxic, deadly, evil”.

Mr. Farrell discussed a recent article from Bloomberg BusinessWeek, exposing the hazards inherent in commodity ETFs.  That article began by discussing the experience of a man who invested $10,000 in an ETF called the U.S. Oil Fund (ticker symbol: USO), designed to track the price of light, sweet crude oil.  The investor’s experience became a familiar theme for many who had bought into commodity ETFs:

What happened next didn’t make sense.  Wolf watched oil go up as predicted, yet USO kept going down.  In February 2009, for example, crude rose 7.4 percent while USO fell by 7.4 percent.  What was going on?

What was going on was something called “contango”.  The BusinessWeek article explained it this way:

Contango is a word traders use to describe a specific market condition, when contracts for future delivery of a commodity are more expensive than near-term contracts for the same stuff.  It is common in commodity markets, though as Wolf and other investors learned, it can spell doom for commodity ETFs. When the futures contracts that commodity funds own are about to expire, fund managers have to sell them and buy new ones; otherwise they would have to take delivery of billions of dollars’ worth of raw materials.  When they buy the more expensive contracts — more expensive thanks to contango — they lose money for their investors.  Contango eats a fund’s seed corn, chewing away its value.

*   *   *

Contango isn’t the only reason commodity ETFs make lousy buy-and-hold investments.  Professional futures traders exploit the ETFs’ monthly rolls to make easy profits at the little guy’s expense.  Unlike ETF managers, the professionals don’t trade at set times.  They can buy the next month ahead of the big programmed rolls to drive up the price, or sell before the ETF, pushing down the price investors get paid for expiring futures.  The strategy is called “pre-rolling.”

“I make a living off the dumb money,” says Emil van Essen, founder of an eponymous commodity trading company in Chicago.  Van Essen developed software that predicts and profits from pre-rolling.  “These index funds get eaten alive by people like me,” he says.

A look at 10 well-known funds based on commodity futures found that, since inception, all 10 have trailed the performance of their underlying raw materials, according to Bloomberg data.

*   *   *

Just as they did with subprime mortgage-backed securities, Wall Street banks are transferring wealth from their clients to their trading desks.  “You walk into a casino, you expect to lose money,” says Greg Forero, former director of commodities trading at UBS (UBS).  “It’s the same with these products.  You’re playing a game with a very high rake, a very high house advantage, and you’re not the house.”

Another problem caused by commodity ETFs is the havoc they create by raising prices of consumer goods – not because of a supply and demand effect – but purely by financial speculation:

Wheat prices jumped 52 percent in early 2008, setting records before plunging again, and sugar more than doubled last year even as the economy slowed, forcing Reinwald’s Bakery in Huntington, N.Y., to fire five of its 32 employees.  “You try and budget to make money, but that’s becoming impossible to predict,” says owner Richard Reinwald, chairman of the Retail Bakers of America.

Paul Farrell also brought our attention to an article entitled “ETFs Gone Wild” to highlight the hazards these products create for the entire financial system:

In Bloomberg Markets’ “ETFs Gone Wild,” investors are warned that many ETFs are “stuffed with exotic derivatives,” at risk of becoming “the next financial time bomb.”  In short, thanks to ETFs, Wall Street is already creating a dangerous new kind of global weapon of mass destruction — a bomb primed to detonate like the 2000 dot-coms, the 2008 subprimes — and detonation is dead ahead.

Mr. Farrell’s essay included a discussion of a Rolling Stone article by McKenzie Funk, describing the exploits of Phil Heilberg, a former AIG commodity trader.  The Rolling Stone piece demonstrated how commodity ETFs are just the latest weapon used to advance “Chaos Capitalism”:

And yet, as Funk puts it:  “Heilberg’s bet on chaos is beginning to play out on the streets.”  The toxic trail of commodity ETFs is already proving to be deadly, starving thousands worldwide, while the new Capitalists of Chaos only see incredible profit opportunities, as they make huge bets that they’ll get even richer in the next round of catastrophes, disasters, poverty, starvation and wars.

Bottom line: Commodity ETF/WMDs are mutating into a toxic pandemic fueled (and protected by) the insatiable greed of banks, traders and politicians whose brains are incapable of giving up their profit machine, won’t until it implodes and self-destructs.  The Wall Street Banksters have no sense of morals, no ethics, no soul, no goal in life other than getting very rich, very fast.  They care nothing of democracy, civilization or the planet.

Don’t count on the faux financial “reform” bill to remedy any of the problems created by commodity ETFs.  As the BusinessWeek article pointed out, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission is going to have its hands full:

How much the new law will help remains to be seen, says Jill E. Sommers, one of the agency’s five commissioners, because Congress still needs to appropriate funds and write guidelines for implementation and enforcement.

Let’s not overlook the fact that those “guidelines” are going to be written by industry lobbyists.  The more things change — the more they remain the same.



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The War On YOU

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July 26, 2010

The fifth annual conclave of the Netroots Nation (a group of liberal bloggers) took place in Las Vegas last week.  Among the stories emerging from that event was the plea that progressive bloggers “quit beating up on Obama”.  I found this very amusing.  After Obama betrayed his supporters by pushing through a faux healthcare “reform” bill, which lacked the promised “public option” and turned out to be a giveaway to big pharma and the health insurance industry – the new President turned the long-overdue, financial “reform” bill into yet another hoax.

As I pointed out on July 12, Mike Konczal of the Roosevelt Institute documented the extent to which Obama’s Treasury Department undermined the financial reform bill at every step.  On the following day, Rich Miller of Bloomberg News examined the results of a Bloomberg National Poll, which measured the public’s reaction to the financial reform bill.  Almost eighty percent of those who responded were of the opinion that the new bill would do little or nothing to prevent or mitigate another financial crisis.  Beyond that, 47 percent shared the view that the bill would do more to protect the financial industry than consumers.  Both healthcare and financial “reform” legislation turned out to be “bait and switch” scams used by the Obama administration against its own supporters.  After that double-double-cross, the liberal blogosphere was being told to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain”.

Despite the partisan efforts by Democrats to blame our nation’s economic decline exclusively on the Bush administration, reading between the lines of a recent essay by Senator Bernie Sanders provides some insight on how the problem he discusses has festered during the Obama administration:

The 400 richest families in America, who saw their wealth increase by some $400 billion during the Bush years, have now accumulated $1.27 trillion in wealth.  Four hundred families!  During the last fifteen years, while these enormously rich people became much richer their effective tax rates were slashed almost in half.  While the highest-paid 400 Americans had an average income of $345 million in 2007, as a result of Bush tax policy they now pay an effective tax rate of 16.6 percent, the lowest on record.

Let me get this straight  .  .  .   Is Senator Sanders telling us that it took the 400 families the entire eight Bush years just to pick up $400 billion and that once Obama came to the White House, those families were able to pick up another $827 billion in less than two years?  In fairness, Senator Sanders made a great argument to reinstate what I call, “the tax on dead millionaires”.  He began by discussing  the harsh reality experienced by mere mortals:

And while the Great Wall Street Recession has devastated the middle class, the truth is that working families have been experiencing a decline for decades.

Nevertheless, to understand how the middle class has been destroyed by those 400 families, their corporate alter egos and the lobbyists they employ, one need not rely on the words of a Senator, who is an “avowed socialist” (a real one – not just someone called a socialist by partisan blowhards).  Consider, for example, a great essay by Phil Davis, avowed capitalist and self-described “serial entrepreneur”.  The title of the piece might sound familiar:  “It’s the End of the World As We Know It”.  Mr. Davis discussed the latest battle in the war against Social Security and the current efforts to raise the retirement age to 70:

So, what is this all about?  It’s about forcing 5M people a year who reach the age 65 to remain in the work-force.  The top 0.01% have already taken your money, they have already put you in debt, they have already bankrupted the government as well so it has no choice but to do their bidding.  Now the top 0.01% want to make even MORE profits by paying American workers even LESS money.  If they raise the retirement age to 70 to “balance” Social Security – that will guarantee that another 25M people remain in the workforce (less the ones that drop dead on the job – saving the bother of paying them severance).

Those who believe that President Obama would never let this happen need look no further than a recent posting by Glenn Greenwald (a liberal Constitutional lawyer – just like our President) at Salon.com:

It is absolutely beyond the Republicans’ power to cut Social Security, even if they retake the House and Senate in November, since Obama will continue to wield veto power.  The real impetus for Social Security cuts is from the “Deficit Commission” which Obama created in January by Executive Order, then stacked with people (including its bipartisan co-Chairs) who have long favored slashing the program, and whose recommendations now enjoy the right of an up-or-down vote in Congress after the November election, thanks to the recent maneuvering by Nancy Pelosi.  The desire to cut Social Security is fully bipartisan (otherwise it couldn’t happen) and pushed by the billionaire class that controls the Government.

Despite the efforts to characterize Social Security as an “entitlement program” – it’s not.  It’s something you have already paid for – as documented by your income tax returns and W-2 forms.  Pay close attention and watch how our one-party system, controlled by the Republi-cratic Corporatist Party  steals that money away from you.  Both Phil Davis and Glenn Greenwald have each just given you a big “heads-up”.  What are you going to do about it?




Failed Leadership

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July 8, 2010

Exactly one year ago (on July 7, 2009) I pointed out that it would eventually become necessary for President Obama to propose a second economic stimulus package because he didn’t get it right the first time.  As far back as January of 2009, the President was ignoring all of the warnings from economists such as Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, who forewarned that the proposed $850 billion economic recovery package would be inadequate.  Mr. Obama also ignored the Bloomberg News report of February 12, 2009 concerning its survey of 50 economists, which described Obama’s stimulus plan as “insufficient”.  Last year, the public and the Congress had the will – not to mention the sense of urgency – to approve a robust stimulus initiative.  As we now approach mid-term elections, the politicians whom Barry Ritholtz describes as “deficit chicken hawks” – elected officials with a newfound concern about budget deficits – are resisting any further stimulus efforts.  Worse yet, as Ryan Grim reported for the Huffington Post, President Obama is now ignoring his economic advisors and listening, instead, to his political advisors, who are urging him to avoid any further economic rescue initiatives.

Ryan Grim’s article revealed that there has been a misunderstanding of the polling data that has kept politicians running scared on the debt issue.  A recent poll revealed that responses to polling questions concerning sovereign debt are frequently interpreted by the respondents as limited to the issue of China’s increasing role as our primary creditor:

The Democrats gathered on Thursday morning to dig into the national poll, which was paid for by the Alliance for American Manufacturing and done by Democrat Mark Mellman and Republican Whit Ayers.

It hints at an answer to why people are so passionate when asked by pollsters about the deficit:  It’s about jobs, China and American decline.  If the job situation improves, worries about the deficit will dissipate.  Asking whether Congress should address the deficit or the jobless crisis, therefore, is the wrong question.

*   *   *

About 45 percent of respondents said the biggest problem is that “we are too deep in debt to China,” the highest-ranking concern, while 58 percent said the U.S. is no longer the strongest economy, with China being the overwhelming alternative identified by people.

As I pointed out on May 27, even Larry Summers gets it now – providing the following advice that Obama is ignoring because our President is motivated more by fear than by a will to lead:

In areas where the government has a significant opportunity for impact, it would be pennywise and pound foolish not to take advantage of our capacity to encourage near-term job creation.

*   *   *

Consider the package currently under consideration in Congress to extend unemployment and health benefits to those out of work and support to states to avoid budget cuts as a case in point.

It would be an act of fiscal shortsightedness to break from the longstanding practice of extending these provisions at a moment when sustained economic recovery is so crucial to our medium-term fiscal prospects.

Since our President prefers to be a follower rather than a leader, I suggest that he follow the sound advice of The Washington Post’s Matt Miller:

I come before you, in other words, a deficit hawk to the core.  But it is the height of economic folly — and socially dangerous, in my view — to elevate deficit reduction as a goal today over boosting jobs and growth.  Especially when there are ways to goose the economy while at the same time legislating changes that move us toward fiscal sanity once we’re past this stagnation.

Mr. Miller presented a fantastic plan, which he described as “a radically centrist ‘Jobs Now, Deficits Soon’ package”.  He concluded the piece with this painfully realistic assessment:

The fact that nothing like this will happen, therefore, is both depressing and instructive.  Republicans are content to glide toward November slamming Democrats without offering answers of their own.  Democrats who now know the first stimulus was too puny feel they’ll be clobbered for trying more in the Tea Party era.

The leadership void brought to us by the Obama Presidency was the subject of yet another great essay by Paul Farrell of MarketWatch.  He supported his premise — that President Obama has capitulated to Wall Street’s “Conspiracy of Weasels” — with the perspectives of twelve different commentators.

The damage has already been done.  Any hope that our President will experience a sudden conversion to authentic populism is pure fantasy.  There will be no more federal efforts to resuscitate the job market, to facilitate the availability of credit to small businesses or to extend benefits to the unemployed.  The federal government’s only concern is to preserve the well-being of those five sacred Wall Street banks because if any single one failed – such an event would threaten our entire financial system.  Nothing else matters.