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When the Music Stops

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Forget about all that talk concerning the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The date you should be worried about is January 1, 2013.  I’ve been reading so much about it that I decided to try a Google search using “January 1, 2013” to see what results would appear.  Sure enough – the fifth item on the list was an article from Peter Coy at Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “The End Is Coming:  January 1, 2013”.  The theme of that piece is best summarized in the following passage:

With the attention of the political class fixated on the presidential campaign, Washington is in danger of getting caught in a suffocating fiscal bind.  If Congress does nothing between now and January to change the course of policy, a combination of mandatory spending reductions and expiring tax cuts will kick in – depriving the economy of oxygen and imperiling a recovery likely to remain fragile through the end of 2012.  Congress could inadvertently send the U.S. economy hurtling over what Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke recently called a “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases.”

Peter Coy’s take on this impending crisis seemed a bit optimistic to me.  My perspective on the New Year’s Meltdown had been previously shaped by a great essay from the folks at Comstock Partners.  The Comstock explanation was particularly convincing because it focused on the effects of the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing programs, emphasizing what many commentators describe as the Fed’s “Third Mandate”:  keeping the stock market inflated.  Beyond that, Comstock pointed out the absurdity of that cherished belief held by the magical-thinking, rose-colored glasses crowd:  the Fed is about to introduce another round of quantitative easing (QE 3).  Here is Comstock’s dose of common sense:

A growing number of indicators suggest that the market is running out of steam.  Equities have been in a temporary sweet spot where investors have been factoring in a self-sustaining U.S. economic recovery while also anticipating the imminent institution of QE3.  This is a contradiction.  If the economy were indeed as strong as they say, we wouldn’t need QE3.  The fact that market observers eagerly look forward toward the possibility of QE3 is itself an indication that the economy is weaker than they think.  We can have one or the other, but we can’t have both.

After two rounds of quantitative easing – followed by “operation twist” – the smart people are warning the rest of us about what is likely to happen when the music finally stops.  Here is Comstock’s admonition:

The economy is also facing the so-called “fiscal cliff” beginning on January 1, 2013.  This includes expiration of the Bush tax cuts, the payroll tax cuts, emergency unemployment benefits and the sequester.  Various estimates placed the hit to GDP as being anywhere between 2% and 3.5%, a number that would probably throw the economy into recession, if it isn’t already in one before then.  At about that time we will also be hitting the debt limit once again.   U.S. economic growth will also be hampered by recession in Europe and decreasing growth and a possible hard landing in China.

Technically, all of the good news seems to have been discounted by the market rally of the last three years and the last few months.  The market is heavily overbought, sentiment is extremely high, daily new highs are falling and volume is both low and declining.  In our view the odds of a significant decline are high.

Charles Biderman is the founder and Chief Executive Officer of TrimTabs Investment Research.  He was recently interviewed by Chris Martenson.  Biderman’s primary theme concerned the Federal Reserve’s “rigging” of the stock market through its quantitative easing programs, which have steered so much money into stocks that stock prices have now become a “function of liquidity” rather than fundamental value.  Biderman estimated that the Fed’s liquidity pump has fed the stock market “$1.8 billion per day since August”.  He does not believe this story will have a happy ending:

In January of ’10, I went on CNBC and on Bloomberg and said that there is no money coming into stocks, and yet the stock market keeps going up.  The law of supply and demand still exists and for stock prices to go up, there has to be more money buying those shares.  There is no other way in aggregate that that could happen.

So I said it has to be coming from the government.  And everybody thought I was a lunatic, conspiracy theorist, whatever.  And then lo and behold, on October of 2011, Mr. Bernanke then says officially, that the purpose of QE1 and QE2 is to raise asset prices.  And if I remember correctly, equities are an asset, and bonds are an asset.

So asset prices have gone up as the Fed has been manipulating the market. At the same time as the economy is not growing (or not growing very fast).

*   *   *

At some point, the world is going to recognize the Emperor is naked. The only question is when.

Will it be this year?  I do not think it will be before the election, I think there is too much vested interest in keeping things rosy and positive.

One of my favorite economists is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman warned us that the “music” must eventually stop:

What remains then is a fairly simple assertion:  the primary way to boost corporate profits to abnormally high – but unsustainable – levels is for the government and the household sector to both spend beyond their means at the same time.

*   *   *

The conclusion is straightforward.  The hope for continued high profit margins really comes down to the hope that government and the household sector will both continue along unsustainable spending trajectories indefinitely.  Conversely, any deleveraging of presently debt-heavy government and household balance sheets will predictably create a sustained retreat in corporate profit margins.  With the ratio of corporate profits to GDP now about 70% above the historical norm, driven by a federal deficit in excess of 8% of GDP and a deeply depressed household saving rate, we view Wall Street’s embedded assumption of a permanently high plateau in profit margins as myopic.

Will January 1, 2013 be the day when the world realizes that “the Emperor is naked”?  Will the American economy fall off the “massive fiscal cliff of large spending cuts and tax increases” eleven days after the end of the Mayan calendar?  When we wake-up with our annual New Year’s Hangover on January 1 – will we all regret not having followed the example set by those Doomsday Preppers on the National Geographic Channel?

Get your “bug-out bag” ready!  You still have nine months!


 

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Running Out of Pixie Dust

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On September 18 of 2008, I pointed out that exactly one year earlier, Jon Markman of MSN.com noted that the Federal Reserve had been using “duct tape and pixie dust” to hold the economy together.  In fact, there were plenty of people who knew that our Titanic financial system was headed for an iceberg at full speed – long before September of 2008.  In October of 2006, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard of the Telegraph wrote an article describing how Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson had re-activated the Plunge Protection Team (PPT):

Mr Paulson has asked the team to examine “systemic risk posed by hedge funds and derivatives, and the government’s ability to respond to a financial crisis”.

“We need to be vigilant and make sure we are thinking through all of the various risks and that we are being very careful here. Do we have enough liquidity in the system?” he said, fretting about the secrecy of the world’s 8,000 unregulated hedge funds with $1.3 trillion at their disposal.

Among the massive programs implemented in response to the financial crisis was the Federal Reserve’s quantitative easing program, which began in November of 2008.  A second quantitative easing program (QE 2) was initiated in November of 2010.  The next program was “operation twist”.  Last week, Jon Hilsenrath of the Wall Street Journal discussed the Fed’s plan for another bit of magic, described by economist James Hamilton as “sterilized quantitative easing”.  All of these efforts by the Fed have served no other purpose than to inflate stock prices.  This process was first exposed in an August, 2009 report by Precision Capital Management entitled, A Grand Unified Theory of Market ManipulationMore recently, on March 9, Charles Biderman of TrimTabs posted this (video) rant about the ongoing efforts by the Federal Reserve to manipulate the stock market.

At this point, many economists are beginning to pose the question of whether the Federal Reserve has finally run out of “pixie dust”.  On February 23, I mentioned the outlook presented by economist Nouriel Roubini (a/k/a Dr. Doom) who provided a sobering counterpoint to the recent stock market enthusiasm in a piece he wrote for the Project Syndicate website entitled, “The Uptick’s Downside”.  I included a discussion of economist John Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  Dr. Hussman admitted that there might still be an opportunity to make some gains, although the risks weigh heavily toward a more cautious strategy:

The bottom line is that near-term market direction is largely a throw of the dice, though with dice that are modestly biased to the downside.  Indeed, the present overvalued, overbought, overbullish syndrome tends to be associated with a tendency for the market to repeatedly establish slight new highs, with shallow pullbacks giving way to further marginal new highs over a period of weeks.  This instance has been no different.  As we extend the outlook horizon beyond several weeks, however, the risks we observe become far more pointed.  The most severe risk we measure is not the projected return over any particular window such as 4 weeks or 6 months, but is instead the likelihood of a particularly deep drawdown at some point within the coming 18-month period.

In December of 2010, Dr. Hussman wrote a piece, providing “An Updated Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest ”, in which he provided us with five warning signs:

The following set of conditions is one way to capture the basic “overvalued, overbought, overbullish, rising-yields” syndrome:

1) S&P 500 more than 8% above its 52 week (exponential) average
2) S&P 500 more than 50% above its 4-year low
3) Shiller P/E greater than 18
4) 10-year Treasury yield higher than 6 months earlier
5) Advisory bullishness > 47%, with bearishness < 27%

On March 10, Randall Forsyth wrote an article for Barron’s, in which he basically concurred with Dr. Hussman’s stock market prognosis.  In his most recent Weekly Market Comment, Dr. Hussman expressed a bit of umbrage about Randall Forsyth’s remark that Hussman “missed out” on the stock market rally which began in March of 2009:

As of last week, the market continued to reflect a set of conditions that have characterized a wicked subset of historical instances, comprising a Who’s Who of Awful Times to Invest .  Barron’s ran a piece over the weekend that reviewed our case.  It’s interesting to me that among the predictable objections (mostly related to our flat post-2009 performance, but overlooking the 2000-2009 record), none addressed the simple fact that the prior instances of this condition have invariably turned out terribly.  It seems to me that before entirely disregarding evidence that is as rare as it is ominous, you have to ask yourself one question.  Do I feel lucky?

*   *   *

Investors Intelligence notes that corporate insiders are now selling shares at levels associated with “near panic action.”  Since corporate insiders typically receive stock as part of their compensation, it is normal for insiders to sell about 2 shares on the open market for every share they purchase outright.  Recently, however, insider sales have been running at a pace of more than 8-to-1.

*   *   *

While investors and the economic consensus has largely abandoned any concern about a fresh economic downturn, we remain uncomfortable with the divergence between reliable leading measures – which are still actually deteriorating – and more upbeat coincident/lagging measures on which public optimism appears to be based.

Nevertheless, Randall Forsyth’s article was actually supportive of Hussman’s opinion that, given the current economic conditions, discretion should mandate a more risk-averse investment strategy.  The concluding statement from the Barron’s piece exemplified such support:

With the Standard & Poor’s 500 up 24% from the October lows, it may be a good time to take some chips off the table.

Beyond that, Mr. Forsyth explained how the outlook expressed by Walter J. Zimmermann concurred with John Hussman’s expectations for a stock market swoon:

Walter J. Zimmermann Jr., who heads technical analysis for United-ICAP, a technical advisory firm, puts it more succinctly:  “A perfect financial storm is looming.”

*   *   *

THERE ARE AMPLE FUNDAMENTALS to knock the market down, including the well-advertised surge in gasoline prices, which Zimmermann calculates absorbed the discretionary spending power for half of America.  And the escalating tensions over Iran’s nuclear program “is the gift that keeps on giving…if you like fear-inflated energy prices,” he wrote in the client letter.

At the same time, “the euro-zone response to their deflationary debt trap continues to be further loans to the hopelessly indebted, in return for crushing austerity programs.

So, evidently, not content with another mere recession, euro-zone leaders are inadvertently shooting for another depression.  They may well succeed.”

The euro zone is (or was, he stresses) the world’s largest economy, and a buyer of 22% of U.S. exports, which puts the domestic economy at risk, he adds.

Given the fact that the Federal Reserve has already expended the “heavy artillery” in its arsenal, it seems unlikely that the remaining bit of pixie dust in Ben Bernanke’s pocket – “sterilized quantitative easing” – will be of any use in the Fed’s never-ending efforts to inflate stock prices.


 

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More Wisdom From Jeremy Grantham

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One of my favorite commentators, Paul Farrell of MarketWatch, recently discussed some of the prescient essays of Jeremy Grantham, who manages over $100 billion as chief executive of an asset management firm – GMO.  Paul Farrell reminded us that Grantham warned of the impending financial crisis in July of 2007, which came as a surprise to those vested with the responsibility of paying attention to such advice.  As Farrell pointed out:

Our nation’s leaders are in denial, want happy talk, bull markets, can’t even see the crash coming, even though the warnings were everywhere for years. Why the denial?  Grantham hit the nail on the head:  Our leaders are “management types who focus on what they are doing this quarter or this annual budget and are somewhat impatient.”

Paul Farrell is warning of an “inevitable crash that is coming possibly just before the Presidential election in 2012”.  He incorporated some of Grantham’s rationale in his own discussion about how and why this upcoming crash will come as another surprise to those who are supposed to help us avoid such things:

Most business, banking and financial leaders are short-term thinkers, focused on today’s trades, quarterly earnings and annual bonuses.  Long-term historical thinking is a low priority.

Paul Farrell’s article was apparently written in anticipation of the release of Jeremy Grantham’s latest Quarterly Letter at the conclusion of the first quarter of 2011.  Grantham’s newest discourse is entitled, “Time to Wake Up: Days of Abundant Resources and Falling Prices Are Over Forever”.  The theme is best summed-up by these points from the “summary” section:

  • From now on, price pressure and shortages of resources will be a permanent feature of our lives.  This will increasingly slow down the growth rate of the developed and developing world and put a severe burden on poor countries.
  • We all need to develop serious resource plans, particularly energy policies.  There is little time to waste.

After applying some common sense and simple mathematics to the bullish expectations of immeasurable growth ahead, Grantham obviously upset many people with this sober observation:

Rapid growth is not ours by divine right; it is not even mathematically possible over a sustained period.  Our goal should be to get everyone out of abject poverty, even if it necessitates some income redistribution.  Because we have way overstepped sustainable levels, the greatest challenge will be in redesigning lifestyles to emphasize quality of life while quantitatively reducing our demand levels.

We have all experienced the rapid spike in commodity prices:  more expensive gas at the pump, higher food prices and widespread cost increases for just about every consumer item.  Many economists and other commentators have blamed the Federal Reserve’s ongoing program of quantitative easing for keeping interest rates so low that the enthusiasm for speculation on commodities has been enhanced, resulting in skyrocketing prices.  Surprisingly, Grantham is not entirely on board with that theory:

The Monetary Maniacs may ascribe the entire move to low interest rates.  Now, even I know that low rates can have a large effect, at least when combined with moral hazard, on the movement of stocks, but in the short term, there is no real world check on stock prices and they can be, and often are, psychologically flakey.  But commodities are made and bought by serious professionals for whom today’s price is life and death. Realistic supply and demand really is the main influence.

Grantham demonstrated that most of the demand pressure on commodities is being driven by China.  This brings us to his latest prediction and dire warning:

The significance here is that given China’s overwhelming influence on so many commodities, especially in terms of the percentage China represents of new growth in global demand, any general economic stutter in China can mean very big declines in some of their prices.

You can assess on your own the probabilities of a stumble in the next year or so.  At the least, I would put it at 1 in 4, while some of my colleagues think the odds are much higher.  If China stumbles or if the weather is better than expected, a probability I would put at, say, 80%, then commodity prices will decline a lot.  But if both events occur together, it will very probably break the commodity markets en masse.  Not unlike the financial collapse.  That was a once in a lifetime opportunity as most markets crashed by over 50%, some much more, and then roared back.

Modesty should prevent me from quoting from my own July 2008 Quarterly Letter, which covered the first crash.

*   *   *

In the next decade, the prices of all raw materials will be priced as just what they are, irreplaceable.  If the weather and China syndromes strike together, it will surely produce the second “once in a lifetime” event in three years.

For the near-term, we appear to be in an awful double-bind:  either we get crushed by increasing commodity prices – or – commodities will become plentiful and cheap, causing the world economy to crash once again.  It won’t bother Wall Street at all, because The Ben Bernank and “Turbo” Tim will be ready and willing to provide abundant bailouts – again, at taxpayer expense.


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Clean-Up Time On Wall Street

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January 5, 2009

As we approach the eve of the Obama Administration’s first day, across America the new President’s supporters have visions of “change we can believe in” dancing in their heads.  For some, this change means the long overdue realization of health care reform.  For those active in the Democratic campaigns of 2006, “change” means an end to the Iraq war.  Many Americans are hoping that the new administration will crack down on the unregulated activities on Wall Street that helped bring about the current economic crisis.

On December 15, Stephen Labaton wrote an article for the New York Times, examining the recent failures of the Securities and Exchange Commission as well as the environment at the SEC that facilitates such breakdowns.  Some of the highlights from the piece included these points:

.   .   .    H. David Kotz, the commission’s new inspector general, has documented several major botched investigations.  He has told lawmakers of one case in which the commission’s enforcement chief improperly tipped off a private lawyer about an insider-trading inquiry.
*   *   *
There are other difficulties plaguing the agency.  A recent report to Congress by Mr. Kotz is a catalog of major and minor problems, including an investigation into accusations that several S.E.C. employees have engaged in illegal insider trading and falsified financial disclosure forms.
*   *   *
Some experts said that appointees of the Bush administration had hollowed out the commission, much the way they did various corners of the Justice Department.  The result, they say, is hobbled enforcement and inspection programs.

On December 18, Barack Obama announced his intention to name Mary Schapiro as the Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission.  Many news outlets, including National Public Radio, presented an enthusiastic look toward the tenure of Ms. Schapiro in this office:

Speaking at the news conference on Thursday, Schapiro said there must be “consistent and robust enforcement” of regulations to protect investors, saying it will be her top priority as SEC chief.

On the other hand, in the December 18 Wall Street Journal, Randall Smith and Kara Scannell provided us with a more informative analysis of the SEC nominee’s track record:

She was credited with beefing up enforcement while at the National Association of Securities Dealers and guiding the creation of the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority, which she now leads.  But some in the industry questioned whether she would be strong enough to get the SEC back on track.
*  *  *
Robert Banks, a director of the Public Investors Arbitration Bar Association, an industry group for plaintiff lawyers  . . .  said that under Ms. Schapiro, “Finra has not put much of a dent in fraud,” and the entire system needs an overhaul. ” The government needs to treat regulation seriously, and for the past eight years we have not had real securities regulation in this country,” Mr. Banks said.

Since Ms. Schapiro took over Finra in 2006, the number of enforcement cases has dropped, in part because actions stemming from the tech-bubble collapse ebbed and the markets rebounded from 2002 to 2007.  The agency has been on the fringe of the major Wall Street blowups, and opted to focus on more bread-and-butter issues such as fraud aimed at senior citizens.

Out of the gate, Ms. Schapiro faces potential controversy.  In 2001 she appointed Mark Madoff, son of disgraced financier Bernard Madoff, to the board of the National Adjudicatory Council, the national committee that reviews initial decisions rendered in Finra disciplinary and membership proceedings.  Both sons of Mr. Madoff have denied any involvement in the massive Ponzi scheme their father has been accused of running.

It appears as though we might see Ms. Schapiro face some grilling about the Madoff appointment, when she faces her confirmation hearing.  Beyond that, the points raised by Randall Smith and Kara Scannell underscore the question of whether Mary Schapiro will really be an agent of change on Wall Street or just another “insider” overseeing “business as usual”.  To assuage such concern, many commentators have emphasized that Ms. Schapiro has never worked for a brokerage firm or investment bank.  Her Wall Street experience has been limited to regulatory activity.  Despite this, one must keep in mind a point made by Michael Lewis and David Einhorn in the January 3 New York Times:

It’s not hard to see why the S.E.C. behaves as it does.  If you work for the enforcement division of the S.E.C. you probably know in the back of your mind, and in the front too, that if you maintain good relations with Wall Street you might soon be paid huge sums of money to be employed by it.

Michael Lewis is the author of Liar’s Poker, a non-fiction book about his own Wall Street experience as a bond salesman.  With David Einhorn, he wrote a two-part op-ed piece for the January 3 New York Times.  The above-quoted passage was from the first part, entitled:  “The End of the Financial World as We Know It”.  The second part is entitled:  “How to Repair a Broken Financial World”.  The first section looked at the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme, using it to underscore this often-ignored reality about the Securities and Exchange Commission and its inability to prevent or even cope with the current financial crisis:

Indeed, one of the great social benefits of the Madoff scandal may be to finally reveal the S.E.C. for what it has become.

Created to protect investors from financial predators, the commission has somehow evolved into a mechanism for protecting financial predators with political clout from investors.  (The task it has performed most diligently during this crisis has been to question, intimidate and impose rules on short-sellers — the only market players who have a financial incentive to expose fraud and abuse.)

In the second section of their commentary, Lewis and Einhorn suggest six changes to the financial system “to prevent some version of what has happened from happening all over again”.  Let’s hope our new President, the Congress and others pay serious attention to what Lewis and Einhorn have said.  Cleaning up Wall Street is going to be a dirty job.  Will those responsible for accomplishing this task be up to doing it?

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels

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December 18, 2008

The Ponzi Scheme case involving Bernie Madoff is only the latest example of scumbaggery on Wall Street.  Madoff helped found the NASDAQ Exchange and established a reputation for himself as one of the captains of the financial world.  Now we know that he pilfered over 50 billion dollars from sophisticated investors, colleges, charitable institutions, banks and plain-old, rich people.  Worse yet, when he couldn’t get enough co-signers to back his ten-million dollar bail, he was placed under “house arrest” and confined to his $7,000,000 home.  When a car thief can’t make bail, he sits in jail until his case is tried.  Why is it that when someone is charged with stealing ten million times that much, he gets treated as though he was driving on an expired license?    By the way:  How does somebody hide fifty billion dollars?  Is he going to claim that he lost it or that he blew it all on lottery tickets?

The knaves who held themselves out as financial magicians have made pimps and drug dealers seem like Red Cross volunteers, by comparison.  Beyond that, the government institutions and officials charged with protecting the integrity of our financial system have been out to lunch for several years.  Worse yet, these hacks continue to facilitate the theft of trillions of dollars of taxpayer money and, for this reason, I believe they all belong in prison.  On second thought, they should be placed before a firing squad along with the swindlers whom they enabled.  After the Enron treachery was exposed to the light of day, one would have thought that the Securities and Exchange Commission might have started doing its job.  It didn’t.  People have to start forcing our elected officials to find out why.  I think I know the answer.  I believe it’s because many of the people entrusted to regulate the financial system are crooks themselves.

On December 16, Brent Budowsky posted an important article on The Hill website concerning the bailout bungle.  Mr. Budowsky is a gentleman who earned an LL.M. degree (that’s something you work on after graduating from law school) in International Financial Law from the London School of Economics.  He was a former aide to Senator Lloyd Bentsen and Representative Bill Alexander.  Mr. Budowsky pointed out that:

Government agencies have poured close to $8 trillion into banking bailouts.  The Treasury secretary has promoted massive government support of troubled, failed and corrupted institutions.

This program is a 100 percent top-down exercise involving the largest amount of money in history.

Virtually none of this money directly helps average Americans. Virtually none of it trickles down to the people who suffer the most and pay for the program.

*   *   *

The Securities and Exchange Commission is discredited.  The Federal Reserve has failed in its duty as banking regulator. Congress has failed in its duty of oversight.  The most wise and citizen-friendly regulator, Sheila Bair of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, is treated with contempt by the Treasury secretary.

*   *   *

Today the Federal Reserve Board refuses to disclose information regarding some $2 trillion provided to financial institutions.  Bloomberg business news has filed a historic freedom-of-information case seeking disclosure.  Congress and the president-elect should support it.

Bailout money is not a private account that belongs to Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke, Fed governors, the Treasury secretary or the banks.  It is the people’s money.  It should be used to benefit the people.  It should be monitored through the checks and balances of the democratic process.

Secrecy is the enemy of equity, integrity and common sense. Secrecy is the friend of negligence, misjudgment and corruption.  There are probably selected instances where the Fed should not disclose, but show me $2 trillion of secretly spent money and I will show you trouble.

Do you care to hazard a guess as to what the next Wall Street scandal might be?  I have a pet theory concerning the almost-daily spate of “late-day rallies” in the equities markets.  I’ve discussed it with some knowledgeable investors.  I suspect that some of the bailout money squandered by Treasury Secretary Paulson has found its way into the hands of some miscreants who are using this money to manipulate the stock markets.  I have a hunch that their plan is to run up stock prices at the end of the day before those numbers have a chance to settle back down to the level where the market would normally have them.  The inflated “closing price” for the day is then perceived as the market value of the stock.  This plan would be an effort to con investors into believing that the market has pulled out of its slump.  Eventually the victims would find themselves hosed once again at the next “market correction”.  I don’t believe that SEC Chairman Christopher Cox would likely uncover such a scam, given his track record.  Perhaps we can thank him when “vigilante justice” comes to Wall Street.