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Straight Talk On The European Financial Mess

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The European sovereign debt crisis has generated an enormous amount of nonsensical coverage by the news media.  Most of this coverage appears targeted at American investors, who are regularly assured that a Grand Solution to all of Europe’s financial problems is “just around the corner” thanks to the heroic work of European finance ministers.

Fortunately, a number of commentators have raised some significant objections about all of the misleading “spin” on this subject.  Some pointed criticism has come from Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) who recently posted this complaint:

I am tired of nonsensical headlines that have a zero percent chance of happening.

In a subsequent piece, Mish targeted a report from Bloomberg News which bore what he described as a misleading headline:  “EU Sees Progress on Banks”.  Not surprisingly, clicking on the Bloomberg link will reveal that the story now has a different headline.

For those in search of an easy-to-read explanation of the European financial situation, I recommend an essay by Robert Kuttner, appearing at the Huffington Post.  Here are a few highlights:

The deepening European financial crisis is the direct result of the failure of Western leaders to fix the banking system during the first crisis that began in 2007.  Barring a miracle of statesmanship, we are in for Financial Crisis II, and it will look more like a depression than a recession.

*   *   *

Beginning in 2008, the collapse of Bear Stearns revealed the extent of pyramid schemes and interlocking risks that had come to characterize the global banking system.  But Western leaders have stuck to the same pro-Wall-Street strategy:  throw money at the problem, disguise the true extent of the vulnerability, provide flimsy reassurances to money markets, and don’t require any fundamental changes in the business models of the world’s banks to bring greater simplicity, transparency or insulation from contagion.

As a consequence, we face a repeat of 2008.  Precisely the same kinds of off-balance sheet pyramids of debts and interlocking risks that caused Bear Stearns, then AIG, Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch to blow up are still in place.

Following Tim Geithner’s playbook, the European authorities conducted “stress tests” and reported in June that the shortfall in the capital of Europe’s banks was only about $100 billion.  But nobody believes that rosy scenario.

*   *   *

But to solely blame Europe and its institutions is to excuse the source of the storms.  That is the political power of the banks to block fundamental reform.

The financial system has mutated into a doomsday machine where banks make their money by originating securities and sticking someone else with the risk.  None of the reforms, beginning with Dodd-Frank and its European counterparts, has changed that fundamental business model.

As usual, the best analysis of the European financial situation comes from economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Dr. Hussman’s essay explores several dimensions of the European crisis in addition to noting some of the ongoing “shenanigans” employed by American financial institutions.  Here are a few of my favorite passages from Hussman’s latest Weekly Market Comment:

Incomprehensibly large bailout figures now get tossed around unexamined in the wake of the 2008-2009 crisis (blessed, of course, by Wall Street), while funding toward NIH, NSF and other essential purposes has been increasingly squeezed.  At the urging of Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Europe has been encouraged to follow the “big bazooka” approach to the banking system.  That global fiscal policy is forced into austere spending cuts for research, education, and social services as a result of financial recklessness, but we’ve become conditioned not to blink, much less wince, at gargantuan bailout figures to defend the bloated financial institutions that made bad investments at 20- 30- and 40-to-1 leverage, is Timothy Geithner’s triumph and humanity’s collective loss.

*   *   *

A clean solution to the European debt problem does not exist. The road ahead will likely be tortuous.

The way that Europe can be expected to deal with this is as follows.  First, European banks will not have their losses limited to the optimistic but unrealistic 21% haircut that they were hoping to sustain.  In order to avoid the European Financial Stability Fund from being swallowed whole by a Greek default, leaving next-to-nothing to prevent broader contagion, the probable Greek default will be around 50%-60%.  Note that Greek obligations of all maturities, including 1-year notes, are trading at prices about 40 or below, so a 50% haircut would actually be an upgrade.  Given the likely time needed to sustainably narrow Greek deficits, a default of that size is also the only way that another later crisis would be prevented (at least for a decade, and hopefully much longer).

*   *   *

Of course, Europe wouldn’t need to blow all of these public resources or impose depression on Greek citizens if bank stockholders and bondholders were required to absorb the losses that result from the mind-boggling leverage taken by European banks.  It’s that leverage (born of inadequate capital requirements and regulation), not simply bad investments or even Greek default per se, that is at the core of the crisis.

Given the fact that the European crisis appears to be reaching an important crossroads, the Occupy Wall Street protest seems well-timed.  The need for significant financial reform is frequently highlighted in most commentaries concerning the European situation.  Whether our venal politicians will seriously address this situation remains to be seen.  I’m not holding my breath.


 

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Obama Fatigue

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Since President Obama first assumed office, it hasn’t been too difficult to find harsh criticism of the new administration.  One need only tune in to the Fox News, where an awkward Presidential sneeze could be interpreted as a “secret message” to Bill Ayers or George Soros.  Nevertheless, with the passing of time, voices from across the political spectrum have joined a chorus of frustration with the Obama agenda.

On February 26, 2009 – only one month into the Obama Presidency – I voiced my suspicion about the new administration’s unwillingness to address the problem of systemic risk, inherent in allowing a privileged few banks to enjoy their “too big to fail” status:

Will Turbo Tim’s “stress tests” simply turn out to be a stamp of approval, helping insolvent banks avoid any responsible degree of reorganization, allowing them to continue their “welfare queen” existence, thus requiring continuous infusions of cash at the expense of the taxpayers?  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.

By September of 2009, I became convinced that Mr. Obama was suffering from a degree of hubris, which could seal his fate as a single-term President:

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 TARP bank bailout program was initiated during the final months of the Bush Presidency, the Obama administration’s stewardship of that program recently drew sharp criticism from Neil Barofsky, the retiring Special Inspector General for TARP (SIGTARP).  Beyond that, in his March 29 op-ed piece for The New York Times, Mr. Barofsky criticized the Obama administration’s failure to make good on its promises of “financial reform”:

Finally, the country was assured that regulatory reform would address the threat to our financial system posed by large banks that have become effectively guaranteed by the government no matter how reckless their behavior.  This promise also appears likely to go unfulfilled.  The biggest banks are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis and control a larger part of our economy than ever.  They reasonably assume that the government will rescue them again, if necessary.

*   *   *

Worse, Treasury apparently has chosen to ignore rather than support real efforts at reform, such as those advocated by Sheila Bair, the chairwoman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, to simplify or shrink the most complex financial institutions.

*   *   *

In the final analysis, it has been Treasury’s broken promises that have turned TARP – which was instrumental in saving the financial system at a relatively modest cost to taxpayers – into a program commonly viewed as little more than a giveaway to Wall Street executives.

It wasn’t meant to be that.  Indeed, Treasury’s mismanagement of TARP and its disregard for TARP’s Main Street goals – whether born of incompetence, timidity in the face of a crisis or a mindset too closely aligned with the banks it was supposed to rein in – may have so damaged the credibility of the government as a whole that future policy makers may be politically unable to take the necessary steps to save the system the next time a crisis arises.  This avoidable political reality might just be TARP’s most lasting, and unfortunate, legacy.

Another unlikely critic of President Obama is the retired law school professor who blogs using the pseudonym, “George Washington”.  A recent posting at Washington’s Blog draws from a number of sources to ponder the question of whether President Obama (despite his Nobel Peace Prize) has become more brutal than President Bush.  The essay concludes with a review of Obama’s overall performance in The White House:

Whether or not Obama is worse than Bush, he’s just as bad.

While we had Bush’s “heck of a job” response to Katrina, we had Obama’s equally inept response and false assurances in connection with the Gulf oil spill, and Obama’s false assurances in connection with the Japanese nuclear crisis.

And Bush and Obama’s response to the financial crisis are virtually identical:  bail out the giant banks, let Wall Street do whatever it wants, and forget the little guy.

The American voters asked for change.  Instead, we got a different branch of the exact same Wall Street/military-industrial complex/Big Energy (BP, GE)/Big Pharma party.

Another commentator who has become increasingly critical of President Obama is Robert Reich, Secretary of Labor in the Clinton Administration.  Mr. Obama’s failure to push back against the corporatist politicians, who serve as “reverse Robin Hoods” enriching CEOs at the expense of American workers, resulted in this rebuke from Professor Reich:

President Obama and Democratic leaders should be standing up for the wages and benefits of ordinary Americans, standing up for unions, and decrying the lie that wage and benefit concessions are necessary to create jobs.  The President should be traveling to the Midwest – taking aim at Republican governors in the heartland who are hell bent on destroying the purchasing power of American workers.  But he’s doing nothing of the sort.

As attention begins to focus on the question of who will be the Republican nominee for the 2012 Presidential election campaign, Obama Fatigue is causing many people to appraise the President’s chances of defeat.  The excitement of bringing the promised “change” of 2008 has morphed into cynicism.  Many of the voters who elected Obama in 2008 might be too disgusted to bother with voting in 2012.  As a result, the idea of a Democratic or Independent challenger to Obama is receiving more consideration.  Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi recently provided this response to a letter inquiring about the possibility that Elizabeth Warren could make a run for the White House in 2012:

A few months ago I heard a vague rumor from someone who theoretically would know that such a thing was being contemplated, but I don’t know anything beyond that.  I wish she would run.  I’m not sure if it would ultimately be a good thing or a bad thing for Barack Obama – she could fatally wound his general-election chances by exposing his ties to Wall Street – but I think she’s exactly what this country needs. She’s totally literate on the finance issues and is completely on the side of human beings, as opposed to banks and oil companies and the like.  One thing I will say:  if she did run, she would have a lot more support from the press than she probably imagines, as there are a lot of reporters out there who are reaching the terminal-disappointment level with Obama ready to hop on the bandwagon of someone like Warren.

If Elizabeth Warren ultimately decides to make a run for The White House, Mr. Obama should do the right thing:  Stop selling the sky to people and step aside.


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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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In the course of attempting to explain or criticize complex economic and financial issues, it usually becomes necessary to quote from the experts – often at length – to provide an understandable commentary.  Nevertheless, it was with great pleasure that I read about a dust-up involving Megan McArdle’s use of a published interview conducted by Bruce Bigelow of Xconomy, without attribution.  The incident was recently discussed by Brad DeLong.  (If you are a regular reader of Professor DeLong’s blog, you might recognize the title of this posting as a variant on the name of his website.)  Before I move on, it will be necessary to expand this moment of schadenfreude, due to the ironic timing of the controversy.  On March 7, Time published a list of “The 25 Best Financial Blogs”, with McArdle’s blog as number 15.  Aside from the fact that many worthy bloggers were overlooked by Time (including Mish and Simon Johnson) the list drew plenty of criticism for its inclusion of McArdle’s blog.  Here are just some of the comments to that effect, which appeared on the Naked Capitalism website:

duffolonious says:

Megan McArdle?  Seriously?  I’ve seen so many people rip her to shreds that I’ve completely ignored her.

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

Basically yes, although not quite as blatant.  Her old man was an inspector of contracting in New York City.  He got surprisingly rich.  From that he went to starting his own contracting business.  He got surprisingly rich.  Then he went back to New York City in an even higher level supervisory job.  He got surprisingly rich.  So Megan went to good schools and had her daddy’s network of influential “friends” to help her with her “job search” when she graduated.  Of course, she’s no dummy, and did a professional job of networking with all the “right” people she met at school, too.

For my part, in order to discuss the proposed settlement resulting from the investigation of the five largest banks and mortgage servicers conducted by state attorneys general and federal officials (including the Justice Department, the Treasury and the newly-formed Consumer Financial Protection Bureau) I will rely on the commentary from some of my favorite financial bloggers.  The investigating officials submitted this 27-page proposal as the starting point for what is expected to be a weeks-long negotiation process, possibly resulting in some loan modifications as well as remedies for those who faced foreclosures expedited by the use of “robo-signers” and other questionable practices.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism criticized the settlement proposal as “Bailout as Reward for Institutionalized Fraud”:

The argument defenders of the deal make are twofold:  this really is a good deal (hello?) and it’s as far as the Obama Administration is willing to push the banks, so we have to put a lot of lipstick on this pig and resign ourselves to political necessities.  And the reason the Obama camp is trying to declare victory and go home is that it is afraid that any serious effort to deal with the mortgage mess will reveal the insolvency of the banks.

Team Obama had put on a full court press since March 2009 to present the banks as fundamentally sound, and to the extent they needed more dough, the stress tests and resulting capital raising took care of any remaining problems.  Timothy Geithner was even doing victory laps last month in Europe.  To reverse course now and expose the fact that writedowns on second mortgages held by the four biggest banks and plus the true cost of legal liabilities from the mortgage crisis (putbacks, servicer fraud, chain of title issues) would blow a big hole in the banks’ balance sheets and fatally undermine whatever credibility the officialdom still has.

But the fallacy of their thinking is that addressing and cleaning up this rot would lead to a financial crisis, therefore anything other than cosmetics and making life inconvenient for the banks around the margin is to be avoided at all costs.  But these losses exist already.  The fallacy lies in the authorities’ delusion that they are avoiding creating losses, when we are in fact talking about who should bear costs that already exist.

The perspective taken by Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns focused on the extent to which we can find the fingerprints of Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner on the settlement proposal.  Ed Harrison emphasized the significance of Geithner’s final remarks from an interview conducted last year by Daniel Gross for Slate:

The test is whether you have people willing to do the things that are deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand, knowing that they’re necessary to do and better than the alternatives.

From there, Ed Harrison illustrated how Geithner’s roadmap has been based on the willingness to follow that logic:

More than ever, Tim Geithner runs the show for economic policy. He is the last man standing of the Old Obama team.  Volcker, Summers, Orszag, and Romer are all gone.  So Geithner’s vision of bailouts and settlements is the one that carries the most weight.

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

  • The financial system was on the verge of collapse.  We all know that now – about US banks and European ones too.  Fed Chair Ben Bernanke has said so as has Bank of England head Mervyn King.  The WikiLeaks cables affirmed systemic insolvency as the real issue most demonstrably.
  • When presented with a choice of Japan or Sweden as the model for crisis resolution, the US felt the Japan banking crisis response was the best historical precedent.  It is still unclear whether this was a political or an economic decision.
  • The most difficult political aspect of the banking crisis response was socialising bank lossesAll banking crisis bailouts involve some form of loss socialisation and this is a policy which citizens find abhorrent.  That’s what Geithner meant most directly about ‘deeply unpopular, deeply hard to understand’.
  • Using pro-inflationary monetary policy and fiscal stimulus, the U.S. can put this crisis in the rear view mirror.  Low interest rates and a steep yield curve combined with bailouts, stress tests, dividend reductions and private capital will allow time to heal all wounds.  That is the Geithner view.
  • Once the system is healthy again, it should expand.  The reason you need to bail the banks out is that they have expansion opportunities abroad.  As emerging markets develop more sophisticated financial markets, the Treasury secretary believes American banks are well positioned to profit.  American finance can’t profit if you break up the banks.

I would argue that Tim Geithner believes we are almost at that final stage where the banks are now healthy enough to get bigger and take share in emerging markets.  His view is that a more robust regulatory environment will keep things in check and prevent another financial crisis.

I hope this helps to explain why the Obama Administration is keen to get this $20 billion mortgage settlement done.  The prevailing view in the Administration is that the U.S. is in a fragile but sustainable recovery.  With emerging markets leading the economic recovery and U.S. banks on sounder footing, now is the time to resume the expansion of U.S. financial services.  I should also add that given the balance sheet recession in the U.S., the only way banks can expand is via an expansion abroad.

I strongly disagree with this vision of America’s future economic development.  But this is the road we are on.

Will those of us who refuse to believe in Tinkerbelle face the blame for the next financial crisis?


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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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The Smell Of Rotting TARP

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September 16, 2010

I never liked the TARP program.  As we approach the second anniversary of its having been signed into law by President Bush, we are getting a better look at how really ugly it has been.  Marshall Auerback picked up a law degree from Corpus Christi College, Oxford University in 1983 and currently serves as a consulting strategist for RAB Capital Plc in addition to being an economic consultant to PIMCO.  Mr. Auerback recently wrote a piece for the Naked Capitalism website in response to a posting by Ben Smith at Politico.  Smith’s piece touted the TARP program as a big success, with such statements as:

The consensus of economists and policymakers at the time of the original TARP was that the U.S. government couldn’t afford to experiment with an economic collapse.  That view in mainstream economic circles has, if anything, only hardened with the program’s success in recouping the federal spending.

Marshall Auerback’s essay, rebutting Ben Smith’s piece, was entitled, “TARP Was Not a Success —  It Simply Institutionalized Fraud”.  Mr. Auerback began his argument this way:

Indeed, the only way to call TARP a winner is by defining government sanctioned financial fraud as the main metric of results.  The finance leaders who are guilty of wrecking much of the global economy remain in power – while growing extraordinarily wealthy in the process.  They know that their primary means of destruction was accounting “control fraud”, a term coined by Professor Bill Black, who argued that “Control frauds occur when those that control a seemingly legitimate entity use it as a ‘weapon’ to defraud.”  TARP did nothing to address this abuse; indeed, it perpetuates it.  Are we now using lying and fraud as the measure of success for financial reform?

After pointing out that “Congress adopted unprincipled accounting principles that permit banks to lie about asset values in order to hide their massive losses on loans and investments”, Mr. Auerback concluded by enumerating the steps followed to create an illusion of viability for those “zombie banks”:

Both the Bush and Obama administration followed a three-part strategy towards our zombie banks:  (1) cover up the losses through (legalized) accounting fraud, (2) launch an “everything is great” propaganda campaign (the faux stress tests were key to this tactic and Ben Smith perpetuates this nonsense in his latest piece on TARP), and (3) provide a host of secret taxpayer subsidies to the systemically dangerous institutions (the so-called “too big to fail” banks).  This strategy is the opposite of what the Swedes and Norwegians did during their banking crisis in the 1990s, which remains the template on a true financial success.

Despite this sleight-of-hand by our government, the Moment of Truth has arrived.  Alistair Barr reported for MarketWatch that it has finally become necessary for the Treasury Department to face reality and crack down on the deadbeat banks that are not paying back what they owe as a result of receiving TARP bailouts.  That’s right.  Despite what you’ve heard about what a great “investment” the TARP program supposedly has been, there is quite a long list of banks that cannot boast of having paid back the government for their TARP bailouts.  (Don’t forget that although Goldman Sachs claims that it repaid the government for what it received from TARP, Goldman never repaid the $13 billion it received by way of Maiden Lane III.)  The MarketWatch report provided us with this bad news:

In August, 123 financial institutions missed dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury Department under the Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP.  That’s up from 55 in November 2009, according to Keefe, Bruyette & Woods.

More important —  of those 123 financial institutions, seven have never made any TARP dividend payments on securities they sold to the Treasury.  Those seven institutions are:  Anchor Bancorp Wisconsin, Blue Valley Ban Corp, Seacoast Banking Corp., Lone Star Bank, OneUnited Bank, Saigon National Bank and United American Bank.  The report included this point:

Saigon National is the only institution to have missed seven consecutive quarterly TARP dividend payments.  The other six have missed six consecutive payments, KBW noted.

The following statement from the MarketWatch piece further undermined Ben Smith’s claim that the TARP program was a great success:

Most of the big banks have repaid the TARP money they got and the Treasury has collected about $10 billion in dividend payments from the effort.  However, the rising number of smaller banks that are struggling to meet dividend payments shows the program hasn’t been a complete success.

Of course, the TARP program’s success (or lack thereof) will be debated for a long time.  At this point, it is important to take a look at the final words from the “Conclusion” section (at page 108) of a document entitled, September Oversight Report (Assessing the TARP on the Eve of its Expiration), prepared by the Congressional Oversight Panel.  (You remember the COP – it was created to oversee the TARP program.)  That parting shot came after this observation at page 106:

Both now and in the future, however, any evaluation must begin with an understanding of what the TARP was intended to do.  Congress authorized Treasury to use the TARP in a manner that “protects home values, college funds, retirement accounts, and life savings; preserves home ownership and promotes jobs and economic growth; [and] maximizes overall returns to the taxpayers of the United States.”  But weaknesses persist.  Since EESA was signed into law in October 2008, home values nationwide have fallen.  More than seven million homeowners have received foreclosure notices.  Many Americans’ most significant investments for college and retirement have yet to recover their value.  At the peak of the crisis, in its most significant acts and consistent with its mandate in EESA, the TARP provided critical support at a time in which confidence in the financial system was in freefall.  The acute crisis was quelled.  But as the Panel has discussed in the past, and as the continued economic weakness shows, the TARP’s effectiveness at pursuing its broader statutory goals was far more limited.

The above-quoted passage, as well as these final words from the Congressional Oversight Panel’s report, provide a  greater degree of candor than  what can be seen in Ben Smith’s article:

The TARP program is today so widely unpopular that Treasury has expressed concern that banks avoided participating in the CPP program due to stigma, and the legislation proposing the Small Business Lending Fund, a program outside the TARP, specifically provided an assurance that it was not a TARP program.  Popular anger against taxpayer dollars going to the largest banks, especially when the economy continues to struggle, remains high.  The program’s unpopularity may mean that unless it can be convincingly demonstrated that the TARP was effective, the government will not authorize similar policy responses in the future.  Thus, the greatest consequence of the TARP may be that the government has lost some of its ability to respond to financial crises in the future.

No doubt.



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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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Jobless Recovery Myth Is Dead

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August 12, 2010

On July 29, I discussed the fact that for over a year, many pundits have been anticipating a “jobless recovery”.  In other words:  don’t be concerned about the fact that so many people can’t find jobs – the economy will recover anyway.  Recent economic reports have exposed how the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting by mass layoffs (to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports) has finally taken its toll.  Although this tactic has helped to inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery, we are finding out that the opposite is true.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the fact the American economy is 70 percent consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.  Timothy Homan and Alex Tanzi of Bloomberg News gave us the ugly truth on Wednesday:

A lack of jobs will shackle consumer spending and restrain the U.S. recovery more than previously estimated, according to economists polled by Bloomberg News.

*   *   *

“Simply put, job growth in the private sector hasn’t improved as we would’ve expected,” said John Silvia, chief economist at Wells Fargo Securities LLC in Charlotte, North Carolina.  “The consumer continues to contribute to growth but at a subpar pace.”

*   *   *

Purchases, which rose 3 percent on average over the past three decades, dropped 1.2 percent last year, the biggest decrease since 1942.

*   *   *

Joblessness will be slow to fall, signaling it will take years for the economy to recover the more than 8 million jobs lost during the recession that began in December 2007.  Unemployment will average 9.6 percent in 2010 and 9.1 percent next year, according to the survey.

*   *   *

“We need a stronger economy, job creation and better consumer confidence,” Richard Dugas, chief executive officer of Pulte Group Inc., said in an Aug. 4 conference call.  “Our industry continues to face incredibly low demand.”

The August 10 press release from the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) began this way:

Information received since the Federal Open Market Committee met in June indicates that the pace of recovery in output and employment has slowed in recent months.  Household spending is increasing gradually, but remains constrained by high unemployment, modest income growth, lower housing wealth, and tight credit.  Business spending on equipment and software is rising; however, investment in nonresidential structures continues to be weak and employers remain reluctant to add to payrolls.  Housing starts remain at a depressed level.  Bank lending has continued to contract.

Steve Goldstein of MarketWatch recently wrote a piece entitled, “The jobless recovery won’t go further without jobs”.   Mr. Goldstein explains that the corporations relying on layoffs to juice their earnings reports are running out of people to sacrifice for their bottom line:

Earnings per share grew 43% for the 450 members of the S&P 500 that have reported second-quarter results, according to FactSet Research data.

So what these productivity figures may be showing is that, as the Great Recession blew into town, companies stretched their employees to the limit.

The data suggest companies won’t be able to job-cut their way to continued profit growth — and, at some point, if companies want to expand, they will need to start offering jobs to the pool of 14.6 million out of work in July.

Business consultant Matthew C. Keegan wrote an essay for the SayEducate website entitled, “Jobless Recovery & Other Illusions”.  He began the piece with this thought:

The economic numbers continue to pour in with very few people believing that they offer a promise of a sustained recovery.  That’s bad news for America, because high unemployment (9.5 percent in July 2010) means that every sector of the economy will remain depressed longer than some imagined it would.

Steve Goldstein’s MarketWatch article raised the possibility that this cloud may have a silver lining:

The productivity report isn’t great news, but at least it shows that the jobless recovery won’t be able to recover much further without employment making a significant contribution.

Another myth bites the dust.





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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.




Too Cute By Half

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April 29, 2010

On April 15, I discussed the disappointing performance of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission (FCIC).  The vapid FCIC hearings have featured softball questions with no follow-up to the self-serving answers provided by the CEOs of those too-big–to-fail financial institutions.

In stark contrast to the FCIC hearings, Tuesday brought us the bipartisan assault on Goldman Sachs by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations.  Goldman’s most memorable representatives from that event were the four men described by Steven Pearlstein of The Washington Post as “The Fab Four”, apparently because the group’s most notorious member, Fabrice “Fabulous Fab” Tourre, has become the central focus of the SEC’s fraud suit against Goldman.   Tourre’s fellow panel members were Daniel Sparks (former partner in charge of the mortgage department), Joshua Birnbaum (former managing director of Structured Products Group trading) and Michael Swenson (current managing director of Structured Products Group trading).  The panel members were obviously over-prepared by their attorneys.  Their obvious efforts at obfuscation turned the hearing into a public relations disaster for Goldman, destined to become a Saturday Night Live sketch.  Although these guys were proud of their evasiveness, most commentators considered them too cute by half.  The viewing public could not have been favorably impressed.  Both The Washington Post’s Steven Pearlstein as well as Tunku Varadarajan of The Daily Beast provided negative critiques of the group’s testimony.  On the other hand, it was a pleasure to see the Senators on the Subcommittee doing their job so well, cross-examining the hell out of those guys and not letting them get away with their rehearsed non-answers.

A frequently-repeated theme from all the Goldman witnesses who testified on Tuesday (including CEO Lloyd Bankfiend and CFO David Viniar) was that Goldman had been acting only as a “market maker” and therefore had no duty to inform its customers that Goldman had short positions on its own products, such as the Abacus-2007AC1 CDO.  This assertion is completely disingenuous.  When Goldman creates a product and sells it to its own customers, its role is not limited to that of  “market-maker”.  The “market-maker defense” was apparently created last summer, when Goldman was defending its “high-frequency trading” (HFT) activities on stock exchanges.  In those situations, Goldman would be paid a small “rebate” (approximately one-half cent per trade) by the exchanges themselves to buy and sell stocks.  The purpose of paying Goldman to make such trades (often selling a stock for the same price they paid for it) was to provide liquidity for the markets.  As a result, retail (Ma and Pa) investors would not have to worry about getting stuck in a “roach motel” – not being able to get out once they got in – after buying a stock.  That type of market-making bears no resemblance to the situations which were the focus of Tuesday’s hearing.

Coincidentally, Goldman’s involvement in high-frequency trading resulted in allegations that the firm was “front-running” its own customers.   It was claimed that when a Goldman customer would send out a limit order, Goldman’s proprietary trading desk would buy the stock first, then resell it to the client at the high limit of the order.  (Of course, Goldman denied front-running its clients.)  The Zero Hedge website focused on the language of the disclaimer Goldman posted on its “GS360” portal.  Zero Hedge found some language in the GS360 disclaimer which could arguably have been exploited to support an argument that the customer consented to Goldman’s front-running of the customer’s orders.

At Tuesday’s hearing, the Goldman witnesses were repeatedly questioned as to what, if any, duty the firm owed its clients who bought synthetic CDOs, such as Abacus.  Alistair Barr of MarketWatch contended that the contradictory answers provided by the witnesses on that issue exposed internal disagreement at Goldman as to what duty the firm owed its customers.  Kurt Brouwer of MarketWatch looked at the problem this way :

This distinction is of fundamental importance to anyone who is a client of a Wall Street firm.  These are often very large and diverse financial services firms that have — wittingly or unwittingly — blurred the distinction between the standard of responsibility a firm has as a broker versus the requirements of an investment advisor.  These firms like to tout their brilliant and objective advisory capabilities in marketing brochures, but when pressed in a hearing, they tend to fall back on the much looser standards required of a brokerage firm, which could be expressed like this:

Well, the firm made money and the traders made money.  Two out of three ain’t bad, right?

The third party referred to indirectly would be the clients who, all too frequently, are left out of the equation.

A more useful approach could involve looking at the language of the brokerage agreements in effect between Goldman and its clients.  How did those contracts define Goldman’s duty to its own customers who purchased the synthetic CDOs that Goldman itself created?  The answer to that question could reveal that Goldman Sachs might have more lawsuits to fear than the one brought by the SEC.



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Unrealistic Expectations

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April 22, 2010

Newsweek’s Daniel Gross is back at it again.  His cover story for Newsweek’s April 9 issue is another attempt to make a preemptive strike at writing history.  You may remember his cover story for the magazine’s July 25 issue, entitled:  “The Recession Is Over”.  During the eight months since the publication of that article, the sober-minded National Bureau of Economic Research, or NBER —  which is charged with making the determination that a recession has ended – has yet to make such a proclamation.

The most recent cover story by Daniel Gross, “The Comeback Country” has drawn plenty of criticism.  (The magazine cover used the headline “America’s Back” to introduce the piece.)  At The Huffington Post, Dan Dorfman discussed the article with Olivier Garret, the CEO of Casey Research, an economic and investment consulting firm.  Garret described the Newsweek cover story as “fantasy journalism” and he shared a number of observations with Dan Dorfman:

“You know when a magazine like Newsweek touts a bullish economic recovery on its cover, just the opposite is likely to be the case,” he says.  “It sees superficial signs of improvement, but it’s ignoring the big picture.”

*   *   *

Meanwhile, Garret sees additional signs of economic anguish.  Among them:  More foreclosures and delinquencies of real estate properties will plague construction spending; banks haven’t yet cleaned up their balance sheets; private debt is no longer going down as it did in 2009; both short and long term rates should be headed higher, and many companies, he says, tell him they’re reluctant to invest and hire.

He also sees some major corporate bankruptcies, worries about the country’s ability to repay its debt, looks for rising cost of capital, which should further slow the economy, and expects a spreading sovereign debt crisis.

*  *  *

Many economists are projecting GDP growth in the range of 3% to 4% in the first quarter and similar growth for the entire year.  Much too optimistic, Garret tells me.  His outlook (which would clobber the stock market if he’s right):  up 0.4%-0.5% in the first quarter after revisions and between 0% and 1% for all of 2010.

“Fantasy economies only work in the mind, not in real life,” he says.

Given his bleak economic outlook, Garret expects a major market adjustment, say about a 10% to 20% decline in stock prices over the next six months.  He figures it could be triggered by one event, such as as an extension of the sovereign debt crisis.

David Cottle of The Wall Street Journal had this reaction to the Newsweek article:

Therefore, when you see a cover such as Newsweek’s recent effort, yelling “America’s Back” in no uncertain terms, it’s quite tempting to stock up on bonds, cash, tinned goods and ammunition.

Now, in fairness to the author, Daniel Goss, he makes the good point that the U.S. economy is growing at a clip that has consistently surprised gloomy forecasters.  It is.  The turnaround we’ve seen since Lehman Brothers imploded has been remarkable, if not entirely satisfying, he says, and he is quite right.  At the very least, U.S. growth is all-too-predictably leaving the European version in the dust.  Goss is also pretty upfront about the corners of the U.S. economy that have so far failed to keep up:  job creation and the housing market being the most obvious.

However, the problem with all these ‘back to normal’ pieces, and Goss’s is only one of many creeping out as the sky resolutely fails to fall in, is that the ‘normal’ they want to go back to was, in reality, anything but.

The financial sector remains unreformed, the global economy remains dangerously unbalanced.  The perilous highways that brought us to 2007 have not been sealed off in favor of straighter, if slower, roads.  Of course it would be great for us all if America were ‘back’ and so we must hope Newsweek’s cover doesn’t join the ranks of those which cruel history renders unintentionally hilarious .

But back where?  That’s the real question.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center has turned to Americans themselves to find out just how “back” America really is.  This report from April 20 didn’t seem to resonate so well with the rosy picture painted by Daniel Gross:

Americans are united in the belief that the economy is in bad shape (92% give it a negative rating), and for many the repercussions are hitting close to home.  Fully 70% of Americans say they have faced one or more job or financial-related problems in the past year, up from 59% in February 2009.  Jobs have become difficult to find in local communities for 85% of Americans.  A majority now says that someone in their household has been without a job or looking for work (54%); just 39% said this in February 2009. Only a quarter reports receiving a pay raise or a better job in the past year (24%), while almost an equal number say they have been laid off or lost a job (21%).

As economic conditions continue to deteriorate for middle-class Americans, the first few months of 2009 are already looking like “the good old days”.   The “comeback” isn’t looking too good.



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