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Hurricane Rick

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Be afraid.  Be very afraid.

In the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, there has been plenty of criticism directed at efforts by the media to amp-up the danger threat during the days before the storm made landfall.  Despite the fact that eleven people were killed by the hurricane, a wide assortment of commentators has seen fit to complain about the “hurricane hype”.  Here is a bit of what Howard Kurtz had to say at The Daily Beast:

But the tsunami of hype on this story was relentless, a Category 5 performance that was driven in large measure by ratings.  Every producer knew that to abandon the coverage even briefly – say, to cover the continued fighting in Libya – was to risk driving viewers elsewhere.  Websites, too, were running dramatic headlines even as it became apparent that the storm wasn’t as powerful as advertised.

The fact that New York, home to the nation’s top news outlets, was directly in the storm’s path clearly fed this story-on-steroids. Does anyone seriously believe the hurricane would have drawn the same level of coverage if it had been bearing down on, say, Ft. Lauderdale?

In fact, here in south Florida, we have become accustomed to the scare-mongering, which runs ahead of any tropical depression appearing west of the Cape Verde Islands.  Our local newscasters have an incentive to overstate the threat:  If they can scare the local politicians into ordering a mandatory evacuation – the story goes national and the networks provide some face time for the local correspondents.  At The Weather Channel, the incessant drumbeat warns:  Keep watching us or die!  I would be more than happy to cooperate if only they would feature Stephanie Abrams as often as they have Jim Cantore or Bryan Norcross on camera.

A similar fear-mongering strategy is becoming apparent in the Presidential campaign.  Before Rick Perry jumped into the race, disgruntled former Obama supporters saw the 2012 campaign as a choice between two nearly-indistinguishable corporatists.  With the ever-increasing likelihood that Rick Perry could become the Republican nominee, those ex-Obama fans are being constantly bombarded with reasons to be afraid  … be very afraid.  Are you going to just sit back and watch when President Perry declares war on Switzerland?

The most-frequently quoted observation about Rick Perry came from Bruce Bartlett, who served as deputy assistant secretary for economic policy at the Treasury Department, in the administration of President George H.W. Bush.  During a recent appearance on CNN’s American Morning, Bartlett remarked:

“Rick Perry is an idiot, and I don’t think anybody would disagree with that.”

At the Huffington Post, the fixation on Rick Perry’s intellectual limitations resulted in the publication of some information from the candidate’s college transcript:

A source in Texas passed The Huffington Post Perry’s transcripts from his years at Texas A&M University.  The future politician did not distinguish himself much in the classroom.  While he later became a student leader, he had to get out of academic probation to do so.  He rarely earned anything above a C in his courses — earning a C in U.S. History, a D in Shakespeare, and a D in the principles of economics.  Perry got a C in gym.

Perry also did poorly on classes within his animal science major. In fall semester 1970, he received a D in veterinary anatomy, a F in a second course on organic chemistry and a C in animal breeding.  He did get an A in world military systems and “Improv. of Learning” — his only two As while at A&M.

Josh Harkinson wrote an article for Mother Jones, recounting some episodes from Perry’s tenure as Governor of Texas.  In addition to discussing the infamous Trans-Texas Corridor fiasco, the essay provided these factoids:

In 2004, whistleblowers repeatedly informed Perry’s office that the Governor’s Texas Youth Commission hires and protects “known child abusers.”   His office ignored the warnings.  Three years later, the story broke that top officials with the TYC had learned of and done nothing to stop widespread child molestation at a juvenile detention facility in West Texas.

*   *   *

Last year, Perry called the BP oil spill an “act of God.”

*   *   *

Perry has accepted $1.2 million from Texas billionaire Harold Simmons, who is building a nuclear waste dump in West Texas over the objections of some of the state’s own environmental regulators.  In January, Texas’ Low-Level Radioactive Waste Disposal Compact Commission opened the door to allowing the dump to accept nuclear waste from around the country.  Six of of the commission’s seven members were appointed by Perry.

The passage from Harkinson’s article, striking fear into the hearts of Democrats, concerns a bit of history, which might repeat itself in the event that progressives should decide to support a third-party candidate:

Perry’s political associates, including top adviser Dave Carney, have been repeatedly accused of helping the Green Party qualify for the ballot in order to siphon votes away from Democratic candidates.

Could something similar happen in November of 2012?  Rick Perry is counting on it — and the media will incessantly remind you of that.

You’ve been warned!


 

Bad Timing By The Dimon Dog At Davos

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Last week’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland turned out to be a bad time for The Dimon Dog to stage a “righteous indignation” fit.  One would expect an investment banker to have a better sense of timing than what was demonstrated by the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  Vito Racanelli provided this report for Barron’s:

The Davos panel, called “The Next Shock, Are We Better Prepared?” proceeded at a typically low emotional decibel level until Dimon was asked about what he thought of Americans who had directed their anger against the banks for the bailout.

Dimon visibly turned more animated, replying that “it’s not fair to lump all banks together.”  The TARP program was forced on some banks, and not all of them needed it, he said.  A number of banks helped stabilize things, noting that his bank bought the failed Bear Stearns.  The idea that all banks would have failed without government intervention isn’t right, he said defensively

Dimon clearly felt aggrieved by the question and the negative banker headlines, and went on for a while.

“I don’t lump all media together… .  There’s good and there’s bad.  There’s irresponsible and ignorant and there’s really smart media.  Well, not all bankers are the same.  I just think this constant refrain [of] ‘bankers, bankers, bankers,’ – it’s just a really unproductive and unfair way of treating people…  People should just stop doing that.”

The immediate response expressed by a number of commentators was to focus on Dimon’s efforts to obstruct financial reform.  Although Dimon had frequently paid lip service to the idea that no single institution should pose a risk to the entire financial system in the event of its own collapse, he did all he could to make sure that the Dodd-Frank “financial reform” bill did nothing to overturn the “too big to fail” doctrine.  Beyond that, the post-crisis elimination of the Financial Accounting Standards Board requirement that a bank’s assets should be “marked to market” values, was the only crutch that kept JPMorgan Chase from falling into the same scrap heap of insolvent banks as the other Federal Reserve welfare queens.

Simon Johnson (former chief economist at the International Monetary Fund) obviously had some fun writing a retort – published in the Economix blog at The New York Times to The Dimon Dog’s diatribe.  Johnson began by addressing the threat voiced by Dimon and Diamond (Robert E. Diamond of Barclay’s Bank):

The newly standard line from big global banks has two components  .  .  .

First, if you regulate us, we’ll move to other countries.  And second, the public policy priority should not be banks but rather the spending cuts needed to get budget deficits under control in the United States, Britain and other industrialized countries.

This rhetoric is misleading at best.  At worst it represents a blatant attempt to shake down the public purse.

*   *   *

As we discussed at length during the Senate hearing, it is therefore not possible to discuss bringing the budget deficit under control in the foreseeable future without measuring and confronting the risks still posed by our financial system.

Neil Barofsky, the special inspector general for the Troubled Assets Relief Program, put it well in his latest quarterly report, which appeared last week: perhaps TARP’s most significant legacy is “the moral hazard and potentially disastrous consequences associated with the continued existence of financial institutions that are ‘too big to fail.’ ”

*   *   *

In this context, the idea that megabanks would move to other countries is simply ludicrous.  These behemoths need a public balance sheet to back them up, or they will not be able to borrow anywhere near their current amounts.

Whatever you think of places like Grand Cayman, the Bahamas or San Marino as offshore financial centers, there is no way that a JPMorgan Chase or a Barclays could consider moving there.  Poorly run casinos with completely messed-up incentives, these megabanks need a deep-pocketed and somewhat dumb sovereign to back them.

After Dimon’s temper tantrum, a pile-on by commentators immediately ensued.  Elinor Comlay and Matthew Goldstein of Reuters wrote an extensive report, documenting Dimon’s lobbying record and debunking a good number of public relations myths concerning Dimon’s stewardship of JPMorgan Chase:

Still, with hindsight it’s clear that Dimon’s approach to risk didn’t help him entirely avoid the financial crisis.  Even as the first rumblings of the crisis were sounding in the distance, he aggressively sought to boost Chase’s share of the U.S. mortgage business.

At the end of 2007, after JPMorgan had taken a $1.3 billion write-down on leveraged loans, Dimon told analysts the bank was planning to add as much as $20 billion in mortgages from riskier borrowers.  “We think we’d get very good spreads and … it will be a drop in the bucket for our capital ratios.”

By mid-2008, JPMorgan Chase had $95.1 billion exposure to home equity loans, almost $15 billion in subprime mortgages and a $76 billion credit card book.  Banks were not required to mark those loans at market prices, but if the loans were accounted for that way, losses could have been as painful for JPMorgan as credit derivatives were for AIG, according to former investment bank executives.

What was particularly bad about The Dimon Dog’s timing of his Davos diatribe concerned the fact that since December 2, 2010 a $6.4 billion lawsuit has been pending against JPMorgan Chase, brought by Irving H. Picard, the bankruptcy trustee responsible for recovering the losses sustained by Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scam victims.  Did Dimon believe that the complaint would remain under seal forever?  On February 3, the complaint was unsealed by agreement of the parties, with the additional stipulation that the identities of several bank employees would remain confidential.  The New York Times provided us with some hints about how these employees were expected to testify:

On June 15, 2007, an evidently high-level risk management officer for Chase’s investment bank sent a lunchtime e-mail to colleagues to report that another bank executive “just told me that there is a well-known cloud over the head of Madoff and that his returns are speculated to be part of a Ponzi scheme.”

Even before that, a top private banking executive had been consistently steering clients away from investments linked to Mr. Madoff because his “Oz-like signals” were “too difficult to ignore.”  And the first Chase risk analyst to look at a Madoff feeder fund, in February 2006, reported to his superiors that its returns did not make sense because it did far better than the securities that were supposedly in its portfolio.

At The Daily Beast, Allan Dodds Frank began his report on the suit with questions that had to be fresh on everyone’s mind in the wake of the scrutiny The Dimon Dog had invited at Davos:

How much did JPMorgan CEO and Chairman Jamie Dimon know about his bank’s valued customer Bernie Madoff, and when did he know it?

These two crucial questions have been lingering below the surface for more than two years, even as the JPMorgan Chase leader cemented his reputation as the nation’s most important, most upright, and most highly regarded banker.

Not everyone at Davos was so impressed with The Dimon Dog.  Count me among those who were especially inspired by the upbraiding Dimon received from French President Nicolas Sarkozy:

“Don’t be accusatory of us,” Sarkozy snapped at Dimon at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

“The world has paid with tens of millions of unemployed, who were in no way to blame and who paid for everything.”

*   *   *
“We saw that for the last 10 years, major institutions in which we thought we could trust had done things which had nothing to do with simple common sense,” the Frenchman said.  “That’s what happened.”

Sarkozy also took direct aim at the bloated bonuses many bankers got despite the damage they did.

“When things don’t work, you can never find anyone responsible,” Sarkozy said.  “Those who got bumper bonuses for seven years should have made losses in 2008 when things collapsed.”

Why don’t we have a President like that?



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Where Obama Went Wrong

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September 27, 2010

One could write an 800-page book on this subject.  During the past week, we’ve been bombarded with explanations from across the political spectrum, concerning how President Obama has gone from wildly-popular cult hero to radioactive force on the 2010 campaign trail.  For many Democrats facing re-election bids in November, the presence of Obama at one of their campaign rallies could be reminiscent of the appearance of William Macy’s character from the movie, The Cooler.  Wikipedia’s discussion of the film provided this definition:

In gambling parlance, a “cooler” is an unlucky individual whose presence at the tables results in a streak of bad luck for the other players.

Barack Obama was elected on a wave of emotion, under the banners of  “Hope” and “Change”.  These days, the emotion consensus has turned against Obama as voters feel more hopeless as a result of Obama’s failure to change anything.  His ardent supporters feel as though they have been duped.  Instead of having been tricked into voting for a “secret Muslim”, they feel they have elected a “secret Republican”.  At the Salon.com website, Glenn Greenwald has documented no less than fifteen examples of Obama’s continuation of the policies of George W. Bush, in breach of his own campaign promises.

One key area of well-deserved outrage against President Obama’s performance concerns the economy.  The disappointment about this issue was widely articulated in December of 2009, as I pointed out here.  At that time, Matt Taibbi had written an essay for Rolling Stone entitled, “Obama’s Big Sellout”, which inspired such commentators as Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns to write this and this.  Beyond the justified criticism, polling by Pew Research has revealed that 46% of Democrats and 50% of Republicans incorrectly believe that the TARP bank bailout was signed into law by Barack Obama rather than George W. Bush.  President Obama invited this confusion with his nomination of “Turbo” Tim Geithner to the position of Treasury Secretary.  As President of the Federal Reserve of New York, Geithner oversaw the $13 billion gift Goldman Sachs received by way of Maiden Lane III.

The emotional battleground of the 2010 elections provided some fun for conservative pundit, Peggy Noonan this week as a result of the highly-publicized moment at the CNBC town hall meeting on September 20.  Velma Hart’s question to the President was emblematic of the plight experienced by many 2008 Obama supporters.  Noonan’s article, “The Enraged vs. The Exhausted” characterized the 2010 elections as a battle between those two emotional factions.  The “Velma Moment” exposed Obama’s political vulnerability as an aloof leader, lacking the ability to emotionally connect with his supporters:

The president looked relieved when she stood.  Perhaps he thought she might lob a sympathetic question that would allow him to hit a reply out of the park.  Instead, and in the nicest possible way, Velma Hart lobbed a hand grenade.

“I’m a mother. I’m a wife.  I’m an American veteran, and I’m one of your middle-class Americans.  And quite frankly I’m exhausted.  I’m exhausted of defending you, defending your administration, defending the mantle of change that I voted for, and deeply disappointed with where we are.”  She said, “The financial recession has taken an enormous toll on my family.”  She said, “My husband and I have joked for years that we thought we were well beyond the hot-dogs-and-beans era of our lives.  But, quite frankly, it is starting to knock on our door and ring true that that might be where we are headed.”

What a testimony.  And this is the president’s base.  He got that look public figures adopt when they know they just took one right in the chops on national TV and cannot show their dismay.  He could have responded with an engagement and conviction equal to the moment.  But this was our president  — calm, detached, even-keeled to the point of insensate.  He offered a recital of his administration’s achievements: tuition assistance, health care.  It seemed so off point.  Like his first two years.

Kirsten Powers of The Daily Beast provided the best analysis of how the “Velma Moment” illustrated Obama’s lack of empathy.  Where Bill Clinton is The Sorcerer, Barack Obama is The Apprentice:

Does Barack Obama suffer from an “empathy deficit?” Ironically, it was Obama who used the phrase in a 2008 speech when he diagnosed the United States as suffering from the disorder.  In a plea for unity, candidate Obama said lack of empathy was “the essential deficit that exists in this country.”  He defined it as “an inability to recognize ourselves in one another; to understand that we are our brother’s keeper; we are our sister’s keeper; that, in the words of Dr. King, we are all tied together in a single garment of destiny.”

*   *   *

And at a 2008 rally in Westerville, Ohio, Obama said, “One of the values that I think men in particular have to pass on is the value of empathy.  Not sympathy, empathy.  And what that means is standing in somebody else’s shoes, being able to look through their eyes.  You know, sometimes we get so caught up in ‘us’ that it’s hard to see that there are other people and that your behavior has an impact on them.”

Yes, President Obama, sometimes that does happen.  Take a look in the mirror.  Nothing brought this problem into relief like the two Obama supporters who confronted the president at a recent town hall meeting expressing total despair over their economic situation and hopelessness about the future.  Rather than expressing empathy, Obama seemed annoyed and proceeded with one of his unhelpful lectures.

*   *   *

One former Emoter-in-Chief, Bill Clinton, told Politico last week, “[Obama’s] being criticized for being too disengaged, for not caring.  So he needs to turn into it.  I may be one of the few people that think it’s not bad that that lady said she was getting tired of defending him.  He needs to hear it.  You need to hear. Embrace people’s anger, including their disappointment at you.  And just ask ‘em to not let the anger cloud their judgment.  Let it concentrate their judgment.  And then make your case.”

Then the kicker:  “[Obama has] got to realize that, in the end, it’s not about him. It’s about the American people, and they’re hurting.”

The American people are hurting because their President sold them out immediately after he was elected.  When faced with the choice of bailing out the zombie banks or putting those banks through temporary receivership (the “Swedish approach” – wherein the bank shareholders and bondholders would take financial “haircuts”) Obama chose to bail out the banks at taxpayer expense.  So here we are  . . .  in a Japanese-style “lost decade”.  In case you don’t remember the debate from early 2009 – peruse this February 10, 2009 posting from the Calculated Risk website.  After reading that, try not to cry after looking at this recent piece by Barry Ritholtz of The Big Picture entitled, “We Should Have Gone Swedish  . . .” :

The result of the Swedish method?  They spent 4% of GDP ($18.3 billion in today’s dollars), to rescue their banks.  That is far less than the $trillions we have spent — somewhere between 15-20% of GDP.

Final cost to the Swedes?  Less than 2% of G.D.P.  (Some officials believe it was closer to zero, depending on how certain rates of return are calculated).

In the US, the final tally is years away from being calculated — and its likely to be many times what Sweden paid in GDP % terms.

It has become apparent that the story of  “Where Obama Went Wrong” began during the first month of his Presidency.  Whoever undertakes the task of writing that book will be busy for a long time.




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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More Good Stuff From David Stockman

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August 2, 2010

The people described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks” have their hands full.  Just as some Democrats, concerned about getting campaign contributions from rich people, were joining the ranks of the deficit chicken hawks to support extension of the Bush tax cuts, people from across the political spectrum spoke out against the idea.  As I pointed out on July 19, President Reagan’s former director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) – David Stockman – spoke out against extending the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy, during an interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast:

The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them  …

The infamous former Federal Reserve chairman, Alan Greenspan, had already spoken out against the Bush tax cuts on July 16, during an interview with Judy Woodruff on Bloomberg Television.  In response to Ms. Woodruff’s question as to whether the Bush tax cuts should be extended, Greenspan replied:  “I should say they should follow the law and let them lapse.”

When Alan Greenspan appeared on the August 1 broadcast of NBC’s Meet The Press, David Gregory directed Greenspan’s attention back to the interview with Judy Woodruff, and asked Mr. Greenspan if he felt that all of the Bush tax cuts should be allowed to lapse.  Here is Greenspan’s reply and the follow-up:

MR.GREENSPAN:  Look, I’m very much in favor of tax cuts, but not with borrowed money.  And the problem that we’ve gotten into in recent years is spending programs with borrowed money, tax cuts with borrowed money, and at the end of the day, that proves disastrous.  And my view is I don’t think we can play subtle policy here on it.

MR. GREGORY:  You don’t agree with Republican leaders who say tax cuts pay for themselves?

MR. GREENSPAN:  They do not.

The drumbeat to extend the Bush tax cuts has been ongoing.  Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, claimed on July 23, that those tax cuts would be one way of providing stimulus for the economy – provided that such a move were to be offset “with increased revenue or lower spending.”  Increased revenue?  Does that mean that people – other than those earning in excess of $250,000 per year – should make up the difference by paying higher taxes?

On July 31, David Stockman came back with a huge dose of common sense, in the form of an op-ed piece for The New York Times entitled, “Four Deformations of the Apocalypse”.  It began with this statement:

IF there were such a thing as Chapter 11 for politicians, the Republican push to extend the unaffordable Bush tax cuts would amount to a bankruptcy filing.  The nation’s public debt — if honestly reckoned to include municipal bonds and the $7 trillion of new deficits baked into the cake through 2015 — will soon reach $18 trillion.  That’s a Greece-scale 120 percent of gross domestic product, and fairly screams out for austerity and sacrifice.  It is therefore unseemly for the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell, to insist that the nation’s wealthiest taxpayers be spared even a three-percentage-point rate increase.

The article included a boxcar full of great thoughts – among them was Stockman’s criticism of the latest incarnation of voodoo economics:

Republicans used to believe that prosperity depended upon the regular balancing of accounts — in government, in international trade, on the ledgers of central banks and in the financial affairs of private households and businesses, too.  But the new catechism, as practiced by Republican policymakers for decades now, has amounted to little more than money printing and deficit finance — vulgar Keynesianism robed in the ideological vestments of the prosperous classes.

Mr. Stockman took care to lay blame at the foot of the man he described in the Lloyd Grove interview as an “evil genius” – Milton Friedman – who convinced President Nixon in 1971 to “to unleash on the world paper dollars no longer redeemable in gold or other fixed monetary reserves.”

Despite the fact that tax cuts are considered by many as the ultimate panacea for all of America’s economic problems, David Stockman set the record straight about how the religion of taxcut-ology began:

Through the 1984 election, the old guard earnestly tried to control the deficit, rolling back about 40 percent of the original Reagan tax cuts.  But when, in the following years, the Federal Reserve chairman, Paul Volcker, finally crushed inflation, enabling a solid economic rebound, the new tax-cutters not only claimed victory for their supply-side strategy but hooked Republicans for good on the delusion that the economy will outgrow the deficit if plied with enough tax cuts.

By fiscal year 2009, the tax-cutters had reduced federal revenues to 15 percent of gross domestic product, lower than they had been since the 1940s.

Stockman’s discussion of “the vast, unproductive expansion of our financial culture” is probably just a teaser for his upcoming book on the financial crisis:

But the trillion-dollar conglomerates that inhabit this new financial world are not free enterprises.  They are rather wards of the state, extracting billions from the economy with a lot of pointless speculation in stocks, bonds, commodities and derivatives.  They could never have survived, much less thrived, if their deposits had not been governmentguaranteed and if they hadn’t been able to obtain virtually free money from the Fed’s discount window to cover their bad bets.

On the day following the publication of Stockman’s essay, Sarah Palin appeared on Fox News Sunday – prepared with notes again written on the palm of her hand – to argue in support of extending the Bush tax cuts.  Although her argument was directed against the Obama administration, I was fixated on the idea of a debate on the subject between Palin and her fellow Republican, David Stockman.  Some of those Republicans vying for their party’s 2012 Presidential nomination were probably thinking about the same thing.




The End

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July 29, 2010

The long-awaited economic recovery seems to be coming to a premature end.  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.  These hopes have been buoyed by the widespread corporate tactic of cost-cutting (usually by mass layoffs) to gin-up the bottom line in time for earnings reports.  This helps inflate stock prices and produce the illusion that the broader economy is experiencing a sustained recovery.  The “jobless recovery” advocates ignore the extent to which the American economy is consumer-driven.  If those consumers don’t have jobs, they aren’t going to be spending money.

Although many observers seem to take comfort in the assumption that the jobless rate is below ten percent, many are beginning to question the validity of the statistics to that effect provided by the Department of Labor.  AOL’s Daily Finance website provided this commentary on the June, 2010 unemployment survey conducted by Raghavan Mayur, president of TechnoMetrica Market Intelligence:

The June poll turned up 27.8% of households with at least one member who’s unemployed and looking for a job, while the latest poll conducted in the second week of July showed 28.6% in that situation.  That translates to an unemployment rate of over 22%, says Mayur, who has started questioning the accuracy of the Labor Department’s jobless numbers.

*   *   *

In fact, Austan Goolsbee, who is now part of the White House Council of Economic Advisers, wrote in a 2003 New York Times piece titled “The Unemployment Myth,” that the government had “cooked the books” by not correctly counting all the people it should, thereby keeping the unemployment rate artificially low.  At the time, Goolsbee was a professor at the University of Chicago.  When asked whether Goolsbee still believes the government undercounts unemployment, a White House spokeswoman said Goolsbee wasn’t available to comment.

Such undercounting of unemployment can be an enormously dangerous exercise today.  It could lead  some lawmakers to underestimate the gravity of the labor market’s problems and base their policymaking on a far-less-grim picture than actually exists.  Economically, and socially, that would make a bad situation much worse for America.

“The implications of such undercounting is that policymakers aren’t going to be thinking as big as they should be,” says Ginsburg, also a professor emeritus of economics at Brooklyn College.  “It also means that [consumer] demand is not going to be there, because the income from people who are employed isn’t going to be there.”

Frank Aquila of Sullivan & Cromwell recently wrote an article for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, discussing the possibility that we could be headed into the second leg of a “double-dip” recession:

The sputtering economy and talk of a possible second recession have certainly rattled an already fragile American consumer.  Consumer confidence is now at its lowest level in a year, and consumer spending tumbled in May and June.  Since consumer spending accounts for more than two-thirds of  U.S. economic growth, a nervous consumer is not a good omen for a robust recovery.

Job creation is a key factor in increasing consumer confidence.  While economists estimate that we need economic growth of 4 percent or more to stimulate significant job creation, the economy has grown at only about 2 percent to 3 percent, with a slowdown expected in the second half.

*   *   *

With governments struggling under the weight of ballooning budget deficits and businesses waiting for the return of sustained growth, it is the American consumer who will have to lift the global economy out of the mire.  Given the recent news and current consumer sentiment, that appears to be an unlikely prospect in the near term.

The same government that found it necessary to provide corporate welfare to those “too big to fail” financial institutions has now become infested with creatures described by Barry Ritholtz as “deficit chicken hawks”.  The deficit chicken hawks are now preaching the gospel of “austerity” as an excuse for roadblocking any further efforts to use any form of stimulus to end the economic crisis.  One of the gurus of the deficit chicken hawks is economic historian Niall Ferguson.  Because Ferguson is just an economic historian, a real economist – Brad DeLong — had no trouble exposing the hypocrisy exhibited by the Iraq war cheerleader, while revisiting an article Ferguson had written for The New York Times, back in 2003.  Matthew Yglesias had even more fun compiling and publishing a Ferguson (2003) vs. Ferguson (2010) debate.

At The Daily Beast, Sir Harry Evans emphasized how the sudden emphasis on “austerity” is worse than hypocrisy:

As for the banks, one of the obscenities of our time is that so many in the financial community who owe their survival to the massive taxpayer bailouts, not only rewarded themselves with absurd bonuses, but now have the gall to sport the plumage of deficit hawks.  The unemployed?  Let them eat cake, the day after tomorrow.

Gerald Celente, publisher of The Trends Journal, wrote a great essay for The Daily Reckoning website entitled, “Let Them Eat Losses”.  He pointed out how the kleptocracy violated and destroyed the “very essence of functioning capitalism”.  Worse yet, our government betrayed us by forcing the taxpayers “to finance the failed financiers”:

No individual, business, institution, nation or empire is too-big-to-fail.  Had true capitalism been allowed to function unimpeded, the bloated, over-extended, inefficient and gluttonous firms and industries would have failed.  There would have been hardships and losses but, finally rid of its financial tapeworms, the purged system could be restored to health.

No “ism” or “ology” — regardless of purity of intent or moral foundation — is immune to corruption and abuse.  While capitalism itself is being blamed for the excesses that brought on financial chaos, prior to the most recent gambling binge, in tandem with the blanket dismantling of safeguards and the overt takeover of Washington by Wall Street, capitalism was responsible for creating one of the world’s most successful and universally admired societies.

As I discussed on July 8, because President Obama lacked the political courage to advance an effective economic stimulus package last year, the effects of his “semi-stimulus” have now abated and we are headed into another recession.  Reuters reported on July 27 that Robert Shiller, professor of economics at Yale University and co-developer of Standard and Poor’s S&P/Case-Shiller Index, gave us this unsettling macroeconomic prognostication:

“For me a double-dip is another recession before we’ve healed from this recession … The probability of that kind of double-dip is more than 50 percent,” Shiller said.

“I actually expect it.”

During the last few months of 2009, did you ever think that someday you would be looking back at that time as “the good old days”?




Ignoring David Stockman

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July 19, 2010

With mid-term elections approaching, politicians are fearful of making any decisions or statements that may offend their wealthy contributors.  Accordingly, the prospect of allowing the Bush tax cuts to expire has become a source of outrage among Republicans.  In fact, many Democrats are afraid to touch this subject as their number of wealthy benefactors continues to shrink.

On July 11, Chris Wallace posed this question to Arizona Senator John Kyl on Fox News Sunday:

Senator, let me just break in, because I want to pick up on exactly the point that you just brought up, particularly, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.  That is part of the big Republican growth agenda, let’s keep, not let expire, the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy.

The fact is those would cost $678 billion over 10 years.  At a time Republicans are saying that they can’t extend unemployment benefits unless you pay for them, tell me, how are you going to pay that $678 billion to keep those Bush tax cuts for the wealthy?

Kyl responded with:  “Chris, that is a loaded question.”  Kyl continued to dodge the question, despite persistent follow-up from Wallace.  The Senator eventually escaped with this curious response:  “. . . you should never raise taxes in order to cut taxes.”  The apparent logic behind this statement was that you should never raise taxes on the wealthy in order to cut taxes for the middle class.

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell stepped up to reassure his party’s wealthy contributors that there would be a fight to keep those tax cuts in place – even if some of their old heroes thought the cuts were a bad idea.  Daniel Enoch of Bloomberg Businessweek put it this way:

U.S. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell spoke out against former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan’s call to let tax cuts that were passed during the administration of President George W. Bush expire.

One would expect that since Ronald Reagan has become a patron saint of the Republican Party, the opinions of Reagan’s former budget director, David Stockman, might influence current opinion within the GOP.  Nevertheless, in a recent interview with Lloyd Grove of The Daily Beast, Stockman stepped on what has become a “third rail” for Republicans:

Stockman, a nominal tax-cutting supply-sider when he worked for Reagan, has been crusading in recent weeks for President Obama to let George W. Bush’s tax cuts expire — something that will happen automatically absent congressional intervention.

“The only thing Obama needs to do is say, ‘Gentlemen and Ladies of the Congress, don’t send me a tax bill because I don’t want one,’ ” Stockman tells me.  “He can take the political hit.  That’s his job.  That’s change you can believe in.  That would put $300 billion back into the coffers, beginning in 2011 and 2012, and it would erase one of the biggest policy blunders in history.  The Bush tax cuts never should’ve been passed because, one, we couldn’t afford them, and second, we didn’t earn them…  The lower half of American families don’t pay income tax, and they’re the people who ought to be given a break here.  By allowing these tax cuts to expire, you’re putting the burden on the top half of the income earners.  What is more fair than that?  So why does Obama want to extend, as apparently the White House has been saying, the tax cuts for $150,000-a-year families?  So the wife can buy her 19th Coach bag?”

Of course, we all know the answer to that question.   It’s because Obama is every bit as motivated as his adversaries to tailor his own policies toward generating campaign contributions.




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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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Plagiarism 101

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February 15, 2010

There has been plenty of excitement recently concerning the resignation of Gerald Posner from The Daily Beast as a result of a plagiarism scandal.  Here’s how Posner described it in his own words:

Last Friday, Jack Shafer in Slate ran an article pinpointing five sentences from one of my stories in The Daily Beast, which I admitted met the definition of plagiarism and I accepted full responsibility for that error, an incident I called “accidental plagiarism.”  On Monday, he had found other examples, and although I disagreed with some of his characterizations, I again accepted full accountability.

When The Daily Beast had asked me last Friday if there were any more problems than the five original sentences highlighted by Shafer, I had confidently told them, “No.”  It was not because I had subjected my own articles to so-called plagiarism software, or because I was in denial about any deliberate plagiarism.

*   *   *

This afternoon I received a call from Edward Felsenthal, the excellent managing editor of The Daily Beast.  He informed me that as part of the Beast’s internal investigation, they had uncovered more instances in earlier articles of mine in which there the same problems of apparent plagiarism as the ones originally brought to life last Friday by Shafer.  I instantly offered my resignation and Edward accepted.

This event created quite a stir in the blogosphere, where plagiarism is commonplace.  Although most bloggers follow the “fair use” standard, which allows for quoting a limited portion of published material only when identifying the original publisher of that material (attribution), a good number of bloggers are more than sloppy about it.  In the case of the Associated Press, they don’t want you quoting anything.  This is due to the nature of their business model.  There is no single publication called “The Associated Press” nor is there any single Associated Press website that runs all of its stories.  The AP makes its money by selling its stories to media outlets for republication under an AP byline.  I recently adopted a policy of simply pointing out that “Jane Doe did a story for the Associated Press concerning XYZ” with a link to the story.

Gerald Posner admitted that Jack Shafer of Slate exposed what Posner described as “accidental plagiarism”.   On February 11, Shafer responded by presenting an argument that Posner is a “serial plagiarist”.  Shafer went on to explain how plagiarism not only causes harm to the author of the poached writing — it also causes harm to the readers:

In an essay published by Media Ethics (fall 2006), Edward Wasserman attacks the wrong of plagiarism at its roots.  Most everybody concedes that plagiarism harms plagiarized writers by denying them due credit for original work.  But Wasserman delineates the harm done to readers.  By concealing the true source of information, plagiarists deny “the public insight into how key facts come to light” and undermines the efforts of other journalists and readers to assess the truth value of the (embezzled) journalistic accounts.  In Wasserman’s view, plagiarism violates the very “truth-seeking and truth-telling” mission of journalism.

From The Atlantic Wire website, John Hudson implied that Jack Shafer didn’t have any particular vendetta against Posner; Shafer was simply sticking to his mission of exposing lapses in media ethics:

Shafer has made a habit of pushing journalists to be more accurate and responsible from his post at Slate’s Press Box, a column devoted to media criticism.  Voices like his are increasingly crucial as journalistic mores shift, with Shafer both demonstrating and explaining how Web writing can work.

Nothing beats a good scandal — but when the scandal involves a scandal-breaker, there seems to be a bit of karma happening.

At the ScienceBlogs website, Razib Kahn characterized the Posner situation as more a problem of being pathologically dumb than being a pathological plagiarist:

The Ben Domenech case actually shows that yes, internet-age plagiarists can be pathologically dumb.  There are plenty of cases of small-time plagiarists; my friend Randall Parker of FuturePundit was pointed to another blogger who was copying his posts almost verbatim.  Small potatoes.  But if you’re a professional journalist, you’re going to get caught if you have any prominence if people can compare the text on the internet.

I think catching people plagiarizing like this is a good sign that there are some mental peculiarities at work here; cognitive biases if you will.  This isn’t cheating on college papers, unethical as it is, this is being unethical for short-term gains when there’s a very high probability that you’ll be caught and humiliated in public in the long-term.

Being called unethical is something that Posner had probably been expecting — but being called dumb has to really hurt!




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Taking The Suckers For Granted

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January 21. 2010

In the aftermath of Coakley Dokeley’s failed quest to replace Teddy Kennedy as Senator of Massachusetts, the airwaves and the blogosphere have been filled with an assortment of explanations for how and why the Bay State elected a Republican senator for the first time in 38 years.  I saw the reason as a simple formula:  One candidate made 66 campaign appearances while the other made 19.  The rationale behind the candidate’s lack of effort was simple:  she took the voters for granted.  This was the wrong moment to be taking the voters for chumps.  At a time when Democrats were vested with a “supermajority” in the Senate, an overwhelming majority in the House and with control over the Executive branch, they overtly sold out the interests of their constituents in favor of payoffs from lobbyists.  Obama’s centerpiece legislative effort, the healthcare bill, turned out to be another “crap sandwich” of loopholes, exceptions, escape clauses and an effective date after the Mayan-prophesized end of the world.  Obama’s giveaway to Big Pharma was outdone by Congressional giveaways to the healthcare lobby.

The Democrats’ efforts to bring about financial reform are now widely viewed as just another opportunity to rake in money and favors from lobbyists, leaving the suckers who voted for them to suffer worse than before.  Coakley Dokeley made the same mistake that Obama and most politicians of all stripes are making right now:  They’re taking the suckers for granted.  That narrative seems to be another important reason why the Massachusetts senatorial election has become such a big deal.  There is a lesson to be learned by the politicians, who are likely to ignore it.

Paul Farrell recently wrote an open letter to President Obama for MarketWatch, entitled:  “10 reasons Obama is now failing 95 million investors”.  In his discussion of reason number five, “Failing to pick a cast of characters that could have changed history”, Farrell made this point:

Last year many voted for you fearing McCain might pick Phil Gramm as Treasury secretary.  Unfortunately, Mr. President, your picks not only revived Reaganomics under the guise of Keynesian economics, you sidelined a real change-agent, Paul Volcker, and picked Paulson-clones like Geithner and Summers.  But worst of all, you’re reappointing Bernanke, a Greenspan clone, as Fed chairman, an economist who, as Taleb put it, “doesn’t even know he doesn’t understand how things work.”  And with that pick, you proved you also don’t understand how things work.

Another former Obama supporter, Mort Zuckerman, editor-in-chief of U.S. News and World Report and publisher of the New York Daily News, wrote a piece for The Daily Beast, examining Obama’s leadership shortcomings:

In the campaign, he said he would change politics as usual.  He did change them.  It’s now worse than it was.  I’ve now seen the kind of buying off of politicians that I’ve never seen before.  It’s politically corrupt and it’s starting at the top.  It’s revolting.

*   *   *

I hope there are changes.  I think he’s already laid in huge problems for the country.  The fiscal program was a disaster.  You have to get the money as quickly as possible into the economy.  They didn’t do that.  By end of the first year, only one-third of the money was spent.  Why is that?

He should have jammed a stimulus plan into Congress and said, “This is it.  No changes.  Don’t give me that bullshit.  We have a national emergency.”  Instead they turned it over to Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who can run circles around him.

As for the Democrats’ pre-sabotaged excuse for “financial reform”, the fate of the Consumer Financial Protection Agency is now in the hands of “Countrywide Chris” Dodd, who is being forced into retirement because the people of Connecticut are fed up with him.  As a result, this is his last chance to get some more “perks” from his position as Senate Banking Committee chairman.  Elizabeth Warren, the person likely to be appointed to head the CFPA, explained to Reuters that banking lobbyists might succeed in “gutting” the proposed agency:

“The CFPA is the best indicator of whether Congress will reform Wall Street or whether it will continue to give Wall Street whatever it wants,” she told Reuters in an interview.

*   *   *

Consumer protection is relatively simple and could easily be fixed, she said.  The statutes, for the most part, already exist, but enforcement is in the hands of the wrong people, such as the Federal Reserve, which does not consider it central to its main task of maintaining economic stability, she said.

Setting up the CFPA is largely a matter of stripping the Fed and other agencies of their consumer protection duties and relocating them into a new agency.

With all the coverage and expressed anticipation that the Massachusetts election will serve as a “wake-up call” to Obama and Congressional Democrats, not all of us are so convinced.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns put it this way:

But, I don’t think the President gets it.  He is holed up in the echo chamber called the White House.  If the catastrophic loss in Massachusetts’ Senate race and the likely defeat of his health care reform bill doesn’t wake Obama up to the realities that he is not in Roosevelt’s position but in Hoover’s, he will end as a failed one-term President.

I agree.  I also believe that the hubris will continue.  Why would any of these politicians change their behavior?  The “little people” never did matter.  They exist solely to be played as fools.  They are powerless against the plutocracy.  Right?




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