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Occupy Movement Gets Some Respect

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Much has changed since the inception of the Occupy Wall Street movement.   When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  The participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.  Obviously, some of this prattle continues to emanate from unimaginative bloviators.  Nevertheless, it didn’t take long for respectable news sources to give serious consideration to the OWS effort.

One month after the occupation of Zuccotti Park began, The Economist explained why the movement had so much appeal to a broad spectrum of the population:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

Reports eventually began to surface, revealing that many “Wall Street insiders” actually supported the occupiers.  Writing for the DealBook blog at The New York Times, Jesse Eisinger provided us with the laments of a few Wall Street insiders, whose attitudes have been aligned with those of the OWS movement.

By late December, it became obvious that the counter-insurgency effort had expanded.   At The eXiled blog, Yasha Levine discussed the targeting of journalists by police, hell-bent on squelching coverage of the Occupy movement.  In January, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg lashed out against the OWS protesters by parroting what has become The Big Lie of our time.  In response to a question about Occupy Wall Street, Mayor Bloomberg said this:

“It was not the banks that created the mortgage crisis.  It was, plain and simple, Congress who forced everybody to go and give mortgages to people who were on the cusp.”

The counterpunch to Mayor Bloomberg’s remark was swift and effective.  Barry Ritholtz wrote a piece for The Washington Post entitled “What caused the financial crisis?  The Big Lie goes viral”.  After The Washington Post published the Ritholtz piece, a good deal of supportive commentary emerged – as observed by Ritholtz himself:

Since then, both Bloomberg.com and Reuters each have picked up the Big Lie theme. (Columbia Journalism Review as well).  In today’s NYT, Joe Nocera does too, once again calling out those who are pushing the false narrative for political or ideological reasons in a column simply called “The Big Lie“.

Once the new year began, the Occupy Oakland situation quickly deteriorated.  Chris Hedges of Truthdig took a hard look at the faction responsible for the “feral” behavior, raising the question of whether provocateurs could have been inciting the ugly antics:

The presence of Black Bloc anarchists – so named because they dress in black, obscure their faces, move as a unified mass, seek physical confrontations with police and destroy property – is a gift from heaven to the security and surveillance state.

Chris Hedges gave further consideration to the involvement of provocateurs in the Black Bloc faction on February 13:

Occupy’s most powerful asset is that it articulates this truth.  And this truth is understood by the mainstream, the 99 percent.  If the movement is severed from the mainstream, which I expect is the primary goal of the Department of Homeland Security and the FBI, it will be crippled and easily contained.  Other, more militant groups may rise and even flourish, but if the Occupy movement is to retain the majority it will have to fight within self-imposed limitations of nonviolence.

Despite the negative publicity generated by the puerile pranks of the Black Bloc, the Occupy movement turned a corner on February 13, when Occupy the SEC released its 325-page comment letter concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s draft “Volcker Rule”.  (The Volcker Rule contains the provisions in the Dodd-Frank financial reform act which restrict the ability of banks to make risky bets with their own money).  Occupy the SEC took advantage of the “open comment period” which is notoriously exploited by lobbyists and industry groups whenever an administrative agency introduces a new rule.  The K Street payola artists usually see this as their last chance to “un-write” regulations.

The most enthusiastic response to Occupy the SEC’s comment letter came from Felix Salmon of Reuters:

Occupy the SEC is the wonky finreg arm of Occupy Wall Street, and its main authors are worth naming and celebrating:  Akshat Tewary, Alexis Goldstein, Corley Miller, George Bailey, Caitlin Kline, Elizabeth Friedrich, and Eric Taylor.  If you can’t read the whole thing, at least read the introductory comments, on pages 3-6, both for their substance and for the panache of their delivery.  A taster:

During the legislative process, the Volcker Rule was woefully enfeebled by the addition of numerous loopholes and exceptions.  The banking lobby exerted inordinate influence on Congress and succeeded in diluting the statute, despite the catastrophic failures that bank policies have produced and continue to produce…

The Proposed Rule also evinces a remarkable solicitude for the interests of banking corporations over those of investors, consumers, taxpayers and other human beings. 

*   *   *

There’s lots more where that comes from, including the indelible vision of how “the Volcker Rule simply removes the government’s all-too-visible hand from underneath the pampered haunches of banking conglomerates”.  But the real substance is in the following hundreds of pages, where the authors go through the Volcker Rule line by line, explaining where it’s useless and where it can and should be improved.

John Knefel of Salon emphasized how this comment letter exploded the myth that the Occupy movement is simply a group of cynical hippies:

The working group’s detailed policy position gives lie to the common claim that the Occupy Wall Street movement is “well intentioned but misinformed.”  It shows there’s room in the movement both for policy wonks and those chanting “anti-capitalista.”

Even Mayor Bloomberg’s BusinessWeek spoke highly of Occupy the SEC’s efforts.  Karen Weise interviewed Occupy’s Alexis Goldstein, who had previously worked at such Wall Street institutions as Deutsche Bank, where she built IT systems for traders:

Like Goldstein, several members have experience in finance.  Kline says she used to be a derivatives trader.  Tewary is a lawyer who worked on securitization cases at the firm Kaye Scholer, according to his bio on the website of his current firm, Kamlesh Tewary.  Mother Jones, which reported on the group in December, says O’Neil is a former Wall Street quant.

There are parts of the rule that Occupy the SEC would like to see toughened.  For example, Goldstein sees a “big loophole” in the proposed rule that allows banks to make proprietary trades using so-called repurchase agreements, by which one party sells securities to another with the promise to buy back the securities later.  The group wants to make sure other parts aren’t eroded.

Chris Sturr of Dollars & Sense provided this reaction:

From the perspective of someone who’s spent a lot of time in working groups of Occupy Boston, what I love about this story is that it’s early evidence of what Occupy can and will do, beyond “changing the discourse,” which is the best that sympathetic people who haven’t been involved seem to be able to say about Occupy, or just going away and dying off, which is what non-sympathizers think has happened to Occupy.  Many of us have been quietly working away over the winter, and the results will start to be seen in the coming months.

If Chris Sturr’s expectation ultimately proves correct, it will be nice to watch the pro-Wall Street, teevee pundits get challenged by some worthy opponents.


 

Thinking Clearly During An Election Year

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The non-stop bombardment of inane, partisan yammering which assaults us during an election year, makes it even more refreshing when a level-headed, clear thinker catches our attention.  One popular subject of debate during the current election cycle has been the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (the 2009 stimulus bill).  In stark contrast with the propaganda you have been hearing about the 2009 stimulus (from both political parties), a new book by Mike Grabell of ProPublica entitled, Money Well Spent? brought us a rare, objective analysis of what the stimulus did – and did not – accomplish.

Matt Steinglass of The Economist recently wrote a great essay on the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate, which included a discussion of Mike Grabell’s new book:

The debate we had about the stimulus probably should have been a lot like the book Mr Grabell has written:  a detailed investigation of what does and doesn’t work in stimulus spending and whether the government really can jump-start a promising industry through investments, tax breaks and industrial policy.  But that wasn’t the debate we had.  Instead we had a debate about the very concept of whether the government ought to spend money counter-cyclically during a recession in order to keep the economy from collapsing, or whether it should tighten its belt along with consumers and businesses in order to generate confidence in the financial markets and allow markets to clear.  We had a debate about whether governments should respond to recessions with deficit spending or austerity.

The ProPublica website gave us a peek at Mike Grabell’s book by publishing a passage concerning how the stimulus helped America maintain its status as a competitor in the electric car industry.  Nevertheless, America’s failure to support the new technology with the same zeal as its Asian competitors could push domestic manufacturers completely out of the market:

A report by congressional researchers last year concluded that the cost of batteries, anxiety over mileage range and more efficient internal combustion engines could make it difficult to achieve Obama’s goal of a million electric vehicles by 2015.  Even many in the industry say the target is unreachable.

While the $2.4 billion in stimulus money has increased battery manufacturing, the congressional report noted that United States might not be able to keep up in the long run.  South Korea and China have announced plans to invest more than five times that amount over the next decade.

As Matt Steinglass concluded in his essay for The Economist, current economic circumstances (as well as the changed opinions of economists John Cochrane and Niall Ferguson) indicate that the proponents of economic stimulus have won the “stimulus vs. austerity” debate:

The 2010 elections took place at a moment when people seemed to have lost faith in Keynesianism.  The 2012 elections are taking place at a moment when people have lost faith in expansionary austerity.

Although the oil industry has done a successful job of convincing the public that jobs will be lost if the Keystone Pipeline is not approved, big oil has done a better job of distracting the public from understanding how many jobs will be lost if America fails to earn a niche in the electric vehicle market.

The politicization of the debate over how to address the ongoing unemployment crisis was the subject of a February 2 Washington Post commentary by Mohamed El-Erian (co-CEO of PIMCO).  El-Erian lamented that – despite the slight progress achieved in reducing unemployment – the situation remains at a crisis level, demanding immediate efforts toward resolution:

The longer that corrective measures are delayed, the harder the task at hand will be and the greater the eventual costs to society.

*   *   *

In fact, our current unemployment crisis is a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations.

Mr. El-Erian noted that there is a faction – among the opposing forces in the debate over how to address unemployment – seeking a “killer app” which would effectuate dramatic and immediate progress.  He explained why those people aren’t being realistic:

There is no killer app.  Instead, Congress and the administration need to move simultaneously on three fronts that incorporate multiple measures:  those that address the immediate impediments to job creation, including a better mix of demand stimulus and medium-term fiscal reform involving both federal spending and revenue, as well as stronger remedies for housing and housing finance; those that deal with the longer-term enablers of productive employment, such as education, retraining and retooling; and those that strengthen the social safety nets to appropriately protect citizens in the interim.

Have no doubt, this is a complex, multiyear effort that involves several government agencies acting in a delicate, coordinated effort.  It will not happen unless our political leaders come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge. And sustained implementation will not be possible nor effective without much clearer personal accountability.

One would think that, given all this, it has become more than paramount for Washington to elevate – not just in rhetoric but, critically, through sustained actions – the urgency of today’s unemployment crisis to the same level that it placed the financial crisis three years ago.  But watching the actions in the nation’s capital, I and many others are worried that our politicians will wait at least until the November elections before dealing more seriously with the unemployment crisis.

In other words, while the election year lunacy continues, the unemployment crisis continues to act as “a force for broad and disruptive economic, political and social dislocations”.  Worse yet, the expectation that our political leaders could “come together to address what constitutes America’s biggest national challenge” seems nearly as unrealistic as waiting for that “killer app”.  This is yet another reason why Peter Schweizer’s cause – as expressed in his book, Throw Them All Out, should be on everyone’s front burner during the 2012 election year.


Trouble Ahead

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I find it very amusing that we are being bombarded with so many absurd election year “talking points” and none of them concern the risk of a 2012 economic recession.  The entire world seems in denial about a global problem which is about to hit everyone over the head.  I’m reminded of the odd brainstorming session in September of 2008, when Presidential candidates Obama and McCain were seated at the same table with a number of econ-honchos, all of whom were scratching their heads in confusion about the financial crisis.  Something similar is about to happen again.  You might expect our leaders to be smart enough to avoid being blindsided by an adverse economic situation – again – but this is not a perfect world.  It’s not even a mediocre world.

After two rounds of quantitative easing, the Kool-Aid drinkers are sipping away, in anticipation of the “2012 bull market”.  Even the usually-bearish Doug Kass recently enumerated ten reasons why he expects the stock market to rally “in the near term”.  I was more impressed by the reaction posted by a commenter – identified as “Skateman” at the Pragmatic Capitalism blog.  Kass’ reason #4 is particularly questionable:

Mispaced preoccupation with Europe:  The European situation has improved.   .  .  .

Skateman’s reaction to Kass’ reason #4 makes more sense:

The Europe situation has not improved.  There is no escape from ultimate disaster here no matter how the deck chairs are rearranged.  Market’s just whistling past the graveyard.

Of particular importance was this recent posting by Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish), wherein he emphasized that “without a doubt Europe is already in recession.”  After presenting his readers with the most recent data supporting his claim, Mish concluded with these thoughts:

Telling banks to lend in the midst of a deepening recession with numerous austerity measures yet to kick in is simply absurd.  If banks did increase loans, it would add to bank losses.  The smart thing for banks to do is exactly what they are doing, parking cash at the ECB.

Austerity measures in Italy, Spain, Portugal, Greece, and France combined with escalating trade wars ensures the recession will be long and nasty.

*   *   *

Don’t expect the US to be immune from a Eurozone recession and a Chinese slowdown.  Unlike 2011, it will not happen again.

Back on October 8, Jeff Sommer wrote an article for The New York Times, discussing the Economic Cycle Research Institute’s forecast of another recession:

“If the United States isn’t already in a recession now it’s about to enter one,” says Lakshman Achuthan, the institute’s chief operations officer.  It’s just a forecast.  But if it’s borne out, the timing will be brutal, and not just for portfolio managers and incumbent politicians.  Millions of people who lost their jobs in the 2008-9 recession are still out of work.  And the unemployment rate in the United States remained at 9.1 percent in September.  More pain is coming, says Mr. Achuthan.  He thinks the unemployment rate will certainly go higher.  “I wouldn’t be surprised if it goes back up into double digits,” he says.

Mr. Achuthan’s outlook was echoed by economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds, who pointed out in his latest Weekly Market Comment that investors have been too easily influenced by recent positive economic data such as payroll reports and Purchasing Managers Indices:

I can understand this view in the sense that the data points are correct – economic data has come in above expectations for several weeks, the Chinese, European and U.S. PMI’s have all ticked higher in the latest reports, new unemployment claims have declined, and December payrolls grew by 200,000.

Unfortunately, in all of these cases, the inference being drawn from these data points is not supported by the data set of economic evidence that is presently available, which is instead historically associated with a much more difficult outcome.  Specifically, the data set continues to imply a nearly immediate global economic downturn.  Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI) has noted if the U.S. gets through the second quarter of this year without falling into recession, “then, we’re wrong.”  Frankly, I’ll be surprised if the U.S. gets through the first quarter without a downturn.

At the annual strategy seminar held by Société Générale, their head of strategy – Albert Edwards – attracted quite a bit of attention with his grim prognostications.  The Economist summarized his remarks this way:

The surprise message for investors is that he feels the US is on the brink of another recession, despite the recent signs of optimism in the data (the non-farm payrolls, for example).  The recent temporary boost to consumption is down to a fall in the household savings ratio, which he thinks is not sustainable.

Larry Elliott of The Guardian focused on what Albert Edwards had to say about China and he provided more detail concerning Edwards’ remarks about the United States:

“There is a likelihood of a China hard landing this year.  It is hard to think 2013 and onwards will be any worse than this year if China hard-lands.”

*   *   *

He added that despite the recent run of more upbeat economic news from the United States, the risk of another recession in the world’s biggest economy was “very high”.  Growth had slowed to an annual rate of 1.5% in the second and third quarters of 2011, below the “stall speed” that historically led to recession.  It was unlikely that the economy would muddle through, Edwards said.

So there you have it.  The handwriting is on the wall.  Ignore it at your peril.


 

Losing The Propaganda War

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The propaganda war waged by corporatist news media against the Occupy Wall Street movement is rapidly deteriorating.  When the occupation of Zuccotti Park began on September 17, the initial response from mainstream news outlets was to simply ignore it – with no mention of the event whatsoever.  When that didn’t work, the next tactic involved using the “giggle factor” to characterize the protesters as “hippies” or twenty-something “hippie wanna-bes”, attempting to mimic the protests in which their parents participated during the late-1960s.  When that mischaracterization failed to get any traction, the presstitutes’ condemnation of the occupation events – which had expanded from nationwide to worldwide – became more desperate:  the participants were called everything from “socialists” to “anti-Semites”.

Despite the incessant flow of propaganda from those untrustworthy sources, a good deal of commentary – understanding, sympathetic or even supportive of Occupy Wall Street began to appear in some unlikely places.  For example, Roger Lowenstein wrote a piece for Bloomberg BusinessWeek entitled, “Occupy Wall Street: It’s Not a Hippie Thing”:

As critics have noted, the protesters are not in complete agreement with each other, but the overall message is reasonably coherent.  They want more and better jobs, more equal distribution of income, less profit (or no profit) for banks, lower compensation for bankers, and more strictures on banks with regard to negotiating consumer services such as mortgages and debit cards.  They also want to reduce the influence that corporations – financial firms in particular – wield in politics, and they want a more populist set of government priorities: bailouts for student debtors and mortgage holders, not just for banks.

In stark contrast with the disparaging sarcasm spewed by the tools at CNBC and Fox News concerning this subject, The Economist demonstrated why it enjoys such widespread respect:

So the big banks’ apologies for their role in messing up the world economy have been grudging and late, and Joe Taxpayer has yet to hear a heartfelt “thank you” for bailing them out.  Summoned before Congress, Wall Street bosses have made lawyerised statements that make them sound arrogant, greedy and unrepentant.  A grand gesture or two – such as slashing bonuses or giving away a tonne of money – might have gone some way towards restoring public faith in the industry.  But we will never know because it didn’t happen.

On the contrary, Wall Street appears to have set its many brilliant minds the task of infuriating the public still further, by repossessing homes of serving soldiers, introducing fees for using debit cards and so on.  Goldman Sachs showed a typical tin ear by withdrawing its sponsorship of a fund-raiser for a credit union (financial co-operative) on November 3rd because it planned to honour Occupy Wall Street.

The Washington Post conducted a poll with the Pew Research Center which compared and contrasted popular support for Occupy Wall Street with that of the Tea Party movement.  The poll revealed that ten percent of Americans support both movements.  On the other hand, Tea Party support is heavily drawn from Republican voters (71%) while only 24% of Republicans – as opposed to 64% of Democrats – support Occupy Wall Street.  As for self-described “Moderates”, only 24% support the Tea Party compared with Occupy Wall Street’s 45% support from Moderates.  Rest assured that these numbers will not deter unscrupulous critics from describing Occupy Wall Street as a “fringe movement”.

The best smackdown of the shabby reportage on Occupy Wall Street came from Dahlia Lithwick of Slate:

Mark your calendars:  The corporate media died when it announced it was too sophisticated to understand simple declarative sentences.  While the mainstream media expresses puzzlement and fear at these incomprehensible “protesters” with their oddly well-worded “signs,” the rest of us see our own concerns reflected back at us and understand perfectly.  Turning off mindless programming might be the best thing that ever happens to this polity.  Hey, occupiers:  You’re the new news. And even better, by refusing to explain yourselves, you’re actually changing what’s reported as news.  Because it takes a tremendous mental effort to refuse to see that the rich are getting richer in America while the rest of us are struggling.  Maybe the days of explaining the patently obvious to the transparently compromised are finally behind us.

By refusing to take a ragtag, complicated, and leaderless movement seriously, the mainstream media has succeeded only in ensuring its own irrelevance.  The rest of America has little trouble understanding that these are ragtag, complicated, and leaderless times.  This may not make for great television, but any movement that acknowledges that fact deserves enormous credit.

Too many mainstream news outlets appear to be suffering from the same disease as our government and our financial institutions.  Jeremy Grantham’s Third Quarter 2011 newsletter will be coming out in a few days and I’m hoping that he will prescribe a cure.  My wilder dream is that those vested with the authority and responsibility to follow his advice would simply do so.


 

Barack Oblivious

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As I’ve been discussing here for quite a while, commentators from across the political spectrum have been busy criticizing the job performance of President Obama.  The mood of most critics seems to have progressed from disappointment to shock.  The situation eventually reached the point where, regardless of what one thought about the job Obama was doing – at least the President could provide us with a good speech.  That changed on Monday, August 8 – when Obama delivered his infamous “debt downgrade” speech – in the wake of the controversial decision by Standard and Poor’s to lower America’s credit rating from AAA to AA+.  This reaction from Joe Nocera of The New York Times was among the more restrained:

When did President Obama become such a lousy speech-maker?  His remarks on Monday afternoon, aimed at calming the markets, were flat and uninspired — as they have consistently been throughout the debt ceiling crisis.  “No matter what some agency may say,” he said, ”we’ve always been and always will be a triple-A country.”  Is that really the best he could do?  The markets, realizing he had little or nothing to offer, continued their swoon.  What is particularly frustrating is that the president seems to have so little to say on the subject of job creation, which should be his most pressing concern.

Actually, President Obama should have been concerned about job creation back in January of 2009.  For some reason, this President had been pushing ahead with his own agenda, while oblivious to the concerns of America’s middle class.  His focus on what eventually became an enfeebled healthcare bill caused him to ignore this country’s most serious problem:  unemployment.  Our economy is 70% consumer-driven.  Because the twenty-five million Americans who lost their jobs since the inception of the financial crisis have remained unemployed — goods aren’t being sold.  This hurts manufacturers, retailers and shipping companies.  With twenty-five million Americans persistently unemployed, the tax base is diminished – meaning that there is less money available to pay down America’s debt.  The people Barry Ritholtz calls the “deficit chicken hawks” (politicians who oppose any government spending programs which don’t benefit their own constituents) refuse to allow the federal government to get involved in short-term “job creation”.  This “savings” depletes taxable revenue and increases government debt.  President Obama — the master debater from Harvard – has refused to challenge the “deficit chicken hawks” to debate the need for any sort of short-term jobs program.

Bond guru Bill Gross of PIMCO recently lamented this administration’s obliviousness to the need for government involvement in short-term job creation:

Additionally and immediately, however, government must take a leading role in job creation.  Conservative or even liberal agendas that cede responsibility for job creation to the private sector over the next few years are simply dazed or perhaps crazed.  The private sector is the source of long-term job creation but in the short term, no rational observer can believe that global or even small businesses will invest here when the labor over there is so much cheaper.  That is why trillions of dollars of corporate cash rest impotently on balance sheets awaiting global – non-U.S. – investment opportunities.  Our labor force is too expensive and poorly educated for today’s marketplace.

*   *   *

In the near term, then, we should not rely solely on job or corporate-directed payroll tax credits because corporations may not take enough of that bait, and they’re sitting pretty as it is.  Government must step up to the plate, as it should have in early 2009.

Back in July of 2009 – five months after the economic stimulus bill was passed – I pointed out how many prominent economists – including at least one of Obama’s closest advisors, had been emphasizing that the stimulus was inadequate and that we could eventually face a double-dip recession:

A July 7 report by Shamim Adam for Bloomberg News quoted Laura Tyson, an economic advisor to President Obama, as stating that last February’s $787 billion economic stimulus package was “a bit too small”.  Ms. Tyson gave this explanation:

“The economy is worse than we forecast on which the stimulus program was based,” Tyson, who is a member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory board, told the Nomura Equity Forum.  “We probably have already 2.5 million more job losses than anticipated.”

Economist Brad DeLong recently provided us with a little background on the thinking that had been taking place within the President’s inner circle during 2009:

In the late spring of 2009, Barack Obama had five economic policy principals: Tim Geithner, who thought Obama had done enough to boost demand and needed to turn to long-run deficit reduction; Ben Bernanke, who thought that the Fed had done enough to boost demand and that the administration needed to turn to deficit reduction; Peter Orszag, who thought the administration needed to turn to deficit reduction immediately and could also use that process to pass (small) further stimulus; Larry Summers, who thought that long-run deficit reduction could wait until the recovery was well-established and that the administration needed to push for more demand stimulus; and Christina Romer, who thought that long-run deficit reduction should wait until the recovery was well-established and that the administration needed to push for much more demand stimulus.

Now Romer, Summers, and Orszag are gone.  Their successors – Goolsbee, Sperling, and Lew – are extraordinary capable civil servants but are not nearly as loud policy voices and lack the substantive issue knowledge of their predecessors.  The two who are left, Geithner and Bernanke, are the two who did not see the world as it was in mid-2009.  And they do not seem to have recalibrated their beliefs about how the world works – they still think that they were right in mid-2009, or should have been right, or something.

I fear that they still do not see the situation as it really is.

And I do not see anyone in the American government serving as a counterbalance.

Meanwhile, the dreaded “double-dip” recession is nearly at hand.  Professor DeLong recently posted a chart on his blog, depicting daily Treasury real yield curve rates under the heading, “Treasury Real Interest Rates Now Negative Out to Ten Years…”  He added this comment:

If this isn’t a market prediction of a double-dip and a lost decade (or more), I don’t know what would be.  At least Hoover was undertaking interventions in financial markets–and not just blathering about how cutting spending was the way to call the Confidence Fairy…

President Obama has been oblivious to our nation’s true economic predicament since 2009.  Even if there were any Hope that his attentiveness to this matter might Change – at this point, it’s probably too late.


 

Magic Numbers

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As soon as I got a look at the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics on April 1, I knew that the cheerleaders from the “rose-colored glasses” crowd would be trumpeting the onset of some sort of new era, or “golden age”.  I wasn’t too far off.  My own reaction to the BLS report was similar to that expressed by Bill McBride of Calculated Risk:

The March employment report was another small step in the right direction, but the overall employment situation remains grim:  There are 7.25 million fewer payroll jobs now than before the recession started in 2007 with 13.5 million Americans currently unemployed.  Another 8.4 million are working part time for economic reasons, and about 4 million more workers have left the labor force.  Of those unemployed, 6.1 million have been unemployed for six months or more.

Nevertheless, the opening words of the BLS report, asserting that nonfarm payroll employment increased by 216,000 in March, were all that the cheerleaders wanted to hear.  My cynicism about the unjustified enthusiasm was shared by economist Dean Baker:

Okay, this celebration around the jobs report is really getting out of hand.  Both the Post and Times had front page pieces touting the good news.  The Post gets the award for being the more breathless of the two   .   .   .

Brad DeLong had some fun letting the air out of the party balloons floating around in a brief piece by Gregory Ip of The Economist.  Mr. Ip began with this happy thought:

TURN off the alarms.  After several weeks when the data pointed to a recovery still struggling to achieve escape velocity, the March employment report provided reassuring evidence that, at a minimum, it is still gaining altitude.

After completely deconstructing Mr. Ip’s essay by emphasizing the painfully not-so-happy undercurrents lurking within the piece (apparently included out of concern that the Federal Reserve might take away the Quantitative Easing crack pipe) Professor DeLong re-visited Ip’s initial statement in the sobering light of day:

There is “recovery” in a sense that the output gap and the employment gap are no longer shrinking — and so that real GDP is growing at the rate of growth of potential output.  But this is not reason to “turn off the alarms.”  This is not reason to talk about “pieces [of recovery] … falling into place.”  And I am not sure I would describe this as “gaining altitude” with respect to the state of the business cycle.

The exploitation of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report for bolstering claims that economic conditions are better than they really are is just the latest example of how the beauty of a given statistic can exist in the eye of the beholder – depending on the context in which that statistic is presented.   Economist David J. Merkel recently wrote an interesting essay, which concluded with this important admonition:

Be wary.  Look at a broader range of statistics, and take apart the existing statistics.  Don’t just take the pronouncements of our government at face value.  They are experts in saying what is technically true, while implying what is false.  Be wary.

David Merkel’s posting focused on the positive spin provided by a representative of Morgan Stanley concerning 4th Quarter 2010 Gross Domestic Product.  Merkel’s analysis of this statistic included some good advice:

In 4Q 2010 real GDP rose 3.1%, while real Gross Domestic Purchases fell 0.2%.  Why?  Energy and other import costs rose which depressed the price indexes for GDP versus Gross Domestic Purchases.

Over the long haul, the two series are close to equal, but when they diverge, they tell a story.  The current story is that average consumers in the US are doing badly, while those benefiting from high corporate profits, and increasing exports are doing well.

In general, I am not impressed with statistics collected by our government, or how they use them.  But it’s useful to understand what they mean — to understand the limitations of the statistics, so that when naive/conniving politicians use them wrongly, one can see through the error.

David Merkel’s point about “understanding the limitations of the statistics” is something that a good commentator should “fess up to” when discussing particular stats.  Michael Shedlock’s analysis of the March Nonfarm Payrolls Report provides a refreshing example of that type of candor:

Given the total distortions of reality with respect to not counting people who allegedly dropped out of the work force, it is hard to discuss the numbers.

The official unemployment rate is 8.8%.  However, if you start counting all the people that want a job but gave up, all the people with part-time jobs that want a full-time job, all the people who dropped off the unemployment rolls because their unemployment benefits ran out, etc., you get a closer picture of what the unemployment rate is.  That number is in the last row labeled U-6.

While the “official” unemployment rate is an unacceptable 8.8%, U-6 is much higher at 15.7%.

Things are much worse than the reported numbers would have you believe.

That said, this was a solid jobs report, not as measured by the typical recovery, but one of the better reports we have seen for years.

On the negative side, wages are not keeping up with the CPI, wage growth is skewed to the top end, and full time jobs are hard to come by.

At the current pace, the unemployment number would ordinarily drop, but not fast.  However, many of those millions who dropped out of the workforce could start looking if they think jobs may be out there.  Should that happen, the unemployment rate could rise, even if the economy adds jobs at this pace.  It is very questionable if this pace of jobs keeps up.

In other words, if a significant number of those people the BLS has ignored as having “dropped out of the workforce” prove the BLS wrong by actually applying for new job opportunities as they appear, the BLS will have to reconcile their reporting with that “new reality”.  Perhaps many of those “phantom people” were really there all along and the only thing preventing their detection was the absence of job opportunities.  As those “workforce dropouts” return to the BLS radar screen by applying for new job opportunities, the BLS will report it as a “rise” in the unemployment rate.  In reality, that updated statistic will reflect what the unemployment rate had been all along.  An improving job market will just make it easier to face the truth.




Geithner Kool-Aid Is All The Rage

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Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner’s “charm offensive”, began one year ago.  At that time, a number of financial bloggers were invited to the Treasury Department for an “open discussion” forum led by individual senior Treasury officials (including Turbo Tim himself).  Most of the invitees were not brainwashed to the desired extent.  I reviewed a number of postings from those in attendance – most of whom demonstrated more than a little skepticism about the entire affair.  Nevertheless, Secretary Geithner and his team held another conclave with financial bloggers on Monday, August 16, 2010.  The second meeting worked more to Geithner’s advantage.  The Treasury Secretary made a favorable impression on Alex Tabarrok, just as he had done last November with Tabarrok’s partner at Marginal Revolution, Tyler Cowen.  Steve Waldman of Interfluidity provided a candid description of his own reaction to the August 16 event.  Waldman’s commentary exposed how the desired effect was achieved:

First, let me confess right from the start, I had a great time.  I pose as an outsider and a crank.  But when summoned to the court, this jester puts on his bells.  I am very, very angry at Treasury, and the administration it serves.  But put me at a table with smart, articulate people who are willing to argue but who are otherwise pleasant towards me, and I will like them.

*   *   *

I like these people, and that renders me untrustworthy. Abstractly, I think some of them should be replaced and perhaps disgraced.  But having chatted so cordially, I’m far less likely to take up pitchforks against them.  Drawn to the Secretary’s conference room by curiosity, vanity, ambition, and conceit, I’ve been neutered a bit.

More recently, a good deal of attention has focused on a November 4 article from Bloomberg News, revealing that back on April 2, Turbo Tim paid a call on Jon Stewart.  The disclosure by Ian Katz raised quite a few eyebrows:

Geithner and Stewart, host of Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show,” held an off-the-record meeting at Stewart’s office in New York on April 2, according to Geithner’s appointments calendar, updated through August on Treasury’s website.

Since that time, we have heard nothing from Jon Stewart about his meeting with Geithner.  I expect that Stewart will continue his silence about that topic, focusing our attention, instead, on the controversy concerning a book, which should have been titled, Pedophilia For Dummies, while referring to Amazon.com as “NAMBLAzon.com”.  If he uses that joke  – remember that you saw it here, first.

The November 13 New York Times article by Yale economics professor, Robert Shiller, raises the question of whether Professor Shiller is the latest victim of the Geithner Kool-Aid.  Shiller’s essay reeks of the Obama administration’s strategy of approaching the nation’s most pressing crises as public relations concerns — a panacea for avoiding the ugly task of actually solving those problems.  The title of Shiller’s article, “Bailouts, Reframed as ‘Orderly Resolutions’” says it all:  spin means everything.  The following statement is a perfect example:

Our principal hope for dealing with the next big crisis is the Dodd-Frank Act, signed by President Obama in July.  It calls for bailouts of a sort, but has reframed them so they may look better to taxpayers.  Now they will be called “orderly resolutions.”

Yves Smith of the Naked Capitalism website had no trouble ripping this assertion (as well as Shiller’s entire essay) to shreds:

Huh?  It’s widely acknowledged that Dodd Frank is too weak.  In the Treasury meeting with bloggers last August, Geithner didn’t argue the point much, but instead contended that big enough capital levels, which were on the way with Basel III, were the real remedy.

It’s also widely recognized that the special resolution process in Dodd Frank is a non-starter as far as the institutions that pose the greatest systemic risk are concerned, the really big international dealer banks.  A wind-up of these firms is subject to the bankruptcy proceedings of all the foreign jurisdictions in which it operates; the US can’t wave a magic wand in Dodd Frank and make this elephant in the room vanish.

In addition, no one has found a way to resolve a major trading firm without creating major disruption.

*   *   *

Shiller’s insistence that the public is so dumb as to confuse a windown with a bailout reveals his lack of connection with popular perceptions.  The reason the public is so angry with the bailouts is no one, particularly among the top brass, lost his job, and worse, the firms were singularly ungrateful, thumbing their noses at taxpayers and paying themselves record bonuses in 2009.

Bill Maher’s Real Time program of November 12 is just the most recent example of how Bill Maher and most of his guests from the entire season are Geithner Kool-Aid drinkers.  The show marked the ten-trillionth time Maher claimed that TARP was a “success” because the banks have “paid back” those government bailouts.  Bill Maher needs to invite Yves Smith on his program so that she can debunk this myth, as she did in her June 23 piece. “Geithner Yet Again Misrepresents TARP ‘Performance’”.  Ms. Smith is not the only commentator who repeatedly calls out the administration on this whopper.  Marshall Auerback and almost everyone else at the Roosevelt Institute have said the same thing.  Edward Harrison of Credit Writedowns wrote this piece for the Seeking Alpha website, in support of Aureback’s TARP critique.  Will Wilkinson’s October 8 essay in The Economist’s Democracy in America blog presented the negative responses from a number of authorities in response to the claim that TARP was a great success.  With all that has been written to dispute the glorification of TARP, one would think that the “TARP was a success” meme would fade away.  Nevertheless, the Geithner Kool-Aid is a potent brew and its effects can, in some cases, be permanent.



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The Goldman Fallout

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April 19, 2010

In the aftermath of the disclosure concerning the Securities and Exchange Commission’s fraud suit against Goldman Sachs, we have heard more than a little reverberation of Matt Taibbi’s “vampire squid” metaphor, along with plenty of concern about which other firms might find themselves in the SEC’s  crosshairs.

As Jonathan Weil explained for Bloomberg News :

As Wall Street bombshells go, the lawsuit that the Securities and Exchange Commission filed against Goldman Sachs Group Inc. is about as big as it gets.

At The Economist, there was a detectable scent of schadenfreude in the discussion, which reminded readers that despite Lloyd Blankfein’s boast of having repaid Goldman’s share of the TARP bailout, not everyone has overlooked Maiden Lane III:

IS THE most powerful and controversial firm on Wall Street about to get the comeuppance that so many think it deserves?

*   *   *

The charges could hardly come at a worse time for Goldman.  The firm has been under fire on a number of fronts, including over the handsome payout it secured from the New York Fed as a derivatives counterparty of American International Group, an insurer that almost failed in 2008.  In a string of negative articles over the past year, Goldman has been accused of everything from double-dealing for its own advantage to planting its own people in the Treasury and other agencies to ensure that its interests were looked after.

At this point, those who criticized Matt Taibbi for his tour de force against Goldman (such as Megan McArdle) must be experiencing a bit of remorse.  Meanwhile, those of us who wrote items appearing at GoldmanSachs666.com are exercising our bragging rights.

The complaint filed against Goldman by the SEC finally put to rest the tired old lie that nobody saw the financial crisis coming.  The e-mails from Goldman VP, Fabrice Tourre, made it perfectly clear that in addition to being aware of the imminent collapse, some Wall Street insiders were actually counting on it.  Jonathan Weil’s Bloomberg article provided us with the translated missives from Mr. Tourre:

“More and more leverage in the system.  The whole building is about to collapse anytime now,” Fabrice Tourre, the Goldman Sachs vice president who was sued for his role in putting together the deal, wrote on Jan. 23, 2007.

“Only potential survivor, the fabulous Fab …  standing in the middle of all these complex, highly leveraged, exotic trades he created without necessarily understanding all of the implications of those monstruosities!!!”

A few weeks later, Tourre, now 31, e-mailed a top Goldman trader:  “the cdo biz is dead we don’t have a lot of time left.”  Goldman closed the Abacus offering in April 2007.

Michael Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) has quoted a number of sources reporting that Goldman may soon find itself defending similar suits in Germany and the UK.

Not surprisingly, there is mounting concern over the possibility that other investment firms could find themselves defending similar actions by the SEC.  As Anusha Shrivastava reported for The Wall Street Journal, the action in the credit markets on Friday revealed widespread apprehension that other firms could face similar exposure:

Credit markets were shaken Friday by the news as investors tried to figure out whether other firms or other structured finance products will be affected.

Investors are concerned that the SEC’s action may create a domino effect affecting other firms and other structured finance products.  There’s also the worry that this regulatory move may rattle the recovery and bring uncertainty back to the market.

“Credit markets are seeing a sizeable impact from the Goldman news,” said Bill Larkin, a portfolio manager at Cabot Money Management, in Salem, Mass.  “The question is, has the S.E.C. discovered what may have been a common practice across the industry?  Is this the tip of the iceberg?”

*  *  *

The SEC’s move marks “an escalation in the battle to expose conflicts of interest on Wall Street,” said Chris Whalen of Institutional Risk Analytics in a note to clients.  “Once upon a time, Wall Street firms protected clients and observed suitability …  This litigation exposes the cynical, savage culture of Wall Street that allows a dealer to commit fraud on one customer to benefit another.”

The timing of this suit could not have been better – with the Senate about to consider what (if anything) it will do with financial reform legislation.  Bill Black expects that this scandal will provide the necessary boost to get financial reform enacted into law.  I hope he’s right.




Dumping On Alan Greenspan

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March 22, 2010

On Friday, March 19, former Federal Reserve chair, Alan Greenspan appeared before the Brookings Institution to present his 48-page paper entitled, “The Crisis”.  The obvious subject of the paper concerned the causes of the 2008 financial crisis.  With this document, Greenspan attempted to add his own spin to history, for the sake of restoring his tattered public image.  The man once known as “The Maestro” had fallen into the orchestra pit and was struggling to preserve his prestige.  After the release of his paper on Friday, there has been no shortage of criticism, despite Greenspan’s “enlightened” change of attitude concerning bank regulation.  Greenspan’s refusal to admit the Federal Reserve’s monetary policy had anything to do with causing the crisis has placed him directly in the crosshairs of more than a few critics.

Sewell Chan of The New York Times provided this summary of Greenspan’s paper:

Mr. Greenspan, who has long argued that the market is often a more effective regulator than the government, has now adopted a more expansive view of the proper role of the state.

He argues that regulators should enforce collateral and capital requirements, limit or ban certain kinds of concentrated bank lending, and even compel financial companies to develop “living wills” that specify how they are to be liquidated in an orderly way.

*   *   *

. . . Mr. Greenspan warned that “megabanks” formed through mergers created the potential for “unusually large systemic risks” should they fail.

Mr. Greenspan added:  “Regrettably, we did little to address the problem.”

That is as close as Greenspan came to admitting that the Federal Reserve had a role in helping to cause the financial crisis.  Nevertheless, these magic words from page 39 of “The Crisis” are what got everybody jumping:

To my knowledge, that lowering of the federal funds rate nearly a decade ago was not considered a key factor in the housing bubble.

The best retort to this denial of reality came from Barry Ritholtz, author of Bailout Nation.  His essay entitled, “Explaining the Impact of Ultra-Low Rates to Greenspan” is a must read.  Here’s how Ritholtz concluded the piece:

The lack of regulatory enforcement was a huge factor in allowing the credit bubble to inflate, and set the stage for the entire credit crisis.  But it was intricately interwoven with the ultra low rates Alan Greenspan set as Fed Chair.

So while he is correct in pointing out that his own failures as a bank regulator are in part to blame, he needs to also recognize that his failures in setting monetary policy was also a major factor.

In other words, his incompetence as a regulator made his incompetence as a central banker even worse.

Paul La Monica wrote an interesting post for CNN Money’s The Buzz blog entitled, “Greenspan and Bernanke still don’t get it”.  He was similarly unimpressed with Greenspan’s denial that Fed monetary policy helped cause the crisis:

This argument is getting tiresome.  Keeping rates so low helped inflate the bubble.

*   *   *

“The Fed wasn’t the sole culprit.  But if not for an artificially steep yield curve, we probably would not have had a global financial crisis,” said John Norris, managing director of wealth management with Oakworth Capital Bank in Birmingham, Ala.

“Greenspan and Bernanke are missing the point.  It all stems from monetary policy,” Norris added.  “If you give bankers an inducement to lend more than they ordinarily would they are going to do so.”

From across the pond, Stephen Foley wrote a great article for The Independent entitled, “For the wrong answers, turn to Greenspan”.  He began the piece this way:

The former US Federal Reserve chairman, the wizened wiseman of laissez-faire economics, shocked us all — and probably himself — when he told a congressional panel in 2008 that he had found “a flaw in the model I perceived is the critical functioning structure that defines how the world works, so to speak”.  He meant that he had realised banks cannot be trusted to manage their own risks, and that markets do not smoothly self-correct.

But instead of taking that revelation and helping to point the way to a new, post-crisis financial world, he has shuddered to an intellectual halt.  It is the same intellectual stop sign that Wall Street’s bankers are at.  The failure to move forward is regrettable, dangerous and more than a little self-serving.

These reactions to Greenspan’s paper are surely just the beginning of an overwhelming backlash.  The Economist has already weighed in and before too long, we might even see a movie documenting the Fed’s responsibility for helping to cause The Great Recession.




The Dishonesty Behind The Bernanke Vote

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January 28. 2010

While reading a recent Huffington Post piece by Jason Linkins, wherein he criticized President Obama’s proposed spending freeze, I was struck by Linkins’ emphasis on the notion that this proposal signaled a return to “institutionalized infantilism”:

One of the most significant things that Obama promised to do during the campaign was to simply level with the American people — deal with them in straightforward fashion, tell the hard truths, make the tough choices, and go about explaining his decisions as if he were talking to adults.

Linkins referred to a recent essay about the freeze, written by Ryan Avent of The Economist, which underscored the greater, underlying problem motivating politicians such as Obama to believe they can “slip one by” the gullible public:

This is yet another move toward the infantilisation of the electorate; whatever the gamesmanship behind the proposal, Mr. Obama has apparently concluded that the electorate can’t be expected to handle anything like a real description of the tough decisions which must be made.

Matt Taibbi made a similar observation about our President, while pondering whether the announced reliance on the wisdom of Paul Volcker meant an end to Tim Geithner’s days as Treasury Secretary:

Obama, as is his nature I think, tried to take the fork in the road all year, making nice to his base while actually delivering to his money people, not realizing the two were perpetually in conflict.  His failure to make a clear choice, or rather to make the right choice, is what has doomed him everywhere politically.

It will be interesting to see what comes next, whether this is just for show or not.

We are now witnessing another example of this “infantilisation of the electorate” as it takes place with the dishonest maneuvering to get Ben Bernanke’s nomination to a second term past a filibuster.  Here’s how this scam was exposed by Josh Rosner at The Big Picture website:

Sources have suggested that Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) intends to vote “yes” on Chairman Bernanke’s cloture vote and “no” on the floor.  The cloture vote requires 60 “yes” votes to approve and really is THE vote to confirm.  The floor vote only requires a simple majority to pass and therefore is a less important vote requiring fewer “yes” votes.

Get it?  These Senators believe they can go back to their constituents with a straight face and tell the chumps that they voted against Bernanke’s confirmation when, in fact, they facilitated his confirmation by voting for cloture to give Bernanke a boost over the potentially insurmountable, 60-vote hurdle.  This sleight-of-hand comes along at the precise moment when we are learning about Bernanke’s true role in the AIG bailout.  As Ryan Grim reported for The Huffington Post:

A Republican senator said Tuesday that documents showing Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernake covered up the fact that his staff recommended he not bailout AIG are being kept from the public.  And a House Republican charged that a whistleblower had alerted Congress to specific documents provide “troubling details” of Bernanke’s role in the AIG bailout.

Sen. Jim Bunning (R-Ky.), a Bernanke critic, said on CNBC that he has seen documents showing that Bernanke overruled such a recommendation.  If that’s the case, it raises questions about whether bailing out AIG was actually necessary, and what Bernanke’s motives were.

Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism disclosed that Congressman Darrell Issa, who has been investigating the AIG bailout in his role as ranking Republican on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, “believes there is evidence that says Bernanke overruled his staff and authorized the rescue”.  Ms. Smith explained how Issa is pushing ahead to investigate:

Rep. Darrell Issa of the House Oversight Committee has asked to Committee Chairman Towns to subpoena more documents from the Fed regarding its decision-making process in the AIG bailout.

*   *   *

In addition, Issa has noted that the Fed had failed to comply in full with previous subpoenas, and has not released any documents relative to AIG prior to September 2008 or after May 2009, even though they fall within the scope of previous subpoenas.

Congressman Issa’s letter can be viewed in its entirety here.

You may recall that the fight against the Fed for release of the AIG bailout documents became the subject of an opinion piece in the December 19 edition of The New York Times, written by Eliot Spitzer, Frank Partnoy and William Black.

There are plenty of reasons to oppose confirmation of Ben Bernanke to a second term as Fed chair.  Senator Jim Bunning did a fantastic job articulating many of those points during the confirmation hearing on December 3.  Beyond that, economist Randall Wray gave us “3 Reasons to Fear Bernanke’s Reappointment” at the Roosevelt Institute’s New Deal 2.0 website.  Dr. Wray concluded his essay with this statement:

To be clear, I would prefer to replace Bernanke with someone who actually understands monetary policy and who advocates regulation and supervision of financial institutions.

The really pressing issue at this point is whether the withheld AIG bailout documents, which are the subject of Congressman Issa’s latest inquiry, might actually reveal some malefaction on the part of Bernanke himself.  A revelation of that magnitude would certainly kill the confirmation effort.  If Bernanke is confirmed prior to the release of documents indicating malfeasance on his part, I’ll be wishing I had a dollar for every time a Senator would say:  “I just voted for cloture –but I voted against confirmation.”




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