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Avoiding The Kool-Aid

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November 5, 2009

Ask NOT what your country can do for you  —

But ask what your country can do for its largest banks.

—  “Turbo” Tim

All right  .  . .  “Turbo” Tim Geithner didn’t really say that (yet) but we’ve all seen how his actions affirm that doctrine.  Former federal banking regulator, Professor William Black, recently criticized Geithner for not protecting the taxpayers when Turbo Tim bailed out CIT Group to the tune of 2.4 billion dollars this past summer.  CIT has now filed for bankruptcy.  Henry Blodget of The Business Insider described Professor Black’s outrage over this situation:

The government was in no way obligated to lend the struggling CIT money and, in fact, initially refused to provide it bailout funds.  More importantly, being the lender of last resort, the government should have guaranteed we’d be the first to get paid if CIT eventually filed Chapter 11.  By failing to do so, “it’s like he [Geithner] burned billions of dollars again in government money, our money, gratuitously,” says Black.

After Tuesday’s election defeats for the Democrats in two gubernatorial races, the subject of “bailout fatigue” has been getting more attention.

Acting under the pretext of “transparency” the Obama administration has developed a strategy of holding meetings for people and groups with whom the administration knows it is losing credibility.  Jane Hamsher of FiredogLake.com has written about the Obama team’s efforts to keep the disaffected Left under control by corralling these groups into what Hamsher calls “the veal pen”.  She described one meeting wherein Rahm Emanuel used the expression “f**king stupid” in reference to the critics of those Democrats opposing the public option in proposed healthcare reform legislation.

A different format was followed at what appeared to be a “message control” conference, held on Monday at the Treasury Department.  This time, the guest list was comprised of a politically diverse group of financial bloggers.  One attendee, Yves Smith of Naked Capitalism, described the meeting as “curious”:

None of us knew in advance how many attendees there would be; there were eight of us at a two-hour session, Interfluidity, Marginal Revolution, Kid Dynamite’s World, Across the Curve, Financial Armageddon, Accrued Interest, and Aleph (and of course, others may have been invited who had scheduling conflicts).

*   *   *

It wasn’t obvious what the objective of the meeting was (aside the obvious idea that if they were nice to us we might reciprocate.  Unfortunately, some of us are not housebroken).  I will give them credit for having the session be almost entirely a Q&A, not much in the way of presentation.  One official made some remarks about the state of financial institutions; later another said a few things about regulatory reform.  The funniest moment was when, right after the spiel on regulatory reform, Steve Waldman said, “I’ve read your bill and I think it’s terrible.”  They did offer to go over it with him.  It will be interesting to see if that happens.

*   *   *

My bottom line is that the people we met are very cognitively captured, assuming one can take their remarks at face value.  Although they kept stressing all the things that had changed or they were planning to change, the polite pushback from pretty all the attendees was that what Treasury thought of as major progress was insufficient.

*   *   *

Several of us raised questions about whether what their vision for the industry’s structure was and that the objective seemed to be to restore the financial system that got us in trouble in the first place.

Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon and When Giants Fall adopted Ms. Smith’s description of the event, adding a few observations of his own:

  • . . . it wasn’t clear that there was a “plan B” in place if things do not recover in 2010 as many mainstream analysts expect.  In fact, the suggestion from one official was that the tenure of the current crisis would likely be nearer the shorter end of expectations.
  • There was also a bit of a disconnect between the remarks various Treasury officials have made in public forums and what was said at the meeting.  … Yesterday, however, a number of those present clearly acknowledged that things could (still) go wrong and said such fears kept them awake at night.  While that is not unusual in and of itself, at the very least it adds to doubts I and others have expressed about the true state of the financial system and the economy.
  • Finally, the meeting seemed to confirm the strong grip that Wall Street has on the levers of legislative power.

The most informative rendition of the events at the conclave came from Kid Dynamite, whose two-part narrative began with a look at how Michael Panzner interrupted a Treasury official who was describing the Treasury’s current focus “on reducing the footprint of economic intervention cautiously, quickly and prudently”:

Michael Panzner jumped right in, addressing a concept I’ve written about previously – that of  “extend and pretend,” or “delay and pray” – the concept of attempting to avoid recognizing actual losses and or insolvencies, and growing out of them after enough time.  Panzner called it “fake it ‘till you make it.”  I mentioned that I felt like we were undergoing a “Ponzi scheme of confidence” – but that confidence mattered less than ever in the current environment where, contrary to perhaps the prior 10 years, confidence can no longer be “spent.”

Kid Dynamite’s report contained too many great passages for me to quote here without running on excessively.  Just be sure to read his entire report, including Part II (which should be posted by the time you read this).

David Merkel of The Aleph Blog also submitted a two-part report (so far — with more to come) although Part 2 is more informative.  Here are some highlights:

As all bloggers there will note, those from the Treasury were kind, intelligent, funny … they were real people, unlike the common tendency to demonize those in DC.

*   *   *

To the Treasury I would say, “Markets are inherently unstable, and that is a good thing.”  They often have to adjust to severe changes in the human condition, and governmental attempts to tame markets may result in calm for a time, and a tsunami thereafter.

*   *   *

As for the bank stress-testing, one can look at it two ways: 1) the way I looked at it at the time — short on details, many generalities, not trusting the results.  (Remember, I have done many such analyses myself for insurers.) or, 2) something that gave confidence to the markets when they were in an oversold state.  Duh, but I was dumb — the oversold market rallied when it learned that the Treasury had its back.

John Jansen from Across The Curve included his report on the meeting within his usual morning posting concerning the bond market on November 4.   In a subsequent posting that afternoon, he referred his readers to the Kid Dynamite report.  Here’s what Mr. Jansen did say about the event:

. . .  those officials expressed real concern about the downside risks to the economy (as did blogger Michael Panzner of Financial Armageddon) and since I think that the relationship between the Treasury and the Federal Reserve has morphed into something somewhat incestuous I suspect that the Federal Reserve will not jump off the reservation and take the first baby steps to exiting its easy money policy.

The report at the Accrued Interest blog drew some hostile comments from readers who seemed convinced that Accrued was the only blogger there who actually drank the Kool-Aid being served by the Treasury.  Their reaction was easily understandable after reading this remark (which followed a breach of protocol with the admission that Turbo Tim was there in the flesh):

It was a fascinating experience and I have to admit, it was just plain cool to be within the bowels of power like that.

Huh?  All I can say is:  If you like being in powerful bowels, just take a cruise over to duPont Circle.  Actually — it was at his next statement where he lost me:

I am also on record as saying that Geithner was a good choice for Treasury secretary.

— and then it was all downhill from there.

The administration’s “charm offensive” has moved to the dicey issue of financial reform, where it is drawing criticism from across the political spectrum.  Given the fact that they have all but admitted to a strategy of simply reading The Secret and willing everything to get better by their positive thoughts  — Michael Panzner might as well start writing Financial Armageddon — The Sequel.



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The News Nobody Wants To Hear

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December 11, 2008

You can’t watch a news program these days without hearing some “happy talk” about how our dismal economy is “on the verge of recovery”.  You have to remember that many of these shows are sponsored by brokerage firms.  That fact must be taken into consideration when you decide how much weight you will give the opinions of the so-called “experts” appearing on those programs to tell you that the stock market has reached “the bottom” and that it is now time to jump back in and start buying stocks.  Similarly, those people interested in making a home purchase (i.e. millionaires, who don’t have to worry about getting a mortgage) want to know when the residential real estate market will hit “bottom” so they can get the best value.  If I had a thousand dollars for every time during the past six months that some prognosticator has appeared on television to tell us that the stock market has “hit bottom”, I would have enough money to start my own geothermal power utility.

People interested in making investments have been scared away from stocks due to the pummeling that the markets have taken since the “mortgage crisis” raised its ugly head and devastated the world economy.  If those folks believe the hype and start buying stocks now, they are taking a greater risk than the enthusiastic promoters on TV might be willing to disclose.

People just don’t like bad news, especially when it is about the future and worse yet, if it’s about the economy.  On Friday, December 5, the stock market rallied, despite the dismal news that November’s non-farm employment loss was the greatest monthly employment decline in 34 years.  More than half a million people lost their jobs in November.  Despite this news, all of the major stock indices were up at least 3 percent for that day alone.  Have all these people bought into the magical thinking described in The Secret?  Do that many people believe that wishing hard enough can cause a dream to become reality?

There is one authority on the subject of economics, who earned quite a bit of “street cred” when our current economic crisis hit the fan. He is Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He earned the nickname “Doctor Doom” when he spoke before the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on September 7, 2006 and described, in precise detail, exactly what would bring the financial world to its knees, two years later.  In this time of uncertainty, many people (myself included) pay close attention to what Dr. Roubini has to say by regularly checking in on his website.  On December 5, we were surprised to hear Doctor Doom’s admission to Aaron Task (on the web TV show, Tech Ticker) that his own 401(k) plan is comprised entirely of stocks.  Dr. Roubini explained that he is not in the “Armageddon camp” and that for the long haul, stocks are still a good investment (although currently not a good idea for investors with more short-term goals).  Upon learning of this, I began to wonder if the revelation about Doctor Doom’s stock holdings could have been the reason for the stock market rally that day.

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Roubini at a lecture he gave within staggering distance of my home.  I was able to talk to him about my concern over Federal Reserve Chairman, Ben Bernanke’s idea of having the federal government purchase stocks in order to pep-up a depressed stock market.  How could this possibly be accomplished?  How could the Fed decide which stocks to buy to the exclusion of others?  Dr. Roubini told me that the government has already done this by purchasing preferred shares of stock issued by the banks participating in the TARP program.  He explained that rather than purchasing selected stocks of particular companies, the government would, more likely, invest in stock indices.  Before I get to Doctor Doom’s other points from his lecture, I will share this photo taken of yours truly and Doctor Roubini (who appears on your left):

Doctor Doom with Me

Dr. Roubini told the audience that he believes this recession will be worse than everyone expects. During the next few months, “the flow of macroeconomic news will be awful and worse than expected”. He opined that people are going to be surprised if they think that the stock market “bottom” will come in mid-2009. He expects that by the end of 2009 “things will still be bad” and unemployment will peak at 9% in early 2010. He thinks that the consensus on earnings-per-share estimates for stocks during the next year is “delusional”. He anticipates risk aversion among investors to be severe next year. We are now in a global recession and this has caused commodity prices to fall 30%. He pointed out that commodity prices could still fall another 20%. He considers it “very likely” that between 500 to 600 hedge funds will go out of business within the next six months. As this happens, the stocks held by these funds must be dumped onto the market. With respect to the beleaguered residential real estate market, he pointed out that home prices could fall another 15-20% by early 2010.

The good news provided by Dr. Roubini is that the global recession should end by the close of 2009. However, he expects recovery to be “weak” in 2010. He surmised that the possibility of a systemic meltdown has been minimized by the actions taken at the recent G7 meeting and most particularly with the G7 resolution to prevent further “Lehman Brothers-type” bankruptcies from taking place. He concluded that this recession should be nothing like the Japanese recession of the 1990s, which lasted nearly a decade.

So there you have it:  The news (almost) nobody wants to hear.  You can say these are the predictions voiced by one man who could be wrong.  Nevertheless, given Dr. Roubini’s track record, I and many others hold his opinions in high regard.  Now, let’s see how this all plays out.