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Cliff Notes

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On May 22, the Congressional Budget Office released its report on how the United States can avoid going off the “fiscal cliff” on January 1, 2013.  The report is entitled, “Economic Effects of Reducing the Fiscal Restraint That Is Scheduled to Occur in 2013”.  Forget about the Mayan calendar and December 21, 2012.  The real disaster is scheduled for eleven days later.  The CBO provided a brief summary of the 10-page report – what you might call the Cliff Notes version.  Here are some highlights:

In fact, under current law, increases in taxes and, to a lesser extent, reductions in spending will reduce the federal budget deficit dramatically between 2012 and 2013 – a development that some observers have referred to as a “fiscal cliff” – and will dampen economic growth in the short term.

*   *   *

Under those fiscal conditions, which will occur under current law, growth in real (inflation-adjusted) GDP in calendar year 2013 will be just 0.5 percent, CBO expects – with the economy projected to contract at an annual rate of 1.3 percent in the first half of the year and expand at an annual rate of 2.3 percent in the second half.  Given the pattern of past recessions as identified by the National Bureau of Economic Research, such a contraction in output in the first half of 2013 would probably be judged to be a recession.

As the complete version of the report explained, the consequences of abruptly-imposed, draconian austerity measures while the economy is in a state of anemic growth in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, could have a devastating impact because incomes will drop, shrinking the tax base and available revenue – the life blood of the United States government:

The weakening of the economy that will result from that fiscal restraint will lower taxable incomes and, therefore, revenues, and it will increase spending in some categories – for unemployment insurance, for instance.

An interesting analysis of the CBO report was provided by Robert Oak of the Economic Populist website.  He began with a description of the cliff itself:

What the CBO is referring to is the fiscal cliff.  Remember when the budget crisis happened, resulting in the United States losing it’s AAA credit rating?  Then, Congress and this administration just punted, didn’t compromise, or better yet, base recommendations on actual economic theory, and allowed automatic spending cuts of $1.2 trillion across the board, to take place instead.  These budget cuts will be dramatic and happen in 2012 and 2013.

Spending cuts, especially sudden ones, actually weaken economic growth.  This is why austerity has caused a disaster in Europe.  Draconian cuts have pushed their economies into not just recessions, but depressions.

The conclusion reached by Robert Oak was particularly insightful:

This report should infuriate Republicans, who earlier wanted to silence the CBO because they were telling the GOP their policies would hurt the economy in so many words.  But maybe not.  Unfortunately the CBO is not breaking down tax cuts, when there is ample evidence tax cuts for rich individuals do nothing for economic growth.  Bottom line though, the CBO is right on in their forecast, draconian government spending cuts will cause an anemic economy to contract.

Although the CBO did offer a good solution for avoiding a drive off the fiscal cliff, it remains difficult to imagine how our dysfunctional government could ever implement these measures:

Or, if policymakers wanted to minimize the short-run costs of narrowing the deficit very quickly while also minimizing the longer-run costs of allowing large deficits to persist, they could enact a combination of policies:  changes in taxes and spending that would widen the deficit in 2013 relative to what would occur under current law but that would reduce deficits later in the decade relative to what would occur if current policies were extended for a prolonged period.

The foregoing passage was obviously part of what Robert Oak had in mind when he mentioned that the CBO report would “infuriate Republicans”.  Any plans to “widen the deficit” would be subject to the same righteous indignation as an abortion festival or a national holiday for gay weddings.  Nevertheless, Mitt Romney accidentally acknowledged the validity of the logic underlying the CBO’s concern.  Bill Black had some fun with Romney’s admission by writing a fantastic essay on the subject:

Romney has periodic breakdowns when asked questions about the economy because he sometimes forgets the need to lie.  He forgets that he is supposed to treat austerity as the epitome of economic wisdom.  When he responds quickly to questions about austerity he slips into default mode and speaks the truth – adopting austerity during the recovery from a Great Recession would (as in Europe) throw the nation back into recession or depression.  The latest example is his May 23, 2012 interview with Mark Halperin in Time magazine.

Halperin: Why not in the first year, if you’re elected — why not in 2013, go all the way and propose the kind of budget with spending restraints, that you’d like to see after four years in office?  Why not do it more quickly?

Romney: Well because, if you take a trillion dollars for instance, out of the first year of the federal budget, that would shrink GDP over 5%.  That is by definition throwing us into recession or depression.  So I’m not going to do that, of course.”

Romney explains that austerity, during the recovery from a Great Recession, would cause catastrophic damage to our nation.  The problem, of course, is that the Republican congressional leadership is committed to imposing austerity on the nation and Speaker Boehner has just threatened that Republicans will block the renewal of the debt ceiling in order to extort Democrats to agree to austerity – severe cuts to social programs.  Romney knows this could “throw us into recession or depression” and says he would never follow such a policy.

*   *   *

Later in the interview, Romney claims that federal budgetary deficits are “immoral.”  But he has just explained that using austerity for the purported purpose of ending a deficit would cause a recession or depression.  A recession or depression would make the deficit far larger.  That means that Romney should be denouncing austerity as “immoral” (as well as suicidal) because it will not simply increase the deficit (which he claims to find “immoral” because of its impact on children) but also dramatically increase unemployment, poverty, child poverty and hunger, and harm their education by causing more teachers to lose their jobs and more school programs to be cut.

Mitt Romney is beginning to sound as though he has his own inner Biden, who spontaneously speaks out in an unrestrained manner, sending party officials into “damage control” mode.

This could turn out to be an interesting Presidential campaign, after all.



 

No Consensus About the Future

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As the election year progresses, we are exposed to wildly diverging predictions about the future of the American economy.  The Democrats are telling us that in President Obama’s capable hands, the American economy keeps improving every day – despite the constant efforts by Congressional Republicans to derail the Recovery Express.  On the other hand, the Republicans keep warning us that a second Obama term could crush the American economy with unrestrained spending on entitlement programs.  Meanwhile, in (what should be) the more sober arena of serious economics, there is a wide spectrum of expectations, motivated by concerns other than partisan politics.  Underlying all of these debates is a simple question:  How can one predict the future of the economy without an accurate understanding of what is happening in the present?  Before asking about where we are headed, it might be a good idea to get a grip on where we are now.  Nevertheless, exclusive fixation on past and present conditions can allow future developments to sneak up on us, if we are not watching.

Those who anticipate a less resilient economy consistently emphasize that the “rose-colored glasses crowd” has been basing its expectations on a review of lagging and concurrent economic indicators rather than an analysis of leading economic indicators.  One of the most prominent economists to emphasize this distinction is John Hussman of the Hussman Funds.  Hussman’s most recent Weekly Market Comment contains what has become a weekly reminder of the flawed analysis used by the optimists:

On the economy, our broad view is based on dozens of indicators and multiple methods, and the overall picture is much better described as a modest rebound within still-fragile conditions, rather than a recovery or a clear expansion.  The optimism of the economic consensus seems to largely reflect an over-extrapolation of weather-induced boosts to coincident and lagging economic indicators — particularly jobs data.  Recall that seasonal adjustments in the winter months presume significant layoffs in the retail sector and slow hiring elsewhere, and therefore add back “phantom” jobs to compensate.

Hussman’s kindred spirit, Lakshman Achuthan of the Economic Cycle Research Institute (ECRI), has been criticized for the predictiction he made last September that the United States would fall back into recession.  Nevertheless, the ECRI reaffirmed that position on March 15 with a website posting entitled, “Why Our Recession Call Stands”.  Again, note the emphasis on leading economic indicators – rather than concurrent and lagging economic indicators:

How about forward-looking indicators?  We find that year-over-year growth in ECRI’s Weekly Leading Index (WLI) remains in a cyclical downturn . . .  and, as of early March, is near its worst reading since July 2009.  Close observers of this index might be understandably surprised by this persistent weakness, since the WLI’s smoothed annualized growth rate, which is much better known, has turned decidedly less negative in recent months.

Unlike the partisan political rhetoric about the economy, prognostication expressed by economists can be a bit more subtle.  In fact, many of the recent, upbeat commentaries have quite restrained and cautious.  Consider this piece from The Economist:

A year ago total bank loans were shrinking.  Now they are growing.  Loans to consumers have risen by 5% in the past year, which has accompanied healthy gains in car sales (see chart).  Mortgage lending was still contracting as of late 2011 but although house prices are still edging lower both sales and construction are rising.

*   *   *

At present just four states are reporting mid-year budget gaps, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures; this time last year, 15 did; the year before that, 36. State and local employment, which declined by 655,000 between August 2008 and last December – a fall of 3.3% – has actually edged up since.

*   *   *

Manufacturing employment, which declined almost continuously from 1998 through 2009, has since risen by nearly 4%, and the average length of time factories work is as high as at any time since 1945.  Since the end of the recession exports have risen by 39%, much faster than overall GDP.  Neither is as impressive as it sounds:  manufacturing employment remains a smaller share of the private workforce than in 2007, and imports have recently grown even faster than exports as global growth has faltered and the dollar has climbed.  Trade, which was a contributor to economic growth in the first years of recovery, has lately been a drag.

But economic recovery doesn’t have to wait for all of America’s imbalances to be corrected.  It only needs the process to advance far enough for the normal cyclical forces of employment, income and spending to take hold.  And though their grip may be tenuous, and a shock might yet dislodge it, it now seems that, at last, they have.

A great deal of enthusiastic commentary was published in reaction to the results from the recent round of bank stress tests, released by the Federal Reserve.  The stress test results revealed that 15 of the 19 banks tested could survive a stress scenario which included a peak unemployment rate of 13 percent, a 50 percent drop in equity prices, and a 21 percent decline in housing prices.  Time magazine published an important article on the Fed’s stress test results.  It was written by a gentleman named Christopher Matthews, who used to write for Forbes and the Financial Times.  (He is a bit younger than the host of Hardball.)  In a surprising departure from traditional, “mainstream media propaganda”, Mr. Matthews demonstrated a unique ability to look “behind the curtain” to give his readers a better idea of where we are now:

Christopher Whalen, a bank analyst and frequent critic of the big banks, penned an article in ZeroHedge questioning the assumptions, both by the Fed and the banks themselves, that went into the tests.  It’s well known that housing remains a thorn in the side of the big banks, and depressed real estate prices are the biggest risk to bank balance sheets.  The banks are making their own assumptions, however, with regards to the value of their real estate holdings, and Whalen is dubious of what the banks are reporting on their balance sheets. The Fed, he says, is happy to go along with this massaging of the data. He writes,

“The Fed does not want to believe that there is a problem with real estate. As my friend Tom Day wrote for PRMIA’s DC chapter yesterday:  ‘It remains hard to believe, on the face of it, that many of the more damaged balance sheets could, in fact, withstand another financial tsunami of the magnitude we have recenlty experienced and, to a large extent, continue to grapple with.’ ”

Even those that are more credulous are taking exception to the Fed’s decision to allow the banks to increase dividends and stock buybacks.  The Bloomberg editorial board wrote an opinion yesterday criticizing this decision:

 “Good as the stress tests were, they don’t mean the U.S. banking system is out of the woods.  Three major banks – Ally Financial Inc., Citigroup Inc. and SunTrust Banks Inc. – didn’t pass, and investors still don’t have much faith in the reported capital levels of many of the rest.  If the Fed wants the positive results of the stress tests to last, it should err on the side of caution in approving banks’ plans to pay dividends and buy back shares – moves that benefit shareholders but also deplete capital.”

So there’s still plenty for skeptics to read into Tuesday’s report.  For those who want to doubt the veracity of the banks’ bookkeeping, you can look to Whalen’s report.  For those who like to question the Fed’s decision making, Bloomberg’s argument is as good as any.  But at the same time, we all know from experience that things could be much worse, and Tuesday’s announcement appears to be another in a string of recent good news that, unfortunately, comes packaged with a few caveats.  When all is said and done, this most recent test may turn out to be another small, “I think I can” from the little recovery that could.

When mainstream publications such as Time and Bloomberg News present reasoned analysis about the economy, it should serve as reminder to political bloviators that the only audience for the partisan rhetoric consists of “low-information voters”.  The old paradigm – based on campaign funding payola from lobbyists combined with support from low-information voters – is being challenged by what Marshall McLuhan called “the electronic information environment”.  Let’s hope that sane economic policy prevails.


 

Plutocracy Is Crushing Democracy

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It’s been happening here in the United States since onset of the 2008 financial crisis.  I’ve complained many times about President Obama’s decision to scoff at using the so-called “Swedish solution” of putting the zombie banks through temporary receivership.  One year ago, economist John Hussman of the Hussman Funds discussed the consequences of the administration’s failure to do what was necessary:

If our policy makers had made proper decisions over the past two years to clean up banks, restructure debt, and allow irresponsible lenders to take losses on bad loans, there is no doubt in my mind that we would be quickly on the course to a sustained recovery, regardless of the extent of the downturn we have experienced.  Unfortunately, we have built our house on a ledge of ice.

*   *   *

As I’ve frequently noted, even if a bank “fails,” it doesn’t mean that depositors lose money.  It means that the stockholders and bondholders do.  So if it turns out, after all is said and done, that the bank is insolvent, the government should get its money back and the remaining entity should be taken into receivership, cut away from the stockholder liabilities, restructured as to bondholder liabilities, recapitalized, and reissued.  We did this with GM, and we can do it with banks.  I suspect that these issues will again become relevant within the next few years.

The plutocratic tools in control of our government would never allow the stockholders and bondholders of those “too-big-to-fail” banks to suffer losses as do normal people after making bad investments.

As it turns out, a few of those same banks are flexing their muscles overseas as the European debt crisis poses a new threat to Goldman Sachs and several of its ridiculously-overleveraged European counterparts.  Time recently published an essay by Stephan Faris, which raised the question of whether the regime changes in Greece and Italy amounted to a “bankers’ coup”:

As in Athens, the plan in Rome is to replace the outgoing prime minister with somebody from outside the political class.  Mario Monti, a neo-liberal economist and former EU commissioner who seems designed with the idea of calming the markets in mind, is expected to take over from Berlusconi after he resigns Saturday.

*   *   *

Yet, until the moment he’s sworn in, Monti’s ascension is far from a done deal, and it didn’t take long after the markets had closed for the weekend for it to start to come under fire.  Though Monti, a former advisor to Goldman Sachs, is heavily championed by the country’s respected president, many in parliament have spent the week whispering that Berlusconi’s ouster amounts to a “banker’s coup.”  “Yesterday, in the chamber of deputies we were bitterly joking that we were going to get a Goldman Sachs government,” says a parliamentarian from Berlusconi’s government, who asked to remain anonymous citing political sensitivity.

At The New York Times, Ross Douthat reflected on the drastic policy of bypassing democracy to install governments led by “technocrats”:

After the current crisis has passed, some voices have suggested, there will be time to reverse the ongoing centralization of power and reconsider the E.U.’s increasingly undemocratic character. Today the Continent needs a unified fiscal policy and a central bank that’s willing to behave like the Federal Reserve, Bloomberg View’s Clive Crook has suggested.  But as soon as the euro is stabilized, Europe’s leaders should start “giving popular sovereignty some voice in other aspects of the E.U. project.”

This seems like wishful thinking.  Major political consolidations are rarely undone swiftly, and they just as often build upon themselves.  The technocratic coups in Greece and Italy have revealed the power that the E.U.’s leadership can exercise over the internal politics of member states.  If Germany has to effectively backstop the Continent’s debt in order to save the European project, it’s hard to see why the Frankfurt Group (its German members, especially) would ever consent to dilute that power.

Reacting to Ross Douthat’s column, economist Brad DeLong was quick to criticize the use of the term “technocrats”.  That same label appeared in the previously-quoted Time article, as well:

Those who are calling the shots in Europe right now are in no wise “technocrats”:  technocrats would raise the target inflation rate in the eurozone and buy up huge amounts of Greek and Italian (and other) debt conditional on the enactment of special euro-wide long-run Fiscal Stabilization Repayment Fund taxes. These aren’t technocrats:  they are ideologues – and rather blinders-wearing ideologues at that.

Forget about euphemisms such as:  “technocrats”, “the European Union” or “the European Central Bank”.  Stephen Foley of The Independent pulled back the curtain and revealed the real culprit  .  .  .  Goldman Sachs:

This is the most remarkable thing of all:  a giant leap forward for, or perhaps even the successful culmination of, the Goldman Sachs Project.

It is not just Mr Monti.  The European Central Bank, another crucial player in the sovereign debt drama, is under ex-Goldman management, and the investment bank’s alumni hold sway in the corridors of power in almost every European nation, as they have done in the US throughout the financial crisis.  Until Wednesday, the International Monetary Fund’s European division was also run by a Goldman man, Antonio Borges, who just resigned for personal reasons.

Even before the upheaval in Italy, there was no sign of Goldman Sachs living down its nickname as “the Vampire Squid”, and now that its tentacles reach to the top of the eurozone, sceptical voices are raising questions over its influence.

*   *   *

This is The Goldman Sachs Project.  Put simply, it is to hug governments close.  Every business wants to advance its interests with the regulators that can stymie them and the politicians who can give them a tax break, but this is no mere lobbying effort.  Goldman is there to provide advice for governments and to provide financing, to send its people into public service and to dangle lucrative jobs in front of people coming out of government.  The Project is to create such a deep exchange of people and ideas and money that it is impossible to tell the difference between the public interest and the Goldman Sachs interest.

*   *   *

The grave danger is that, if Italy stops paying its debts, creditor banks could be made insolvent.  Goldman Sachs, which has written over $2trn of insurance, including an undisclosed amount on eurozone countries’ debt, would not escape unharmed, especially if some of the $2trn of insurance it has purchased on that insurance turns out to be with a bank that has gone under.  No bank – and especially not the Vampire Squid – can easily untangle its tentacles from the tentacles of its peers. This is the rationale for the bailouts and the austerity, the reason we are getting more Goldman, not less.  The alternative is a second financial crisis, a second economic collapse.

The previous paragraph explains precisely what the term “too-big-to-fail” is all about:  If a bank of that size fails – it can bring down the entire economy.  Beyond that, the Goldman situation illustrates what Simon Johnson meant when he explained that the United States – acting alone – cannot prevent the megabanks from becoming too big to fail.  Any attempt to regulate the size of those institutions requires an international effort:

But no international body — not the Group of -20, the Group of Eight or anyone else — shows any indication of taking this on, mostly because governments don’t wish to tie their own hands. In a severe crisis, the interests of the state are usually paramount. No meaningful cross-border resolution framework is even in the cards.  (Disclosure:  I’m on the FDIC’s Systemic Resolution Advisory Committee; I’m telling you what I tell them at every opportunity.)

What we are left with is a situation wherein the taxpayers are the insurers of the privileged elite, who invest in banks managed by greedy, reckless megalomaniacs.  When those plutocrats are faced with the risk of losing money – then democracy be damned!  Contempt for democracy is apparently a component of the mindset afflicting the “supply side economics” crowd.  Creepy Stephen Moore, of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board, has expounded on his belief that capitalism is more important than Democracy.  We are now witnessing how widespread that warped value system is.


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Grasping Reality With The Opinions Of Others

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

duffolonious says:

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

Is she another example of nepotism?  Like Bill Kristol.

Procopius says:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is Geithner saying with his policies?

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

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

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

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

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


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Fedbashing Is On The Rise

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It seems as though everyone is bashing the Federal Reserve these days.  In my last posting, I criticized the Fed’s most recent decision to create $600 billion out of thin air in order to purchase even more treasury securities and mortgage-backed securities by way of the recently-announced, second round of quantitative easing (referred to as QE2).  Since that time, I’ve seen an onslaught of outrage directed against the Fed from across the political spectrum.  Bethany McLean of Slate made a similar observation on November 9.  As the subtitle to her piece suggested, people who criticized the Fed were usually considered “oddballs”.  Ms. McLean observed that the recent Quarterly Letter by Jeremy Grantham (which I discussed here) is just another example of anti-Fed sentiment from a highly-respected authority.  Ms. McLean stratified the degrees of anti-Fed-ism this way:

If Dante had nine circles of hell, then the Fed has three circles of doubters.  The first circle is critical of the Fed’s current policies. The second circle thinks that the Fed has been a menace for a long time.  The third circle wants to seriously curtail or even get rid of the Fed.

From the conservative end of the political spectrum, the Republican-oriented Investor’s Business Daily provided an editorial on November 9 entitled, “Fighting The Fed”.  More famously, in prepared remarks to be delivered during a trade association meeting in Phoenix, Sarah Palin ordered Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke to “cease and desist” his plan to proceed with QE2.  As a result of the criticism of her statement by Sudeep Reddy of The Wall Street Journal’s Real Time Economics blog, it may be a while before we hear Ms. Palin chirping about this subject again.

The disparagement directed against the Fed from the political right has been receiving widespread publicity.  I was particularly impressed by the pummeling Senator Jim Bunning gave Ben Bernanke during the Federal Reserve Chairman’s appearance before the Senate Banking Committee for Bernanke’s confirmation hearing on December 3, 2009.  Here is the most-frequently quoted portion of Bunning’s diatribe:

.   .   .   you have decided that just about every large bank, investment bank, insurance company, and even some industrial companies are too big to fail.  Rather than making management, shareholders, and debt holders feel the consequences of their risk-taking, you bailed them out. In short, you are the definition of moral hazard.

Michael Grunwald, author of Time magazine’s “Person of the Year 2009” cover story on Ben Bernanke, saw fit to write a sycophantic “puff piece” in support of Bernanke’s re-confirmation as Fed chairman.  In that essay, Grunwald attempted to marginalize Bernanke’s critics with this statement:

The mostly right-leaning (deficit) hawks rail about Helicopter Ben, Zimbabwe Ben and the Villain of the Year,   . . .

The “Helicopter Ben” piece was written by Larry Kudlow.  The “Zimbabwe Ben” and “Villain of the Year” essays were both written by Adrienne Gonzalez of the Jr. Deputy Accountant website, who saw her fanbase grow exponentially as a result of Grunwald’s remark.  The most amusing aspect of Grunwald’s essay in support of Bernanke’s confirmation was the argument that the chairman could be trusted to restrain his moneyprinting when confronted with demands for more monetary stimulus:

Still, doves want to know why he isn’t providing even more gas. Part of the answer is that he doesn’t seem to think that pouring more cash into the banking system would generate many jobs, because liquidity is not the current problem.  Banks already have reserves; they just aren’t using them to make loans and spur economic activity.  Bernanke thinks injecting even more money would be like pushing on a string.
*   *   *

To Bernanke, the benefits of additional monetary stimulus would be modest at best, while the costs could be disastrous. Reasonable economists can and do disagree.

Compare and contrast that Bernanke with the Bernanke who explained his rationale for more monetary stimulus in the November 4, 2010 edition of The Washington Post:

The FOMC decided this week that, with unemployment high and inflation very low, further support to the economy is needed.

*   *   *

But the Federal Reserve has a particular obligation to help promote increased employment and sustain price stability. Steps taken this week should help us fulfill that obligation.

Bernanke should have said:  “Pushing on a string should help us fulfill that obligation.”

Meanwhile, the Fed is getting thoroughly bashed from the political left, as well.  The AlterNet website ran the text of this roundtable discussion from the team at Democracy Now (Michael Hudson, Amy Goodman and Juan Gonzalez – with a cameo appearance by Joseph Stiglitz) focused on the question of whether QE2 will launch an “economic war on the rest of the world”.  I enjoyed this opening remark by Michael Hudson:

The head of the Fed is known as “Helicopter Ben” because he talks about dropping money into the economy.  But if you see helicopters, they’re probably not your friends.  Don’t go out and wait for them to drop the money, because the money is all going electronically into the banks.

At the progressive-leaning TruthDig website, author Nomi Prins discussed the latest achievement by that unholy alliance of Wall Street and the Federal Reserve:

The Republicans may have stormed the House, but it was Wall Street and the Fed that won the election.

*   *   *

That $600 billion figure was about twice what the proverbial “analysts” on Wall Street had predicted.  This means that, adding to the current stash, the Fed will have shifted onto its books about $1 trillion of the debt that the Treasury Department has manufactured.  That’s in addition to $1.25 trillion more in various assets backed by mortgages that the Fed is keeping in its till (not including AIG and other backing) from the 2008 crisis days.  This ongoing bailout of the financial system received not a mention in pre- or postelection talk.

*   *   *

No winning Republican mentioned repealing the financial reform bill, since it doesn’t really actually reform finance, bring back Glass-Steagall, make the big banks smaller or keep them from creating complex assets for big fees.  Score one for Wall Street.  No winning Democrat thought out loud that maybe since the Republican tea partyers were so anti-bailouts they should suggest a strategy that dials back ongoing support for the banking sector as it continues to foreclose on homes, deny consumer and small business lending restructuring despite their federal windfall, and rake in trading profits.  The Democrats couldn’t suggest that, because they were complicit.  Score two for Wall Street.

In other words, nothing will change.  And that, more than the disillusionment of his supporters who had thought he would actually stand by his campaign rhetoric, is why Obama will lose the White House in 2012.

The only thing I found objectionable in Ms. Prins’ essay was her reference to “the pro-bank center”.  Since when is the political center “pro-bank”?  Don’t blame us!

As taxpayer hostility against the Fed continues to build, expect to see this book climb up the bestseller lists:  The Creature from Jekyll Island.   It’s considered the “Fedbashers’ bible”.


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Turning Up The Heat

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December 21, 2009

By now you should be aware of the fact that for his 56th birthday, Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke was named Time magazine’s “Person of the Year”.  Were the folks at Time so arrogant as to believe that this honor would insure the confirmation of Bernanke to a second term as chairman of the Federal Reserve?  More than a few commentators expressed the view that Time’s “Person of the Year” award might actually jeopardize Bernanke’s chance at confirmation.  For example, take a look at what Mike Shedlock (a/k/a Mish) had to say:

That Bernanke is on the cover of Time Magazine means one thing “Bernanke’s Time Is Limited” He is on his way out.  And that is good news.

*   *   *

The quicker this blows up, the quicker we can recover.  And knowing what we know about Time Magazine, Central Banking will blow up sooner rather than later.  Moreover, Bernanke will not be part of the solution, and that is a good thing.

I thank Time Magazine for the information and their kiss of death warning. However, I must also remind readers that Stalin made the cover twice, so immediate results just might be expecting too much.

When Bernanke was grilled by the Senate Banking Committee during the confirmation hearing on December 3, Senator Jim Bunning of Kentucky gave him a magnificent pummeling, most notable for the assertion:  “You are the definition of a moral hazard!”  My only criticism of Bunning’s diatribe was that he should have said:  “You are the personification of a moral hazard” or “You are the epitome of a moral hazard”  —  otherwise, it was perfect.  If that weren’t enough, Senator Bunning demanded that Bernanke answer seventy written questions submitted by Bunning himself.  Those of you who have ever been a party to a lawsuit might recall having to provide signed answers to written interrogatories.  Most jurisdictions place a limit on the number of such interrogatories to the extent of approximately 35.  Senator Bunning propounded twice that many to Bernanke and the nominee answered all of them.  Don Luskin of Smart Money analyzed one of these answers in a way that underscored the necessity of removing Bernanke from the Fed chairmanship.

On December 18, Victoria McGrane reported for Politico that the Bernanke nomination “could be in more trouble than previously thought”.  Although the Senate Banking Committee voted to confirm the nomination, ultimately the entire Seante must vote on the matter.  The fact that six Republicans and one Democrat from the Banking Committee voted against the nomination was portrayed as an ominous signal, casting doubt on the likelihood of confirmation.  Ms. McGrane discussed the reaction to the confirmation hearings expressed by Brian Gardner, a bank analyst for Keefe, Bruyette and Woods:

Two aspects of the two-hour debate that preceded the committee vote struck Gardner as worrisome for Bernanke:  the unenthusiastic — even apologetic — tone from some of the senators who voted yes and a dispute over the Fed’s refusal to release documents about the bailout of insurance giant American International Group to senators on the committee.

The article explained that the AIG bailout documents were available for review by “some banking committee staffers” although the documents have been withheld by the Fed from individual senators and the public, based on the Fed’s claim that the documents are “protected”.

This is apparently an assertion by the Fed that there is some sort of privilege protecting the AIG bailout documents from disclosure.  Nevertheless, if the fight over these records ever gets before a court, it is likely that production of the documents would be compelled, since any claim of privilege was waived once the Fed allowed the “banking committee staffers” to review the items.

The Politico report noted the significance of this matter:

That spat could have legs, Gardner said, and if it resonates with a public already fuming at the Fed, it could sway the votes of yes-leaning senators.

The battle over the AIG bailout documents was also 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.  Here’s some of what they had to say:

No doubt, some of the e-mail messages contain privileged conversations among lawyers.  Others probably include private information that is irrelevant to A.I.G.’s role in the crisis. But the vast majority of these documents could be made public without legal concern.  So why haven’t the Treasury and the Federal Reserve already made sure the public could see this information?  Do they want to protect A.I.G., or do they worry about shining too much sunlight on their own performance leading up to and during the crisis?

What will these e-mails reveal about the actions of Ben Bernanke and “Turbo” Tim Geithner during the AIG bailout phase of the financial crisis?  Were laws violated or do they simply exhibit some poor decision-making and cronyism?

Most of us are now getting ready for the coldest month of the year – but for Ben Bernanke, the heat is being turned up  —  full blast.



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A Love–Hate Situation For The Stimulus Bill

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February 2, 2009

As the Senate focuses its attention on the economic stimulus bill, Republicans are putting up a good fight, after the measure sailed through the House of Representatives, despite unanimous Republican opposition.  Time magazine reports that Republican Senator Mitch McConnell believes that the bill will fail in the Senate because it does not provide enough tax cuts.  The Republican insistence on tax cuts has already been addressed by President Obama, who included more tax cuts into the measure.  In an editorial for Bloomberg News, Michael R. Sesit complained:

Obama’s proposed cuts are politically motivated — a bone thrown to Republicans, who embrace lower taxes.  The president’s desire to promote bipartisanship is a laudable goal.  Yet pursuing it at the expense of sound economic policy is a high price to pay.  Obama has enormous public support and doesn’t need Republican cooperation to pass his stimulus program.

Tax cuts are also politically hard to reverse, which will eventually be necessary once the economy is back on its feet and inflation picks up.

The Time article quoted Massachusetts Representative Barney Frank’s response to the cry for even more tax cuts:

“I never saw a tax cut fix a bridge. I never saw a tax cut give us more public transportation.  The fact is, we need a mix,” Frank said.

In his January 29 op-ed column for the New York Times, David Brooks reflected on what Larry Summers (the newly-appointed head of the National Economic Council) had to say throughout 2008 about the nature of a large-scale stimulus package, such as the one under consideration.  Brooks noted “three clear guidelines” established by Summers for developing a plan such as this:

First, the stimulus should be timely.  The money should go out “almost immediately.”  Second, it should be targeted.  It should help low- and middle-income people.  Third, it should be temporary.  Stimulus measures should not raise the deficits “beyond a short horizon of a year or at most two.”

In criticizing this bill, Brooks argued that these parameters have been abandoned.  Among his suggested “fixes” would be the removal of the permanent programs built into the proposal.

Meanwhile, E. J. Dionne has written about how progressive Democrats are split into two camps, expressing different priorities for the measure:

One camp favors using the stimulus to focus on the needs of Americans of modest means.  The $819 billion stimulus bill that passed the House Wednesday night on a party-line vote, as well as the proposal being developed in the Senate, includes substantial new spending for the unemployed, for food stamps and for advances in health-care coverage.  The tax cuts in both versions tilt toward Americans with lower incomes.  Education programs also fare well.

But another group of progressives sees the bills as shorting investments for infrastructure:  roads, bridges and particularly mass transit.  This camp was buoyed by a report released Wednesday by the American Society of Civil Engineers concluding that it would take $2.2 trillion to bring the nation’s infrastructure into good repair.

Many sources, including the San Francisco Chronicle, have criticized this bill as being laden with “pork” projects, unlikely to spur economic growth or to create jobs.  Beyond that, Jeanne Cummings provided an interesting report on the Politico website, revealing how the business sector sees this “oversized legislation” as a “golden opportunity”.  The Democrats do not seem averse to this interest:

Senate Democrats, hoping to draw more bipartisan support, have already signaled they’re going to beef up the business provisions.  Versions of some of the most coveted tax breaks are already in the proposal by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.).

But business leaders and their trade representatives would like to see even more love in the stimulus.  And they’ve commissioned special studies, blanketed the committee with letters and recruited industry bigwigs to make their case.

In the face of this expanding government largesse, an editorial in Sunday’s Washington Post called upon President Obama to remind those in Congress “including leaders of his own party, who are cluttering his fiscal stimulus plan with extraneous and counterproductive provisions” of the admonition he gave to the bad actors on Wall Street.  In his disgust with the misappropriation of over $18 billion in TARP money for bonuses, the President said:  “show some restraint and show some discipline and show some sense of responsibility.”  In a passage reminiscent of David Brooks’ emphasis on the “three clear guidelines” established by Larry Summers, the Washington Post editorial noted that:

Instead of giving the economy a “targeted, timely and temporary” injection, the plan has been larded with spending on existing social programs or hastily designed new ones, much of it permanent or probably permanent — and not enough of it likely to create new jobs.

Former Clinton administration budget director Alice Rivlin fears that “money will be wasted because the investment elements were not carefully crafted.”  Former Reagan administration economist Martin Feldstein writes that “it delivers too little extra employment and income for such a large fiscal deficit.”  Columbia University’s Jeffrey D. Sachs labels the plan “an astounding mishmash of tax cuts, public investments, transfer payments and special treats for insiders.”

Let’s face it:  the Republicans aren’t the only ones who are upset about the excesses in this stimulus plan.  In fact, most Republican governors favor this bill.  Last week the National Governors Association called on Congress to pass the plan.  Beth Fouhy reported for the Associated Press that Florida Governor Charlie Crist and Vermont Governor Jim Douglas are pushing Republican Senators to pass the bill.  Although such a measure may be distasteful to Republican ideals, these hard times demand that Republican governors follow the procedure described by Rush Limbaugh as “bending over and grabbing your ankles”:

Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is widely viewed as a potential presidential contender in 2012, said governors have little choice but to accept the relief being offered.  “States have to balance their budgets,” he said.  “So if we’re going to go down this path, we are entitled to ask for our share of the money.”

As the stimulus bill makes its way through the Senate, it will be interesting to see whether the final version involves dispersal of more than or less than $826 billion.  Don’t be surprised if it hits the One Trillion mark.

No Jews Allowed In Rick Warren’s Heaven

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December 22, 2008

There has been quite a bit of attention focused on Barack Obama’s choice of conservative evangelical minister, Rick Warren, to deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration ceremony on January 20.  Most of the outrage over that choice stems from the fact that Warren was actively involved in promoting Proposition 8, the controversial California ballot initiative banning same-sex marriages.

A large number of objections to Warren’s participation in this historic ceremony are coming from Hollywood.  As Tina Daunt reported in the December 20 Los Angeles Times, the entertainment community’s reaction to Warren’s role in the inaugural was “swift, angry and bitter”.  Her article quoted Hollywood publicist, Howard Bragman who said the following about Barack Obama:

“What he didn’t realize was how much untapped energy there was in the gay and lesbian community because of the passage of Prop. 8,” said Bragman. “Obama didn’t realize, after all the support he got from the gay and lesbian community, we feel betrayed right now.”

Meanwhile, back at the nation’s capitol, Barney Frank, the openly gay Senator from Massachusetts, had much to say about Warren’s role in the inaugural ceremony.  As Jason Blum reported on December 21 at the Bloomberg website, Senator Frank said this about the inclusion of Warren in the event:

“Giving that kind of mark of approval and honor to someone who has frankly spoken in ways I and many others have found personally very offensive, I thought that was a mistake for the president-elect to do.”

I particularly enjoyed the piece written by Christopher Hitchens for Slate on December 19.  I thought the televangelist lobby would have been run out of Washington in the wake of the 2008 elections.  Chris Hitchens appears to be sharing my disappointment over that group’s enduring presence on Capitol Hill, despite the efforts of many to preserve the separation of church and state.  The most impressive point made in this article concerned Warren’s insistence that there are no Jews allowed in heaven:

It is a fact that Rick Warren, pastor of the Saddleback Church in Orange County, Calif., was present at a meeting of the Aspen Institute not long ago and was asked by Lynda Resnick — she of the pomegranate-juice dynasty — if a Jew like herself could expect to be admitted to paradise.  Warren publicly told her no.

Similarly, Time magazine’s Joe Klein had this to say in his December 16 posting on his Swampland blog at Time.com, concerning Warren’s insistence that Jews can’t go to heaven:

I am not a big fan of Rick Warren’s.  He thinks I’m going to hell.  He said so in mixed company, at an Aspen Institute forum.  He was asked if Jews were going to hell.  He said yes.  He can go ahead and feed every poor child in Africa and I’m still going to think he’s a fool for believing that.  Reverend Rick is also not too big on gay or women’s rights.  (Indeed, if Jews–and all other non born-again Christians–homosexuals, feminists, and anyone who has either had an abortion, performed an abortion or reluctantly agrees that it’s none of our business who has abortions  …  if all those people are going to hell, then heaven’s got to be about as interesting as linoleum.)

Regardless of the controversies over Proposition 8 and same-sex marriage, is it really appropriate to have a man deliver the invocation at the Presidential inauguration ceremony, when that man professes that Jews are not allowed into heaven?  Does Warren believe that there is a big “No Jews Allowed” sign at the pearly gates?  Has heaven been getting away with something that American country clubs have not been able to do, since the 1970s?

There is obviously plenty wrong with having someone of Warren’s ilk speaking at the Presidential inauguration.  Gay weddings constitute just one of many issues these characters have on their list of things to not tolerate.  Chris Hitchens suggested three questions to be asked of the Obama transition team, before the inauguration proceeds:

— Will Warren be invited to the solemn ceremony of inauguration without being asked to repudiate what he has directly said to deny salvation to Jews?

— Will he be giving a national invocation without disowning what his mentor said about civil rights and what his leading supporter says about Mormons?

— Will the American people be prayed into the next administration, which will be confronted by a possible nuclear Iran and an already nuclear Pakistan, by a half-educated pulpit-pounder raised in the belief that the Armageddon solution is one to be anticipated with positive glee?

Remember John McCain’s old expression, “agents of intolerance”?  Who would have thought that one such agent would deliver the invocation when Barack Obama is sworn in as our next President?

The Clinton Problem

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August 7, 2008

Forget the OxyContin (at least for this weekend).  Rush Limbaugh is going to be on a “natural high”, because his favorite fantasy might just become reality.  The Clintons are in “full hostility” mode and the Hillarologists are planning a parade and more for the convention in Denver.  Limbaugh has attempted to claim credit for the likely showdown in Denver, with his own label: “Operation Chaos”.

Bill Clinton raised some eyebrows with his response to the question, posed during an August 3 videotaped interview on ABC News, as to whether Barack Obama is qualified to be President.  Bill replied:  “You could argue that no one’s ever ready to be President”.  He never gave an unqualified, positive response to that question.

The current situation, from Hillary’s perspective, was reported by Karen Tumulty and Mark Halperin for Time magazine on August 6:

Clinton is also annoyed that Obama has yet to deliver on his end of an informal bargain, reached as part of their truce, that each would raise $500,000 for the other. “Hillary has done her part in that regard,” says an adviser. “Obama has not.”

*        *         *

True, Obama has asked Clinton to give a prime-time speech on the second night of the convention later this month. But as the odds that she will be Obama’s running mate have faded, there are signs that Clinton’s backers could demand one last show of respect before Obama claims the nomination in Denver. Clinton has been giving tacit encouragement to suggestions that her name be placed in nomination at the convention, a symbolic move that would be a reminder of the bruising primary battle. “No decisions have been made,” Clinton said when asked in California — to whoops and applause — about that possibility. Still, it was hard to miss what Clinton would like to see in the pointed way she added, “Delegates can decide to do this on their own. They don’t need permission.”

The photo of the Clintons, accompanying that article, depicts one pissed-off looking duo.  The reports are mixed as to whether Hillary will insist on a convention floor nomination vote.  As Rick Klein and David Cahlian reported for ABC News on August 6:

The refusal to publicly announce her intentions is widely seen as a bargaining chip Clinton is holding on to as party officials negotiate logistics regarding her convention speech and other activities, according to several Democrats who are closely involved in the matter.

In the mean time, Hillary has written an op-ed piece, published in the August 6 Wall Street Journal.  Although the target was the Bush Administration and its complicity in the profiteering from the Iraq war, one could not overlook the absence of any reference to the Obama campaign.  Instead we saw the self-promoting remarks of someone who still considers herself a viable 2008 Presidential candidate:

I’ve proposed a comprehensive overhaul to root out corruption in no-bid contracts and other shady deals.

*   *   *

Of course, we need far more than a Truman Committee. We need the Truman spirit in the White House, where the buck finally stops.

Does Hillary doubt whether Barack Obama will bring that “Truman spirit” to the White House?  It appears as though she is forming her own platform for the Presidential campaign, regardless of whether Obama is “on board” with it.  In case he isn’t … she has her own army ready for a fight in Denver.  Rush Limbaugh is counting on it.